The Easter Sunday attacks on 21 April 2019 in Sri Lanka, which killed over 250 people, have shocked the country and left people fearful and uncertain. While some details about the conspiracy behind the coordinated bombings of churches and hotels have come out, much remains unclear. Political infighting within the government has added to the lack of credible information, compromising the general public’s ability to arrive at a clear understanding of the situation. Several instances of anti-Muslim violence this week has also led to fears of a communal conflagration.
Himal Southasian’s Editor Aunohita Mojumdar spoke with Jayadeva Uyangoda, a Colombo-based political scientist, columnist and the emeritus professor of political science at the University of Colombo, to make sense of the difficult situation.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Aunohita Mojumdar: Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, thank you so much for joining us, here in Colombo for the Himal Southasian podcast. We would really like to understand the situation in Sri Lanka in this conversation with you. The bombings of April 21 have stunned the country, apparently coming out of nowhere. In fact, this week marks ten years since the end of the conflict and Sri Lankans appear to have got used to the absence of overt violence. Did the coordinated attacks of Easter Sunday come as a shock to most people?
Jayadeva Uyangoda: Yes. As you very correctly pointed out, since 2009 Sri Lanka has been having in a sense a sort of peace in the absence of violence and war, and people have also gotten used to that condition of relative peace. And this was an absolutely shocking incident. It was a huge tragedy as well.
AM: It was really hard to understand the attacks, and terrorism has no justification whatsoever, but violence of this nature is usually related to some specific goal. These attacks seem to be untethered to any kind of logic.
JU: Well, I think there is a logic in it. The logic is a kind of religion-based politics of resistance to Christianity and the domination of the world by the US and Western powers. So what has happened in Sri Lanka on the 21st of April can also be seen as a part of the global war between the US-led Western political order and the militant Islamic groups in the Middle East who have been operating in the Middle East, in parts of Asia, in some places of Africa and Europe. So, you know I’m afraid, this event is not an isolated event. This can be seen as a part of the global war.
One of the most disturbing readings of what happened on the 21st of April is that this group of suicide bombers have linked Sri Lanka to the global war that has been taking place in the past decade or so.
AM: The ISIS was very slow to claim responsibility for the attacks, and information on the links, the networks have been slow to emerge. I think some people are confused about the veracity of the information on the public domain. Are you satisfied that there is enough information to say that this was carried out by ISIS or, as some people are suggesting, maybe inspired by the ISIS without evidence of direct operational linkages?
JU: My understanding is that there is no direct involvement of the ISIS in this operation. But the nature of the ISIS, if you look at how they have been operating over the past several years, they have a highly decentralised cells that operate across continents whether it is in Indonesia, whether in Sri Lanka, or some of the African countries or some of the European capitals. These groups have a great deal of autonomy, they make their own operational decisions. But at the same time they are ideologically, in some way organisationally also, linked to the global movement that we call ISIS. So in a way they are inspired by the ISIS ideology as well as the global political project. But what is really intriguing in this operation is that according to the news, that we have so far got, all the leaders who are leaders of the local movement, that is called National Thowheed Jamath, this is the first time that I’ve heard of a militant group or a terrorist group whose leaders themselves died in carrying out the operation. So what does it mean? It means, perhaps, that the guys who carried out these attacks and perished are probably not the real leaders of this whatever the movement that is behind these series of bombs. Probably their handlers are either in Sri Lanka or not in Sri Lanka. That is why this particular incident should not be treated as an isolated incident.
AM: So lot more information needs to emerge (Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda: Exactly.) before we get a full understanding of this. And I think one thing a lot of people have remarked on also is the fact that some of the suicide bombers came from the absolute upper echelons of Sri Lankan society. While of course religious terrorism does not preclude people from all classes of society being involved, as you said, normally the people who carry out the bombings usually come from a lower strata. And that I think has puzzled people about why the rich and elite families in Sri Lanka, at least one family, would have been involved.
JU: I don’t think these young militant men come from the upper echelons of Sri Lankan society – no. Well, the father of two or three of these boys is a rich businessman. But still in the social structure in Sri Lanka he is not from the upper echelons. That’s important to remember. But what is common to all of them is that they are upper middle class, urban young men who have got a Western education as well. Some of them have gone abroad for their higher studies and all of them are educated people. And for the past several years, according to the information that we are getting now, a number of these groups have been active in Sri Lanka. But this particular group called National Thowheed Jamath is a breakaway group from a larger group which has been advocating a particular militant interpretation of Islam. What is different about that group and this particular group is that although the larger group had advocated like the old left in South Asia, you know armed struggle, this is the group that had actually carried it out. So that is why probably this particular group has only a very small number of members. But my feeling is that this group is connected to a larger global network.
AM: I think people here are obviously worried about the fact that it is not yet over, and as you are saying with a larger network there is a possibility of more attacks. But one of the really disturbing things following the attacks has been the response that we have seen from the government. And especially in the immediate aftermath of these attacks there seemed to be a lot of finger pointing between different arms of the government.
JU: Well, the political leaders probably did not expect this attack, despite the warnings given to the intelligence agencies by the Indian intelligence. They perhaps thought that it would be a few bomb explosions, like in 1983. I think there are lots of parallels with what happened in 1983. The government leaders at that time did not expect that to go out of control. So perhaps security agencies also thought that it will be mainly an incident in which there would be few bomb explosions. So that surprised everybody.
The political leaders immediately reacted by blaming each other. We also have in Sri Lanka a deeply divided government. There are two competing centres of political power: president leading one camp and the prime minister and his cabinet leading the other camp. So the immediate reaction by both camps of the government was to blame each other. One side would say, “You knew about it but you didn’t inform us.” The other side would say, “You knew about it but you didn’t take action.” So that kind of apportioning the blame was the first reaction of the political leaders.
Then of course they also realised that there was a lot of public negative reactions to that. That immediately created a situation where the public confidence immediately, you know, people lost the confidence in the political leadership. Then, of course, they had to declare a state of emergency, and to bring the situation under some degree of control. But what is really disturbing now is that this has led to the spread of what one may call ‘Islamophobia’. There is a big mistrust between the communities; particularly the Muslim community is being treated as an immediate source of threat to the security of other citizens. So there has been lot of news report about discoveries of weapons, swords, guns, ammunition. There are also exaggerated media reports and also quite a lot of misinterpretations of what has been happening. So that has led to a situation where the tension has risen in a number of areas where Muslim people live in small pockets. That’s why the government has been declaring sometimes night curfews, full-day curfews to contain violence. So Sri Lanka in a way once again on the brink actually. There is a great deal tension, inter-community tension, in the country now. Therefore, the government, religious leaders, the media and the civil society all have a tremendous responsibility to prevent Sri Lanka from falling into the abyss of ethnic violence once again.
AM: Why do you think there has been such a reaction against the Muslim community in general. After all the suicide bombers are a very small number of people who happen to be Muslim. Do you feel there was latent Islamophobia in the society and this has tapped into that? Or do you think the attacks are being organised at some level for political dividends?
JU: For the past several years, particularly after the war between the Sri Lankan state and LTTE ended, there was a kind of emergence of anti-Muslim politics in Sinhalese Buddhist society. There were a number of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups, I would call neo-Buddhists nationalist groups, who were looking at Muslims as the new source of threat, the new enemy. Actually, at that time some of us including myself, had commented that the Sinhalese nationalist groups had begun to invent a new enemy in the absence of the old enemy, the Tamil Tigers. There was a series of anti-Muslim violence unleashed by these groups in 2013, 2014 and as recently as 2018. The newly-emerged extreme Sinhala nationalist groups were actually targeting Muslims in their propaganda. So there was already a kind of anti-Muslim wave in Sinhalese society, which had been brought under control by the government to some extent. One of the leaders of that movement, that Buddhist monk who is in jail, jailing him has in a way has led to some kind of a containing of that group.
AM: You are talking about the militant group, the Bodu Bala Sena?
JU: Exactly, the Bodu Bala Sena. Now what has happened after 4/21 is that people have begun to say that what that monk predicted and warned about has actually come true. They say that what happened on 4/21 has really exonerated that monk. So, there’s once again you know the revival of Sinhala nationalist suspicion, mistrust and now animosity against the Muslim community. It’s quite puzzling that the Catholic community, who are ethnically Sinhalese, but who were the target of these attack on the 21st of April have not reacted to the Muslim community in any violent way. I think one of the reasons is that the Catholic cardinal managed to contain the emotions of the Catholic community. But in the Buddhist community, the Sinhala Buddhist community, the majority of the Sri Lanka population, there is no such attempt by a major leader of the community to pacify the political emotions of the Sinhalese citizens. Therefore, there has been a kind of subterranean wave of Islamophobia. And what we can say now is that various interested groups are exploiting and making use of politically their subterranean Islamophobic consciousness. So that is what is emerging as a new source of threat to political stability and intercommunity relations in Sri Lanka today.
AM: I think the Catholic religious leadership has shown exemplary leadership qualities in this situation which is not true of other sections of society, but to go back to what you were saying about Muslims emerging as ‘the new other’m as our contributor Tisaranee Gunasekara wrote for us more than a year ago. You mentioned 1983 and the parallels to the current situation. 1983, as we all know, here led to anti-Tamil violence on a serious scale. Could you talk a little more and explain the parallels that you are seeing?
JU: Even before 1983, there was a Tamil nationalist movement led by the mainstream Tamil political parties, who were engaged in the parliamentary politics, asking for a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils. So there was a movement for national self-determination for the Sri Lankan Tamils. So, they were demanding a separate state in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces. That created a kind of a rupture in the relationships between the Sinhalese political class and the Tamil political class, and although the mainstream Tamil political parties promised a separate state for the Tamil people, they were not actually serious about it. They thought that that was merely a slogan on which they could bargain for regional autonomy for the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces, and that in a way led to a very unusual situation where the young people who were in the Tamil nationalist movement began to organise themselves for a civil war, or for an armed struggle. So, there was a small group of Tamil militants at that time, starting from 1979, who were launching minor military operations, like attacking policemen, robbing banks. And the government immediately reacted to that, reading it as basically a law-and-order situation and ignoring Tamil demand for regional autonomy. Then there were minor clashes between the Sri Lankan army that was deployed in the Northern Province and these Tamil militant youth groups. Then in July 1983, 13 Sri Lankan soldiers who were stationed in Jaffna were ambushed by the Tamil tigers and they were killed. And their bodies were brought to Colombo for the funeral. From that day there were organised Sinhalese groups – and some groups were linked to the government at that time _ started attacking Tamil civilians. And that government told that, “You know okay, that’s what Tamils deserve, let the Sinhalese groups attack Tamils as long as it could be contained.” But what happened was within few days it appeared that this was an island-wide campaign against Tamils civilians. Then as a result we had July 1983 ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, which changed the political landscape in Sri Lanka, and that pushed Sri Lanka to a point of no return in terms of the relationship between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil community, and the Sinhalese community and the Tamil community. That was the prelude to, actually the beginning of, the protracted civil war in Sri Lanka.
So, the parallel to that in 2019 is that this Islamophobic reaction if it is not contained, if the emergency regulations being used by the government and deployment of armed forces to contain this new insurgency, if it is not controlled within the framework of rule of law and democracy, it might go out of hand. Always there is a possibility of police and military excesses in arrests and detention under any situation of emergency rule, you know that these things happen in any country. In Sri Lanka we have had long experience of counter-insurgency operations under a state of emergency or under Prevention of Terrorism Act. And those have always led to excesses, and leading to alienation, continuing alienation, between the state and these ethnic communities.
What is really dangerous now is that if this current counter insurgency operation is not politically managed, wisely and prudently by the government, it will lead to a state of alienation between the Sri Lanka state and the Muslim community. It can even re-radicalise the Muslim youth, and that is the kind of parallel, a very dangerous parallel, that I see between 1983 and 2019.
AM: It’s almost a month since the bombings, what is your assessment of the counter-terrorism operations carried out by the government? Does it show an enlightened leadership or do you think there is stereotyping of the entire Muslim community which is also adding fuel to the fire in terms of Islamophobia?
JU: Well, we have a divided leadership. Not sure if it is an enlightened leadership.
AM: Could you briefly explain the division because it is not familiar to all of our listeners in other parts of Southasia, because Sri Lanka has a particular form of divided political authority. So could you explain the relationship between the presidency and the prime ministerial office?
JU: In Sri Lanka we have an extremely unusual and bizarre – to a foreign observer – situation in the government. So this government – the present government, came into power in January 2015, by dislodging, by electoral means, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. And this government is a coalition. The president was elected in January 2015, and the president, until October 2014 was deputy leader of Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. He had some problems with Mr Rajapaksa, so he came to join the opposition and he became the joint opposition candidate in the January presidential elections in 2015. So when he became president, a few months later there were parliamentary elections, the new coalition got the parliamentary majority. And Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the leader of the United National Party (UNP), who would have been otherwise the presidential election candidate in January 2015 became the prime minister. They worked together till about 2017. But there were some deep differences that emerged between the president’s side and the prime minister’s side, due to issues of corruption, due to serious policy differences. Then in October 26 2018, President Sirisena all of a sudden sacked Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and appointed his erstwhile political opponent, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the prime minister.
So then there was a huge crisis in Sri Lanka: political crisis, crisis of government, constitutional crisis, and some of us described it as a constitutional coup. And, of course, there was 52 days of government led by President Sirisena and the new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then there was a Supreme Court determination on the 20th of December 2018, making that change of government unconstitutional and illegal. So Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe’s government was restored on the 20th of December last year. But even after the old Prime Minister and his cabinet was restored, the relationship between the president and the prime minister was not normalized. Actually, the president continued to act as if he was in the opposition. So, the relationship between the president and the prime minister, or the head of the executive, and head of the cabinet and Parliament, was totally polarised. They were actually behaving as if they were political adversaries. Even now they are behaving like they are political adversaries.
AM: And there is a division of executive authority, which also complicates the situation, and security apparatus falls under the president’s authority.
JU: Yes, President has a lot of powers and authority even under the 19th Amendment which changed the presidential system of government of Sri Lanka. What the President did after the 20th of December, when the old government had to be restored, that he was very reluctant to appoint Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister. But because of the pressure, because Ranil Wickremasinghe had the parliamentary majority, he was forced to appoint him as the prime minister. But he kept a number of key positions actually outside the Constitution. He continued to be commander-in-chief of armed forces, he retained under him Ministry of Defence, and also Ministry of Law and Order. Usually, the Ministry of Law and Order should go to a minister other than the president, but the president kept it under him. So. when this happened on the 21st of April, all the security, defence, and law-and-order apparatus were under the president. That is why the prime minister’s side has been accusing that the president actually did not perform his constitutional duty by protecting the citizens on the 21st of April – that’s their accusation.
AM: And the political dissensions between the presidency and the Prime Minister’s Office that is also leading to a situation where law and order is not being restored as promptly and effectively as it should be.
JU: Yes, what has happened on the 21st of April is a case study of paralysed governance. Now there are reports that Indian intelligence had shown to their Sri Lankan counterparts, as early as 4th of April, that there will be attacks on churches, Indian High Commission, and public places. And these intelligence warnings had been repeated by them a number of times. The president claims that his secretary of defence, the police chief, the IGP, had not informed him personally. The prime minister claims that the president had not informed him about these threats. Cabinet ministers also claim that they have not been officially informed about any of these warnings. Now what appears to us is that there has been a paralysis of the executive government in Sri Lanka under the president. There is a structural and institutional paralysis. That is a direct outcome of this power struggle between the president and the prime minister.
AM: Do you expect to see new political realignments emerging because of this, or exploitation of the current situation leading to political repercussions?
JU: It is very difficult to say how this situation will impact on the realignment of political forces. For the past 4 months, President Sirisena has been negotiating with the Rajapaksa camp for a political coalition so that he would become the candidate at the next presidential election, which should be held before the end of this year. Now it seems that those negotiations have collapsed. So it is not likely that President Sirisena can emerge as a presidential candidate of a new coalition between his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party( SLFP) and Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa’s camp.
Now Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa’s camp now think that they can easily win the presidential election without the support of Mr Maithripala Sirisena who is the president. There’s a reason for their very optimistic reading of the outcome of the next presidential elections. For the past several months there has been a sustained political campaign in Sri Lanka by Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was former defence secretary, that Sri Lanka needs a strong ruler and a strong government. Now Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has been presenting himself as the candidate most needed by a politically unstable Sri Lanka. He has to reintroduce political stability, reintroduce law and order – a man like him, a strong man and a ruler and a strong government headed by him. Now once again, as a result of these events, after the 21st of April, the clamour for and argument for a strong ruler has got a new legitimacy.
So I have a feeling it will be very very difficult for the UNP, led by Mr Wickremesinghe, who is the prime minister at the moment, to win the presidential election unless there is a new candidate from the UNP who can be a match to Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who will be backed by even a section of the military as well. Sri Lanka’s political equilibrium has been drastically altered by this event, and this outcome will be, at some level, a setback to prospects of democracy in Sri Lanka.
AM: For our listeners we must point out that currently the law prevents Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from contesting, since he has an American citizenship. But we understand that he is trying to relinquish that citizenship and that may or may not be resolved by the time the presidential elections take place. But your reference to the strong leader, clamour for a strong leader, in the context of the region we are in, a strong leader means an authoritarian leadership does it not?
JU: Exactly: an authoritarian leader initially elected by the people, at a free and fair elections. Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s, case as you have correctly pointed out, there is an uncertainty about his candidacy, because he is a dual citizen: he is a Sri Lankan citizen as well as an American citizen. But last month or early this month, he submitted his application for relinquishing his American citizenship. To what extent the Americans will expedite that process, we don’t know. But what is nevertheless clear is that Americans also seem to be quite interested in securing their own interests, political, economic and strategic interests in case the Rajapaksas are back in power.
AM: Would you like to elaborate on that?
JU: Well Americans need to protect their interests, because Sri Lankan is one again caught up in this global power struggle between the US on one side, India on the other hand, China on the other hand. There are three powers who are trying to influence the political trajectories of Sri Lanka after the presidential and parliamentary elections this year. So there is a great deal of Chinese interest in Sri Lankan politics, there is a great deal of Indian interest in Sri Lankan politics, there is a great deal of American interest in Sri Lankan politics. So my own feeling is that Sri Lankan voters would not be the sole agency that determines the outcome of the presidential election this year. US, India and China will invariably have a role to play in determining who’s going to be the next president of Sri Lanka.
AM: That’s disturbing and a very fascinating aspect for which I think we must have you back here for an entire new podcast. But to bring this particular interview to a close I would like to go beyond Sri Lanka to Southasia and the region – the tendencies of authoritarianism, ultranationalism and majoritarianism are gaining ground in large parts of Southasia. Is it useful to analyse what’s happening in Sri Lanka in terms of the larger regional trends and perhaps even global trends?
JU: Well, the Maldives is still the exception. It has just emerged from that authoritarian trap. But India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh – and Nepal has still… I think there is a possibility of some positive change in Nepal. I think we all should look at Maldives as our hope for Southasia because there was restoration of democracy by peaceful means against the ruler who manipulated all of the state institutions, including the judiciary, for his personal power. Now the Maldivian opposition and the people managed to dislodge such an authoritarian and highly determined authoritarian ruler, to dislodge him from power and restore democracy. But in India, what I see is, Indian elections, or rather the election process, very clearly indicate, that the strategy of ethnic polarisation that the BJP has been using for the past X number of years has been once again deployed to win this election. It will be quite difficult for the opposition, a divided opposition, like the Indian opposition we have today, to challenge Mr Modi and the BJP. And it would be a miracle if Mr Modi is dislodged from power on the day when the election results are out.
AM: And, of course, India does have an influence over the region in terms of is politics.
JU: Now I must say this because your Southasian listeners will be listening to this. Until about ten years ago, India under Nehru, and even the Gandhi-family Congress, with all the setbacks and the corruption, India constituted and continued to be model for us in Southasia: its democracy, its secularism, and a kind of Nehruvian-Gandhian legacy of social democracy. Now we do not consider, or we cannot consider any longer India to be our model, and that is a real set back – we have the civilizational setback Southasia. That is why the electoral outcome this year in India would largely define political trajectories in other countries as well in Southasia.
AM: Well that’s another fascinating issue, for which we must have you back. We should bring this interview to a close, and as you said, I think we all need to take our inspiration from the extremely courageous citizenry of the Maldives who have really shown all of us how to stand up to power and authoritarianism in the region. Thank you so much for being with us. It has been a real privilege to have you explain the situation here in Sri Lanka for our listeners. Thank you Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda.
JU: Thank you Aunohita for having me.