Colombo Carnage: Ominous Signals

Colombo Carnage Ominous Signals

The day of ‘Resurrection’ became a black Sunday for hundreds in Colombo who gathered in Churches for Easter prayers. Many in nearby hotels, including several foreign nationals, also fell victim to the bomb blasts. As of now, the death toll is reaching 300 and hundreds of people are in serious condition in different hospitals. Reports suggest that the eight bomb blasts included suicide bombings of different sorts. Among the attacks, not less than two were carried out by suicide bombers. Four hotels ─ Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Tropical Inn ─ were targeted in Colombo and the churches included one in Colombo (St Anthony’s Shrine), one in Negombo (St Sebastian’s Church) and another one in Batticaloa (Zeon Church).

The Sunday carnage became the deadliest violence Sri Lanka has experienced after the 2009 ‘war on Tigers.’ The government officials acknowledged that the bombings were perpetrated by some ‘terror groups,’ the details of which would be revealed soon. Though nobody made any immediate claim of responsibility, the pattern of violence unleashed in Colombo and the targets of attacks indicate that things have larger than having a mere domestic dimension. AFP report noted that a Sri Lankan police official had issued an intelligence warning a few days ago that suicide bombers might attack some “prominent churches.”  Following the deadliest violence, the Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide curfew and imposed restrictions on social media to prevent rumors and false information from spreading across the country of nearly 22 million people. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that the carnage massacre might cause instability in the island, and he assured the nation that the defense forces were pressed into action to take all measures against the perpetrators of bloodbath. Meanwhile more than two dozen suspects were rounded up in connection with bombings though police did not yet reveal the details on those held.

The magnitude of the mayhem brings back the frightful days of Sri Lanka’s three decades-old inter-ethnic conflict.  The Tamil Tigers had waged a prolonged battle with the Sinhala-majority government for Tamil Elam (Tamil Homeland), following discriminatory policies and measures. This was brought to an end by 2009 with the Mahendra Rajapaksa government undertaking the bloodiest war on the Tamil Tigers. Rajapaksa, however, became unpopular across the world with reports of widespread human rights violations against the Tamil population. Many were, in fact, fearing a backlash of the violence against the Tamils, which took genocidal dimensions and displaced nearly half a million people. However, Sri Lanka has been returning to a normal stage during the past decade, with all uncertainties and unsettled issues, besides the political crisis that loomed large last year.

Apparently, the Colombo attacks predominantly targeted Tamil Christians. The St Anthony’s Catholic Church is closer to the Colombo port. The St Sebastian church is located in Negombo which is a popular tourist destination, not far off from Colombo. The Christian Zion church in Eastern Batticaloa is in a location populated primarily by Tamils and Muslims. Only a small segment of the Sinhala population is Catholic. However, Christianity has been considered as a unifying force because it includes people from both the minority Tamil and the majority Sinhalese ethnic groups. In 2018, there were more than 80 reported incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, says the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organizations.

In the current year also, the NCEASL recorded more than two dozen incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks reportedly attempted to interrupt a Sunday worship service. The last such incident was reported on March 25. Out of the 22 million population of Sri Lanka, more than 7.6 per cent are Christians and nearly 10 per cent are Muslims. The majority Buddhist-Sinhala population constitute nearly 70 per cent of total population and the Hindu-Tamils constitute nearly 13 per cent. Last year, the US State Department noted that some Christian groups and churches reported they had been pressured to end worship activities after authorities classified them as ‘unauthorized gatherings.’

Violence on religious occasions is not new. For instance, a few years back, Boko Haram militants killed more than three dozen people in Nigerian churches. In Pakistan four members of a Catholic family were killed in 2018. In 2016, 75 people were killed and hundreds got injured when bombs exploded in a park in the heavily Christian neighborhood of Lahore in Pakistan as people were celebrating after Easter services. During Easter season in 2015, an attack on the University of Garissa in Kenya killed 148 people, and the targets were obviously Christian students. In 2017, Coptic Christians in Egypt were forced to end Easter services and reinforced security after bombings at two churches on Palm Sunday which left 45 people dead. In 2013 a bombing at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Nigeria, left 37 people dead and 57 injured. The shootings in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 50 people dead, also generated fears that there would be backlashes across the world.

In Sri Lanka, there were reports that some sections of the Buddhist majority were attempting to disrupt services in churches. The Sri Lankan Muslims, mainly of Moors, were also reported to have been attacked by the Buddhist sections from time to time. However, these reports cannot be seen as reasons for unleashing violence in Colombo. Meanwhile the reports hinting the possible links of the role of National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) cannot be completely dismissed. The NTJ has been seen as a radical Muslim faction in Sri Lanka that was associated with the destruction of Buddhist statues last year. The Government is yet to come out with the details of the arrested following the blasts. Meanwhile the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka issued a statement that it mourned the loss of innocent people in the blasts by radical groups who were apparently determined  to divide religious and ethnic groups. Accordion to the All Ceylon Jammiyyathul Ulama, an organization of Muslim clerics, targeting Christian places of worship cannot be accepted. While the Government in Colombo is taking measures to ensure that no more targeted attacks would be allowed in Lanka, there are too many questions that remain largely unanswered. A major one is related to the intelligence report of a possible NTJ attack. The opposition in Sri Lanka, particularly the rival political forces of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe might cash in on the situation if the emerging scenario is not handled tactfully.

This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy.  The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]

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