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Sri Lanka's divisive narratives are threefold: hardline-Sinhala Buddhist nationalists expressing racial sentiments, hardline-Tamil nationalists expressing their sentiments through cyber-attacks, and the spread of islamophobia

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IPRI # 48, 21 April 2020

ONE YEAR AFTER THE EASTER ATTACKS IN SRI LANKA
In retrospect, where did we go wrong?

  Natasha Fernando

Never in the post-war history of Sri Lanka did we expected recurrence of terror attacks, especially in 2019, at a time when Sri Lanka’s economy was recovering, policies were being formulated for debt management, and the tourism industry was blossoming. Civilians and foreigners traveling for business and pleasure did not expect a terrorist attack on a Christian religious holiday. 

After three decades of civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the state of Sri Lanka, there was some form of stability and peace.  Although it was not peaceful and stable in an ideal sense, curfew, state of emergency, gunning down people on the streets and suicide bomb attacks were not a regular experience as during the war.  Still, post-war violence emerged occasionally in different forms. There was ‘negative radicalization’ and dangerous narratives on social media, occasional reporting of LTTE regroupings and strange assassination plots being revealed to the public. 

The ill-timed response of Sri Lanka’s defence establishment was perhaps the most ‘unexpected’ event of all. Accusations were levelled at the Sirisena-Yahapalanaya government for being ‘weak’ and inefficient. A presidential commission of inquiry conducted hearings to investigate why the defence establishment failed to prevent the attack despite prior warnings from foreign intelligence sources.

A year later, the Rajapaksa regime is back at the helm in governance, the economy is crippled due to spread of the Corona Virus, and dangerous narratives continue to polarize society.

Where did we go wrong as a nation?

Following the Easter Sunday attacks, accusations were levelled at President Sirisena, chief of Sri Lanka’s armed forces for inaction. Some of these accusations came from top levels of the defence ministry itself which was accused of ‘bureaucratic inertia’. The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government was accused of crippling Sri Lanka’s military intelligence. 

Following the election of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, national security was heavily revamped, and the military intelligence was rectified to a level of glory. Even COVID-19 case tracking is partly conducted by Sri Lanka’s military intelligence alongside government healthcare professionals. Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 outbreak management has been commended by the WHO itself. 

In the immediate aftermath of terror attacks, Sri Lanka lost 70 per cent of tourist arrivals staggering a blow to an industry which amounted to almost 12 per cent of the GDP.  Sri Lanka Development Authority recorded 1.6 million tourist arrivals from January to November in 2019, which was a drop from 2 million arrivals last year for the same period.  From 2010-2019, the economy was growing at a 5.6 per cent average which dropped to 2.6 after the Easter Sunday Attacks. The outbreak of COVID-19 virus exacerbated the already bleak economic situation.

Tourism industry which was slowly reviving hit another blow. Meanwhile, there are staggering losses in the service industry, which amounts to almost 60 per cent of the GDP employing roughly 45 per cent of Sri Lanka’s workforce. With the closure of the industrial export zone, reduced supply of raw materials from China and disruptions in global value chains, the manufacturing industry is also crippling. 

The apparel industry employs half a million people and is at risk of job losses with many households losing income. It is uncertain how the country will stabilize macro-economic conditions and enter a reformative path towards a positive recovery, but experts should be consulted, and economic-regrowth strategies must be in place. 

The biggest challenge now is to void dangerous trajectories

It is not a secret that the 2018 riots and Easter Sunday Attacks collectively resulted in people demanding for a strong man-leader to be Sri Lanka’s Head of the State. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected through a public mandate to strengthen the State.  Despite the current economic situation of the country, people are falling in line with strict security measures, curfew and social distancing.

However, there remains some unanswered questions and dangerous trends:

First, although a Presidential Commission of inquiry was established to report on the Easter Sunday attacks until today there is no prosecution of any government officials for failing to act. However, certain individuals were arrested in connection with the attacks: notably lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah and brother of Politician Rishard Baduideen, Riyaj Baduideen. It seems the government is gearing towards Parliamentary elections by misusing the Easter Sunday Attack probes by manipulating the Muslim voter base. 

Second, the presence of negative radicalization in both online and offline spheres. Sri Lanka’s social media is riddled with divisive narratives that get intensified during certain trigger events. For example, the Ampara-Digana riots of 2018, Tamil memorialization events, the commemoration of the end of civil war, Easter Sunday Attacks and COVID-19 outbreak. 

These divisive narratives are threefold: hardline-Sinhala Buddhist nationalists expressing racial sentiments, hardline-Tamil nationalists expressing their sentiments through cyber-attacks, and the spread of islamophobia. 

The dangers of Islamic radicalization should not be downplayed and national security at a time like this is paramount. Unfortunately, the delicate questions regarding Sri Lanka’s social fabric can only be answered in part as we struggle to strike a balance between securitization and building trust among all people in society. A year since the Easter Sunday Attacks so much has happened and we must look inward, reflect, confess to our many transgressions and heal first ourselves and then extend that same compassion to others. 


On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured. 

One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on "One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka" is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security and justice.

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