One year after the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka

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One year after the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka
Healing needs Forgiveness, Accountability, Responsibility and Justice

  D. Suba Chandran

Should we shame an entire community, and expect them to hold their heads down because a small group was misguided? The majority has a responsibility towards its minorities. On the other hand, the minority also has a responsibility to the nation.

On 21 April 2020, one year after the attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, Sri Lanka observed two minutes silence across the country to remember and honour those who were killed, and those who have made enormous sacrifices since then. As the BBC quoted a family member of the victims" "My husband and my two children were killed only once. I die every second."

A few days earlier, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Sri Lanka made a bold statement of forgiveness. He was quoted to have stated: "Last year, some misguided youths attacked us and we as humans could have given a human and selfish response…But we meditated on Christ's teachings and loved them, forgave them and had pity on them…We did not hate them and return them the violence." 

It was not only brave and bold but also forward-looking.

There are four issues: Forgiveness, Accountability, Responsibility and Justice

It is easy to preach forgiveness, but difficult to practice
The Cardinal has made a strong statement on behalf of everyone to forgive the perpetrators, for what they had done. By calling them "misguided youths", the Cardinal has also opened a big window for other youths, who may have supported the perpetrators, or sympathized with their cause. It is not just an act of forgiveness, but also opening the arms to the other communities to hold each other and walk towards a better future.

Forgiveness, however, does not mean to forget what had happened. By forgiving the perpetrators, the Cardinal does not mean that the victims would pretend that 21 April 2019 never happened. That is not the essence of the message. 

Forgiveness calls for accountability.
The Cardinal's statement, as quoted in the Daily Mirror later, clearly talks about accountability. The Cardinal was also quoted to have stated: "We are aggrieved that those responsible for governance at that time did not take seriously the repeated warnings received concerning these attacks and so not only allowed this massacre to take place but also sought to hide their culpability in different ways after the attacks. Still more serious is the responsibility of all those who masterminded these attacks by planning, funding and encouraging the perpetrators and deliberately covering up facts of the case. Some of them surely knew this was coming" (Daily Mirror)

Did the previous government, or sections within the government ignore the warnings? Were there specific inputs to concerned ministries and departments that were overlooked? Did a section within the society know what was likely to happen on 21 April 2019? If the answer is yes to the above questions, then those who are responsible for not taking actions against 21 April 2019, and those who responsible for allowing it to happen, have to be held accountable.

The government led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa have to take the lead and ensure there is accountability. Beyond narrow politics. Unfortunately, narrow politics leading to the forthcoming election is likely to dictate the outcome of this accountability process. It would be a huge disservice to those who were martyred on 21 April 2019, and those are living with the painful memories of the day. 

Accountability also includes taking responsibility.
Responsibility includes both the State and society. The State has a responsibility to bring those responsible for 21 April 2019, without penalizing the majority within the Muslim community. Given the Islamophobia across the world, it is easier to blame the Sri Lankan Muslims. It is easier to make a statement to boycott the Muslims within the country. Or throw violence at them, and expect them to suffer, for what those nine perpetrators did.

Should we shame an entire community, and expect them to hold their heads down because a small group was misguided? The majority has a responsibility towards its minorities.

On the other hand, the minority also has a responsibility to the nation. While it is easier to write and profess that the majority should not be held responsible for the actions of a few, in a given situation, it is difficult to practice. Especially when the majority is emotionally charged and politically polarised as the case was following 21 April 2019. The minority community has a responsibility to the nation by ensuring accountability within. 

Given the alarming growth of the right, it is not easy to be a minority – ethnic, religious and otherwise, anywhere in the region within South Asia. From being Hazara in Herat to being a Rohingya in Rakhine, there is a minority problem across the region. The problem here is being a minority, especially now, when there is growing right-wing xenophobia. A radical section within the majority is waiting for a small, provocative step by the members of the minority community; they need this provocation as an excuse to retaliate and seek revenge. 

Given the above contemporary situation, the minority community has to be extra cautious and ensure there is no radicalization within, that would provoke a radical section within the majority community. There needs to be larger accountability by the minorities; while it is easier to profess that for the actions of a few, the community cannot be held accountable. Was the community utterly unaware of what the few were doing? Were there no signals? Were there no warnings?

There has to be a collective responsibility by the minorities as well. It would be easier to prevent 21 April 2019, than to respond to its failure.

Finally justice
Forgiveness is beginning. The Cardinal has shown the way in Sri Lanka. The State and the society – majority and minority, have to respond and ensure accountability. And take responsibility. It would be a grave injustice to those 250 plus who died and thousands of those who are living holding their memories. 

A young scholar at NIAS – Sourina Bej, in response to the draft commented that healing should be the purpose of the above four. One year later, that is precisely what Sri Lanka should look towards: Healing. And in the process, Sri Lanka, primarily its State and Society should ensure that the wounds are not reopened. There may still be some scars; that does not mean that the wounds would not heal.

An edited version of the above commentary was first published as a short note in Conflict Weekly # 14, 21 April 2020.

On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured. 

One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on "One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka" is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security and justice

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