By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On June 3, 2019, all nine Muslim Ministers and two Muslim Provincial Governors of Sri Lanka resigned, as the fragile Buddhist-majority country grappled with the communal backlash of the Easter Sunday bombings which killed as many as 253 people.
The Ministers who resigned include Cabinet Ministers Kabir Hashim, Rauff Hakeem, M.H.A. Haleem and Rishad Bathiudeen; State Ministers Faizal Cassim, H.M.M. Harees, Ameer Ali Shihabdeen and Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana; and Deputy Minister Abdullah Mahrooff. The two Governors who resigned were Azath Salley, Governor of the Western Province and M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, Governor of the Eastern Province. There were 19 Muslim lawmakers in the 225-member Parliament and nine of them – all of whom resigned – held Ministerial positions.
The resignations were in response to a hunger strike by Member of Parliament (MP) Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero, a prominent Buddhist monk, who began fasting on May 31, 2019, in front of the iconic Buddhist temple Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, with five demands, including the resignation of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and the two Governors, whom he accused of having ties with the suicide bombers who had targeted churches and hotels on April 21.
A crowd of about 10,000 Buddhists held demonstration at the famous temple on June 3, 2019, raising anti-Muslim slogans. Shops and offices remained closed in the city, while black flags were raised in support of Rathana.
Since the Easter Sunday bombings, tensions have increased between the majority Sinhala community, which constitute 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, and Muslims who, at 9.7 percent, consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic group in the country.
Muslims live in fear after a wave of attacks by Buddhist hardliners swept across wide areas in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. In spite of a state of emergency on May 12 and 13, Sinhala mobs rampaged through at least 24 towns in western Sri Lanka, looting and attacking Muslim properties with stones, swords and petrol bombs.
According to an assessment by local charities, the mobs killed one Muslim, wounded at least another 14 and destroyed over 540 Muslim-owned houses, shops and mosques, as well as nearly 100 vehicles.
Explaining the resignations, Rauff Hakeem, the former Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education observed, on June 6, 2019,
Based on the seriousness of the situation that prevailed in the country last Monday (June 3), we discussed at length with the Prime Minister and a few other senior Cabinet Ministers, trying to select the correct decision. There was a serious risk of putting the lives of Muslims in the country in danger, based on the situation that came up with the hunger strike carried out by MP Ven. Athuraliye Rathana and the statements issued by Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, who was recently released from prison. So, in order to maintain peace in the country, all nine of us submitted a letter announcing our resignation.
On June 5, 2019, former Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen had stressed that he did not resign for fear of the no-confidence motion against him, but to prevent communal clashes between the Sinhala and Muslim communities.
On June 4, 2019, the Police Headquarters set up a committee consisting of a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) and two Superintendents of Police (SP) to obtain complaints against Rishad Bathiudeen and former Governors M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and Azath Salley. The committee will accept written complaints until June 12, 2019. As of June 6, 2019, the three-member committee had received four complaints. Three complaints were received against Bathiudeen, while one compliant was lodged against Salley. The committee received its first complaint on June 5, and the other three on June 6.
The responsibility for the coordinated Easter Sunday bombings was claimed by the Islamic State (IS or Daesh) on April 23, 2019, by its official news outlet Amaq News Agency, which released a video showing the Sri Lanka attackers pledging allegiance to Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, on May 1, 2019, 10 days after the attacks, Sri Lanka Police named all nine Easter Sunday suicide bombers as local residents – Zahran Hashim, Ilham Ahmed Mohamed Ibrahim, Inshaf Ahmed, Mohamed Azzam Mubarak Mohamed, Ahmed Muaz, Mohamed Hasthun, Mohamed Nasser Mohamed Asad, Abdul Latheef and Fathima Ilham – tracing all nine to two jihadist organisations, National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI).
On April 22, 2019, in order to maintain public security and essential services, President Maithripala Sirisena, in a gazette notification, declared a State of Emergency across Sri Lanka. Under the Emergency Regulations, he banned NTJ and JMI on April 27. Further, under the emergency regulations, Muslim women in Sri Lanka were not allowed to wear face veils in public from April 29. On May 5, to prevent the spread of false information following a tense situation, access to social media applications, Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber etc., was temporarily suspended. On May 22, the President issued another special gazette notification, extending the Emergency Regulations for another month. On June 3, Police Media Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara, speaking at a media briefing, disclosed that 2,289 persons had been arrested after the Easter Sunday suicide attacks. Among them, 423 persons had been remanded and another 211 were being detained at Police Stations for questioning, while 1,655 persons had been released on bail.
Meanwhile, admitting that the country suffered due to a gap in sharing of security information and intelligence, Sri Lanka’s Army Commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, on May 2, 2019, urged the public to have confidence in the Armed Forces. On May 29, the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) appointed to inquire into the terrorist attacks on April 21 met for the first time at the Parliament Complex. Defence Secretary Shantha Kottegoda and National Intelligence Chief Sisira Mendis gave evidence before the PSC. National Intelligence Chief, Sisira Mendis testifying before the PSC told that though he briefed the then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando on the impending terrorist attack, the National Security Council (NSC) had not met till the coordinated suicide bombings of April 21. According to Mendis, the NSC last met on February 19, 2019. In the wake of the suicide bombings, President Sirisena appointed Shantha Kottegoda as the Defence Secretary on April 21, succeeding Hemasiri Fernando. Testifying before PSC, Kottegoda stated, “Since 2014, there had been information about the banned extremist outfit National Thawheed Jamaath, but I don’t know how that information was acted upon.” He further disclosed that sharing of intelligence information needed to be strengthened, as lapses and lack of systematic coordination may have led to a breakdown in sharing of information. On June 8, 2019, President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Mendis, after he indicated that the leader was aware of the Easter bombings.
Confirming that the NSC last met on February 19, 2019, former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, giving evidence before the PSC on June 6, disclosed that NSC had been convened four times after he assumed duties as Defence Secretary – on November 13, 2018; December 3, 2018; January 4, 2019 and February 19, 2019. The PSC was appointed on May 23, 2019, to probe and report to Parliament on the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks after Rishad Bathiudeen, addressing Parliament on May 10, 2019, called for a PSC to clear his name of the allegations against him in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Bathiudeen asserted, “The people who make allegations against me knowingly or unknowingly safeguard the real terrorists and fundamentalists. Their actions result in me highlighted while the attention on the real terrorists shifts. We are strong believers of Islam. Allah does not approve terrorism or fundamentalism.”
On June 5, 2019, in order to restore stability in the country, leading Chief Prelates and the Maha Sangha of the three main Buddhist chapters held a special discussion at the Asgiriya Maha Viharaya. The Prelates held a lengthy discussion on the prevailing situation in the country and drafted a 15-point proposal to restore stability. The Chief Prelate of Asgiriya Chapter, the Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera presided over the discussion. Speaking to the media, the Anunayake of the Malwatte Chapter, Venerable Niyangoda Vijithasiri Thera, observed, “We think the departure of the Muslim Ministers from the Government should not have happened. Therefore, we request those Muslim leaders to return to the administration and resume their responsibilities.” The Thera also said that if the challenges are not well understood and remedial action taken, external influences will enter the country and the hard earned peace and economic stability will be lost, with disastrous consequences.
Meanwhile, on June 3, 2019, President Sirisena urged all communities in the country to work together to resolve the communal issues and ensure peace, and noted, “If conflicts arise due to different ethnicities, the country will be doomed and all should work together with mutual understanding and contribute in ensuring the peace of the country.” Similarly, cautioning that raising anti-Muslim communalism would only support Islamic State terrorism, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe pointed out on June 4, 2019, “The Muslim community was together with us during the 30-year war. If the whole Muslim community is pushed away because of a few who were misled, then the task of eliminating ISIS terrorism will become much more difficult.” The Premier further stated that, for the first time since independence, Sri Lanka has a Government that does not have a Minister from the Muslim community. Although few people are happy about it, this is not to the advantage of the country.
The mass resignation of nine Muslim Ministers and two Governors in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday blasts has deepened fault lines in Sri Lanka. NTJ, the group behind the blasts, which included suicide bombers and was led by the radical preacher Zahran Hashim, has been dismantled. Moreover, hundreds have been arrested and the plot possibly inspired by the Islamic State has been unravelled. The Government has initiated action against many of those who failed to act on advance intelligence, and ongoing investigations are likely to bring others to account.
Sri Lanka’s tragedy can only be compounded by the communal targeting of Muslims. Having emerged from a destructive civil war the Island nation needs to focus on rebuilding inter-ethnic trust and ushering in a new egalitarian order. It will be ill-served by a conflict between the Buddhists and Muslims.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management