Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Sri Lanka needs to contain fallout from blasts soon

The danger about the coordinated explosions in Sri Lanka on 21 April, Easter Sunday, which killed nearly 300 and injured several hundreds more, goes beyond a fading Islamic State, or Daesh, taking credit for an ideologically outsourced terror attack.

The emotionally and politically fragile island nation is correctly concerned about backsliding into an ethno-religious mess that has long hobbled and bled Sri Lanka. Another concern: A domino effect in South Asia’s enduring ring of ethno-religious fire.

On the face of it, it is being played as a revenge for an attack on mosques in New Zealand in March, during Friday prayers. Most of the explosions in Sri Lanka were triggered at churches and in hotels frequented by Westerners.

The attack has been traced to operatives of the extremist National Thowheed Jamath, some factions of which are radicalized.

The danger is in a blowback against the island’s Muslim community, which constitutes just 10% of the 21.5 million population.

Buddhists account for a dash over 70%, Hindus a little under 13%, and Christians, largely Catholic, make up the remainder; those of other faiths are minuscule. Throw in the ethnic mix of Sinhalese (nearly 75%), Sri Lankan Tamils (11%-plus), Sri Lankan ‘Moors’ (a little over 9%), Indian Tamils (a community of tea garden workers who were brought in as labour, at just over 4%), and you have a tinderbox.

Anti-Muslim riots broke out in central Sri Lanka in March 2018. Though it was quickly contained, it was perceived as the ruling United National Party (UNP) turning a blind eye to Buddhist radicals alleged to have set it off. The traditionally right-wing party retains a tenuous majority through coalition in parliament.

President Maithripala Sirisena from the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (which contested with a coalition), has remained at loggerheads with the government run by prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of UNP.

In late-2018, Sirisena triggered a constitutional crisis by dissolving the Sri Lankan parliament and calling for snap elections. The Supreme Court later cancelled the move. Parliamentary elections are due by late-2020, and presidential elections, which directly elect the president, early that year.

Both parties, and that of Sirisena’s former mentor-turned foe-turned ally against Wickremasinghe, the former premier and, later, president, Mahinda Rajapaksa (who now heads a breakaway party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna), will be in the electoral fray. All will bank on the pivotal Sinhala Buddhist vote.

In this backdrop, any fallout from the Easter Sunday attack needs to be contained quickly.

The country has had several rocky decades. The 1983 anti-Tamil riots, spurred by Sinhala-Tamil tensions and violence, helped to birth Tamil nationalism and, later, the no-quarters Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A 30-year war with LTTE wrecked the country.

I recall a visit almost 10 years ago to the month, in March and April 2009—one of numerous visits over the past 25 years. It was just weeks before the war with LTTE formally ended. Mauled by conflict, Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product, at $32 billion, was just $2.5 billion more than the combined recession-struck net worth of the Ambani brothers. A crippling 5% of it directly fed the war machine, and public debt hobbled much of the remainder.

The economy was growing at 4.5% a year and slowing. Inflation was at 20%-plus a year; the currency close to a free-fall. Bereft of donors like those that flocked in 2003 to aid a peace process that ultimately failed, Rajapaksa, who scripted the widely lauded but controversial victory, pursued a $1.9 billion bailout from International Monetary Fund.

The Sri Lankan economy grew spectacularly for three years after the war. Growth has since slowed, hovering between 3% and 4% a year from 2017.

Unemployment rates and inflation have improved over the decade, but the economy still remains vulnerable to public debt, profligacy and political turmoil. If politics takes the easier, though messier, route to victory, as elsewhere in Sri Lanka’s neighbourhood, pitching ethno-religious matters over development, tinder will again be lit.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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