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Was China the Hidden Signifier? Easter Bombings and the Weaponization of Religion as a New Cold War Looms

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Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

Analysis of the Easter carnage in Sri Lanka has focused on the massacre of innocents that took place in three of the island nation’s coastal churches and congregations and largely overlooked the fact that the ocean-front, super-luxury, five star, Shangri la Hotel, was the only non-Sri Lankan “asset” (to use security jargon), that was targeted in the Easter Sunday carnage.

Moreover, it appears that to make no mistake, the masterminds of the crime ensued that they used 2 bombers at the Chinese owned Shangri la Hotel, whereas the other targeted churches and luxury hotels were hit by a single suicide bomber in this carefully coordinated and minutely planned logistics operation.
That two weeks after the carnage which killed over 250 people and wounded many more, there were no reprisals against the Muslim community of Sri Lanka is a tribute to the leadership of Cardinal Malcom Ranjith and the Church leadership.

It is also a tribute to the silent majority of peaceful and long suffering people of the island who perhaps through this disaster may re-discover the value and strength of the island’s diverse religious communities and traditions at this moment of danger.

However, unless solid answers regarding the motives and masterminds of the crime are forth-coming so that the future may be discerned and national fear psychosis calmed the quiet may not be sustained. Dead men tell no tales, and those who may have has some clues its seems died later in Sainthumaruthu.
The struggle for the narrative and the search for motives of the master-minds behind the Suicide bombing continue at this time. Much has been revealed about the radicalized and deluded local youth who killed themselves and others by now, but little is known about the master planners of the crime. How we frame the story to explain this apparently religious and economic violence, will be most important to how soon these latest wounds inflicted on this already beleaguered nation may be healed and the country as a whole may or may not recover from this latest attack on its diverse and plural public culture and economy

At this time, stories about plans to bomb bridges and indefinite school closures amidst parent’s fears for the safety of their children are circulating based on unspecified, mainly, foreign “intelligence” warnings. Attempts may be ongoing by some of the masterminds of the Easter Sunday carnage to build and sustain fear psychosis, prevent return to normal life, and start a cycle of violence and destabilize the country: This would distract and deflect attention from the search for the master-minds of the Easter Sunday attacks. There have been some unfortunate incidents of harassment of refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan, even as there has also been significant private and state support for these refugees.

It is hence urgent and important that we try to identify the Master-minds behind the carefully coordinated and minutely planned crime who guided the suicide bombers, to name, shame and let them know that we are watching even if relatively powerless to do much else at this time, in order to try to prevent more violence.

There is evidence to suggest that attempts are ongoing to mislead the Sri Lankan people about who may be the masterminds behind the local suicide bombers in the Easter Sunday Carnage. For example, the video tape of Islamic State (IS) leader Al Bagdhadi, purportedly speaking of the attacks in Sri Lanka, it seems had a later audio recording that had been introduced into the video tape, which has been questioned and rejected by Arabic and French intelligence experts.

Colombo’s Sea-front Luxury Hotels

In addition to the selected churches, suicide bombers hit three carefully chosen five star hotels, out of a line-up of six or seven star class hotels on Colombo’s sea-front luxury hotel strip where tourists gather, indicating that this was also a planned and systematic attack on the country’s already debt trapped and currency manipulated economy.

The Galadhri and Taj Hotels that are located on the same Colombo sea-front luxury hotel strip that flank Shangri La Hotel escaped unscathed, as did other sea front hotels in the same strip – Galle Face Hotel, Hilton Hotel, and Ramada. The other two hotels that were targetted, the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury Hotels, were owned by local Sri Lankan conglomerates. John Keells which owns Cinnamon grand is building its latest Cinnamon Life property development with the China construction company.

Four oceanic scientists who were staying at Kingsbury Hotel were among the six Chinese nationals who lost their lives during the Easter Sunday bomb blasts in Sri Lanka, according to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo. The deceased included Li Jian, 38, and Pan Wenliang, 35, who were senior engineers at the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (SCSIO).Two others, Li Dawei, 30, and Wang Liwei, 26, were from the First Institute of Oceanography under the Ministry of Natural Resources, the state run Global Times reported on Wednesday.

Websites of both the institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and The Institute of Oceanography turned black and white to mourn the dead scientists. Li, along with four other scientists had arrived at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo on April 18 and 19, respectively. They were supposed to participate in a joint scientific cooperation between China and Sri Lanka, the SCSIO said. The embassy said another five people from the Chinese Academy of Sciences were injured.

Maritime Domain Awareness: Coastal Communities Targeted

The design of the attack, the venues picked, churches located among coastal communities with congregations whose livelihoods largely depend on fisheries and Indian Ocean resources in Colombo, Negambo and Batticaloa, as well as the targeting of luxury ocean front hotels, suggest a theme, as well as, a coded message from the masterminds of the carnage.

Marine affairs and the ocean is a red thread that runs through the design and detail of the selected targets in the Easter Sunday crime in Sri Lanka.
No inland cities in Sri Lanka were targeted and a pattern emerges in the design and targets of the Easter Sunday attacks. It would appear that the designers of the attack had an interest in Sri Lanka’s coastal communities, ocean front and marine affairs, perhaps to draw a security cordon sanitaire around the strategically located Indian Ocean island that sits on top of major global energy and trade routes and crucial global internet Undersea Data Cables (UDC).

In other words, it would appear that the masterminds had an interest in Sri Lanka’s oceans and marine affairs; or, what the US ambassador in Sri Lanka termed, “Maritime Domain Awareness” (MDA), in a recent interview on Ada Derana TV regarding the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), assistance for so-called ‘poverty alleviation’ to Sri Lanka.

Now, while Islamic State (IS) has been announced as behind the attacks and the suicide bombers, mystery remains as to why Sri Lankan Muslims would bomb their fellow minority Christian brothers and sisters when there is no local history of conflict between these communities and no motive to do so.

Likewise, there is no evidence at this time to suggest that the Islamic State that has a history of operating in deserts and mountain regions had any special interest in the Indian Ocean or China, or affinity for tropical islands, or even a great deal of Maritime Domain Awareness to support the narrative of Singapore’s Technical University, expert Rohan Gunaratne, who has established connections to IS terror networks and the US military business industrial complex.

Gunaratne recently claimed that IS had declared South Asia as a “Province of the Islamic Caliphate” and would continue to target Sri Lanka – a claim seemingly calculated to spread fear psychosis among the general public of Sri Lanka.

It is in fact the United States that invented a new ocean called the ‘Indo-Pacific’ reflecting keen interest in Indian Ocean MDA, also evident in its so-called MCC Compact to Sri Lanka.

Questions arise as to why the various foreign intelligence agencies and experts helping the government of Sri Lanka in the investigation of the Easter Sunday crime in Sri Lanka have refrained from drawing attention to information regarding the economic and geopolitical dimensions of the Easter Sunday crimes, and rather focus on religious motivations and networks?

A Paradigm Shift:

The Easter Sunday bombings targeting minority coastal Catholic communities and churches constitute a ‘paradigm shift ‘ in patterns of conflict in the Sri Lanka, which is indexed in the fact that there was and is NO local history of and NO motive for Muslim-Christian violence in Sri Lanka as both, Christians and Muslims are MINORITY COMMUNITIES. Both have been sometimes under siege from extremist majoritarian Buddhist groups. There is no conceivable motive for local Muslims to attack Christians who number about 8 percent of the Sri Lankan population. In fact, during the conflict years, Christians who are highly integrated into the Sinhala and Tamil communities often played an important bridging role in past conflicts.

In such a context, recourse to ‘history’, past violence and endless excavation and examination of old patterns of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka serves little purpose and rather may obscure the facts on the ground at this time, and this is precisely what the planners and designers of the attacks wanted us to do in order to distract ourselves from the big picture or on-going geo-political developments and external engagements in the country.

Few self-respecting social scientists or political analysts of Sri Lanka could, would or should accept at face value the ‘narrative’ of Muslim-Christian violence to explain the violence on Easter Sunday 2019, ten years after war between the State and LTTE ended. Critical researchers on religious co-existence and conflict who study deep structures and patterns of conflict and amity between multi-religious communities are increasingly convinced that the bomb blasts at 3 churches blasts are part of a wider systematic post-war weaponization of religious identity politics by external parties to Divide, Distract and destabilize this strategically located Indian Ocean island which is in the cross-hairs of Cold War tensions between the United States, India and allies on the one hand and China on the other.

As such, explanations of the Easter Sunday violence which focus on old patterns of internal religious politics and violence rather than external and geopolitical explanations may not be very useful at this time to grasp the problem and help to try and prevent more violence. The narrative of Christian-Muslim conflict is a Euro-American one that does not mesh with local history and will not fly in Sri Lanka, and may provide clues to the external parties that may be involved in and behind the highly sophisticated logistics operation of simultaneous bombing in disparate locations on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

The Easter Sunday bomb attacks on St Anthony’s Church, in the heart of Colombo’s old city, which is a famous multi-religious site and a church with a long history of attracting believers of all faiths – Buddhist, Hindus and occasional Muslims– were attacks on multi-religiosity, religious amity, and tolerance in Sri Lanka. Likewise, the suicide bombing on Easter Sunday were NOT and should not been seen merely as an attack on a single, minority, religious community of Christians in Sri Lanka at this time. Rather these bomb blasts in 3 churches were body blows to the very heart of the county’s plural, multi-religious, social fabric and ipso facto an attack on all religious congregations in the country. They were undoubtedly meant to sow confusion, miss-trust and a spiral of violence in the island and de-stabilize the country making it prey to larger geo-political forces and Superpower designs.

Ravana Senai, Bodu Bala Senava (BBS) and Ravana Balaya emerged in the post-war period, the former a Hindu organization and the latter Buddhist Outfits in the predominantly Tamil northeast and Sinhala Buddhist south, seemingly, also targeting Muslims and Christians.

Ten years after a the war between the State and LTTE ended, we are clearly witnessing what may be termed the ‘Weaponization of Religious identity politics’ and the fanning of religious conflict in this vulnerable island nation which is caught in the cross-hairs of wider geopolitical tensions between big powers and their increasing competition in the Indian Ocean where Sri Lanka occupies a very strategic location.

1983 REDUX?

The Island of Sri Lanka has historically been home to 4 great world religions – Buddhism, Christianity Hinduism, Islam, and has a long history of multi-religosity, but religion like ethnicity has been periodically weaponized by local political actors who use and politicize religion, whom we may term ‘ethno-religious entrepreneurs’, but there are also clearly external interests working in collusion with local political actors in order to divide, distract, rule and advance external geo-strategic interests in this strategically located country at this time. External parties have geopolitical interests in Sri Lanka to divide, distract, loot and set up military bases in the island as there is a Cold War and increasing militarization of the Indian Ocean at this time, with Sri Lanka being visited by many war ships of big powers and their allied countries.

Sri Lankans must be united and act with circumspection as these are dangerous times, also as political transitions and elections loom, even as we are seeing 1983 redux as geopolitical tensions increase. Then too, there were external interests at play as ethnic tensions and civilian riots were militarized and weaponized by a neighbouring state’s intelligence agencies and security apparatus.

Small countries are often instrumentalized and ethno-religious identity politics weaponized in Cold War proxy wars. These were also dangerous times in Sri Lanka as in 1983, when external parties promoted internal conflict and weaponized ethnic tensions and civilian riots during a similar Cold War period of geopolitical instability.

Crucial information on the Bondscam was to be revealed, as well as, information on the inquiry into threats to the life of the President next week after the end of the Sinhala-Tamil New year. There is a pattern of religious riots happening when pro-western leaders are in peril. Anti-Muslim riots in Digana and Kandy happened when the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Bondscam (PCOI), report was released, apparently to distract from calls for impeachment of those responsible. While those that are being protected with violence may not have direct knowledge of the attack, they are complicit in so far as proper investigation into the Digana attacks were not carried out, and the culprits tried in open court.

The bombs blasts at 3 churches appear to be part of a systematic weaponization of religious identity politics by external parties working with local political-religious small groups to Divide, Distract and further external interests in this strategically located island nation, even as the current regime’s days are numbered and elections due next years.

Ironically, but perhaps not co-incidentally, the worst cases of ethnic and religious violence in the island have happened during neo-liberal governments – as with the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, the anti-Muslim riots of May 2019, and now the current attack on multi-religion, religious tolerance and co-existence. There is, moreover, clearly an economic dimension to these attacks, and an attempt to crash the Sri Lankan economy which is already debt trapped and suffering from currency manipulation.

At this time further attempts to promote a fear psychosis about the Islamic State in Sri Lanka, de-stabilize the country, pass a new so called anti-terrorism law to prevents democratic protests, instrumentalize party political divisions and post-pone elections in order to keep the current pro-American Prime Minister in power, appear ongoing by external parties and related intelligence agencies and networks.

In the context, it is important that all communities keep calm and seek to understand some of the deeper, historical patterns, structures and issues that underlie these terror attacks on religious diversity and tolerance in Sri Lanka at this time, but more importantly new geopolitical developments.

Zooming Out: Local-Global Connections

Although a misguided New York Times journalist, Hannah Beech, with little expertise on cultural diversity and politics in Sri Lanka, and even less grasp of global processes at play in the strategically located Indian Ocean island may naively write an article titled, “A New Enemy but the Same Hate: Can Sri Lanka Heal Its Divisions? “ to suggest that Sri Lanka is a land where ethnic and religious “hate” is endemic and entrenched; in the final analysis, when we zoom out to take a look at the bigger picture of global geo-politics in a small Indian Ocean island; China may well be the hidden signifier of the violence experienced on Easter Sunday, with a brewing Cold War seemingly coming to a head in the Indian Ocean at this time.

The book by Yale University academic, Eugene Ford, titled “Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia” (2017), details how during the height of the Cold War religion was researched and weaponized to fight communism and socialism. Ford who analyzed de-classified Asia Foundation documents guides us to discern exogenous factors that configure patterns of apparently endogenous religious violence in Asia, as well as, deep structures and histories that appear as roadblocks to incitements to religious violence in some of South and Southeast Asia’s diverse and multi-religious polities. Sri Lanka and Burma were both part of the US Southeast Asia strategy to use Buddhism to fight Communism at the time.

At that time, Islam too was weaponized in Afghanistan, various part of Southeast Asia and the Middle East against communism and socialism, and later violence was directed inward and within, its own communities including Sunni-Shia conflict.

Asia Rising and the quietly emerging super-power, China (that has yet to make formal comment on events in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday) and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), may well have been the prime target of the bombings that rocked a small and insignificant Indian Ocean island caught in the cross hairs of superpower rivalry. Moreover, in recent times, there has been a propaganda war to blame China for Sri Lanka’s primarily international sovereign bond, IMF and ABD development debt trap.

In such a context, the Easter suicide bombers appear as misguided youth, pawns, bit-players, even victims, caught in a murky web of intertwined terror and counter-terror networks and the narrative of a ’Clash of Civilizations’ emanating from war torn Syria and Iraq, as much as, from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.

Simultaneously, the hundreds of dead, wounded, maimed, injured, grief-stricken and traumatized, along with the Sri Lankan economy in shambles after the Easter Sunday attacks, all appear as “collateral damage” in a high-stakes global (in) security great game in the Indian Ocean at this time.

Finally, critical thinking or what philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, termed the “hermeneutics of suspicion”; or “brushing history against the grain” as Jewish Frankfurt school social theorist, Walter Benjamin who lived and worked in an extended “moment of emergency” in Nazi Germany termed it, are called for at this time of crisis in Sri Lanka: Careful analysis and de-coding of global and local ‘expert narratives’ on economy and security are needed to critic an increasingly popular narrative of a so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations’ that renders Christian-Muslim conflict and other forms of religious violence a self-fulfilling prophesy everywhere in the world.

Such narratives often are intended to further the strategic security and business interests, including massive sales of arms, hyper-security and surveillance systems, as well as, the setting up and/or continued existence of colonial occupation of Indian Ocean islands, with military bases such as Diego Garcia in Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean, even after the International Court of Justice ruled against it in February 2019.

Careful study of deep local histories, structures and patterns of ethno-religious co-existence, as much as, conflict, coupled with local knowledge and attention to global geopolitical currents enables critical thinking that may get us nearer the truth of a matter – so that informed action may be taken to avert future violence, both, locally and globally.


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