There have been four very disturbing developments in Sri Lanka in the past few days, which, if not recognized and attended to immediately, could pave the way for more attacks by the local affiliates of the Islamic State (IS).
In fact, the vitiated political and communal atmosphere could be used by any group, local or foreign, wanting to destabilize Sri Lanka. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the leader of the Lankan Catholic community, has warned about this eventuality.
The first disturbing factor is the spate of attacks by politicized elements of the majority-Sinhalese Buddhist community against Muslim businesses, mosques and houses in several small towns in the politically sensitive North Western Province.
The second is the alleged inaction of the army and the police in the face of mayhem, which has weakened public trust in the law enforcement and government machinery mandated to maintain peace while unravelling the network behind the unprecedented multiple suicide bombings by affiliates of the Islamic State on April 21 which claimed 253 lives.
The third is the cynical way in which the country’s political parties and individual politicians are using the April 21 terrorist attacks to “expose” their rivals and destroy them politically.
These political diversions are adversely affecting the government’s capacity to concentrate on and get at the real perpetrators of the Easter Sunday carnage.
The fourth is the frightening revelation that the Islamic State has designated Sri Lanka as “Wilayath as Seylani” or the Sri Lankan province of the Islamic State’s Caliphate, thereby making Sri Lanka a hub and a theatre of its grisly operations in the region.
Attacks on Muslims
All Muslim organizations from the All Ceylon Jamiyath Ulema (ACJU) downwards, and all Muslim political parties have issued strong statements condemning the suicide attacks against hotels and churches. They have said that the perpetrators did not even deserve a Muslim burial for their utterly un-Islamic act. It is a fact that the most of crucial arrests were made with tip offs provided by Muslims themselves.
But despite all this, politically motivated Sinhalese-Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim businesses, houses, factories and mosques in a number of small towns in North West Sri Lanka from May 13 onwards for about three days.
Initially, international news agencies went to town saying that the attacks were “Christian-led” because Christians took the brunt of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings. The attackers’ targets were churches during Mass.
But Christian involvement was found to be untrue because the towns in which the anti-Muslim attacks took place had very few Christians. Moreover, the Christians had been quiet since April 21 following Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s plea for non-retaliation on the grounds that a communal clash will land Sri Lanka in a big mess.
And as Fr.Edmund Tillekaratne put it, if the Christians were seething for revenge, they would have attacked the Muslims within a day or two of the suicide attacks on churches.
“The recent cases of violence took place three weeks after the suicide attacks. They are the handiwork of political elements wanting to exploit the communal situation precipitated by the terrorist act,” Tillekaratne said.
Cardinal Ranjith also said that there was no “religious nuance” to the attacks. The attacks were staged by “out of control political elements, ” he said while urging political parties to keep their bottom level cadres in check. He pointed out that the attackers had been plied with liquor and demanded the closure of liquor shops in the affected districts.
Among those arrested in relation to the anti-Muslim violence were Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, Amith Weerasinghe of the Mahason Balakaya organization, Dan Priyasad and Namal Kumara who were involved in previous riots.
The political reason for the anti-Muslim rioting lay in the coming elections to the Sri Lankan Presidency and parliament. While the Presidential election is due in December 2019, parliamentary elections are due in the first half of 2020.
Communal strife would help political parties which depend heavily on the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community, like the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and its allies in the Joint Opposition.
Though the leaders of these political parties have appealed for peace, there is no certainty that their cadres have taken their advice, which is why Cardinal Ranjith has pleaded with political parties to keep their lower rung supporters in check.
Tamil National Alliance leader M.A.Sumanthiran said that the Sinhala-Buddhist elements expected the Christians to retaliate against the Muslims but when they did not, they took the cudgels, exploiting the anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka after the April 21 terror strikes.
The anti-Muslim riots and the intensification of communal politics and communal feelings among the people, are seen as a greater danger to Sri Lanka than the terrorism the country saw on April 21.
“It is easier to tackle the aftermath of a terrorist attack, than the aftermath of a communal riot,” said junior Minister Dr.Harsha de Silva. Communal riots create deep wounds and lasting memories.
“Sri Lanka has almost crushed the gang which staged the April 21 terror attacks. Therefore there is no immediate danger of another such attack. But the greatest threat is from communalism with its deep and vast impact,” said Dr.Rohan Gunaratna an expert on terrorism and political violence.
The Sinhalese-Tamil conflict got exacerbated not by the LTTE’s terrorist act in 1983, but by the anti-Tamil riots in July that year. The riots prolonged the conflict, globalized it and triggered a war which lasted three decades.
Alleged Inaction of Security Forces
The Lankan government has vested a great deal of power in the Tri-forces and the police under Emergency Regulations. Army Commander Lt.Gen.Mahesh Senanayake has warned of the strongest action against law breakers. And yet there are widespread complaints that the forces were not only late in responding to calls for help, but had passively stood by as mobs went on a rampage. Reports said that mobs indulged in vandalism and arson even attacking protected mosques during curfew hours.
Although Sri Lanka has a big army, not all of that could be deployed in the North Western Province as anti-Muslim riots could take place anywhere in the island given the fact that Muslims are found all over the island. The police had only 5,500 men in the North Western Province.
Perhaps there were no firm commands from the top. According to Mano Ganeshan, while Army Commander Senanayake offered to open fire on trouble makers, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was in favor of caution concerned as he was about the political cost of killing a member of the majority community.
Political Use of Terrorism
Political parties and politicians are muddying the waters and polluting the air by cynically using the terrorist attack on April 21 to advance their political interests. They point accusing fingers at their opponents and rivals and even link some of them with the Islamic radicals and terrorists.
The first to do so was cabinet spokesman Dr.Rajitha Senaratne who said that terrorist leader Mohammad Zahran Hashim and several other members of the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) were in the payroll of the intelligence wing of the Defense Ministry when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the opposition Presidential candidate-to-be, was Defense Secretary. Following Senaratne, the pro-government Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A.Sumanthiran said that the terror attacks could have a link to the Presidential election because soon after the attacks, Gotabaya had declared that he was a candidate and that he would give Sri Lanka a strong administration.
Sinhala-Buddhist parties and political leaders pointed accusing fingers at influential Muslim cabinet minister Rishad Bathiyudeen and Eastern Province Governor MLAM Hisbullah. They were accused of promoting Wahabism and even having links with Muslim extremists.
The opposition is going to move a motion of no-confidence against Bathiyudeen, and the so-called “Shariah University” being set up by Governor Hisbullah, has been brought under the Ministry of Higher Education.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is under constant fire not only from the opposition but from the public with social media being used to make nasty comments.
Although there is unity now, when the terrorist attack took place on April 21, there was no unity. President Sirisena, who was in Singapore at that time, did not allow members of the National Security Council to meet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who was desperately trying to meet them.
President Sirisena chose to fly to Beijing to attend a conference on Asian Civilizations, when anti-Muslim riots had broken out. This is widely criticized. It was only at the last minute that Sirisena appointed an Acting Defense Minister to be in charge while he is away. Police and the armed forces come under the Defense Ministry and the President is the Defense Minister.
Declaration of Lanka as Wilayath as Seylani
The Lankan government has proscribed the National Tawheed Jamaath, the Jamaathei Millathu Ibrahimee and the Wilayath as Seylani (WAS). The ban on WAS is significant because it means that the Islamic State has designated Sri Lanka (Seylan in Arabic) as a “province” of the Caliphate of Iraq and Syria.
“The naming of Sri Lanka as a province means that the island is to be a hub of IS activity and a field of its operations,” said Dr.Gunaratna, co-author of “The Three Pillars of Radicalization” (Oxford University Press 2019).
According to Dr.Gunaratna, the IS has not formally announced the designation of Sri Lanka as “Wilayath as Seylan”. It could do so if the anti-Muslim riots are not put down with a firm hand and if the violence spreads, he warned.