A Horrific Flashback in Sri Lanka

The Easter Sunday bombings, which killed more than 200 people, are a reminder of the tensions that linger from the brutal civil war that ended a decade ago.

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard inside a church after an explosion Sunday in Negombo. (Stringer / Reuters)

When Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war ended in an equally brutal fashion a decade ago, there was hope that the island nation could leave its past behind. The Easter Sunday bombings, the first attacks of this scale since the war, are a reminder of how fragile the peace the nation achieved really is.

The attacks on churches and hotels, which killed more than 200 people, came at a crucial juncture: The country is still struggling to reconcile its past while building a new future. Sri Lanka has just emerged from a bitter constitutional crisis, sparked by the political rivalry between the president and the prime minister. And although the country is diverse—with a population that is more than 70 percent Buddhist, about 12.5 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim, and 7 percent Christian—and has remained more or less stable since the civil war, the past few years have shown how difficult it is to heal wounds from a nearly three-decade-long conflict. It is still unclear who is behind the bombings, though the country’s defense minister said one group was probably responsible and seven people have reportedly been arrested in connection with the blasts.

In the 10 years since the end of the civil war, all has not been grim. Tourism in Sri Lanka has increased and the economy has shown some promising signs. But last year, Buddhist nationalists went into Muslim-majority areas in the center of the country and burned Muslim-owned businesses and homes following tensions between the two communities. The move shocked the country, but it was hardly unexpected, given what the United Nations described as a “lack of accountability for past actions.” The UN was referring to the unmet promises of the Sri Lankan government made to the international community following the end of the civil war.

Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the end of that conflict between the government and separatist Tamils in the north and east of the country. The Tamil Tiger rebels, who pioneered modern suicide bombings, were at one point regarded as the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization. Over three decades, they carried out suicide bombings, assassinated a sitting Sri Lankan president and a former Indian prime minister, and at their peak in the early 2000s, controlled about three-quarters of the territory they claimed as part of their state. The group seemed unstoppable until 2009, when it was crushed by the Sri Lankan military. The armed forces were accused of using that military campaign to perpetrate horrific human-rights violations against the civilian population in the affected areas.

There was hope that the end of the conflict would mark a new dawn for Sri Lanka, but that optimism gave way to political reality. The Sri Lankan government assured the international community that it would take steps to bring justice to those affected by the conflict, but it has taken only limited measures so far. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in February that the “lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities in March 2018.”

And then there is the political unrest: Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and its president, Maithripala Sirisena, are foes whose rivalry sent the country into a constitutional crisis last year that was resolved only through the intervention of the nation’s Supreme Court. That instability is expected to continue, as Sri Lanka is scheduled to hold presidential elections later this year and parliamentary elections next year. One regional analyst told CNBC that minorities could see their fortunes slide ahead of the elections as the political parties try to woo Buddhist nationalist voters.

While the major tension in modern Sri Lanka has been between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamil, this tension was overlaid by another potent force: that of Buddhist extremism, especially relevant in a country where Buddhists make up about 70 percent of the country’s 21 million people. A Buddhist monk assassinated the country’s fourth prime minister in 1959, apparently for signing an agreement that granted the country’s Tamil minority limited autonomy. More recently, in 2018, Buddhists attacked Muslim-owned business and mosques, resulting in at least two deaths. (Most Sri Lankan Muslims are ethnic Tamils, but most ethnic Tamils are Hindu.)

Christians, who make up about 7 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, have largely been spared from being directly targeted for their faith—though they were victims during the civil war, as well. That changed on Easter Sunday.