Sri Lanka is in crisis. A week on from the horrific bomb blasts on Easter Sunday, claiming the lives of 253 people and injuring another 500, more than 100 suspects have been arrested and the net is widening, with more thought to have been embroiled in the co-ordinated attacks. Two Sri Lankan militant groups thought to be the culprits, National Tawheed Jamaat and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, have been banned from the country. With tensions high and a curfew in place, a fierce gun battle raged on Friday in Amparai on the east of the island during a raid on a safe house linked to the suspected mastermind of the bombings, Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, whose wife and child were injured in the shoot-out. Fifteen people, including at least six children, were killed. Governments around the world have advised against travel to Sri Lanka and the already struggling economy has taken a massive blow.
Critically, the country’s political leadership has been plunged into turmoil once more, exposing deep fissures in the government, with politicians pointing fingers at one other for a series of catastrophic security lapses after it emerged that authorities were warned weeks beforehand of imminent attacks but failed to take action.
Amid attempts to shift blame over a catalogue of failures to prevent the massacres, Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena took aim at a familiar target by claiming investigations into civil war atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the military were to blame for a “weakening of the intelligence services”.
The Sri Lankan president is wrong on several counts. A decade on from the end of the armed conflict in the island-state, in which the final months saw tens of thousands of Tamils killed, there have still been no prosecutions for abuses committed by the military. Despite a United Nations’ investigation concluding there were credible reports of violations of international law, the Sri Lankan government has steadfastly refused to put any credible mechanisms in place to hold its troops accountable. A United Nations Human Rights Council resolution mooted in May 2009 to deplore atrocities committed on both sides of the civil war was blocked by the Sri Lankan government, together with its allies. Instead, Mr Sirisena himself has repeatedly vowed to protect soldiers from charges of war crimes. As recently as last month, he challenged the terms of a 2015 UNHRC resolution calling for greater accountability with external investigators, stating: “We need space to settle our own problems without interference”.
Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s security apparatus remains far from weakened, particularly in the Tamil-dominated north-east, where tens of thousands of government soldiers remain stationed. Last year, an NGO report found widespread surveillance, harassment and intimidation by the security agencies, who continue to maintain a tight grip over the local population. Another NGO report in 2017 found that militarisation in the region remained intense, with nearly one soldier for every two civilians in the Mullaitivu district alone.
The military continues to be heavily involved in civilian activities, including in the Batticaloa district, where one of the deadly church explosions took place and where National Tawheed Jamaat has its headquarters. And despite reports of human rights abuses, Sri Lankan troops continue to receive international training and partake in large-scale military exercises – all while defence spending continues to grow and remains the biggest expenditure in the country’s budget.
The Sri Lankan president’s claims of a victimisation of the military follows a familiar pattern of rhetoric that aims to deflect substantive criticisms of his government’s failures and the serious questions it has failed to answer.
In the meantime, the security situation on the island has been further compounded by deep-rooted ethnic and religious tensions, with the Muslim community now facing the threat of retaliatory violence. Addressing the grievances that have fuelled ethnic conflict over the years might have helped mitigate some of these divisions. Yet, instead of addressing endemic issues contributing to tensions, the Sri Lankan president's response to search every household in the country, and deploying 10,000 soldiers to do so, threatens to exacerbate them further.
Emergency regulations have been enacted, clamping down on press freedom and granting the armed forces wide-ranging powers of search and arrest. Given the military’s chequered record, there are well-founded fears these moves will create an environment of impunity that enables the kind of abuses that became a regular occurrence during the armed conflict. Sri Lanka’s paramilitary Special Task Force in particular, which is carrying out several operations in the East, was accused of a range of human rights abuses during the war, including extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
Mr Sirisena implementing such measures will likely strengthen the hand of former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who, in the midst of the chaos this week, announced that he will run for president in elections later this year. Mr Rajapaksa gained notoriety and popular support among the Sinhala electorate during the height of the armed conflict, when he and his brother, then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, oversaw the military campaign that ended in mass bloodshed. He has fashioned himself as the strongman that Sri Lanka needs in this crisis, pledging to tackle the spread of Islamist extremism and to strengthen the military and intelligence services. Yet it was under the Rajapaksas that extremist Sinhala Buddhist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena and their brand of right-wing nationalism flourished, contributing to outbreaks of violence against Muslims. And it was under their rule that human rights abuses were rife, media freedom stifled and corruption widespread. A return to authoritarian control will only add to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s argument that Sri Lanka is in need of a crackdown, rather than leading to any introspection on the factors that have left it with continuing violence.
As security experts from around the globe arrive on the island and international attention continues to focus on Sri Lanka, the path to a more sustainable peace must be laid out. Despite Mr Sirisena’s claims to the contrary, accountability, a reform of the security services, and addressing the factors that fuel conflict will be key.
Dr Thusiyan Nandakumar is a member of the editorial board of the London-based Tamil Guardian