Terrorism, nonetheless in a different package, has returned to Sri Lanka claiming over 250 lives and severely injuring hundreds others in coordinated serial terror attacks.
In fact, from ethnic insurgency to religious terrorism, a changing face of organised violence has arrived in the country floating on ocean in the southern part of the Indian sub-continent.
The violent attacks perpetrated by not less than nine suicide bombers on churches, hotels and other localities in and around Colombo on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) also ascertained utter failure of the Lankan government as there were prior inputs about the terror acts, even from foreign intelligence agencies, but the current dispensation in Colombo simply ignored it.
Infighting and lack of understanding between Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has only worsened the situation as they failed to preempt the disaster that also snatched the lives of over 40 foreign tourists staying in Shanghai-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels.
The ill-preparedness to terror attacks has already tarnished the image of the island nation as three Catholic churches faced the tragedy where hundreds were attending Sunday praying sessions. Usually the churches along with mosques and temples remain unprotected in the country.
The Islamic State (IS), which claimed responsibility for the attacks, only exploited the vulnerability of churches.
Churches may have been targeted by Islamist forces across the globe, including in various Asian nations, but Sri Lanka had no such report of rivalry and conflict between Muslims and Christians.
Rather, both the religious groups had faced aggressions from a section of the majority Sinhala-Buddhists and now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on several occasions.
“Lankan Muslims never supported the primary goal of LTTE to establish a homeland for Tamil people in the northern part of the small country. They can speak Tamil language and many of the Muslim families lived in nearby LTTE-controlled localities. Few of the Muslim families were suspected to be working as spies for the current regime dominated by Sinhala-Buddhists. Hence, the LTTE leadership was not comfortable with the local Muslims and even targeted them in many occasions,” said a Sinhala (Sinhalese) political analyst.
While over 74 million Indians are Tamils, Sri Lanka has a 3-million Tamil-speaking population.
One of the ancient ethnic groups of South Asia, Tamils are mostly found in the southern parts of India and northeastern areas of Sri Lanka.
In fact, the island nation was once (10th to 11th century) ruled by Tamil kings. By 1970, Velupillai Prabhakaran-led LTTE launched an armed struggle for an independent Tamil land out of Sri Lanka.
Speaking to this writer, a Colombo-based political analyst, who did not want to be named, said the population pattern of his country had changed in the recent past.
Muslims have rapidly increased their numbers and at present, they might have equaled the Hindu population (at about 11 %) to become another large religious group after the Sinhala-Buddhists (about 70%). Christians comprise about 7% of the total 21-million Lankan populace.
As the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists have lately noticed the sustained growth of Muslims has been followed by a rapid increase in the number of mosques and madrasas in various remote parts of the isolated country.
How local Muslims had started wearing typical middle-eastern attire and adopting Arabic language for religious purposes, has also come under the lens.
However, the authorities had either little information about the development or simply ignored it. More shockingly, the government lacked political will to address the issue, the Lankan analyst said.
For example, the Lankan law cannot punish a citizen, who after joining a terror outfit outside the country returns home. He might have been radicalised in a foreign soil and come back with the sole aim to engage in terror activities and motivate more local youths to join in ‘jihad’, an elusive fight to safeguard Islam.
The motivation is so strong that educated youth from wealthy backgrounds too often opt for the violent path. The Sunday Easter bombers were highly educated, some of whom had even completed them completed their studies in foreign countries.
But suicide squad members are meticulously nurtured for martyrdom. The young minds are raised with the sole aim to achieve paradise after they kill themselves to establish the Caliphate under Sharia laws across the world.
“Even without having specific laws to deal with youths trained by terror groups in foreign soil, the government could have taken action against them. Sri Lanka has a lot of laws relating to procurement of arms and ammunition and also training of local residents on terror activities. The government was almost sleeping after the 2009 counter-LTTE victory,” said the young analyst.
The Lankan government has recently banned two Islamist outfits, namely the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI), which were active in the country for some years and suspected to be behind the Sunday bombings.
The authorities have also launched massive operations amid the imposition of emergency rules in the country.
President Sirisena, who is constitutionally responsible for the country’s defence and also international law and order, recently commented that most of the active Islamist radicals were either eliminated or arrested by government forces. The rest would be neutralised before the presidential polls scheduled for November-December this year.
Meanwhile, former hardliner president Mahinda Rajapaksa is trying to reap take advantage of the situation.
However, Rajapaksa, who became hugely popular among the Sinhalese people after successfully eliminating the dreaded LTTE, has already completed two terms as president of the country and cannot run for the same unless there is an amendment to the constitution. Otherwise, he may run for the post of prime minister in 2020 national elections.
(The author is a northeast-based journalist. Views are personal.)