Beginning Again: Sri Lanka After the Easter Sunday Bombings

Tanisha Amarakoon, Director of External Affairs

September 4, 2019

The steps of the Maligawa Temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka

The steps of the Maligawa Temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka


 

January 2019

For 26 years, Sri Lanka has had one ambition: to reach a state of peace and prosperity.

The nation’s quest for tranquility began in 1983 after the Sinhalese Buddhist majority disenfranchised Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, prompting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) fight to partition the state. The country’s sectarian tensions ultimately led to a civil war that lasted nearly three decades, took over 150,000 lives, and lead thousands of Sri Lankans to flee the country.

Although many thought the multiethnic and multifaith tensions had finally ceased in 2009 with the war’s end, it was later revealed to be only the beginning of more religious conflict. Following the war, the country’s ethnic and religious makeup became split between the 70 percent Sinhalese majority—whose ethnicity was usually synonymous with being Buddhist— the Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities, and the Christians, who composed parts of the Sinhalese and Tamil groups.

With the defeat of the LTTE and the rise of a Buddhist nationalist government, many Sinhalese Buddhist extremist monks began diverting their attention away from Tamils and towards Muslim and Christian groups. Since then, dozens of churches and mosques have been attacked by Sinhalese mobs, ultimately prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in 2018 following numerous attacks on Muslim businesses and homes.

The sudden surge in animosity towards Muslim and Christian groups was elicited in fear that the Sinhalese Buddhist religious and ethnic majority in Sri Lanka was to be diminished by other cultural movements. For example, Dilanthe Withanage, a former spokesman for Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena, shared his perspective that changes in ethnic makeup could shift governmental structure resulting in, “Sinhalese politicians [having to make] the country run by Shariah law”.

The country’s complicated web of multinationalism has since made two things clear—Sri Lanka’s sectarian tensions were anything but civil, and sacred spaces were found to be at the center of large disputes.

However, after years of mob blasts, growing tensions, and religious feuds, the prospects of achieving peace and prosperity had become better than ever. Following the country’s ranking by Lonely Planet as the #1 tourist destination in 2019, the island experienced massive improvements when its economy stabilized with a flood of tourism, and a rise in peaceful collaboration between ethnic and faith groups.

April 2019

I was at my home in Ottawa preparing to attend an Easter Sunday church service when I was told of the attacks. Soon after, BBC News’ breaking headline “Sri Lanka Stunned by Easter Sunday Attacks” flashed upon my screen confirming that six blasts had occurred on the morning of April 21st, as members of the Christian minority attended church services across the island. These attacks marked both an end to the island’s decade of peace following the 26 year-long civil war, and threatened to reverse the progress Sri Lanka had made in managing religious conflict.

I spent the remainder of the day refreshing news pages for updates. Sources confirmed that the series of blasts took place within 15 minutes of each other, with the first blast beginning at 8:45 am. Three bombs ruptured during church services in the cities of Kochchikade, Negombo, and Batticaloa, and three in luxury hotels: Shangri-La, Kingsbury, and Cinnamon Grand. News later broke that the six suicide bombers were Sri Lankan citizens who were associated with the local Islamist militant group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, and were planning the attack in retaliation for the Christchurch mosque shooting that had occurred in New Zealand one month prior.

As the day progressed, digital media sources televised graphic footage of victims and their families chaotically roaming the streets for safety. Of the images, a blood spattered statue of Christ took the media's attention, and soon become a recognizable symbol of the attacks.

Although the majority of the victims were Sri Lankan citizens, 38 foreigners were among the dead including travellers from India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. People from across the world mourned the losses, with social media sites exploding with prayers and thoughtful memos.

The most prominent shared image, however, was graphic designer and illustrator Tahira Rifath’s array of Instagram posts which featured drawn portraits and biographies for each victim that died during the attacks. In an interview with Roar Media, the artist revealed that her inspiration behind the project was to divert the media’s attention away from pointing fingers and finding faults, towards a positive tribute for the victims. 

June 2019

The blame game that began in the days following the attacks only got worse as the months progressed.

Following multiple foreign investigations, it was revealed that the Sri Lankan government had committed a major intelligence lapse by failing to take adequate precautions after being warned of a potential attack by Indian intelligence. The warning, delivered on April 4th, raised questions surrounding a potential suicide attack on churches, hotels and politicians, which was not shared widely. The miscommunication ultimately led Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena to ask the police chief and defence secretary to step down. 

******

In the weeks following, I paid a visit Sri Lanka after a four year hiatus, where the shift in the country’s political affairs became clear upon my arrival. Airport security had grown, security personnel and metal detectors guarded the doors of all buildings, and an air of caution floated amongst all citizens.

During my time on the island, I had the chance to visit one location that was attacked many years ago, and another that was attacked on Easter Sunday of 2019: the Maligawa temple in Kandy, and St Sebastian’s church in Negombo.

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Front entrance to the Maligawa Temple.

The Maligawa temple, also known as the Temple of the Tooth Relic, became a site of religious dispute after the LTTE bombed the front entrance in 1998. The temple is considered to be one of the most sacred places for all Buddhists, housing a gold casing which contains the tooth of the Buddha inside. The temple was also granted status as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its educational and sacred value.

 
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The site of the 1998 bombing is just to the left of the front entrance.

 
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Worshipers laying lotus flowers and offerings.

Perched at the top of a hill, the temple was one of the most beautiful and peaceful sites I had ever visited in Sri Lanka—golden work covering the walls, the smell of lotus flowers drifting in the air, and flocks of worshipers decked in white entering the site each minute.

 

I also had the chance to pay my respects at St Sebastian’s church in Negombo. The church, now completely rebuilt and open for service, was filled with worshippers attending evening mass when I visited. A memorial plaque had been placed at the church’s entrance, with the names of all 115 victims engraved onto a large stone. The infamous statue of Christ, covered in the blood shed on Easter Sunday, was kept untouched from that day in a glass casing at the front of the church.

 
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The front entrance to the newly rebuilt St Sebastian’s church.

 

August 2019

Although Sri Lanka endured a devastating hit that shifted the country’s state of affairs, its goal of peace and prosperity is one that can still be accomplished. The Sri Lanka I saw and got to experience in 2019, still held the same positives that I had observed growing up—a colourful island, kind people, rich history, and joyful culture.

 
 

While the rise in security has illustrated the country’s need to be cautious, it also symbolizes something more important—community and collaboration. The security teams that spend hours guarding entrances are made of people with the same transcending goal of securing the country, its people, and its guests.

With that, the blame game has slowly begun to die in the media, leading everyone to remember what is most important—that is, remembering the lives of the victims, working together to repair the country, and upholding the island’s title as the pearl of the Indian Ocean.