Photo courtesy of Lowy Institute

Sri Lanka’s return to terror came on April 21, 2019 with the bombing of three hotels and three churches that killed 267 people and injured about 500. The trial of 25 men accused of masterminding the attacks began in November. More than 23,000 charges have been filed against the suspects and 1,215 witnesses have been called to testify.

Three inquiries have been held into the Easter Sunday attacks by a Presidential Committee headed by Justice Vijith Malalgoda (PC), by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that was appointed by former President Sirisena on September 22, 2019.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed another PCoI on February 19, 2021, which submitted its report on March 15, 2021. But more than two years after the Easter Sunday attacks, no one has been held accountable for failing to prevent the bombings nor have measures been taken to address the issue of accountability of the intelligence and security sectors.

Many people, including Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, are questioning why the full report has not been released to the public and has accused the government of hiding vital information. Father Cyril Gamini, director of the National Catholic Centre for Social Communications who has accused the authorities of complicity with the attackers, was subjected to three days of questioning by the CID.

On December 5 to 6, 2021 a fact finding team visited Batticaloa to ascertain the impact of the Easter Sunday bombings on the Christian and Muslim communities in Batticaloa. The team consisted of Radhika Coomaraswamy, Nimalka Fernando, Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Chulani Kodikara, Rehab Mahamoob, Yamini Ravindran, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Kumudini Samuel, Ambika Satkunanathan, Shreen Saroor and Muqaddasa Wahid.

The topics covered in the report are violations of the rights of non-denominational Christian community, impact of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, human rights dimensions of deradicalization initiatives and COVID-19 burials at Oddamavadi.

Conclusions of the report

“As a community leader succinctly stated, “wherever there is a majority, the minorities in that place are being oppressed”. Although there are efforts at the community level to deal with inter and intra community cleavages, government action and inaction hamper rather than support these community efforts. The actions of the One Country One Law Task Force for example appear to be aimed at worsening existing tensions and conflict.

“Government action to prevent youth engaging in violence only further discriminate and marginalise communities that are already vulnerable and function as drivers of violence and create new centres of conflict. Addressing these issues requires viewing national security as security for all. It requires the state to envisage a form of security that does not depend on demonizing and targeting certain communities, which leads to discrimination and marginalization of already vulnerable populations, thereby undermining social cohesion and community harmony.”

One of the members of the team, Shreen Saroor, answered questions from Groundviews about the team’s findings.

Why did the team decide that it was necessary to explore this matter and why now? 

Since the Easter bombing, Batticaloa and its issues have been neglected and the people of the area, especially women, have been suffering a lot. The division between various religious minorities has been deepening. Since Covid-19 travel restrictions eased, we decided to visit. Also, many victims of the PTA feel that there was a need to reach out to civil society and activists for legal help.

Is there some significance that the team consisted only of women?

Since men have been taken away under PTA, it was the women who reached out to us. Religious tension is a concern for them. Since women’s groups have worked on bringing together communities across the religious divide, we thought that a group of women reaching out to them is more appropriate.

What do you hope to achieve by your visit and the report?

There are recommendations in the report but we want the country to know what is happening to a section of its citizens. The report captures clearly the continuing atrocities committed with impunity by the state, lack of due process and heavy hand discrimination. The suffering of women and children, especially from marginalised and poor backgrounds, is the price we always pay when the politicians want to hide their mistakes and crimes; the Batticaloa women’s suffering is a good example of that.

You have worked in the east for many years. Is there a new level of polarization and fear that wasn’t there before?

We see that the polarization is increasing among religious communities and within each religion there are sectarian fights too.

While there is discrimination and marginalization of Muslims in the east, doesn’t the security issue also have to be addressed because the Easter attacks were the result of radicalization of groups in the east?

Security of all people is a concern but there are ways to do it without annihilating all Muslims.

Did the people you met feel the government was hiding something by not releasing the full report of their findings?

Both Christians and Muslims believe the Easter attacks were not investigated properly. The Muslims feel that if the investigations were done properly, they should not be in this plight. People think that an international investigation to find truth is necessary. They kept saying that justice for the victims is important and nothing has been done to get it. PTA victims feel that they are being unfairly punished.

Who do people believe are really behind the attacks?

Muslim community leaders think that the attacks were was planned with the help of top level decision makers because some of them had given details about Zahran Hashim and his radicalization early on to the former government.

According to your report different religious communities are fighting each other. Is this politically motivated and what can be done to restore religious harmony?

Sri Lanka’s religious conflict is now linked to larger regional and global terror groups and radical ones. We had a local ethnic conflict but now the multi dimensions of these religious conflict and issues are quickly swallowing the little cohabitation we had.

Are people being subject to “deradicalization”? What do they think about it?

The government’s gazette on deradicalization has been challenged otherwise we will have deradicalization legalized. The people of Kathankudy feel like that they are under heavy scrutiny. A family member of a PTA detainee said Kathankudy itself is being perceived as the source of extremism. Family members of those being held in several detention centres have to travel throughout the country to visit their relatives.

Read the full report here