Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 74, 23 April 2020

Sri Lanka: One year after the Easter Sunday attacks
D Suba Chandran

In the news

On 21 April 2020, one year after the attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, Sri Lanka observed two minutes silence across the country to remember and honour those who were killed.

A few days earlier, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Sri Lanka made a bold statement of forgiveness. He was quoted to have stated: "Last year, some misguided youths attacked us and we as humans could have given a human and selfish response…But we meditated on Christ's teachings and loved them, forgave them and had pity on them…We did not hate them and return them the violence." 

It was not only brave and bold but also forward-looking. The Cardinal was also quoted: "We are aggrieved that those responsible for governance at that time did not take seriously the repeated warnings received concerning these attacks and so not only allowed this massacre to take place but also sought to hide their culpability in different ways after the attacks. Still more serious is the responsibility of all those who masterminded these attacks by planning, funding and encouraging the perpetrators and deliberately covering up facts of the case. Some of them surely knew this was coming." (Daily Mirror)

Issues at large

There are four issues in the background: Forgiveness, Accountability, Responsibility and Justice.

It is easy to preach about forgiveness. However, challenging to practice. The Cardinal has made a strong statement on behalf of everyone to forgive the perpetrators, for what they had done. By calling them "misguided youths", the Cardinal has also opened a big window for other youths, who may have supported the perpetrators, or sympathized with their cause. 

Forgiveness, however, does not mean to forget what had happened. By forgiving the perpetrators, the Cardinal does not mean that the victims would pretend that 21 April 2019 never happened. That is not the essence of the message. 

Forgiveness also calls for accountability. His statement, as quoted in the Daily Mirror later, clearly talks about accountability. Did the previous government, or sections within the government ignore the warnings? Were there specific inputs to concerned ministries and departments that were overlooked? Did a section within the society know what was likely to happen on 21 April 2019? If the answer is yes to the above questions, then those who are responsible for not taking actions against 21 April 2019, and those who responsible for allowing it to happen, have to be held accountable.

The present government led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa have to take the lead and ensure there is accountability. Unfortunately, narrow politics is likely to dictate the outcome of this accountability process. It would be a huge disservice to those who were martyred on 21 April 2019, and those are living with the painful memories of the day. 

Third, responsibility – by the State and society. The State has a responsibility to bring those responsible for 21 April 2019, without penalizing the majority within the Muslim community. Given the Islamophobia across the world, it is easier to blame the Sri Lankan Muslims.

On the other hand, the minority also has a responsibility to the majority. It is easier to profess that the community should not be held responsible for the actions of a few. Especially when the majority is emotionally charged and politically polarised as the case was following 21 April 2019. The minority community has a responsibility to the nation by ensuring accountability within. 

There has to be a collective responsibility by the minorities. It would be easier to prevent 21 April 2019, than to respond to its failure.

Finally justice. Forgiveness is the beginning. The Cardinal has shown the way in Sri Lanka. The State and the society – majority and minority, have to respond and ensure accountability. And take responsibility. It would be a grave injustice to those 250 plus who died and thousands of those who are living holding their memories. 

D Suba Chandran is the Professor and Dean at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangaluru.

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