Sri Lankan situation update

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.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    …engage in murderous actions against other groups who are essentially just like themselves.

    That brought to mind something I read about the Anglo-Saxons taking over Britain. It appears they didn’t change the genetic makeup of the island that much (simply not enough of them). So by the time the Saxons were battling Britons in the West Country, the soldiers on one side were Britons, and those on the other side were essentially “Saxonized” Britons.

  2. KG says

    Mano, I’ve seen suggestions that some of the points you raise, such as the lack of long-term hostility between Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka, the amount of preparation time (and also other resources such as safe houses and military-grade explosives) the attacks needed, and the division between President and PM, indicate the possibilitiy that some faction within the military or police was involved -- or at least, knew about the attacks and let them go ahead -- to create a demand for a “strongman”. What’s your view on that?

  3. file thirteen says


    And I still wonder whether the attacks had a political basis. If it were just christian churches that were targeted, it would appear to be cut and dried. But the disparate targets: the hotels, the airport, the fact that the largest churches were left alone, makes it seem that there’s something else going on. To make the government look bad?

  4. blf says

    A hybrid possibility is whoever is responsible has indeed been scouting out possible targets for quite some time “just in case”. In response to the New Zealand atrocity, this mysterious whoever grabbed five or so fully-scouted targets from the (possibly larger) list, and sent out some minions…

  5. Mano Singham says

    The lack of clear commonalities among the targets has resulted in the proliferation of various theories. I think we will have to wait until more information emerges before any of these theories can be given credence.

  6. says

    file thirteen@#3:
    To make the government look bad?

    Showing that the government is unable to protect the people, or making it overreact with repression are both standard terrorism strategies. Government has to react carefully and not over- or under-react. New Zealand’s reactions to Christchurch have been exemplary, so far.

  7. file thirteen says

    Yes, all we can do is speculate. On the one hand, we don’t want to be part of the rumour machine shouting fire in the theatre. On the other, it doesn’t pay to ignore signs of an impending catastrophe that in retrospect everyone saw coming. It may be only prudent to discuss worst case scenarios, with the proviso that it is only speculation.

    The possible beneficiaries of this that I can imagine seem to be Isis (outside Sri Lanka -- surely this action can only cause harm to muslims in Sri Lanka, although religious extremists are not known for their logical thought), a group planning a coup (to sow chaos and mistrust in the government in preparation for this, to show the government as impotent, corrupt, or even complicit) and the government itself (to prepare support for the enaction of draconian laws, harsh crackdowns, purges, massive military spending etc.)

    I’m inclined to doubt it’s Isis. They make convenient scapegoats and it’s in their interest to take responsibility for anything. But when one minority attacks another, when unrelated hotels and the airport are included in the attacks, when there is a social media crackdown, who stands to gain? Yeah, it’s all speculation, but I’d take precautions for me and my family, if there are indeed any to be taken.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 8 file thirteen
    I’m inclined to doubt it’s Isis.
    As am I.
    ISIS are glory-hounds but it just does not fit their modus operanti. However it is rather easy to claim responsibility as who can disprove it? Dueling terrorist groups in the social media making claims and counter-claims?

    Someone like Al Qaida would be more reasonable it there was participation from outside of Sri Lanka.

  9. Nimal G Gunatilleke says

    Thank you Mano for posting this. In a relative short post you have conveyed 1. the complexity of the situation in Sri Lanka and 2. The possible danger in drawing quick conclusions about why this was done and who else might be “behind” this.

  10. file thirteen says

    The latest news, which I’m sure Mano will post on shortly, is that 15 people were killed when police raided what they are calling a terror hideout. The people, which included six children, were reportedly killed when three men there detonated suicide vests. It seems I was wrong to doubt Islamic State’s involvement.

    Police said they found an IS flag and uniforms similar to those worn by the eight fighters for the video before they launched the attacks. IS released the video two days after the attacks.

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