(This article was published in the Sri Lankan Anchorman newspaper in April 2019)
Once upon a time, the bombs tolled only for those engaged in conflict; those in wars, those invading others and the invaded responding in like manner, and those trying to sabotage oppressive rulers of a country to gain notoriety or freedom. Now all that has changed. Terrorism has gone global, they say. The new mantra seems to be: find a place that has a security vulnerability and explode your bombs there and then claim it is due to a conflict in another part of the world that the victims have nothing to do with. Obfuscate, lie, throw smokescreens, while the real culprits profit from the wages of explosives as their hand servants blow themselves into smithereens in the hope of heavenly reward. Killing Sri Lankan Catholics in retaliation for a mosque shooting in New Zealand? It doesn’t compute. By the same token, could the bombs toll in Canada tomorrow because of an obscure Islamist insurgency in…in Mozambique, for instance. The field is wide open, isn’t it?
I was dismayed, shocked and saddened when the bombs tolled in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. I had visited the country in 2016/17 and seen the resurgence in tourism, the upbeat attitude of its people, and the busyness of commercial enterprise that was growing in leaps and bounds. I returned and started beating the bushes back home in Canada to get tourists interested in visiting the old country again. I booked travel back to Sri Lanka in 2018/19, but had to cancel only due to a personal medical emergency. I was hoping to rebook that trip shortly. But now, I have to pause again, like I did for 21 years once, when the country was in the throes of its never ending civil war.
The rot started when the country’s President and the Prime Minister stopped talking to each other, and actually started fighting like a couple going through a painful divorce. Their spat and the publicly televised punch-ups between their minions in parliament that ensued took on global entertainment value for a couple of months in late 2018. Even the Sri Lankan cricket team, battling its woes of match fixing, political interference and unseasoned players, was no match (pardon the pun) for these two political jokers when it came to ribald entertainment; make it three jokers if you throw in the Rajapakse faction that slipped into power ingloriously, and slipped out equally ingloriously, during the fracas. Meanwhile, the bad guys, the global jihadis, were waiting and watching; employment in the suicide bombing business was declining in other hot spots, and a house divided is a great place to plant one’s seeds of evil—Sri Lanka was a sitting duck. There would be many sponsors with vested interests in the island, secrets would be kept between influential players for personal gain, and the truth could always be concealed with a bribe.
When the bombs went off this time, the quick apprehension of front-line perpetrators and their deadly cargo indicated that the authorities KNEW all along. I was left with disturbing questions: If the counter-intelligence had indicated that the bombings were going to be directed towards Buddhist temples, would the holders of those secrets have dared to remain silent? What carnage would have ensued if that foul deed had actually happened, given that the last time the deaths of 13 Sinhala soldiers killed in the line of duty led to a 26-year war? Have Sri Lankans become more tolerant and mature, or does a minority community not matter that much anymore? Are those out of power trying to expose an impotent government with an event such as this? Who is the local middleman taking his cut out of the mayhem? What other dastardly deed needs to be triggered to unleash the wrath of mobs on the streets again and plunge us back into 1983?
The reports also indicated that Sri Lanka currently seethes with ethnic tensions. Why? Didn’t 26 years of bloodlust release all the anger, exhaust us, and return the nation to sanity and restoration? Was that spark of enterprise I had seen during my visit three years ago flame out, and did everyone lapse back into their old ways: that of excluding and squashing minorities, that of feathering one’s nest from a still-slim national trough, that of offering lives as fodder to extend one’s personal political ambitions?
The next few months will see whether this extremist threat is squashed with the help of the international community. After all, if this is a global problem, then we need global help; the Lone Rangers of the past created more mess in their wake that has still not been cleaned up. I hope the Easter Sunday bombings were a one-off, and that they do not morph into a regular tolling like a call to prayer in a mosque, or a church, or a temple. But even if the bombing stops, a fundamental issue that has to be addressed remains: is Sri Lanka coming together as a nation of equals and not a smattering of communities with one big guy lording it over the rest? As long as some people are “more equal than others”, and that fact is enshrined in the country’s Constitution, inequality will breed, certain classes of people will be deemed disposable, and the tolling of the bombs will resume.
We are all in pause mode, watching, listening, praying. Will the bombs toll again, who will they toll for this time, and where?