Easter Sunday Terror – Learning from the past
DR. NIRMALA CHANDRAHASAN
May 17, 2019
A soldier stands guard near a car explosion after the police tried to defuse a bomb near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. JEWEL SAMAD—AFP
It is said that those who do not heed their past often repeat it. In other words, history repeats itself. Looking at the present scenario in the Country one feels that we might be on the brink of another period of conflict. Recent revelations that some members of the Muslim community have been bringing to the attention of the Governments, prior to and after 2015, details regarding preachers who were preaching dangerous doctrines and of ISIS operatives in Sri Lanka, shows there were sections of the community who were concerned and taking action.
Can we say the same of the persons and institutions entrusted with looking after the security of the citizens of the country? Not only did they pay no attention to the information provided by the Muslim community, but they even chose to ignore the three warnings with specific details of the places to be attacked and names of the terrorist organization, even down to telephone numbers, given by the Indian Security Agencies. This shows sheer indifference and a massive security lapse amounting to criminal negligence by the security and intelligence personnel involved, and the Government Ministers responsible for defence and security. Either they did not care, because in their view the community to be targeted did not merit taking action, or in the alternative, they had some agenda of their own. Either way, the prospects for the country are frightening, to say the least. Just as frightening is the sudden eruption three weeks later of attacks on mosques and burning and looting of Muslim homes, shops and businesses by organised mobs in some parts of the Country. For many of us who have seen it happen before there is a sense of de Javu.
We might better understand this recent surge of violence by looking at the trajectory of earlier civil disturbances, insurgencies and terrorist activity in the Country, and whether they have a bearing on the present events. However, in an article such as this, it can be only a cursory analysis. I note that there is a move to appoint a Select Committee of Parliament to examine the background to the Easter Sunday attacks. Hopefully, the Committee will study this incident in relation to the past events, and analyse the reasons why they arose and the way previous Governments have responded to them. Looking back in time, almost exactly one century ago occurred the first recorded instance of inter-ethnic/religious, violence in the 20th century, during British rule. This was in 1915 between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. The riots which started in Kandy, out of a dispute regarding the path a religious procession was taking, blew up into widespread clashes between Muslims and Sinhalese, during which Mosques were attacked and Muslim shops damaged. The clashes spread to Colombo and to the Central, North Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa provinces. The British Colonial Government came down hard on the Sinhalese Community as they suspected that it could be a possible native uprising. Martial law was declared and many Sinhalese were shot and arrested. This civil disturbance points to some underlying tensions between the communities, which could have been due to trade rivalries. The Colonial policy of divide and rule could also have been behind it. The Tamil community supported the Sinhalese and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan strongly condemned the British Government for their actions.
The first armed insurgency in the Country after Independence was the JVP insurgency of 1971 mainly in the Southern province, by some sections of the Sinhalese youth. This uprising was put down by the State using the security services, but it erupted again between 1987- 89, after which it was eradicated by the Security forces. A general amnesty was declared and the movement gave up its militant policies and entered the democratic mainstream as a political party. This uprising was Marxist inspired and had to do with economic causes. The other major insurgency was that of the Tamil youth in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Northern Province had been for long regarded as the most peaceful province in the island. It became the theatre of a prolonged civil war/ insurgency from 1983, which lasted for 26 years. Small groups of militants had become active in the late 1970s, but after 1983 the movement grew in numbers, with the LTTE becoming the main militant organization and militarily taking on the State. Tamil youth joined the ranks of the militants and a civil war and terrorist activity raged for 26 long years and claimed many lives. Some youths even became suicide bombers in the LTTE, just as today Muslim youths became suicide bombers of the NTJ, the radical Muslim organization.
The question that needs to be considered is why the hitherto peaceful Province and its docile population changed its character. The change began in 1956, with the passing of the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhalese the only Official language, without any provision for the use of the Tamil language. The disaffection and agitation this caused among the Tamil speaking people led to a peaceful non-violent protest movement i.e. ‘Satyagraha’ demonstrations, or peaceful sit-ins in 1956, and a campaign of civil disobedience in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, led by the Federal Party in the early 1960s. This non-violent protest was put down with violence by the government of the day, using thugs and the security forces to crush the peaceful protests. The Members of Parliament of the Federal Party (ITAK) were put in detention at the Panagoda Army camp. The non-violent protests had the support of the Muslims in the north and east, as they were also Tamil speaking. The Federal Party/ ITAK (the major constituent party in the present TNA) of that period had considerable Muslim support and even Muslim MPs from the Eastern province in the party. However, after the 1970s, with the growth of militancy in these provinces, the Muslims distanced themselves from the Tamils and formed their own Muslim parties.
Apart from the legislative measures perceived as discriminatory by the Tamil speaking people, the community became the victims of riots and mob attacks in the southern parts of the country from 1958 onwards. The burning of the Jaffna Public Library in, 1981 said to be under the direction of Government Ministers, also caused much heartburn among the Tamil people. I might mention that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015, made an apology for this act committed during the tenure of a UNP Government. Finally, we have 1983, Riot/ Pogrom, in which thousands of Tamils living in Colombo and other parts of the country were killed, their homes, shops and business premises burnt and looted. This was a watershed. It will be recalled that the burning and looting went on for four days while the J.R Jayewardene Government did not take any action, and the law enforcement authorities – the police and army stood by. The sense of alienation and grievance felt by the people came to be directed against the State and the province became fertile ground for the militant movement. I might add that some commentators are of the opinion that the draconian enforcement of the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, on the Tamil youth, on the basis of ethnic profiling, had the negative effect of swelling the ranks of the militants. We see a similar trend in the case of the JVP Insurgency in the South. Young Sinhalese educated youth who felt discriminated against by the governments in power joined the militant organization and mounted an armed insurgency to capture state power.
The Muslim community, on the other hand, stayed out of any confrontation with the Governments in power. They did not get involved in the war directly, but some Muslim groups who were supportive of the Government were armed by the Government during this period as a counter to the LTTE, and these groups could have been of assistance to the security forces in their operations. Dr Ameer Ali in an article “Anatomy of an Islamist Infamy” in the Daily Mirror of 6/5/19 mentions this fact. It has now come to light that a process of religious radicalization and cultural Arabization had also begun from the 1980s onwards. A fundamentalist doctrine i.e. Wahabism was promoted and the earlier Sufi religious practices were sidetracked. This process was given tacit support both by the politicians of the area and also the Muslim religious establishment represented by the ACJU (All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama). Funds from Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia were used to aid this process. All this was taking place under the nose of the Government of the day and /the security agencies. Why did the government of the day allow this process? It would appear that some intelligence agencies even encouraged it and had the extremists on their payroll as pointed out by Harim Peiris in an Article titled “Moving beyond the Easter Carnage ” Island 11/5/19. This policy of divide and rule was to ultimately rebound on them.
In the above-quoted article, Dr Ameer Ali observes “by aligning with the Governments in power and supporting the Sinhalese against the Tamils, Muslim leaders showed an incredible talent in pragmatic politics for which their community was handsomely rewarded.” The Open Economy has also given the Muslim community the opportunity to use their trading and commercial skills and they have generally prospered as a community, although of course not everybody. This factor has caused resentment among the other communities. At the same time, the radicalization of the Muslim community has made them more insular, and also differentiated them by their dress. This is giving rise to alienation from the other communities, both Sinhalese and Tamil, and is a matter that the Muslims should try to redress on their side. It has bred fears among the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, stoked by a group of radical Buddhist monks. The recent spate of attacks against the Muslims in 2014 and 2018 shows that hostility to this community is growing among the Sinhalese Buddhists. The most recent retaliatory attacks on the Muslim community in May this year is further evidence of this trend, which is being encouraged by some politicians. As in 1983, the Police did not take preventive action.
When we look at the present scene it looks as though the trajectory of events is taking a similar course to the earlier insurgencies/terrorist activity in the country. However, when we compare the two earlier insurgencies and the terrorist activity of that period, with the Easter Sunday massacre and acts of terrorism of the NTJ (National Thoheed Jamaat) members, it is a very different type of terrorism. In the case of the LTTE and the JVP the communities from which they got their recruits had felt themselves to be discriminated against by governments. It was based on ethnic grievances and economic reasons. But in the case of the Muslim terrorists of the NTJ, one does not discern any of these reasons. As pointed out above, as a result of Muslim political parties siding with the governments in power during and after the war, the community as a whole had benefited. Hence it was not a sense of grievance that led to alienation and radicalization. It was more in the nature of a religious fervour that had been nurtured by the new found religious radicalization, and it is this fervour that catalyzed the suicide bombers. This religious fervour appears to have been fuelled by events outside Sri Lanka and connected to global politics and links with global terror groups. As things stand, it could take a turn for the worse, as more members of the community come to be alienated by the hostility being shown towards them, and the violence perpetrated against the entire Muslim community, as in the recent pogrom/riots taking place within the country.
It is evident that the Muslim community as a whole were not behind the Easter Sunday attacks, which were carried out by a small minority among them. Some of them had earlier tried to warn the authorities but to no effect. The fact that many Muslims have taken to a fundamentalist interpretation of the doctrine does not make them all jihadists. There was a time when every Tamil was looked at with suspicion as an LTTE member or sympathiser. Today every Muslim should not be looked upon as a terrorist. Muslims are being looked at with fear and suspicion, a feeling which is being fanned by interested parties. What is disturbing is that the attacks against the community by organized rioting mobs may well alienate the whole community and cause another conflagration as we had after 1983. Ultimately the whole country paid the cost of these pogroms /riots. The people of the country do not want any more bloodshed and any more insurgencies/terrorism.
The lessons to be learnt from the past are that Governments must be fair to all communities, protect all communities and treat all communities as equal citizens. In the present situation, the police and security forces while investigating and tracking down the Muslim terrorists responsible for the Easter Sunday massacres, must give protection to the Muslim citizens and not stand by when they are unfairly attacked. New security measures and legislation such as the proposed Counter-Terrorism Act should not be rushed through. The necessary legislation must be made keeping in mind the democratic values and Constitutional rights of the people as a whole. In applying the law the Security agencies should guard against ethnic or religious profiling, and the law should be applied without fear or favour towards all communities, without targeting one community. It must be kept in mind that power in the hands of intelligence and security agencies without some form of oversight could also be dangerous. As the Latin maxim states ‘Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes,’ – who will police the police. Under the present system where an Emergency has to be promulgated, Parliament exercises oversight, under the proposed new Counter-Terrorism Act an Emergency need not be declared for the Act to take effect.
Examining what went wrong in the past will help us to make the correct decisions for the future and prevent the same mistakes occurring. The Leader of the Opposition too has pointed out that we must not have a repetition of July 1983. The Government has to realize that the present situation cannot be resolved by getting the help of foreign intelligence agencies alone. It is only when the State has the support of its own people, and this includes all communities in Sri Lanka, that terrorism can be kept at bay.