How the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka Are a Haunting Reminder of its Strife-Torn Past

Social Commentary

How the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka Are a Haunting Reminder of its Strife-Torn Past

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On Easter Sunday, a day of joy the world over, our attention was directed to the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka, as serial bomb blasts ripped through three cities, claiming upward of 300 lives and turning festive cheer into stunned silence. The acts of terrorism came as a shock, taking place as they did in a country that has taken painful steps to distance itself from its violent past.

For those who know Sri Lanka as simply a holiday destination, or a place that sends a cricket team to keep Virat Kohli & Co occupied every three months, the Easter blasts are their first taste of the complicated ethnic and political history of the island nation.

Photo by Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s a past that is not as distant as you might realise. The Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese ethnic majority and the Tamil minority only formally concluded ten years ago, in 2009. In the decade since, despite see-sawing political power at the centre, Sri Lanka has become a scenic island getaway as tourism returned and normal life resumed after hostilities ceased. For Indian travellers who can’t afford the luxury of the Maldives, but still want to catch a tan on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was something of a hidden, gentle secret. But the country’s violent history is as far removed from its newly minted status as preferred hipster vacation spot as can be.

When the Sri Lankan army made its final push to eliminate the rebel Tamil Tigers from the north of Sri Lanka in 2009, UN estimates project that over 40,000 civilians died in just the final few months of fighting. Multiple human rights violations, including sexual assault, took place over the course of the 26-year-long civil war. From 1983 to 2009, the human cost of the Sri Lankan civil war was staggeringly high, and casualties even included Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, and foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

For those who know Sri Lanka as simply a holiday destination, or a place that sends a cricket team to keep Virat Kohli & Co occupied every three months, the Easter blasts are their first taste of the complicated ethnic and political history of the island nation. In the book Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, the author Rohini Mohan recounts the fraught nature of life in the country during those difficult times.

“The newspapers were full of disappearances and shootings, sordid details of an escalating war in the north that was affecting every Tamil – and some Sinhalese – these days. These were familiar news items; she had been reading them since the nineties. A son missing, a husband stranded in another town because a highway had closed overnight, a sister caught in the crossfire, a neighbour found dead in a ditch, a schoolboy shot by a soldier, another boy joining the Tigers.”

Ever since the civil war ended in Sri Lanka, the formerly ethnic overtones of its internecine tension acquired a religious colour.

The Easter blasts are an unwelcome throwback to a country that’s trying very hard to leave its bloody history in its past. As details emerge about the attacks, it becomes clear that they were carried out by the Islamic State. And though Islamic terror may be new to the country, suicide bombings are not. During the civil war, the LTTE carried out more than 160 suicide bombings between 1980 and 2000 across the country, the deadliest one being an explosion at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in Colombo in 1996, which claimed more than 90 lives and left 1,400 others injured.   

“The Tamil Tigers were the world’s leader in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003, carrying out more attacks than any Islamic group,” Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told The Washington Post. “In 2009, Pape said he counted 273 people he could verify killed themselves carrying out suicide attacks for the Tamil Tigers, about 130 more than Hamas had during ‘the life of their suicide campaigns,’” the report points out.

Sunday’s bombings are familar to Sri Lankans who survived the civil war, which ended ten years ago. Yet it appears that a new, sordid chapter is just being written in Sri Lanka’s fight with terrorism. On Tuesday, two days after the attacks, ISIS claimed responsiblity for the bombings. Muslims are a minority in the country, comprising only about 10 per cent of the population, and the churches targeted in the Easter blasts affected the Christian minority. A Vox article theorises that because of how the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict has dominated Sri Lanka’s social fabric, other communities have been neglected. “This has let many of the needs of minority groups go unaddressed, and many Muslims and Christians have become more marginalised,” says the author.

Muslims are a minority in the country, comprising only about 10 per cent of the population, and the churches targeted in the Easter blasts affected the Christian minority.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since the civil war ended in Sri Lanka, the formerly ethnic overtones of its internecine tension acquired a religious colour. In 2014, a ten-day state of emergency was imposed after anti-Muslim riots by Buddhist extremists. And now, with both a local Islamic extremist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath and ISIS claiming responsibility for the Easter blasts, these underlying cracks in the fragile peace that Sri Lanka has enjoyed post the civil war will only deepen.

The government has declared April 23 a national day of mourning. The whole world will be grieving with Sri Lanka, but for its citizens, this juncture must be a frightening one. After having broken free of one cycle of violence, the nation now stands on the brink of another.

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