Expert reaction: Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings

At least 290 people were killed and 500 more injured in eight coordinated bombings on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. The attacks represent the deadliest violence the South Asian country has seen since its 26-year civil war ended a decade ago.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Sri Lankan officials have said they believe the bombings were carried out by a little-known local Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, with suspected international assistance.
  • There have been reports that authorities received warnings of the attacks at least 10 days before they occurred. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said: “We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken. Neither I nor the ministers were kept informed.”
  • In the wake of the attacks, the Sri Lankan government has blocked access to several social media sites, apparently due to fears that misinformation could lead to further violence.

  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a statement condemning the attacks. 

Here's what three NZ-based Sri Lanka experts had to say about the developing situation:

Ben Schonthal, Associate Professor of Buddhism/Asian Religions at University of Otago:

There are reports that it’s a very small, fringe Islamic militant group behind these attacks. The fact they would target Christians is odd. There’s never been any direct conflict between Muslims and Christians that I’m aware of - in fact, they’ve often been in coalitions of mutual support. Sri Lanka is a country that’s 70 per cent Buddhist. For complex reasons, Buddhists in the country have been concerned that they are disadvantaged and need special government support. Policies directed at this have frequently come at the expense of religious and ethnic minorities, most notably Tamils, Christians and Muslims. So, Christians and Muslims have frequently been in the same camp, when it comes to religious discrimination.

There’s no overt history of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, which I think has led people to assume that the attacks had outside influence. However, it’s important to note that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is very diverse and multifaceted, with lots of different varieties of Islam being practiced. While more conservative types of Islam have been gaining in influence in parts of the island in recent years, there’s been no history of Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka.

This event comes in a climate of increased religious tensions. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has seen a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, stoked by a number of new Buddhist nationalist groups. There have been multiple instances of vandalism and violence targeting the island’s Muslim communities, most recently in March of this year. There’s also been a large number of attacks on Christian churches, led by the same Buddhist nationalist groups. Recent events have made the situation extremely volatile.  I worry that there will be more violence and vandalism to come.

There are media reports saying that the government had previous intelligence that attacks were planned and that information hadn’t been acted on or shared by members of the government. Sri Lanka’s current government is an awkward partnership of a President and a Prime Minister from different parties, who don’t trust each other. They originally came together in 2015 to oust the former war-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  Now the relationship has soured. There are lots of internal fissures in the government in Sri Lanka. That’s led to lapses in communication – and outright competition. Among other things, this tragedy has shed a frightening light on the deep dysfunctions inside the government.  

Rick Weiss, Associate Professor, School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria University of Wellington:

The attacks are perhaps better seen in a pan-Asian context than in a specifically Sri Lanka context. The long history of religious and ethnic dispute in Sri Lanka has tended to be between Sinhalese and Tamil, and between Buddhist and non-Buddhists. In the case of yesterday’s attacks, it doesn’t appear that Buddhism was directly involved, so this particular case appears to depart from the primary historical precedents of religious, political and ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. More recently, Sri Lankan Buddhists have turned their attention and vitriol towards Muslim and Christian communities, but again, Buddhist nationalists do not seem to have been involved in yesterday’s attacks.

What appears more likely is that it was an attack of one minority religious community on another minority religious community, which is unusual in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it is more common that minority groups in Sri Lanka share a common experience of being targeted by Buddhist nationalist groups. However, if, as the government just announced, it is an Islamic extremist group that was responsible for the attacks, the history of Muslim/Christian relations in other parts of Asia, and also in the West, probably provide a better context for understanding these attacks than does Sri Lanka’s history. The Sri Lankan government has announced that most, perhaps all, suspects are Sri Lanka citizens, but they are also examining possible international connections. It is too early to say, really, what are the relevant histories and ideologies that motivated the attacks.

One interesting thread is the fact that the Sri Lankan government has enforced a blackout of social media, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Recently, in the wake of ethnic and religious violence in Sri Lanka, there has been retaliatory violence that has been encouraged by rumours circulating on social media. The Sri Lankan government has taken the extraordinary step of blocking all access to social media, in order to try to control the circulation of information in the aftermath of these attacks. This move highlights how ineffective these technology companies have been in controlling information that foments hate and violence.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, PhD candidate at the University of Otago:

Violence against minorities, including religious minorities, has been very high – see my short column in the Sunday newspapers back in Sri Lanka, which was published just hours before the terrorist attacks on Sunday. This violence is well documented, as is the general and more widespread Islamophobia and right-wing, militant, Buddhist extremism and violence.

This violence though is of another scale and scope altogether. It is reminiscent of the suicide bombings from the time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) held sway and terrorised the country. It is thus jarring, distressing, and very disturbing.

What is clear is that internal rifts in the government between the prime minister and president contributed to the catastrophic lack of preparation. That much is very clear just based on what’s officially put out by the PM’s party on social media.

Last year, after the communal violence in March, they blocked social media. After the attacks, they blocked social media again. The effectiveness of these blocks is suspect. Unlike in New Zealand, the government doesn’t have a coherent, consistent communications strategy or plan. It is all piecemeal, given the space for misinformation to seed and spread.

As much as it contributes to misinformation in Sri Lanka, Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter are inextricably entwined into the DNA of socio-political fabric. Banning or blocking them means, in effect, rumours continue to spread through partisan, parochial, and often totally unprofessional mainstream media. So social media really does help in the response.

- Asia Media Centre