Panic has gripped Sri Lanka after the serial suicide bombings on Easter Sunday at three churches and three luxury hotels that claimed 253 lives and wounded hundreds of others. But the island nation has a fighting chance to restore peace and communal harmony, according to experts. The country had proven as much with the peace it had achieved over the last nine years following 26 years of civil war between the government and Tamil separatist groups in the north of the country. Even its tourism economy continued to flourish despite sporadic incidents of violence.
Knowledge at Wharton looked at how Sri Lanka can rebuild peace with Henrik Syse, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University College in Oslo; Andrew Perumal, associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; and Mary Anne Mohanraj, a clinical associate professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. They spoke on the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Below are key takeaways from their conversation.
It’s an International Situation
There are multiple theories about the perpetrators of the bombings in Sri Lanka, even as authorities have arrested 60 individuals and identified nine suicide bombers, including one woman who blew herself up when police arrived. Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, has said the bombings were retaliation for the shootings last month at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility, while Wijewardene has identified the culprits as two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Tawheed Jamaat and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.
“As we are searching for explanations, this is part of something that’s not really Sri Lankan – it’s international,” said Syse, who is also a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s government has admitted to a “major intelligence lapse” and the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, has fired its defense secretary and police chief.
“This is not just a Sri Lankan challenge, but a global challenge in which we all play a part.” –Henrik Syse
“This is part of an international dialogue on how religion is used to vindicate violence,” Syse said. “We see it among even some seemingly mainstream politicians who push a dialogue of fear and division. That’s what we really need to respond to, whether we are believers or not, and whatever countries we are from, we have to find ways of having peaceful togetherness that can tackle these [incidents] and withstand this polarization. This is not just a Sri Lankan challenge, but a global challenge in which we all play a part.”
Building on Recent Positives
Syse hopes Sri Lanka will “build on all the positive things that have happened over the last 10 years.” He noted an upbeat mood when he visited the country a few weeks ago. “You see optimism, not the least in a lot of businesses,” he said, adding that tourism is also a strong industry there. “And then, you have this huge setback [with the bombings]. The danger is that such a setback works as a kind of a black hole – it draws all of the attention to it, which is natural because there is a huge grief, there is fear, and there is a need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The danger is that then we take our eyes off all those things that can be done.”
The Sri Lankan economy has “weathered some big upheavals” in the past, and has shrugged off some relatively small flare-ups over the past few years, said Perumal. For instance, tourism growth rebounded immediately after the country’s civil war ended in May 2009, resulting in a fourfold increase in tourist arrivals since then, he noted. Government statistics put tourist arrivals at 2.3 million last year with 4.6% growth in tourism in the first quarter of this year. “If the [latest violence] doesn’t persist and the country also thinks about how to deal with [these events] systemically, maybe there will not be any long-term impact [on tourism],” Perumal said.
Hurdles to Enduring Peace
Sri Lanka’s top task is to build on its hard-won peace in 2009. The last nine years have been largely free of violent incidents, with the exception of anti-Muslim riots that took place in 2014 and last year, Perumal noted. However, “the process of recovery from the war has been slow,” he said.
Perumal noted that the process of rehabilitating former Tamil militants has been weak and has persisted for longer than it should have. More recently, last October, the country faced political instability when the president fired the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. But when Rajapaksa couldn’t secure the required votes in parliament to stay on, Sirisena dissolved the parliament, plunging the nation into a two-month crisis before Wickremesinghe returned as prime minister last December.
Perumal said that although Sirisena brought hopes of “bringing in a new era” when he was elected president in 2015, the early momentum has been lost. “If they’re not going to address this [pursuit of peace] systemically, does this become the new concern for Sri Lanka?” he asked.
“It’s a real concern that the government will react by putting in a host of supposedly anti-terror mechanisms that end up curtailing freedoms and slowing down a unification conversation.” –Mary Anne Mohanraj
Mohanraj questioned the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to “a path of peace and peaceful coexistence” between the various religious and ethnic groups in the country. The country’s population of 22 million people is made up of Buddhists (70%), Hindus (12%), Muslims (10%) and Catholics (6%), according to a New York Times report.
Worries of Excessive Crackdowns
Mohanraj pointed to “a dual worry” arising out of the latest bombings. One is whether more such attacks could occur. (The Sri Lankan government has warned of ongoing threats.) An overreaction by the government is her other worry. “It’s a real concern that the government will react by putting in a host of supposedly anti-terror mechanisms that end up curtailing freedoms and slowing down a unification conversation that’s been happening as Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians try to live together in peace and harmony,” she said.
According Mohanraj, many Sri Lankans are frustrated at the ban on social media the government has imposed after Sunday’s attacks. She added that while they understand that the ban could prevent the spread of misinformation and false rumors, “shutting down communication is always worrying – who knows when we’ll be allowed to talk to each other again?”
Perumal also worried about the Sri Lankan government misusing the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, adding that it used that act to target minority groups during its war with separatists. He hoped that the government would scrap that act, given the relative peace achieved in recent years.
Mohanraj, too, noted that governments tend to overdo their response to such terrorist acts, and pointed to the controversy over the use of The Patriot Act in the U.S. after the September 11, 2001 attacks. “There tends to be a law-and-order correction after this kind of event that often is very strong, very powerful, shuts down freedom, shuts down communication — and it’s then really hard to walk that back because people are frightened,” she said. At the same time, “people are hoping to move forward to go back to a peaceful, multi-ethnic society.”
“As the country hopefully continues to move forward and politicians do not try to utilize these instances to shore up their own bases, there might be enough positive change out of this.” –Andrew Perumal
Working Towards Togetherness
Preventing retaliatory action in Sri Lanka is critical to establishing peace. Muslims in Sri Lanka are now fearful of retaliation, Mohanraj said. “They are pleading for peace, pleading for people to understand that they are not part of some shadowy conspiracy, and that this is not what their religion stands for,” she added. She found it “heartening” that sane voices are pushing back against attempts to portray all Muslims in a negative light.
“As the country hopefully continues to move forward and politicians do not try to utilize these instances to shore up their own bases, there might be enough positive change out of this,” Perumal said.
Syse recalled how Norway pulled itself back after 80 people died in bomb attacks in July 2011. “One of the things that went right was exactly this sense that the politicians had a basic message of unity – a basic message of finding what unites us.”