Roots of Sri Lanka attacks, and a way forward

By Asoka Bandarage


More than 300 people have died and many more were injured by the barbaric attacks against Christian churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. The government has warned that there are more explosives and militants still “out there.”

In the immediate aftermath of the coordinated attacks, local, Indian and Western media raised familiar aspersions against Sinhalese Buddhist extremists for the violence. However, the Sri Lankan government has now confirmed that the attacks were carried out by a local Islamic extremist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath. While that outfit has denied a role, the international Islamic terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombings.

Earlier this month, Indian intelligence passed on information to Sri Lankan authorities of an imminent terrorist attack. Based on that, Sri Lanka’s police chief sent out a nationwide alert on April 11 warning of attacks on the Indian High Commission and churches. But as Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe admitted after the Sunday attacks, the government failed to take action.

Government and international inaction

Buddhist extremism has been subjected to severe global and local condemnation in recent years. The leader of the Buddhist Bodu Bala Sena, Galboda Ganasara Thero, is now serving a jail sentence. In contrast, despite mounting evidence, little action has been taken against the spread of extremist Wahhabi Islam ideology and violence. The reliance of successive Sri Lankan governments on Muslim votes and Muslim politicians and the economic and political power wielded by Saudi Arabia and other external forces have been major factors in the Sri Lankan government’s failure to curb the spread of radical Islam.

An example is the largest Islamic university in South Asia being built in Batticaloa in the Eastern Province with financial assistance from Saudi Arabia. This project is co-sponsored by the Sri Lanka government and is being built on land taken over by the government under the leadership of a Muslim cabinet minister. Graduating 1,500 students a year who can promote Islamic religious ideology is the objective of this joint project. Many of the militants belonging to groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan too have been educated in Islamic institutions.

Indian intelligence reports confirm that ISIS is using Sri Lanka as an international migration hub. The open-door policy and lax visa regulation in Sri Lanka have permitted the situation. The Eastern Province has become a battleground for extremist gangs and a “paradise for Islamic extremism.” One of the churches attacked on Easter Sunday is in Batticaloa. The import of young Muslims from Bangladesh, India and elsewhere to study at the Sharia University in that city could aggravate radicalization and violence.

In a rare act of courage by a Sri Lankan politician, a cabinet minister, Kabir Hashim, revealed after the Easter attacks that he had brought to the president’s attention the existence of the extremist Islamic group quite some time ago. The group allegedly shot Hashim’s secretary in retaliation for his action. Subsequently, in conjunction with their desecration of two Buddha statutes, the police raided a hideout run by the group and arrested two suspects. But according to Hashim, they were released because of the intervention of a “powerful politician.” Hashim also claimed that one of the suspects had carried out an attack on the fateful Easter Sunday.

Protecting innocent people is the primary responsibility of the government. Security measures have to be tightened and the spread of radical Islam halted. A functional and effective government that can protect its people has to be elected and dangerous projects like the Sharia University stopped. Peace-loving moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka need to be supported in eschewing extremism and in protecting their historically tolerant and gentle forms of Islam.

In November 2014, in a letter addressed to the United Nations chief, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), the Sri Lankan president and many others, an organization called Peace Loving Moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka (PLMMSL) called on the government to “ban without delay” the Thowheeth Jama’ath because it was “fast becoming a cancer within Sri Lanka’s Muslim community … preaching and practicing religious intolerance, exerting pressure on other Islamic movements … making the implementation of sharia law above the civil laws of Sri Lanka, forcing females to wear the burka and the construction of many mosques and madrassas in many parts of the country.…”

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