Sri Lanka mourns its dead, will rise again

Last week the world joined Sri Lanka in mourning as it buried victims of the coordinated bomb-blasts that killed over 250 people and maimed hundreds more on 21 April. The attack on three churches and three luxury hotels, as  well as bobby-trapped vehicles and homes that were rigged to go off when the security personnel approached, shattered lives and shook this island-nation of 22 million to its core.

Scars left behind by the Easter Sunday tragedy could take a long while to heal. But Sri Lankans will persevere; just as they did during the 26-year Tamil insurgency that ended in 2009 with a  death toll measured in the tens of thousands, or the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed over 35,000. The resilient people of Sri Lanka will overcome this latest calamity to befall their nation, and they will return stronger and all the more united as a multi-cultural, multi-religious peace-loving nation.

A local Islamist extremist group, National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ), has been blamed by the authorities for the attacks. Although the radical Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility, it is doubtful that the group, which has been reduced to a rump after the loss of its territories in Iraq and Syria, has the capability to carry out its deviant activities  in its own area of influence, let alone in Sri Lanka.

The coordinated nature of the attack and the material used in the blasts, which would probably have required months of clandestine recruiting of suicide bombers, their training, the obtaining of explosives and reconnaissance of target sites, points to local extremist groups such as the NTJ, whose members were probably trained by Sri Lankan or other foreign nationals who had returned from fighting alongside IS in Syria or Iraq.

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday blasts and amid a prevailing sense of fear, security has been stepped up across Sri Lanka. Despite increased security, many Muslims stayed away from mosques on Friday fearing revenge attacks, and the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka canceled all Sunday Masses until further notice, citing a risk of further attacks.

Head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church and archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said he felt “betrayed” by the government’s failure to act on reported warnings provided by foreign intelligence about impending attacks. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe apologized on Friday for the security-lapse. “We take collective responsibility and apologize to our fellow citizens for our failure to protect victims of these tragic events,” the PM wrote on Twitter. But the prime minister also admitted that the crucial intelligence warnings had not been passed on to him.

The breakdown in communication has refocused attention on the political infighting between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Relations between the two most powerful men in Sri Lanka deteriorated to such an extent that last October, the president sacked the prime minister. It took a ruling by Sri Lanka’s highest court to reinstate Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Meanwhile, security forces have carried out raids across the country. On Saturday, the bodies of 15 people including children were found after a  gun battle on Friday between Sri Lankan police backed by troops and suspected Islamist militants in Sainthamaruthu to the east of the country. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters that intelligence services believed about 130 suspects linked to IS were in the country and that police were hunting 70 who were still at large. According to the police, nine attackers from “middle- and upper-class” families were involved in the serial blasts.

The involvement of educated, well-to-do members  of society in the bombing, belie the often touted view by leftists, liberals and ‘bleeding-hearts’ everywhere that extremism is a byproduct of social ills, of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. The truth is, extremism knows no such boundaries. The insane, wishy-washy terrorists of today is willing to march to any drummer or to any cause. And, if no cause is forthcoming, then that is as good enough a cause for them as any.

Amidst the death and suffering caused by Easter Sunday bombings, a bright ray of hope for the grieving nation was the attitude of families in Katuwapaitiya, Negombo. This multicultural neighborhood is where the St. Sebastian’s Church, one of the sites rutted by the serial blasts once proudly stood. According to media reports at least 93 people including 27 children were killed at the church when a bomber blew himself up inside the holy sanctuary.

Despite the tragedy, the suffering, and the sorrow, a neighborhood in Katuwapaitiya appears determined to stop their community from being torn apart by the calamity. For over 150 years, this neighborhood of Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims have lived together in peace and harmony, and the community is resolute that a handful of deranged youngsters were not going to change that.  As one resident of Katuwapitiya, who lost three relatives in the Easter Sunday carnage, put it, “We are going to fight terrorism, not the way the terrorist do by using guns and bombs against non-believers, but with love and compassion towards all people.”