Sri Lanka: Behind the Easter Sunday bombings

Troops outside St Anthony's church in Colombo.

On April 21 (Easter Sunday) hundreds of people were killed in bomb explosions at three churches, three hotels and a guest house in Sri Lanka.

The attacks were carried out by suicide bombers. Authorities blamed an extremist Muslim group called the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ - National Monotheism Society). Later, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility.

Sri Lanka has had a violent history in the seven decades since its independence in 1948. But this history did not include any major conflict between Muslims and Christians. Both Muslims and Christians have in recent years come under attack from Buddhist chauvinists. Why then, did the bombers target Christians?

Part of the explanation is that those who carried out the attacks seem to have been motivated by the ideology promoted by IS, of a global conflict between Muslims and Christians. According to Deakin University academic Greg Barton, at least 40 Sri Lankans travelled to Syria to fight with IS.

But the history of Sri Lanka is also relevant in understanding these events. Religious extremism — particularly Buddhist, but also Muslim — was one of the weapons used by the ruling class to divide the population.

During colonial rule over Sri Lanka, the British practised a "divide and rule" policy. Three main groups were recognised: the Sinhalese (who were mainly Buddhist, though some were Christian); Tamils (mainly Hindu, some Christian); and Muslims. Most Muslims spoke the Tamil language, but they were seen as separate from the Tamils.

Divide and rule policies continued after independence, and became more extreme. Sinhalese politicians and Buddhist monks incited hostility towards Tamils, and the Sri Lankan state adopted discriminatory policies.

Immediately after independence, a million Tamil plantation workers, whose ancestors had come from India in the 19th century, were deprived of Sri Lankan citizenship.

In 1956 Sinhala was made the sole official language, with the result that Tamil speakers were at a disadvantage in a number of areas, including access to public sector jobs.

When Tamils protested peacefully against discrimination, they were met with violent repression by the police and army, as well as riots instigated by Sinhalese politicians and Buddhist monks.

Tamil youth responded by taking up arms and demanding an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. The result was a war lasting nearly 30 years.

Initially some Tamil-speaking Muslim youth joined the Tamil armed groups. But the government was able to instigate conflict between Tamils and Muslims in the east of the island. It was advised and assisted in this by the United States, Britain and Israel.

The government recruited Muslims to a force known as the Home Guard. Growing conflict between the Home Guard and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led to an escalation of violence between Tamils and Muslims.

Before the war there had generally been friendly relations between Muslims and Tamils in the east. The violence severely damaged these relations. Hostility was exacerbated by the growth of Wahhabism amongst Muslims. This ultra-strict version of Islam tends to be associated with hostility to non-Muslims, as well as to those Muslims who disagree with Wahhabi interpretations of Islam.

Athithan Jayapalan, a Tamil anthropology academic currently based in Norway, argues that the growth of Wahhabism was encouraged by the Sri Lankan government to help deepen divisions between Muslims and Tamils. According to Jayapalan, "The growth of Wahhabism has only served Colombo (ie the Sri Lankan government) and its external backers in weakening the possibilities of a unified Tamil-speaking people’s resistance to the unitary state".

In 2009 the government won a military victory over the LTTE, accompanied by the genocidal massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils. Today Tamil areas remain under military occupation. Land continues to be taken from Tamils and given to Sinhalese settlers.

No longer needing the support of Muslims in a war against Tamils, Sinhalese Buddhist extremists began attacking Muslims, as well as Christians. In recent years there have been numerous attacks on mosques, churches and shops owned by members of religious minorities.

Meanwhile, Wahhabi groups continued to exist and attempted to control Muslim areas. Wahhabis carried out attacks on Sufi Muslims and their sites of worship.

The NTJ, a small but particularly extreme Wahhabi group, was formed in 2014 through a split in a larger Wahhabi organisation. The NTJ appears to have links with IS.

Other Muslim leaders have complained about the group's activities. They warned the government of the NTJ's potential for violence. But no action was taken.

There were also a series of warnings from the Indian intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Intelligence Wing) about the NTJ's plans, but again no action was taken.

One possible explanation is that conflict between Muslims and Christians is seen as useful by sections of the Sri Lankan state apparatus. It could be a new form of "divide and rule". It could also be a pretext for increased repression, particularly against Muslims.

The failure to act could also be connected to disputes within the Sinhalese political elite. There is currently a power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. A faction of the state apparatus may believe that violence will discredit the government and help in removing Sirisena and/or Wickremesinghe.

Jayapalan sees the conflicts within the elite as linked to the geopolitical rivalry beteeen the US and China. Rajapaksa is seen as being aligned with China, Wickremesinghe with the West.

Since many of the Christians killed in the church bombings were Tamils, there is a danger that violent conflict between Tamils and Muslims could occur again. To counter this, and to counter the government's land seizures, which affect Muslims as well as Tamils, Jayapalan calls for the rebuilding of Tamil-Muslim solidarity.

[Chris Slee is the co-author of The Tamil Freedom Struggle in Sri Lanka, published by Resistance Books.]