Bombs reopen Sri Lanka’s divisions

Islamist terror attacks in Colombo revealed government incompetence

Dispatches
St Sebastian’s church, Negombo, where at least 93 people were killed (©Getty Images)

The recent catastrophic terrorist attacks on worshippers and tourists have left Sri Lanka tense and sombre. Three Catholic churches were bombed during Easter Sunday services and three luxury hotels, resulting in more than 250 deaths. Over the years, the island has experienced protracted ethnic conflict and a calamitous tsunami, but since the elimination of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 it has enjoyed relative tranquillity. On the morning of the attacks, I breakfasted at the Taj Hotel, during which a suicide bomber mercifully failed to detonate his device. My wife had alerted me to a bearded character laden with a heavy backpack, but Colombo has lately felt more secure than most cities and we took no action. Given that six of the seven bombs exploded as intended, we had a narrow escape.

An awareness of what has come before may serve to illuminate what might now unfold. In the decade until 2015 President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) and family ruled imperiously and unchecked. MR ended a long separatist war but ruthlessly crushed dissent with scant regard for human rights. Media freedom was curtailed and the lives of journalists made perilous. Control over state institutions including the judiciary was virtually absolute. Nepotism was rampant: two of the president’s brothers occupied key ministries and another was parliamentary Speaker, while countless relatives held lucrative sinecures.

In the aftermath of war, the economy grew strongly, but was being juiced by extravagant foreign borrowing, often financing projects making little economic sense.

‘My wife had alerted me to a bearded character laden with heavy backpack in the hotel, but Colombo has lately felt more secure than most cities’

Rajapaksa enjoyed strong support among the 70 per cent who identify as Sinhala-Buddhist, but was viewed less favourably by the Tamil and Muslim minorities. In 2012 the militant Buddhist Power Force (known locally as the BBS) emerged. Avowedly supremacist in outlook and inflammatory in tone, it considers the hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhists to be threatened by demographics, Muslim extremism and Christian proselytising. The president and his brother Gotabaya, a former army officer, attended BBS functions. The BBS waged aggressive campaigns against mosque construction, the burqa, halal and certain Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, the International Crisis Group warned that the BBS’s activities would encourage Islamic fundamentalism. Serious clashes in the south between BBS supporters and Muslims in 2014 resulted in several fatalities and the destruction of homes and businesses. The Rajapaksa government developed misgivings about the organisation but failed to rein it in for fear of alienating its support base.

By the time of the 2015 presidential election the population had tired of authoritarianism, nepotism, white elephant projects and corruption. Nonetheless, Rajapaksa’s position seemed unassailable, given his control of the state apparatus, media and an enfeebled opposition. Unexpectedly, a challenger emerged from within in the shape of  health minister Maithripala Sirisena, supported by a rainbow coalition of opposition parties, sympathetic monks and government MPs. Sirisena promised a Yahapalana, or clean government, entailing the restoration of the rule of law, investigation of war crimes and ethnic reconciliation once family rule was ended. Sirisena won the election and many dared hope his triumph would bring ambitious reform, but initial optimism quickly dimmed. Following parliamentary elections it was in the president’s gift to nominate a handful of new MPs, the purpose being to utilise the experience of individuals from the professions, academia and business. Ignoring precedent, he brought back political hacks rejected at the polls, calling into question his commitment to reform.

The new regime was always an uneasy coalition. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the president came from different parties, which made for an awkward duo. Within days, the government got bogged down in a financial scandal concerning manipulation of the bond market and embroiling the Central Bank governor, his son-in-law and some ministers. Sirisena was criticised for appointing his brother chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. Nepotism and graft were precisely what the electorate had voted to end, but it seemed as though there was merely a different set of snouts in the trough. The government had lambasted the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime but did not pursue those accused. The head of the Bribery Commission resigned after she stated her intention to reopen dormant cases and Sirisena demanded they be dropped. The absence of prosecutions suggests a tacit agreement to overlook past plunder, perhaps in the expectation that the favour may be returned in the future.

The new government inherited an economy encumbered with debt and burdened with a bloated state sector accruing staggering losses. While some ministers assumed office with lofty intentions they have struggled to effect fundamental structural reform. Anaemic growth, a rising trade deficit and a sharply weakening rupee have made the servicing of external debt obligations increasingly onerous.

A flurry of construction projects, mainly high-end apartments, hotels and shopping malls, are transforming Colombo’s skyline. The Chinese are reclaiming a huge tract of land from the Indian Ocean to establish a new port city within Colombo. It is doubtful that the demand exists to justify this building frenzy, which leaves some developers, construction firms and elements of the financial sector seriously exposed.

Doing business in Sri Lanka is challenging. Enterprise is hobbled by high interest rates, punitive taxes, a sclerotic bureaucracy, corruption, and poor transport and energy infrastructure. Employment laws are skewed in favour of labour, making it difficult to dismiss the indolent or feckless.

An economic bright spot had been tourism, and Sri Lanka gained the accolade of number one holiday destination 2019 from Lonely Planet. Tourist arrivals were on the up, notably from China and India. The attacks are a cruel blow for an already struggling economy as tourism, along with worker remittances, garments and tea exports, is a key currency earner.

Although Sri Lanka is ethnically diverse, for the most part communities harmoniously coexist, but periodically there are flashpoints that push the country towards the abyss. In March 2018 there was an alarming outbreak of Buddhist militancy in eastern Sri Lanka. The preposterous catalyst was an entirely false accusation that a Muslim restaurant laced meals served to non-Muslims with contraceptive powder, a dangerous claim given sensitivity over the issue of relative birth rates.  Gangs attacked mosques and Muslim properties. Disorder spread to Kandy district, ignited by the
killing of a Sinhalese truck driver by Muslim youths. The BBS made their presence felt and persuaded the police to release Sinhalese rioters. A state of emergency was imposed but scores of houses, businesses and vehicles were torched. Journalist Tisaranee Gunasekera wrote during the riots: “If we, the Sinhalese, fail Muslims as we failed Tamils, history will not forgive us, and will punish us with a new and a worse war.”

The present government came to power supported by the minorities and has shunned communalism. However, it has attracted criticism for not quelling unrest quickly and forcefully in deference to Buddhist opinion. Days before the recent bombings, a Methodist church in Anuradhapura was besieged by a Sinhala-Buddhist mob, but the authorities’ dilatory response dismayed many observers.

Disillusionment with the government enabled Rajapaksa’s new party to win local elections in February last year. This bruising defeat should have brought the PM and president together but instead relations virtually collapsed. In October, without warning the president removed

Wickremesinghe, and, incredibly, installed Rajapaksa as prime minister, having previously railed against his authoritarianism, corruption and family rule. Sirisena had earlier said that had he lost in 2015 Rajapaksa would have put him “six feet under”.

The PM refused to depart and thousands took to the street, not in support of Wickremesinghe but in defence of the rule of law and democracy. Despite the lure of huge financial inducements insufficient MPs joined Rajapaksa. The crisis ended only when the Supreme Court ruled the coup unconstitutional and after appalling scenes of disorder in parliament. Sirisena had vowed never to work with the PM again but was forced into a humiliating climbdown. Subsequently the government has merely limped along, which may partially explain why the Easter attacks could succeed.

Many countries in the region—India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives—have experienced manifestations of Islamic radicalism. Moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka have long been concerned that more radical forms of Islam were gaining ground, in particular Wahhabism funded by Saudi largesse. Though few in number, Sri Lankans are known to have fought abroad for IS. In 2014 the Chief Mufti relayed his concerns to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then secretary to the defence ministry. The group responsible for the Easter attacks belonged to a small Salafi Islamist group, the National Towheed Jaamat (NTJ), led by radical preacher Zahran Hashim. Inspired by IS, it probably received material support and training from it. In Zahran’s home town of Kattankudy in the east, 60 mosques serve a population of 45,000, mostly preaching an austere form of Islam. The storm had been coming for some time. The authorities including the president, were warned of the NTJ’s espousal of violence and bellicose rhetoric. The group had been attacking only Sufi Muslims but last November it murdered two policemen, a crime wrongly ascribed to remnants of the Tigers. Last December arrests were made at Mawanella in central Sri Lanka following the defacement of Buddhist and Christian statues by Zahran’s adherents. This led to a large cache of explosives being uncovered on a remote coconut plantation.

The April attacks have laid bare the dysfunctional nature of the Sri Lankan polity. The president, as defence minister, had stopped inviting the PM and the deputy defence minister to National Security Council meetings. Neither were told of intelligence detailing locations, personnel and timing received from Indian sources on multiple occasions and well in advance. Sirisena denies being appraised and claims he received no alert while holidaying in Singapore. Rejecting personal culpability, he dismissed the senior civil servant at defence and the police chief. He has lambasted “human rights uncles” for launching investigations into the alleged crimes of senior military and intelligence officers during the last regime, weakening the security establishment. The cases are scarcely trivial, involving abduction and murder, and the issue was not the absence of intelligence but the failure to act. At times the president appears entirely friendless and noticeably erratic. He has suggested that the attacks were prompted by his recent crackdown on the drugs trade. For implausibility this ranks with an unsubstantiated allegation that Indian intelligence planned to assassinate him.

There is little likelihood that Sirisena or his government can regain public trust before presidential elections in December. There is widespread exasperation with a self-serving political class, disproportionately peopled by venal rabble-rousers, virtually all male, bereft of outside accomplishments. It is unsurprising that capable, educated individuals of integrity find no place in parliament and that governance is shambolic.

Badly shaken by the severity and unexpectedness of the attacks, Sri Lankans crave security and a protector. The armed forces have acted vigorously and courageously, but ministers and diplomatic missions warn that a threat may still exist. Normality is slowly returning, but it is nonetheless depressing to see the return of checkpoints, troops on street corners and ubiquitous bag checks.

In the wake of the attacks the BBS crow that their warnings of Muslim extremism should have been listened to. The chief political beneficiary is Gotabaya, who has now declared himself a certain presidential candidate, vowing to crush Islamic radicalism just as he did the Tigers. He will be constrained by a fragile economy, precluding the grandiose projects of his brother’s tenure. Despite having been a US citizen Gotabaya will pivot away from the West and towards China, Russia and Iran, countries unperturbed by authoritarian and illiberal governance. A resumption of Rajapaksa rule will engender trepidation among the minorities, civil society activists and journalists, for they will see the future by looking into the past. To invoke Mark Twain, “There is a danger that to the man with a hammer,     everything looks like a nail.”

Strength and resolve are certainly required in these disconcerting times. However, nuance and delicacy are equally indispensable to avoid a fresh conflagration that would again tear apart this beautiful but troubled island.