In Depth

Is Sri Lanka on the brink of another civil war?

The Easter Sunday bombings have opened wounds from 26-year-long conflict that ended a decade ago

Sri Lankans are observing a national day of mourning in the wake of a series of deadly bombing attacks that claimed the lives of at least 310 people on Easter Sunday.

The first mass funerals have taken place in the fishing town of Negombo, targeted along with the cities of Colombo and Batticaloa in Sunday’s blasts.

The coordinated attacks have sparked a wave of “fear and confusion” throughout Sri Lanka, and are the deadliest in the South Asian island nation since the end of a brutal civil war ten years ago, reports CNN.

That 26-year conflict pitted the Sinhalese Buddhist government against militant fighters and separatists from the minority Tamil community - members of whom pioneered modern-day suicide attacks, says Vox.

The latest killings have dug up “history which Sri Lankans hoped had been put to rest”, the news site adds.

Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene has said that “preliminary investigations” indicate the attacks on worshipping Christians were in retaliation for the deadly Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand, but offered no further details, the BBC reports.

So what happened in Sri Lanka’s civil war, and is the country on the brink of another nationwide conflict?

How did the civil war start?

Most of the tensions that led to the outbreak of a full-scale civil war “arose during the British colonial period”, when the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority “felt they were less favoured than the primarily Hindu Tamil minority”, says Vox.

After achieving independence in 1948, Sinhalese citizens “found ways to subjugate and marginalise the Tamils”, including making Sinhalese the national language and Buddhism the national religion, the news site continues.

The divisions widened after the prime minister who enacted these laws, Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for attempting to roll some of them back.

The growing tensions led the Tamil population to seek an independent homeland in the island’s northeast, home to the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations and the Tamil-speaking Muslim groups, reports Al Jazeera.

A “low-level trench war escalated into a full-blown war in 1983”, following the Black July pogroms, in which Sinhala mobs killed thousands of Tamil civilians, the news site says.

What happened?

The outbreak of the war was triggered in part by the actions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers - an extremist Tamil nationalist group founded in 1976.

The Tigers carried out a waves of brutal attacks targeting military, government and civilian populations that intensified after the war began. 

In 1985, the Tigers killed 146 Sinhalese men, women and children at a bus station in Anuradhapura. Other atrocities included the killing of 127 people in an attack on a village in 1987, and the murders of 147 Muslim men and boys at a mosque in 1990. 

Political assassinations were also widespread. In 1991, a suicide bomber killed India’s former PM Rajiv Gandhi in retribution for his role in directing Indian peacekeeping forces to suppress the Tigers.

Two years later, Sri Lanka’s then president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was assassinated by the group. In 2005, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a major player in peace talks, was killed.

The war came to a brutal end in 2009 after a year-long offensive by the Sri Lankan army to retake all of the Tigers’ territory in the north. But the government victory was marred by independent reports that as many as 20,000 civilians had been killed in the offensive.

Is Sri Lanka on the verge of a new era of violence?

The motives behind the recent bombing attacks remain unclear. The Sri Lankan government has blamed the atrocity on the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known to authorities in the country.

However, “the magnitude of the attack and the targets, Christians and tourists, points in the direction of an international network of terrorists”, says Andreas Johansson in The Independent.

No international terrorist group has yet claimed any involvement, which is “unusual”, says Sky News. The NTJ had “previously had only been linked to vandalising Buddhist statues - a long way away from killing and maiming hundreds in a coordinated attack involving multiple targets at the same time”, the news broadcaster adds.

In an article on The Conversation, Professor Damien Kingsbury, a specialist in conflict resolution at Australia’s Deakin University, says the latest attacks are “different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka”. The perpetrators have attempted to foment “generalised religious hatred”, a tactic more commonly used by groups such as al-Qa’eda and Islamic State than local anti-Buddhist vandals.

“One theory experts have put forward is that some Muslims, which make up only 10% of Sri Lanka’s population, have become very isolated and angry with the country’s state of affairs,” says Vox. “The Sinhalese and Tamils continue to focus on each other - both in good and bad ways - and have neglected much of the rest of the country.”

Most Tamil Christians were supportive of the Tamil armed movement, and Christians were left out of most of the extreme violence of the civil war, Al Jazeera notes.

As such, “to see this in the vein of an escalation of existing violence against the Christian community in Sri Lanka would be a mistake”, the news site continues.

“These attacks are likely a hitherto unseen dimension to tensions, a new front of violence in Sri Lanka.”


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