The world awoke on Sunday to the news that at least 290 people had been killed, and more than 500 had been injured, in what can only be described as a disaster of horrific human carnage in Sri Lanka. With close to 800 casualties — and estimates growing by the hour — one might have thought this catastrophe to be the result of a natural disaster. But the attacks in Sri Lanka were rather a manifestation of mass murder on an expansive scale. The victims were targeted with a series of explosions in coordinated terrorist attacks on three churches and three hotels on the morning of Easter Sunday and Passover.
The explosions, which began early in the morning, were carried out by suicide bombers; the attacks have been connected to 24 suspected terrorists. All of these individuals have been arrested by the police. Hotels, which housed many foreigners and tourists, were targets of the attacks; of the victims, at least 35 were confirmed to be of American, British, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese citizenship. The majority of victims, however, were Sri Lankans — Easter worshipers celebrating Easter at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa. The Sri Lankan government has blocked social media interfaces like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Viber, in order to avoid the spread of falsified information, and has instituted a nationwide curfew. The nation is reeling — as we write this story, the facts and figures are still developing, and the country is preparing to come to terms with what will be a historic loss.
The WSN Editorial Board is devoting this column to commemorating the lives so heinously lost in these attacks. Desensitization to such atrocities is simply not an option, despite the fact that the scope of this brutality seems to expand annually — just two months ago, we witnessed the death of 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand following coordinated attacks on two mosques during Friday prayer. The bombings yesterday will remain in our international consciousness as one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on civilians in recent history. It is crucial that we do not allow ourselves to waver in our recognition of such tragedies, and remain educated on their origins and consequences.
Because of the fatal toll of this attack, Sri Lanka may rise to a sort of international recognition. But it is startling to consider how little we might know about the roots of this violence — Sri Lanka is still, unbeknownst to many who heard the news of today’s attacks, recovering from the ramifications of a nearly three-decade Civil War which defined the nation’s sociopolitical status from 1983 to 2009.
Sri Lanka is comprised of a diverse makeup of religions and cultures — the majority of the country is Buddhist, but 12.5% are Hindu, 10% are Muslim and 7% are Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census. Religious violence has permeated the nation since its independence from British rule in 1948, as sectarian issues led the country into deep divisions. The Tamil Tigers, a militia of mostly Hindu members that identifies as a secular military organization, revolted against the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population following a history of marginalization, paving the way for the civil war. The insurgent Tamil Tigers have been noted as “one of the most organized, effective and brutal terrorist groups in the world” — they are credited with inventing the suicide vest and dedicated their fight to a secession effort. The brutality of the group, arising in retaliation to intensifying nationalism of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, resulted in a war that — according to UN estimates — caused the death of 40,000 civilians in the final phases alone. Sri Lanka’s mostly Buddhist national army engaged in consistent campaigns throughout the war in an effort to obliterate insurgent Tamil forces.
The conflict, which ended in 2009, concluded with the army’s execution of Tamil Tigers leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran and the assertion of the Buddhist majority. The death toll for the war itself, in its entirety, is largely unknown, and many human rights organizations have cast both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army as guilty of war crimes. But ethnically Tamil and Sinhalese Sri Lankans are not exclusively Hindu or Buddhist either — there are members of each of these groups who are Christian as well.
As of publication, there is no public evidence regarding the religious, political or sectarian allegiance of the perpetrators.
But Sunday’s attacks were not the reverberations of a distant past. Just last year, Buddhist nationalists targeted Muslim-majority areas of the nation and set numerous Muslim-owned businesses ablaze. The UN condemned these actions as a “lack of accountability” for the “past actions” of the civil war. And it has even been reported that in the week leading up to Sunday’s attacks, police units had been put on alert about the possibility of attacks on churches on Easter Sunday.
The tragedy in Sri Lanka is a part of a broader pattern. For us to treat it as an unforeseen spike in violence would be to neglect a crucial, and very recent, history of bloodshed and turmoil. It is startling that it took a disaster as calamitous as this one to bring the fraught history of the nation to the forefront of the national conversation. Hopefully, students will see the integral importance of educating themselves on the context of these events — but it should not come down to bloodshed for us to recognize the gravity of the endemic conflicts that cause them.
It’s a noted fact that Americans tend to be overwhelmingly lacking in geographic and geopolitical awareness of global affairs. It’s a problem that draws its roots from a myriad of cultural norms, namely our educational system. But we should make it a priority to try and understand even that which we believe is too distant to affect us. This recognition and understanding will ultimately help create a culture that works towards active engagement and rejects desensitization.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 22, 2019, print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]