Wages of inaction

The Easter Sunday bombings points to Colombo’s failure in bridging communal faultlines

In the evening of April 20, Asylum Theatre Group, a theatre group I am part of, performed a verse-play, Photographs of Children, Women and Men, in Toronto, Canada. The play is about the plight and impact of war on children. Among others, four children acted in the play. The play ended with a hopeful note for all the children in the world.

The next morning, I woke up to the devastating news of the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people including 46 children. Among those killed was George Chandrasekar. His daughters Sophia (15) and Gloria (17) were badly injured. The George family, like thousands of other families in the Kochikadai and Mattakuliya area in Colombo, were regulars at St Anthony’s Church. George’s wife Lojini, a Hindu, would always go to church with her family, but she did not attend on that fateful day. George, Lojini and their daughters were like family to us. Of all the places on the earth, George, like many others, would never have imagined that the church he considered his sanctuary, solace and hope would be turned into a site of carnage.

St Anthony’s Church is one of the unique churches of Sri Lanka. It was clandestinely established by a priest from Kochi during the Dutch colonial period for the benefit of fisherfolks, seafarers and other people of every class, caste and religion. Legend has it that Saint Anthony is the saviour of the oppressed and a miracle healer. Tamils, Sinhalese, Burghers, Christians of all denominations, Muslims and Buddhists prayed at the St Anthony’s Church. The location of the church and the church itself is a symbol diversity. When I was living in Mattakuliya in the ’90s, the buses I travelled to and from work would stop at the church and I would get a few minutes to look at the statue of St Anthony, one of a few masculine Catholic saints depicted tenderly holding the Christ child.

We do not know why the suicide bombers selected this church as one of their targets. It could be because of the large gatherings for the morning prayers or to coincide with other bombings at the luxury hotels a few kilometres away during the popular breakfast time there.

There have been no incidents of attacks on Christians by the Islamic groups in Sri Lanka in recent history. The relations between the Christians and Muslims have been cordial. The 35 years of civil war was mainly fought along ethnic lines. However, after the end of the war in 2009, attacks on Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses and churches by Buddhist extremists and a group called Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), implicitly supported by successive governments, have increased. For example, in the first 14 weeks of 2019, at least 13 Christian churches were attacked or the services violently disrupted by Buddhist extremists. However, most of these incidents did not make it to the mainstream media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The only exception, perhaps, was the widely reported attack on the Methodist Church Centre in Anuradhapura by Buddhist extremists, on April 14, 2019, which was a day of religious significance for Christians. Violations against Christians have occurred regularly in Sri Lanka since 2010 under successive governments. Some of the Buddhist fundamentalist groups have reportedly been protected and assisted by sections of the government.

According to a report by Verite Research in 2014, state institutions were the key perpetrators of religious violence against Christians in 175 incidents (18 per cent) out of 972 incidents examined. Many of these have been documented for years by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka and human rights organisations.

Muslims and their business establishments have been increasingly under attack in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war. The worst violence against them was in Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018. There has been widespread anger and resentment among the Muslim communities and youths in the past several years. This has fuelled and strengthened the radical and fundamental Islamic groups that emerged in 2012 with financial support from West Asia. The key operative behind the bombings and one of the suicide bombers, Sahran Hashim aka Sahran Moulavi from the Eastern province, was an early radical and a member of the National Thowheeth Jamath (NTJ), the group accused by the government and the media for the bombings. However, the NTJ expelled Sahran Moulavi in 2017 from the organisation and he formed his own splinter group.

It is significant to note that there were protests by the Muslim people in Kattankudi, in 2012, in the Eastern province where Sahran Maulavi was based. The government was informed about his activities, but apparently no action was taken. A prominent politician in Sri Lanka has confirmed that Sri Lankan intelligence services and the former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, brother of Mahinda Rajapakse and a man with presidential ambitions, were given all the information regarding radical Muslim groups. The president of Sri Lanka, who unconstitutionally holds the ministry of law and order, and a few other others, received detailed information about possible attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on April 11. The information was not shared with the prime minister and the cabinet. It is also widely reported that the government of India provided vital information to the government of Sri Lanka. It is no secret that a prolonged conflict between the prime minister and the president in Sri Lanka has complicated the political process in that country.

It is the impunity that has served as a licence for continued violence against religious minorities and all other crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sri Lanka. Despite compelling evidence, there has been a reluctance to use the existing legal framework to arrest and prosecute those responsible for attacks on Muslim and Christian institutions by Buddhist extremists. Ironically, the ICCPR Act was recently used to imprison a writer and suppress free expression based on complaints by a Buddhist group that the writer has caused “pain of mind” to Buddhists. However, the same Act has not been used to arrest and prosecute those responsible for serious violations against Christians, Hindus and Muslims. With the involvement of ISIS, the inaction of the government of Sri Lanka raises even more questions.

Cheran is a Tamil poet and associate professor at University of Windsor, Canada. He was one of the founding members of the Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka

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