The toll of deaths in Sri Lanka has risen to 321 with more than 500 injured. CCTV video has emerged showing a suspect walking into one of the churches in Sri Lanka just prior to the explosion.
A slightly longer video showing the suspect patting a child on the head on his way to the church can be seen here.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks though it is not clear if they actually instigated it or if they had any hand in the actual plotting. The local group being blamed is an Islamist group that apparently formed within the last decade in response to attacks on the Muslim community by militant Buddhist groups and responded by attacking Buddhist statues. But that does not explain why the targets chosen where there were the most deaths were Christian churches on a major religious holiday, since Christians form an even smaller minority than Muslims and there is no long and deep history of overt animosity between the two groups. One suggestion is that they chose Christians precisely because that minority does not have the ability to launch reprisals whereas the Buddhists (who form over 70% of the country) have the numbers to do so and there exist militant groups who have shown themselves willing to use violence against those whom they accuse of disrespecting Buddhism.
But that theory is somewhat weak. Another theory put forward by the government is that this was in response to the attacks in New Zealand last month but analysts suggest that this attack is so complex and coordinated that planning for it must have been in the works before the Christchurch event of March 15. Yet another theory is that this was an attack on ‘the west’ and thus explains the attacks on Christian churches and luxury hotels frequented by foreigners as symbols of western institutions, though the mostly poor and low-income people who bore the brunt of the attacks on the churches have as much connection to the ‘the west’ as I have to Donald Trump
Muslims in the country are rightly fearful of being targeted for reprisals and are lying low, with Muslim owned businesses being shuttered. In Sri Lanka, one’s name is a reliable indictor of one’s ethnicity and so makes possible targeting people based on their ethnicity. The government is keeping a tight lid on events until tempers have cooled. A state of emergency is in effect with nightly curfews. The government shutdown of all social media other than Twitter continues. I have lived in Sri Lanka through many crises before social media existed and the willingness of people to believe and spread the wildest theories via phone and in person was incredible, stories spreading with amazing speed. Social media has made the problem worse as we have seen in recent years in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar where Facebook and WhatsApp have been used to spread scurrilous and inflammatory rumors that have led to violence. So the government’s response is understandable though how effective it will be is debatable.
Questions have also been raised about the government intelligence services receiving prior knowledge of possible attacks and any lack of response thereof. This has not been helped by the fact that the president and prime minister are at cross purposes (as I reported a few months ago) and the security services report to the president who does not include the prime minister in those meetings.
Sri Lanka is a complex mixture of overlapping religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups so it is hard to draw clear causal lines. For example, when it comes to religions, Buddhists form the majority followed by Hindus, then Muslims, and then Christians. When it comes to linguistic groups, the majority is Sinhala followed by Tamil. When it comes to ethnic groups, we have the majority Sinhala followed by Tamil and also Moors. There are also other smaller ethnic groups such as Burghers, Malays, Bharathas, and Colombo Chettys.
Things then get more complicated. Moors are all Muslims but belong to both the Tamil and Sinhala language groups, but do not share their ethnic identity. Hindus tend to be all Tamils linguistically and ethnically but not all Tamils are Hindus, since some Tamils are Christians. Buddhists tend to be all Sinhala linguistically and ethnically but not all Sinhala people are Buddhists since some are Christians. Christians belong to both the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic and linguistic groups but not the Moors. English speakers span all the ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. And if all that doesn’t make your eyes glaze over, there is the fact that having lived together on a small island for so long, there has been considerable intermarrying and other forms of mixing among the groups.
All this not only makes for a hell of a complicated Venn diagram but also impossible to answer the question of whether the endemic conflicts in Sri Lanka are religious, linguistic, or ethnic. The answer is that it is impossible to separate them out.
If ever there was a country that showed the tragic absurdity of divisions based on religion, language, and ethnicity, it is Sri Lanka. It is a small island where all the various groups have lived for millennia and yet manage to form groups and periodically engage in murderous actions against other groups who are essentially just like themselves. If you walk along the street, apart from culturally-based clues of clothing, makeup and the like, you would be hard-pressed to tell who belongs to what ethnic, linguistic, or religious group. And yet people manage to get so worked up over these trivial differences that they are willing to kill.
Sectarianism is like a powerful virus that burrows into people’s brains and causes them to commit the most unspeakable atrocities.