RISK LEVEL: MODERATE
Sri Lanka presents a combination of ethnic, religious and political tensions. Following the recent Easter Sunday bombings, wherein over 250 people were killed, tensions have flared between the Muslim community and the Singhalese Buddhist community. On 21 April, several coordinated terror attacks, reportedly carried out by the Islamist extremist group, National Thoweed Jamath (NTJ), were executed across Sri Lanka. Following the attacks there has been fierce criticism of the government and state authorities, along with increased religious tensions. Religious conflict has been extant in Sri Lanka in recent years, following the destructive 26-year civil war which came to an end in 2009. The conflict between the two largest ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, caused the deaths of around 100,000 people. The recent increase in tensions has largely been blamed on hard-line Buddhist monks from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or the Buddhist Power Force, and Muslim retaliation. The BBS argue that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has become more conservative and insular, abandoning local traditions in favour of stricter Islamic law. The radical Buddhists believe they must preserve their religions, and consequently carry out attacks against Muslim communities and Mosques. They maintain that they must protect their country from the ‘invasion’ of Islam, although Muslims make up less than 10 per cent of the population. Whilst hostility remains between religions in Sri Lanka, a great deal of anger has also been targeted at the government, who have been blamed for the recent terror attacks.
A leaked memorandum, which gave details of a warning from India regarding the danger posed by Mohamed Zahran Hashim, the leader of the Islamic insurgency NTJ, was discovered after the attacks. On 9th April, the Chief of the National Intelligence issued a warning to the Sri Lankan Police Chief of a plan by Hashim and NTJ to carry out an attack in the country, including possible locations. The Police Chief was later given compulsory leave and arrested for negligence when investigated following the bombings. The intelligence officer also testified that President Maithripala Sirisena was forewarned of the threat of attack; however was removed from office following these disclosures. As part of investigations into the negligence of the Sri Lankan authorities on preventing such a deadly attack, the Defence Secretary was also arrested. Attorney General Dappula de Livera has called for those arrested to be tried for “crimes against humanity.” The accusations of governmental negligence up to the president of the country reveals a serious lack of reliability and accountability in ensuring the safety of the citizens of Sri Lanka, and those travelling to the country.
Some have argued that the failure to act on intelligence was due to distrust between Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the president allegedly did not invite the Prime Minister to national security meetings. The former defence secretary confirmed this allegation at the select committee hearing. The rift between the president and the prime minister has been ongoing, the two lead opposing parties in the coalition government and in 2018, a constitutional crisis was triggered when Sirisena tried to dismiss Wickremesinghe who refused to step down. The Supreme Court intervened and reinstated Wickremesinghe.
The issue of government foreknowledge of the attacks is exacerbating the adverse effects of the bombings. Hard-line Buddhists monks are using the information to lay further blame on the Muslim community. The monk Athuraliye Rathana said he would starve himself to death if Sirisena did not remove two Muslim provincial governors and one senior Muslim minister, who Rathana accused of having ties with the Easter bombers. All nine Muslim ministers and the two governors resigned in solidarity and to ease tensions. On 7th July hundreds of BBS monks gathered in Kandy to discuss the presidential elections. The leader of the BBS Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara addressed the crowds calling for need to win votes for Sinhala Buddhists with the aim of creating a Sinhala government. Which candidate to back, he did not say, but said that if the BBS were able to get the support of at least 7,000 temples across the country to form a united political front then there would be a Sinhala government. If this can be achieved, then presidential hopefuls will be competing for support of this front.
The controversy surrounding allegations of forewarning and dismissal of staff in select committee investigations have greatly reduced Sirisena’s chances of being re-elected in the upcoming 2019 presidential elections. Wickremesinghe on the other hand as leader of the nationalist party stands to benefit from the committee hearings, if he can lay the blame at the hands of Sirisena and avoid it himself. Sirisena’s position grows more tenuous, with his government defeating a motion of no confidence by 119 to 92 votes on 12th July. The ongoing political and religious tensions result in an increased threat of protest or unrest in the country, with the possibility of future violent conflict, especially between the BSS and Muslim communities.