Sri Lankan officials walk by bodies amid blast debris at St Anthony's Shrine after the bombing at the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ishara S Kodikara

Sri Lanka has been convulsed since the nine coordinated suicide-bomb attacks against Christian churches and five-star hotels on Easter Sunday. More than 250 people lost their lives and many others were injured on that fateful day. More terrorist suspects and vast amounts of explosives and equipment continue to be found in mosques, factories and homes across the country.

People are afraid to leave their homes and children are not going to school. After having defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), “the most lethal and well organized terrorist organization in the world” in May 2009, Sri Lanka is again faced with terrorism and gripped with fear and insecurity.

Indian intelligence passed on information to Sri Lankan authorities of an imminent terrorist attack on April 4. Based on this alert, Sri Lanka’s police chief sent out a nationwide alert on April 11 warning of attacks on the Indian High Commission and churches. Indian intelligence again sent warnings on April 20 and about one hour before the bombs started exploding on April 21.

According to a report denied subsequently by Saudi Arabia, it also knew of the impending attacks and advised its mission in Colombo five days before Easter. A Sri Lankan government minister also warned his son of an impending attack. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was out of the country and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was out of town. The government failed to warn the public and tighten security allowing the carnage to take place.

It is now confirmed that the attacks were carried out by a local Islamic extremist group, National Towheeth Jamaath (NTJ), with support from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which has claimed responsibility.

The Easter Sunday violence is widely attributed to inter-religious animosity on the island. Interfaith vigils are being held around the world to foster harmony among the country’s Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus.  The overwhelming focus on religion as the root of conflict, however, diverts attention from the geopolitical dimensions of the violence.

‘Religious’ violence

Communal harmony and cooperation rather than violence and conflict are the predominant features of Sri Lankan society. Christians did not attack Muslims in the aftermath of the Easter bombings just as Buddhists did not take up violence against Tamils after innumerable LTTE massacres of Buddhists and attacks against Buddhist sacred sites during the course of the 30-year civil war. Even the 1983 anti-Tamil violence was not a spontaneous backlash but a government-orchestrated pogrom.

Both colonial and local rulers have manipulated grievances and incited ethnic and religious groups against each other during times of crisis and challenges to their authority. The violence against Muslims in Kandy in March 2018 is an example. The failure of the state to take timely action despite prior warnings contributed to a communal conflict. It allowed Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, who was then facing a no-confidence motion, to assert his authority.

The leader of the radical Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, Galagoda Ganasara, who called for a ban of the NTJ is serving a 19-year jail sentence. Despite the pleas of Buddhist monks,  former justice minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa and moderate Muslim leaders like Kabeer Hashim, no action was taken against the spread of extremist Wahhabi ideology. Islamic schools and separatist Wahhabi culture spread over the past several years, particularly in Kattankudy in the Eastern Province, home of Muhammed Zaharan,  the leader of the Easter attacks. The reliance of successive Sri Lankan governments on Muslim votes and Muslim politicians and the economic and political power wielded by Saudi Arabia and other external forces have been major factors in Sri Lankan government’s failure to curb the spread of radical Islam.

Even after the carnage on Easter Sunday which paralyzed the country, four leading Muslim politicians – the governors of the Eastern and Western provinces, a cabinet minister and a member of Parliament – M L A M Hizbullah, Azath Salley, Risad Badhuitheen and Mujibur Rahuman – who, critics claim, have connections to radical Islam or the wealthy families of the Easter suicide bombers, have not yet been questioned. According to reports, some terrorist suspects taken into custody have been released, presumably because of pressure from powerful politicians. Indeed, the country’s intelligence and security apparatus was greatly weakened after the change of government in 2015.

Weakening security

In January 2015, a US-backed government replaced the former Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which had defeated the LTTE. Soon thereafter, the new Sri Lankan government and the United States co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution in Geneva with support from the international Tamil separatist lobby. The requirements in this resolution to account for alleged war crimes and missing persons in the final stage in the war against the LTTE put pressure on the Sri Lanka to set up war-crimes courts with foreign judges and an office of missing persons consisting of activists funded by Western non-governmental organizations.

The requirements of the UNHRC resolution also pressured the government to dismiss or imprison intelligence officers and army personnel. Forty intelligence officers who were involved in the anti-LTTE military effort are in prison apparently ‘without sound evidence against them’.  These measures weakened Sri Lankan intelligence and security and increased dependence on India and the “international community.”

Even after the Easter carnage, the UNHRC, Western governments and NGOs continue to dictate national-security policy. The government’s proposed new Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which would replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act, is an example. While it is designed to protect ex-LTTE elements living abroad, it could be used to “suppress student unions, trade unions, media freedoms and the opposition” and possibly postpone presidential and parliamentary elections due within the next 12 months.

International intervention

Ever since the Easter bombings, Sri Lankan police and military have been working tirelessly  to gather information, track down suspects, detect weapons and explosives and  protect people. At the same time, both Wickramasinghe and Sirisena have been calling for foreign intelligence and cooperation to fight the global Islamic threat. The US Embassy has stated that the United States had sent in teams from both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

Military ties with the United States, which had been growing over the last few years, are rapidly being strengthened in the aftermath of the Easter terror attacks. There are rumors that the lapsed Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) has been renewed and that the government has entered a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. Neither the public nor the Parliament have yet been informed of these matters vital to the sovereignty and independence of the country.

In August 2016 the first joint operation between the US and Sri Lankan militaries took place in Jaffna with participation of TNA (Tamil National Alliance) politicians at the launch. US Seventh Fleet vessels and the aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis have visited Trincomalee, a Sri Lankan port  of great strategic military value in the Indian Ocean.

Last December, the US Navy announced the setting up of a logistics hub in Sri Lanka to secure support, supplies and services at sea. On December 31, US President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act to strengthen the US strategic position in Asia vis-à-vis China. It is reported that between January 24 and 29 this year, Bandaranaike International Airport in Sri Lanka was “used for US military planes to bring in supplies, and for aircraft aboard the John C Stennis to fly in, load, and ferry them back.” While this exercise was portrayed as a “commercial activity,” Sri Lankan observers argue that “such an operation could not have taken place without some bilateral agreement being in place.”

On April 27, in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, Wickramasinghe signed an agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) of the United States. Details leaked to the public are raising fears that the MCC Agreement “is nothing but a plan to splinter Sri Lanka and turn it into a US military base.” A failure to heed the call to ‘reveal the contents of the agreement without any redactions to the general public’ will only deepen suspicions that Sri Lanka is being turned into a US military base to control South East Asia and the Indian Ocean against the rising regional and global power of China.

Developments surrounding the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka are raising questions if Islamic extremism is a justification for US military intervention and establishment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases around the globe? Are extremist Wahhabi ideology exported by Saudi Arabia and the creation of Islamic terrorism in selected countries, such as the Philippines and possibly Thailand, a political tool aiding geopolitical ambitions of the US, UK and other international interests?

Sri Lanka, an important partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is strategically situated in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. The Shangri La Hotel where suicide bombs were detonated on Easter Sunday is located in the Port City in Colombo, a massive project of China and the largest single foreign direct investment in Sri Lanka. Destabilization of Sri Lanka via terrorism and ethno-religious conflict may serve short-term geopolitical interests of the US, India and the “international community,” but it will only intensify destruction and chaos on the island and the suffering of the Sri Lankan people.

Asoka Bandarage's latest book, Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World: Colonial and Neoliberal Origins: Ecological and Collective Alternatives, was released by De Gruyter Contemporary Social Sciences on May 22, 2023.

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