The horrific Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka that have left nearly 300 dead and 500 wounded appear to have been the work of a little-known Islamist extremist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath. If so, then the tragedy marks yet another chapter in the country’s tortured 70-year history of religious and ethnic rancor.
Sri Lankans had hoped that they were past this. Theirs is a country of sumptuous temples and uncluttered beaches, elephants and verdant tea plantations. After nearly three decades of civil war that concluded in 2009, the country’s business leaders have been eager to project an inviting face to the West. Some of them were therefore unhappy with the skeptical tone of my story in the November 2016 National Geographic magazine, "Can Sri Lanka Hold On to Its Fragile Peace?"
I had spent nearly two months in Sri Lanka attempting to answer that question. Doing so required considerable effort, because the somnolent beaches and the bustling capital city of Colombo tell one story of Sri Lanka, and the island’s Northern Province tells quite another. The latter is the homeland of Tamil Hindus and where the militant Tamil Tigers lost a bitterly fought 26-year-long war for independence against the government controlled by Sinhalese Buddhists. Though the Tamil rebels had surrendered in May of 2009, the north was still an occupation zone when I first visited it in December 2014. The residents lived in fear of the military. Everywhere I went, soldiers followed and questioned me.
A few months after the January 2015 electoral defeat of the authoritarian regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, I returned to Sri Lanka, buoyed by encouraging reports that the new government intended to forge a lasting peace with the Tamils. I was disappointed by what I saw. The military still occupied the North. The government remained reluctant to answer for its war crimes. Above all, the country had yet to embrace a national identity.
As its deputy minister of former affairs Harsha de Silva told me, “It has to start from an attitude that this country belongs to all of us. And that must come from the top and from the bottom where we educate our kids that, ‘Look here, this is a multiethnic, multi-religious country.’” He added, “At some point, we must be Sri Lankans and proud of it.”
The elusiveness of that “at some point” is Sri Lanka’s tragic through-line. Its leaders have never found it politically profitable to encourage unity. Instead, they have consistently played to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority (roughly 75 percent of the country’s 21 million inhabitants) at the expense of the Tamil Hindus. But the two million Muslim Sri Lankans have also suffered.
In 1990, the Tamils expelled over 70,000 Muslim residents from the North—“a very black chapter in our history,” M.M. Zuhair, a former member of Sri Lanka’s parliament and Muslim leader, told me. More recently, militant Buddhists engaged in anti-Muslim riots in 2014 and 2018. The hostility towards Muslims was reflected in a remark made to me by Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the leader the extremist Buddhist group BBS: “They’re wanting to destroy diversity and create a religious monopoly.”
Of course, no act of ethnic persecution justifies terrorism. But it is possible to condemn Islamist suicide bombers while also acknowledging that such acts seldom arise from a vacuum. During the civil war, Rajapaksa continually referred to Tamils as “the terrorists.” In the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, the family of the hardline former president—who staged an unsuccessful “soft coup” a few months ago against the government that defeated him—is now seen as the biggest political beneficiary of the tragedy. Should the Rajapaksa clan retake power, that could perpetuate Sri Lanka’s cycle of violence.
One of the terrorist bombs went off at the Cinnamon Grand, a hotel where I stayed during my two weeks in Colombo. The Cinnamon chain’s vice president of marketing, Dileep Mudadeniya, had been instrumental in my obtaining the necessary permits to visit the Northern Province after Rajapaksa had barred journalists from Tamil country. I couldn’t help but wonder if Mudadeniya, an energetic booster of his native country, was embarrassed by the president’s small-mindedness.
For many, the 2015 election was a good-news day for Sri Lanka, a signal that at long last, peace had broken out and the island was open for business. But for this to happen would require more than entrepreneurial zeal. No country, including the United States has ever emerged successfully from an era of sustained ethnic or racial conflict without a period of reckoning.
“We are back in operation and determined to come back stronger,” the Cinnamon vice president wrote after I contacted him to extend my sympathies. The Easter tragedy provides Sri Lanka with yet another opportunity to do more than simply lash out, declare vengeance, and return to business as usual. It marks a chance to re-set long-fractured country. Only then can Sri Lanka look in the mirror and see, for the first time, a nation smiling back.