Sri Lanka’s response to the Easter tragedy has been extremely disciplined
Experience suggests the attacks were probably not a fallout of the nation’s simmering domestic disputesUpdated: Apr 22, 2019 22:00 IST
As the news of the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka and the enormity of the unfolding tragedy hits me, my mind goes back to the blood letting that I saw. I was the Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo during a difficult period, and saw bomb blasts ripping through hotels and markets, assassinations of political figures, both Sinhala and Tamil, and a city gradually losing its charm and grace, as security concerns came to dominate its setting and spirit.
After ten years of relative quiet and the restoration of normalcy ( with the military victory over the LTTE in 2009), is Sri Lanka going to see a different kind of violence?
We must first note the differences between what Sri Lanka has seen now and what it experienced during previous decades. The geographical spread of the attack from Batticaloa in the east to Negombo on the west coast, as also multiple locations in Colombo is one pointer. The attack on churches on an Easter Sunday and thus specifically targeting the Christian community is another. Tourists and foreigners congregating in upmarket hotels appear to have been intended victims apart from Sri Lankans in churches. The LTTE did not attack the Catholic Church (which showed sympathy for the Tamil cause), nor foreigners, lest it lost support in the West. Though it too was capable of meticulous planning, coordination and impeccable execution, the scale and intensity of these attacks shows a kind of operating procedure that had not been seen before.
Before looking at the larger picture, one must first note with appreciation that the Sri Lankan establishment has been extremely disciplined with regard to identifying or theorising about the perpetrators. Wisely, a clamp has been imposed on social media, vital to prevent rumour-mongering and worse in such a provocative situation. Reports speak of many arrests and hence news will inevitably trickle out in the coming days, even if a definitive assessment about the motives and the identity of the perpetrators may take more time. It is also remarkable that in the notoriously divisive Sri Lankan polity, major leaders seem to be speaking in one voice and there are no discordant noises in this hour of national crisis.
It is inevitable that thoughts should turn to the possible motives and proximate causes of these attacks. While SL government\t has been very careful and commendably circumspect, early indications point to the National Thowheeth Jamaath, a group that has so far been known primarily for defacing Buddhist statues. How much support they had in undertaking an act of such scale and sophistication is another matter.
Some experts on terrorism seem to be veering around to the view that Sri Lanka was a locale chosen for a larger message and not necessarily the intended target of the attacks. The parallel that comes to mind is the attack carried out by Al Qaida in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania which was not meant to primarily cause destruction in those countries, but was meant as a message to the Americans. There is speculation that the vulnerabilities and the inherent diversity of Sri Lanka were exploited by an international group to stage attacks there, though the intended message was for an audience much larger and distant.
The idea that the attacks were probably not a fall out of the inherently domestic disputes in Sri Lanka also needs to be mentioned. Sri Lanka has simmering disputes — ethnic, religious, and political — but it would perhaps be safe to assess that none of these three are likely to cause violence of this ferocity.
What are the implications for our region and for India?
First, it shows once again the vulnerability of states and the ever-present nature of terrorism as an asymmetrical threat. Whatever be the intelligence lapses, none of us are safe from suicide bombers, not America, not India. Second, though Sri Lanka may be the victim this time, the need for intelligence-sharing and connecting the dots internationally is clear. This has to include operational matters as well as tracking financial flows. All this is happening already, but professionals may learn new lessons as the investigations proceed and the plot unravels. Third, the use of social media is a critical factor. We have come to learn about the dangers of radicalisation through social media. Experts have to devise strategies to counter it. It will be safe to assume that consultations and cooperation between Sri Lanka and India will intensify though this will necessarily stay under the radar.
BS Prakash is former deputy high commissioner to Sri Lanka
The views expressed are personal