On April 23 at 4.30 pm, news broke that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings that killed over 300 people – many of them attending Easter Sunday Mass in Sri Lanka. This came just a day after a Cabinet press briefing, when Sri Lankan government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne named National Thowheed Jama’at as the organisation behind the attacks – a small fringe group that does not enjoy widespread support. The State Minister for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene has since clarified that the group responsible is a splinter group that had left the National Tawheed Jama'at. Senaratne had added that the suicide bombers were “all locals” but that there was the possibility of “an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”
This development raises several questions: What is the degree of ISIS involvement, given the delay in issuing the claim? Why did the State Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, claim that the attack was a reaction to the Christchurch mosque killings in New Zealand – though there has been no evidence to support this claim? Did the National Thowheed Jama'at get support from ISIS to carry out the attacks?
But the larger question really is – why did officials not act on intelligence inputs that were received two weeks prior to the attacks? In an interview to Smita Sharma, Consulting Executive Editor of TV9 Bhartvarsh, Sri Lankan Economic Affairs Minister Harsha De Silva said, “About the incident where the information was available and not being acted upon, this is a colossal failure of the implementing agencies within the defence establishment. The intelligence people did their jobs. We had the intelligence. They had cooperation from foreign countries. They got the warnings out. What was the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, what was the Inspector General of Police doing with this information? Why on earth did they not bring this information to the attention of the Prime Minister, given the President was overseas?”
And that is the crux of the problem. Sri Lanka did not face an intelligence failure, as much a failure of the bickering political class that has led to the loss of 359 lives at last count.
The political situation in Sri Lanka
In August 2015, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) saw a split following the General Elections in the country. While one faction, led by current President Maithripala Sirisena, decided to sign an MoU with United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe – the current Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Another faction of SLFP, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa remained in opposition.
However, in October last year, President Sirisena suddenly announced that his party was withdrawing from the coalition, and overnight, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Prime Minister.
The President’s ‘sacking’ of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was taken to court by the UNP, and the court ruled in Wickremesinghe’s favour.
So while the status quo exists, tensions continue to brew between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the government of Sri Lanka is riddled with political squabbles.
Politics over governance
Since the political crisis of October 2018, neither Prime Minister Wickremesinghe nor State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene have been invited for Security Council meetings in the country, government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne revealed recently. Even after the attacks, when Wickremesinghe had tried to call for a Security Council meeting, he was initially refused, then kept waiting when he walked into the Ministry of Defence.
The Defence Establishments seem to be working with the President, and the President refuses to work with the Prime Minister – and even after a terror attack has wreaked havoc in the country, the politicians don’t seem keen on putting together a united front for the safety of the country.
Ethno-religious tensions in Sri Lanka
The Easter Sunday attacks are a departure from more longstanding ethno-religious tensions in Sri Lanka.
The Christian community, which comprises of both Sinhalese and Tamils, has come under attack in the past, in incidents ranging from intimidation to the destruction of property and assault. On April 14, a mob threw stones and firecrackers at the Methodist Prayer Centre in Kundichchaankulama, Anuradhapura.
The Muslim community has also come under attack. Most recently in 2018, mobs targeted Muslim homes and places of worship. A 23-year-old died as a result. In 2014, in Aluthgama, four Muslims died after riots. These are just two of a number of incidents targeting the Muslim community in particular. Many of these attacks have been attributed to hardline Buddhist groups.
Comparatively, there has been very little tension between Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka.
Tension between religious communities is relatively recent, compared to the divisions Sri Lanka sees along lines of ethnicity. The 30-year civil war pitted the State against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but also led to enduring division between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities.
Given the fraught situation, there have already been a number of retaliatory incidents reported targeting the Muslim community in Chilaw and Mannar – although there were no casualties.
Emergency, and powers of the President
In the meantime, Sri Lanka declared a State of Emergency on April 22. Under a State of Emergency, the President is empowered to issue Emergency regulations, which will override any law apart from the Constitution. In March 2018, Sri Lanka declared a State of Emergency for the first time since 2011, in order to address the unfolding violence in Digana. Sri Lanka has been working to repeal anti-terror legislation, which has in the past been overly broad and led to arbitrary arrest and detention. The Army has sought police powers to search and arrest – a worrying development given Sri Lanka’s history of using such powers to silence critics of the regime, particularly from minority communities.
Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber remain blocked in what the state says is a bid to cut down on misinformation and hate speech. Still, there continue to be persistent rumours spread via messaging, including around the poisoning of the water supply, which eventually had to be responded to by police. It has also hampered the flow of information for news organisations and for people trying to reach the affected.
At this moment, of paramount importance is answering the question on why the government did not follow up on the intelligence received. President Sirisena is Minister of Defence and, during the political crisis, also brought the police under the Ministry of Defence’s purview. It is not yet clear why the reports, received two weeks, four days and even 10 minutes before the attack, merited no follow up action.
Raisa Wickrematunge is Editor of Groundviews, a civic media initiative based in Sri Lanka. Views expressed are the author's own.