Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.12: Asoka Bandarage, The Easter Attacks and Geopolitical Conflict in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been convulsed since the nine coordinated suicide bomb attacks against Christian churches and five star hotels on Easter Sunday. More than 250 people lost their lives and many others were injured on that fateful day. More terrorist suspects and vast amounts of explosives and equipment continue to be found in mosques, factories, and homes across the country. People are scared to leave their homes and children are not going to school. After having defeated the LTTE, “the most lethal and well organized terrorist organization in the world,” in May 2009, Sri Lanka is again faced with terrorism and gripped with fear and insecurity.

Indian intelligence had passed on information to Sri Lankan authorities of an imminent terrorist attack on April 4. Based on this alert, Sri Lanka’s police chief had sent out a nationwide alert on April 11 warning of attacks on the Indian High Commission and churches. Indian intelligence again sent warnings on April 20 and about one hour before the bombs started exploding on April 21. According to a report denied subsequently by Saudi Arabia, Saudi intelligence also knew of the impending attacks and advised its mission in Colombo five days before Easter. A Sri Lankan government minister had also warned his son of the impending attack. The Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena, was out of the country and the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, was on out of town on Easter.. The Sri Lankan government failed to warn the public and tighten security thereby allowing the carnage to take place.

 It is now confirmed that the attacks were carried out by a local Islamic extremist group, National Towheeth Jamaath (NTJ) with support from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which has claimed responsibility.

 The Easter Sunday violence is widely attributed to inter-religious animosity on the island. Interfaith vigils are being held around the world to foster harmony among the country’s Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus.  However, the overwhelming focus on religion as the root of conflict diverts attention away from the geopolitical dimensions of the violence.

 ‘Religious’ Violence

Communal harmony and cooperation rather than violence and conflict are the predominant features of Sri Lankan society. Christians did not attack Muslims in the aftermath of the Easter bombings just as Buddhists did not use violence against Tamils following innumerable LTTE massacres of Buddhists and attacks against Buddhist sacred sites during the course of the thirty year armed conflict. Even the 1983 anti-Tamil violence was not a spontaneous backlash but a government orchestrated pogrom

Both colonial and local rulers have manipulated grievances and incited ethnic and religious groups against each other during times of crises and challenges to their authority. The violence against Muslims in Kandy in March 2018 is an example. The failure of the state to take timely action despite prior warnings contributed to a communal conflict. It allowed the Prime Minister who was then facing a no-confidence motion to assert his authority. 

Galagoda Ganasara, the leader of the radical Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena, who called for a ban of the National Towheeth Jamaath, is serving a nineteen year jail sentence. Despite the pleas of Buddhist monks, the former Justice Minister, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, and moderate Muslim leaders like Kabeer Hashim, no action was taken against the spread of extremist Wahabi ideology. Islamic schools and separatist Wahabi culture spread over the past several years, particularly in Kattankudy in the Eastern Province, home of Mohammed Zahran, the leader of the Easter attacks. 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 Sri Lankan government’s failure to curb the spread of radical Islam.

Even after the carnage on Easter Sunday, four leading Muslim politicians -the Governors of the Eastern and Western Provinces, a Cabinet Minister, and a Member of Parliament  (M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, Azath Salley, Risad Badhuitheen, and Mujibur Rahuman, respectively), all of whom, critics claim, have connections to radical Islam and the wealthy families of the Easter suicide bombers, have not yet been questioned. According to reports, some terrorist suspects taken into custody have been released due presumably to pressure from powerful politicians.  Indeed, the country’s intelligence and security apparatus was greatly weakened following the change of government in 2015.

 Weakening Security

In January 2015, a U.S. backed Sri Lankan government replaced the former Mahinda Rajapaksa government which had defeated the LTTE. Soon thereafter, the new government and the United States co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution in Geneva with support from the international Tamil separatist lobby. The requirements in this Resolution to account for alleged war crimes and missing persons in the final stage of the war against the LTTE put pressure on the Sri Lanka government to set up war crimes courts with foreign judges, and an office of missing persons comprising activists funded by western NGOs.

The requirements of the UNHRC Resolution also pressured the government to dismiss or imprison intelligence officers and army personnel. Forty intelligence officers who were involved in the anti-LTTE military effort are in prison, allegedly “without sound evidence against them.” These measures weakened Sri Lankan intelligence and security and increased dependence on India and the “international community.”

Even after the Easter carnage, the UNHRC, foreign governments, and NGOs continue to dictate national security policy. The government’s proposed new Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) which would replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act is an example. While it is designed to protect against ex-LTTE elements living abroad, it could be used to “suppress student unions, trade unions, media freedoms, and the Opposition” and possibly postpone presidential and parliamentary elections due within the next twelve months.

 International Intervention  

Ever since the Easter bombings, Sri Lankan police and military have been working to track down suspects and detect weapons, explosives, and information.  At the same time, both the prime minister and the president have been calling for foreign intelligence help and cooperation to fight the global Islamic threat. The U.S. embassy has stated that the United States had sent in teams from both the FBI and the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

Military ties with the United States, which had been growing over the last few years, are rapidly being strengthened. There are rumors that the lapsed Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) has been renewed and that the government has entered into a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S. Neither the public nor members of parliament have yet been informed of these matters vital to the sovereignty and independence of the country.

In August 2016 the first joint operation between the U.S. and Sri Lankan military took place in Jaffna with TNA (Tamil National Alliance) politicians at the launch. U.S. Seventh Fleet vessels and the aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis have visited the eastern port of Trincomalee, a port of great strategic military value in the Indian Ocean.

In December 2018, the U.S. Navy announced the setting up of a logistic hub in Sri Lanka to secure support, supplies, and services at sea. On December 31, Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act to strengthen the U.S. strategic position in Asia vis-à-vis China. It is reported that between January 24 and 29, 2019, Bandaranaike International Airport in Sri Lanka was “used for US military planes to bring in supplies, and for aircraft aboard the John C Stennis to fly in, load, and ferry them back.” While this exercise was portrayed as a “commercial activity,” Sri Lankan observers argue that “such an operation could not have taken place without some bilateral agreement being in place.”

On April 27, in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister signed an agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) of the United States. Details leaked to the public are raising fears that the MCC Agreement is nothing but a plan to splinter Sri Lanka and turn it into a U.S. Military base.” A failure to heed the call to “reveal the contents of the agreement without any redactions to the general public” will only deepen suspicions that Sri Lanka is being turned into an American military base to control Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean against China.

Developments surrounding the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka have raised the questions of whether Islamic extremism is a justification for U.S. military intervention and the establishment of NATO bases around the globe? Is extremist Wahhabi ideology exported by Saudi Arabia and the creation of Islamic terrorism in selected countries, such as, the Philippines and possibly Thailand, a political tool aiding the geopolitical ambitions of the United States, United Kingdom, and other western interests?

Sri Lanka, an important partner of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, is strategically situated in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. The Shangri-la hotel attacked by the suicide bombers is located in the Port City in Colombo, a massive Chinese project and the largest single foreign direct investment in Sri Lanka.  Destabilization of Sri Lanka via terrorism and ethno-religious conflict may serve the short-term geopolitical interests of the U.S., the “international community,” and India. But it would only intensify destruction and chaos on the island and the suffering of the Sri Lankan people.