On April 20, the eve of Easter, I invited my mother, brother and fiancée to join me for Easter brunch at the Cinnamon Grand hotel, Colombo. I decided to skip church on Easter Sunday thinking it was bound to be overcrowded by people who suddenly remembered they were Christians.
Waking up at 9 am, I set about my morning routine. Glancing at my phone, I saw a message from a colleague, asking: “Nishan, hope you are safe!”
Though the message puzzled me, I did not respond or enquire further. I then set aside my phone for the better part of the next two hours. At 10.44 am, when I picked it up again, I saw several other messages from friends and colleagues: “Nishan are you at church?” “Are you and your family safe?”
I then found out about the horrific coordinated suicide attacks across multiple churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that had taken place that morning. One of the hotels that was bombed was the Cinnamon Grand, where I was planning to have brunch an hour later.
Shaken by the horrific attacks, a week later, everyone in Sri Lanka is still scrambling to figure out the three Ws – Who, What and Why – of this evil that manifested in our midst.
“Did I see it coming?” is a question my friends and clients have asked me frequently in the past week.
They ask me this question because I work for Verité Research, a think-tank with perhaps the largest portfolio of clients for strategic, economic, political, and legal analyses in Sri Lanka. People count on us to have analytical foresight about such events.
But frankly, we did not see it coming. Even if you were to wind the clock back to the day before the attack and gave us all the information about the young Muslim perpetrators that was available on that day, we would still not have seen it coming.
Even today, with all the information we have in the aftermath of the bombings, I still see the overall event as a mystery that is yet to be resolved.
Why is it a mystery? It is not because Sri Lanka is a peaceful post-war society in which religious violence is unexpected. In ethno-religious terms, Sri Lanka is far from being at peace. The recent history of the island nation’s social tensions can put things in context.
The political discontent of the minority Tamil population in the country escalated into a separatist war that lasted almost 30 years until it ended in May 2009, with the military gaining a complete victory over the fighting forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE. This is why Sri Lanka is now referred to as a post-war country.
After the end of the war, the government then and now promised to address the causes and consequences of the conflict and enhance the devolution of political power to Tamil-speaking regions. However, these and other political promises have not been kept, despite pressure from abroad, including from the UN Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, Tamil political discontent has continued to fester and manifest on several fronts.
Muslims in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the Muslim community has both a religious and ethnic identity. There have been several events of violence against the Muslim community during the nation’s post-independence history (since 1948), but these have been few and far between.
However, after 2009, the government irresponsibly fostered and condoned Buddhist monks and movements that gave leadership to the sustained maligning of, and violent instigations against, Muslims in Sri Lanka. These movements gave rise to several small- and large-scale events in which Muslim shops, homes and religious places were attacked by mobs sometimes incongruously led by members of the Buddhist clergy.
The state has been, at best, tacitly complicit in such attacks, which have sometimes raged for days. Even as recently as March 2018, one of the worst of such attacks took place in the country’s Central Province.
Christians in Sri Lanka
The Christians in Sri Lanka have had a very different problem. Christian churches in Sri Lanka – mainly Protestant churches and new church groups with converts – have faced attacks at a lower level of intensity and over a longer period. These have been documented over decades. Analysis of that data highlights that the state is tacitly complicit in the violence faced by Christians as well.
Therefore, the status quo in Sri Lanka is that the Muslims and Protestant Christians are prone to feel unsafe, and increasingly so with the rise of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, which has been freshly emboldened and supported by the State after the war ended in 2009. It was expected that the change in government in 2015 would abate insecurity, but the last two years have proved otherwise.
In short, the two axes of religious violence in Sri Lanka have two uniting factors: Sinhala-Buddhist groups as the aggressors and the State-bureaucracy as a facilitator. The sustained status quo, especially the lack of State protection, has kept on increasing the risk of a backlash, especially from the country’s Muslim community, which has suffered more acute and large-scale violence than the Christian community in the last seven years. The confidence of Muslim people of receiving due protection from the State has been significantly eroded by these events.
One dimension of the mystery then, is the target of the attacks. Three churches (two of them Catholic) were targeted. These churches are not even geographically proximate and were also quite different in character.
In an equation attempting to establish that these attacks were an expression of Muslim grievances in Sri Lanka, the choice of these targets does not add up. The three hotels that were attacked do not fall into that equation easily either. Muslims in Sri Lanka are not inclined towards being anti-western as residents of some Muslim-majority countries are believed to be.
The current dominant narrative therefore places this attack as an enactment of the so-called Islamic State, which is completely unrelated to the ethno-religious politics of Sri Lankan society and connected instead to the geo-politics of the terror group’s mindset.
Islamic State puzzle
A second dimension of the mystery is the scale and sophistication of the attacks. What took place in Sri Lanka is probably the most logistically ambitious terrorist attack of this nature that we know of in Asia.
It took place in half-a-dozen locations spread over a wide geography within a very short window of time. Where did this capability come from?
In the case of the LTTE, it is no longer a secret that the separatist group developed a fighting force with such deadly capabilities thanks to the training it received in its formative years in neighbouring India, with the assistance of the Indian security apparatus.
But in this instance, the dominant narrative implies that a small, little-known, radicalised Muslim group in Sri Lanka with no history of planning and executing such attacks became capable of launching the most logistically complex terrorist operation we have seen in Asia, with only the distant Islamic State as their mentor and helping hand.
The third dimension of the mystery is to explain why the Islamic State would deploy such a “capable group” in Sri Lanka to attack targets that are disconnected from the country’s ethno-religious tensions instead of deploying them elsewhere against high-profile international targets that have been its global focus.
What makes Sri Lanka a rational focus for an Islamic State attack? That too, for one of the deadliest attacks ascribed to the Islamic State on foreign soil?
Despite the sophistication of the attacks themselves, which occurred during one short hour on Sunday morning, it took the Islamic State communication channel another two-and-a-half days, till Tuesday evening, to claim that those who carried out the attack were fighters that were affiliated with the group.
In terms of answering the “Why?” question, the Islamic State offered no explanation.
As Sri Lanka continues to reel from the bombings, the numbers of those who died has been counted, miscounted and corrected. Today, the official toll stands at 253. Many more remain seriously wounded. Sri Lanka’s inept administration and dysfunctional politics have been exposed, once again, and simultaneously, as both tragedy and farce.
When I look at this tragedy as an analyst, I continue to ask, “How do we make sense of what happened?” The difficulty with the dominant narrative is the lack of social and geo-political logic by which it can coherently connect the Who (did it), What (took place and what were the targets) and Why (the motive). The key to resolving the mystery, might be information that we do not possess yet.
Nishan de Mel, the Executive Director and Head of Research at Verité Research, is an economist with extensive academic, policy and private sector experience.