Los Angeles Times
Deadly silence in Sri Lanka
Elements of Sri Lanka’s government had been warned weeks ago of impending terrorist attacks but failed to share the information. Quite possibly as a consequence, they then failed to prevent the bloody Easter Sunday bombings, or at least to protect the more than 300 people who were killed and the hundreds who were wounded.
Without in any way diminishing the culpability of the suicide bombers or their coconspirators, blame for the killings also falls on the dysfunctional relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who haven’t cooperated since a government crisis began in October. Sirisena’s security council had frozen out Wickremesinghe, so details offered by intelligence officials in India and the U.S. as early as April 4 went unheeded by anyone who could act on them.
The perpetrators are alleged to be the National Thowheed Jamath, a home-grown Islamist group. Its targets were Christian worshipers and Western tourists. But the sophistication of the bombings suggests the involvement of other terrorist groups, and Islamic State reportedly claimed the attack was in retaliation for the March 15 shooting attack on Muslims in New Zealand.
Muslims and Christians are both integral yet relatively small strands of the South Asian island nation’s fabric.
Much larger are the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils, predominately Hindu. The two fought a 26year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Since then, the nation
has struggled to recapture the peace and cooperation that formerly existed among its ethnic and religious groups.
Like many nations, Sri Lanka is a pluralistic society. States of such diverse ethnicities were once held together by armies and ruling families, but pluralism today is most successful when accompanied by liberalism. The rule of law and protection of individual rights lend minorities confidence they will not be repressed by larger groups. Free press and open communication foster debate and combat falsehoods and prejudices.
In the absence of liberal institutions, a pluralistic society easily descends into suspicious and bitter factions. Rifts and rivalries can be ethnic or religious, political or personal. And they can be deadly. Each appears to have played a role in this tragedy.
It’s disturbing, then, that Sri Lanka’s government has responded by clamping down on communication. It is true that social media can amplify and accelerate falsehoods and hatred. Indeed, some factions — such as the Myanmar military — have weaponized these networks to distribute misinformation and foment violence.
But shutting them down also prevents families from learning the fate of their loved ones, spreading pleas for calm or combating insularity. As one study of social media blackouts in India has shown, collective violence more often increases than decreases in the absence of those connections. Stanching communication does little to restore the cooperation and confidence that are so essential and were so lacking within the government in Colombo.