Written by Hannah Beech
Sri Lanka is an impossibly lovely island, a pendant suspended off the Indian subcontinent that for centuries attracted traders and evangelists in search of spices and souls.
But this is also a war-wounded nation that popularized the use of the suicide bomber vest, a place far more compact than the Balkans yet cleaved by more divisions: ethnic, religious and class. If it is renowned for its beauty, Sri Lanka has become equally defined by its hate.
With the government’s reluctance to address these schisms, every violent episode breeds fear that the nation will fracture in new and unexpected ways, leading to yet more bloodshed.
“We have many clashes of civilizations on a small island,” said Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, a University of Colombo historian of Sri Lankan national identity. “It’s hard to know how to overcome our divided history.”
This month, Sri Lanka will mark a decade of peace after 26 years of civil war between the Sinhalese-majority state and a Tamil separatist movement. But hopes of celebrating that calm were shattered last month on Easter Sunday when suicide bombers claimed by the Islamic State targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels, killing at least 250 people and weaving Sri Lanka into a web of global terrorism.
“Well, it was very nice for us to have 10 years of relative freedom and safety,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a prominent legislator and human rights lawyer. “Now it’s back to normal in Sri Lanka. We have a new enemy but the same hate.”
Sumanthiran was sitting in his study in the capital, Colombo, effectively a hostage in his own home. Downstairs, armed guards were on alert. Months ago, military intelligence had warned that resurgent Tamil separatists wanted his assassination. Last week, they cautioned that Muslim militants also had him in their sights.
Since independence in 1948, one Sri Lankan president and one prime minister have been assassinated. Sri Lankan extremists have also killed dozens of local politicians and a former prime minister of India.
In the wake of last month’s bombings, in which repeated warnings were ignored that militants were planning attacks, some Sri Lankans have called for the return of the security state that brought an end to war in 2009. Yet that peace came at the cost of up to 40,000 Tamil lives, according to the United Nations.
A few days after the Easter attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense chief who led that deadly final push against Tamil separatists, announced that he was running for president in elections set for this year, on a get-tough-again platform.
Sumanthiran, a Christian Tamil, is adamant that more soldiers and the return of a feared military intelligence network are the last thing Sri Lanka needs. Rajapaksa, who is considered the front-runner in the race, is being accused of crimes against humanity in a California court.
“The heavy hand of the security state will breed extremism of all kinds,” Sumanthiran said. “Our problem is that, fundamentally, minority rights, religious or ethnic, are treated with disrespect and with force by the government. Until we resolve this, Sri Lanka will be stained in blood.”
Traveling through Sri Lanka is like venturing into a kaleidoscope, each piece shifting and separate.
A Buddhist heartland, with verdant hills and saffron-robed monks, gives way to neighborhoods of mosques and men in prayer caps. Later, along the same road, comes a Hindu village, with its diversity of gods decorating homes.
Occasionally, a cross juts out from a Roman Catholic or Protestant church or the windshield of a trishaw driver.
The Easter bombings may have been particularly bloody, but the targeting of places of worship in this multiethnic, multifaith nation is not new. In 1998, Tamil separatists attacked one of the world’s holiest sites, the temple in central Sri Lanka where a relic believed to be the Buddha’s tooth is kept. That temple was also targeted in 1989 by communist extremists.
Over the course of the civil war between insurgents from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sinhalese-majority state, the military descended upon Christian churches and Hindu temples where Tamils had sought refuge. The Tamil Tigers responded by massacring dozens of Buddhist monks. In 1990, they infiltrated evening prayers at two mosques, killing more than 100 Muslims who were considered government collaborators.
Sri Lanka cannot be divided neatly by race, faith or language. The population is more than 70% Sinhalese; most are Buddhists, a minority is Christian. Around 10% of the country is Tamil, largely Hindu and Christian. Muslims occupy another 10 percent and are considered a distinct ethnicity even though many speak Tamil.
The constitution affords special status to Buddhism, which for many Sinhalese is synonymous with their ethnicity. After the Tamils were defeated, a Buddhist nationalist movement gained favor with the government, and extremist monks turned their attention to new enemies: Muslims and Christians.
Since the war’s end, dozens of mosques and churches have been attacked by Sinhalese mobs. Last year, at least one Muslim was killed in violence near the city of Kandy, where the Temple of the Tooth Relic is. This year, on Palm Sunday, a week before the Easter bombings, Sinhalese pelted stones at a center run by the Methodist Church.
Sinhalese enjoy numerical superiority in Sri Lanka, but some accuse a growing evangelical Christian movement of stealing souls. They also claim that minority Muslims and Hindus have a plan to overwhelm the island by fecundity.
“I will be accused of racism, but I know what they want is a Muslim Sri Lanka,” said Dilanthe Withanage, a former spokesman for Bodu Bala Sena, the most influential Buddhist nationalist group. “By 2040, they will have a majority of the population and they will buy Sinhalese politicians to make the country run by Shariah law.”
Demographics are unlikely to prove Withanage correct. But the feeling that the Sinhalese are an embattled majority has meant that minorities receive less-than-equal treatment from the government, which in turn fosters resentment. For years, the nation’s Hindus were governed by the Buddhism ministry. Another ministry governs tourism, wildlife and Christian affairs.
“Sinhalese people don’t consider us real Sri Lankans, so maybe I can understand when Muslims are attracted by Islamic State, which welcomes them into a brotherhood,” said M.M. Moinudeen, an imam from the eastern city of Batticaloa, the site of one of the Easter bombings.
Such is the power of the Buddhist political establishment that when John Amaratunga, the minister of tourism, wildlife and Christian religious affairs, made an offhand comment in an interview about the organizational differences between Buddhism and Catholicism, aides spent 10 minutes explaining why publishing the remark could prove disastrous for communal relations.
At the Sri Manika Vinayagar Hindu Temple in Colombo, Ganeshan, a textile merchant who goes by one name, eyed the soldiers who have guarded the entrance since the Easter bombings. In the early days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, as pogroms against Tamils forced entire villages to flee, this temple housed a makeshift camp for refugees. Ganeshan was one of them.
“People talk with their tongues about peace, but their hearts are not in it, because as long as one community wants to rule another, it will not stop,” he said. “For all of us, even if this attack was Muslims against Christians, we live in fear because it could always go back again.”
But in another neighborhood of Colombo, amid houses with Arabic prayers over their doors and others with altars to Christian saints, stood a Bodhi tree and the Buddhist temple that grew around it. Kolonnawe Narada Thero, the temple abbot, said anyone was welcome. He was not scared of Buddhist extremists, he said.
After an evangelical Christian church and school were forced out of nearby premises in 2011, he welcomed the Christians and their students into his compound. Today, children supported by the Christian charity still study on temple grounds.
“If you have a garden and only have roses, it will not be as beautiful as if you have lots of different flowers,” the abbot said. “In Sri Lanka, if you only have one culture or religion, you lose the diversity, the beauty.”