New ethnic faultlines at macro and micro levels

One year after the attacks, the question facing Sri Lanka today is: how these attacks have impacted the inter-ethnic relations in Sri Lanka one year down the line? Two broad levels of impacts could be identified at macro and micro levels

The Macro: Inter-Ethnic relations, and the return Security debate
At the macro level, the Easter attacks showcased that there are deep faultlines in the country’s inter-ethnic relations. The belief that the end of Eelam War IV brought shutters down on inter-ethnic animosity in the island state was completely shattered. Instead of inducing a deep reflection on what went wrong and how to improve ethnic reconciliation, the April 2019 attacks created a further wedge between majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority Muslims.

Soon after the attack, Muslim businesses were boycotted; some were even attacked. UN Special Rapporteur’s report dated 26 August 2019 clearly identifies these issues.

Since the Easter attackers had links with the IS, the entire Muslim community in the island is seen with suspicion. Security measures have been stepped-up; surveillance on the community increased; freedom of movement and expression has gone for a toss. Muslims’ ‘national loyalty’ is questioned, if not openly. All these state measures received approval from the majority community resulting in a further increase in the level of radicalisation of the second largest minority community of Sri Lanka.

Significantly, the suicide attacks triggered political rift in the coalition government comprising of Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) as the Prime Minister and Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as the President. This was one of the rare occasions when the two parties came together to form what is called as ‘cohabitation’ government. However, soon after the attacks, the blame game started on who was actually responsible for ignoring numerous intelligence reports from India and other countries warning impending terror strikes.

The politicisation of a security issue ultimately resulted in the fall of the government that was doing reasonably fine in post-war reconstruction and ethnic reconciliation. Ensuing presidential elections in November 2019 saw more nationalistic forces back in power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former defence secretary and a brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president with an overwhelming majority, whose main agenda is ‘security’.

The Micro: Intra-Community fissures
At the micro-level, the attacks created fissures within the communities viz., Muslims and Sinhalese.

Within the Sri Lankan Muslims, the attacks created a deep wedge between moderates and militant factions. Moderates have Sufi orientation, while radicals with deeper West Asian linkages are dominated by Salafi groups like Tablighi Jamaat and NTJ. The island has been witnessing the rise of radical Islamic groups ever since the rise of Sinhala Buddhist attacks on Muslims, especially in the east. The Easter attacks have come as a tipping point. The concern now is because of attacks and the consequent retaliation, moderate voices in the Muslim community are becoming feebler.

Within the Sinhala community, the fissures emerged on religious lines – Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhala Christians – though it was not new in the politico-religious history of the island. During the colonial period, the Buddhist revivalist movement in the late 19th century dubbed Sinhala Christians as “opportunists”. Now, certain Buddhist radical groups see human rights resolutions on Sri Lanka in UNHRC as “Western-Christian conspiracy against rising Sri Lanka”.

Similarly, new faultline has emerged between Muslims and Christians, which was not the case earlier; decades of trust have vanished in one stroke. Now the island perhaps will witness a new community mobilisation based on Christianity, which is presently embedded in Sinhala and Tamil ethnicity. Earlier there were issues between Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims in the Northeast that were ably created and exploited by the LTTE. New identities are anyway constructed by situations and interests.

The way forward for the State and the Society
Going forward, it is vital to acknowledge the cause of radicalisation and the emergence of groups like NJT. Soon after Eelam War-IV, in a triumphalist mode, certain Sinhala radical groups like Bodu Bala Sena started targeting Muslims, especially in the East. The government of the day did not care much. Since the reconciliation process with the Tamil community was also not making any progress, certain aggrieved Muslims started believing in a radical approach to safeguard their interests.

Hence, it is appropriate that the new government take inter-community reconciliation very seriously, fix accountability and address the issue of impunity. That is the right way to reverse any adverse impact of radicalisation in Sri Lanka that is already suffering from less international credibility.

The community leaders and civil society organisations could come together to foster inter-ethnic reconciliation instead of falling prey to ‘divisive politics’. This is the only hope at this juncture.


On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured.

One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on “One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka” is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security and justice.


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About the author

Dr N Manoharan

Department of International Studies, Political Science and History, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru