Political Commentary

Sri Lanka is still trying to emerge out of its three decade long ethnic war that ended in 2009. Unfortunately, the Easter Sunday bombings linked to the Islamic State (IS), and the damaging reaction to it by those who ought to be responsible political leaders, are taking our country once again in the direction of another ethnic conflict. The bombing has been used to create a great rift in Sri Lankan society. The new ethnic polarization that has set in has led to the first post-independence government in which there is no Muslim representation at the ministerial level.

The threat of further attacks by extremist Muslim groups linked to the Islamic State has receded. Due to the breakdown of trust in the political leaders it needed the reassurance of the army commander to make people believe that they could send their children to school. The confidence of the security forces in the improvement of the ground situation is evident in the more relaxed way they are getting about checking vehicular traffic. This is true even in the North, which was under strict surveillance in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. As recent as last week travelers to the North, and in people living in the North, complained about the hardships they were experiencing at the many checkpoints which are not present in the same way in the rest of the country.

The bombai-mutai seller said that sales were poor.   People who once bought his sweets were today treating him differently because he was Muslim.  He was a poor man trying to make his living while carrying candy floss on the streets of Colombo. My wife bought three packets, asked him to keep the change, and told our children that he too would have a family at home waiting for his return.

The 10th anniversary of the end of the three decade long war that pitted the Sri Lankan state against the LTTE passed by uneventfully and without mass mobilization of people to mark the day. The period of May 18 and 19 in which the final battles of the war were fought has been one of contestation within the country. There are those who would celebrate the war victory and those who would mourn the heavy human toll that occurred at the war’s end. Since the change of government in 2015 the middle path of marking the day as one of remembrance was adopted in which both aspects were taken into account.

Sri Lanka's army commander, Mahesh Senanayake is reported to have told the BBC too much of freedom had led to the Easter Sunday suicide bombings, which killed over 250 people. Too much of freedom, too much of peace for the last 10 years. People forget what happened for 30 years. People are enjoying peace and they neglected security, he said, when asked why Sri Lanka was targeted.

The security situation remains fraught with uncertainty and tension. Not many children in their school uniforms were to be seen on the streets, even though the government schools reopened this week after a prolonged and enforced holiday. Religious leaders have requested the government to keep the schools closed for further period until the situation is brought firmly under control. Although large numbers of arrests have been made, and number around 200 according to news reports, this is not reassuring to the general population. President Maithripala Sirisena has said that there are still another 25-30 active members from the group involved in the Easter Sunday bombings still at large, though he expressed confidence in the ability of the security forces to nab them.

Sri Lanka ended its first week after coordinated terror attacks in six locations left more than 250 killed and 500 injured without any further attacks.  But the country remained in a state of semi-paralysis with people fearful about going to their workplaces in urban areas and to crowded places such as shopping centres and markets.  Schools also remain closed.  Some foreign embassies even ordered the evacuation of children and asked their staff not to report to work.  After churches and hotels were attacked people do not know what the next target will be.

The series of bombings that took place in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in the morning hours as the Christians prepared to celebrate this day came as a terrible shock.  When the first reports came in of churches being attacked and then the hotels it came seemed like a bad dream.  Although the country had experienced some significant anti-Muslim rioting in 2014 and 2018, the previous ten years since the end of the war had been free of terror attacks.  Besides the death toll in those incidents had been small, no more than four or five.  The scale of the attacks in this case was unprecedented.  Not even during the country’s three decade long war had coordinated and deadly attacks taken place simultaneously in so many different locations with such a high level of casualties.  So far about 300 people have been reported to have died and 500 injured.

The cloud of accountability that has dogged Sri Lanka since the end of the war has begun to spread. There was warning of this reality when the UN Human Rights Commissioner in her March 2019 report on Sri Lanka made a recommendation that the international community should utilize the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring to book members of the Sri Lankan state who had allegations of serious human rights violations against them. The High Commissioner justified this recommendation on the basis that Sri Lanka had not taken sufficient action with regard to resolving any of the emblematic human rights cases, including the assassination of former newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremetunge. There was also a list of about twenty other cases that she listed, including ones in which there were multiple victims.

The appointment last week of commissioners to the Office for Reparation, an independent authority created by the Office for Reparations Act passed in parliament on 9 October 2018, has been the second step of the transitional justice mechanisms for reconciliation process agreed upon by the government and international community.  It took place shortly after the conclusion of the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, and is an indication of the government’s continued commitment to the implementation of the resolution of the UNHRC that it agreed to in October 2015 and co-sponsored at the cost of much opposition criticism. The responsibility of the Office for Reparation is to identify aggrieved victims qualified for reparation and provide appropriate compensation individually or collectively to them.  The office will commence its functions with the appointment of Commissioners.