What Next for Sri Lanka Following the Terrorist Attacks?

The recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka have killed 253 people, including 42 foreign nationals, making it unprecedented in the country’s history and one of the worst terrorist attacks in the world since 2001. Champa Patel spoke with Ganeshan Wignaraja about the implications of the attacks for the country.

Expert comment Updated 13 May 2019 Published 29 April 2019 2 minute READ

Champa Patel

Executive Director, Governments and Policy Climate Group

Ganeshan Wignaraja

Director, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI), Sri Lanka

St Mary's Church is pictured closed following the terrorist attacks on 21 April 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: Getty Images

St Mary’s Church is pictured closed following the terrorist attacks on 21 April 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: Getty Images

What are the implications of the recent terrorist attacks for the country?

The political parties met last week at an all-party conference to try and forge a new security culture in the wake of these attacks. This brought together key players such as current President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe as well as formidable political figures like the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The intent at the moment seems to be to try to present a united front recognizing the scale of the crisis – and one hopes that the enormity of what happened will bring everyone together.

How likely is it that Sri Lankan society will come together to present a united front in response to the attacks?

One of the challenges is that there are presidential elections this year and parliamentary and provincial elections set to take place next year and it is likely that these attacks – and the responses to them – will play a role in electioneering. Some parties will try to claim things were better under their governance.

Media reports suggest there have been intelligence failings in the sense that information on potential imminent attacks apparently wasn’t shared with the prime minister and the cabinet. (Under Sri Lanka’s presidential system, the president holds the defence portfolio.) In part, this is because of the tension between the current president and prime minister that came to a head in October 2018 in what became a constitutional crisis when the president tried to remove the prime minister from power. Since then, there remains some distrust between the two parties, which isn’t helpful. A committee has been appointed, under a supreme court judge, to independently review what went wrong on intelligence gaps.

There is also a sense that the intelligence structure that existed during the civil war had become complacent in peacetime. However, there is now an opportunity to re-utilize the military structures that were in place during the war in order to deal with these new types of threats.

What has been the reaction of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka? As a minority population in the country, that has experienced sporadic violence before, is there any risk of a backlash?

It seems unlikely that we will see a pogrom like the country experienced during ‘Black July’ in 1983. In response to a bomb by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which killed 13 soldiers, and encouraged by nationalist programs, the country experienced a terrible violence targeting ordinary Tamils. Lessons seemed to have been learnt from that time and we have seen the president and prime minister come out urging for calm and unity.

Additionally, the security forces are on full alert and seem ready to deal with any reprisals against the Muslim community and there seems less risk of a backlash. However, this does not mean people won’t feel scared that this may happen.

This attack, while part of any international terrorist agenda, also could spread discord among communities in a country fractured by civil war and which has experienced a history of communal discord. People feel angry and vulnerable so it is essential that the state’s response reassures them.

What impact could these attacks have on inter-communal relations now?

It will be hard to go back to a status quo for some time. Much work is needed on nation-building and to try to forge a modern Sri Lankan identity where each community – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Tamil – can all practice their beliefs within a national state structure.

This type of national narrative has been a challenge since Sri Lanka achieved independence and it has so many dimensions. We have to look at reforming the education system – which used to be segregated so people learnt in different languages – holding politicians accountable if they play the communal card, try to create a prosperous nation so that everyone thrives and we need to outlaw hate speech.

There is a lot that needs to be done but one thing that is essential now is to try to create a better intelligence network sensitive to human rights but realistic to fighting threats.

Is the current governance system fit for purpose? Can people be assured that the Sri Lankan government will be more responsive to future threats?

One of the issues that the unity government had emphasised was the need to abolish the executive presidency. Until 1977, the country had a parliamentary system, which changed with constitutional reform introducing a presidential system. In practice, this then means the president and prime minister divide portfolios between themselves.

In the current governance structure, the president holds the defence portfolio. In my view, this model has not been useful for Sri Lanka. It concentrates too much power in the hands on one person without adequate checks and balances – portfolios get split and government functions get fractured. And when the president and prime minister are not on same page, as is currently the case, then there is a greater risk of information slipping between the cracks as has been the case with these attacks.

Sri Lanka has several important issues to deal with, and with elections imminent, whoever comes in has a massive job ahead of them.