Sri Lanka: One year on from the 2019 Easter Sunday Bombings

On Easter Sunday 2019 a small relatively unknown Sri Lankan Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath, conducted a series of bombings targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka and killing more than 250 people, predominantly Christians. The BBC reports that on 21 April, the anniversary of the attacks was marked by the ringing of church bells but no public events, the result of a government curfew imposed to address the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed seven lives on the island.

Amid a nationwide two-minute silence in honour of the dead and wounded, the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said in his anniversary message that while the church had “spiritually forgiven” its attackers, it continued to call for justice.

Justice remains elusive, with investigations ongoing in a country in which the need to confront past crimes and pursue forgiveness, healing and national reconciliation is more complex as a result of the legacy of a 30-year civil war characterised by serious internal political strife.

There is also the challenge of populist leaders seeking to mobilise religion for their own ends, nurturing an exclusive vision of Sri Lanka as a homogenous Buddhist state.

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Abandoning human rights for identity politics in Sri Lanka

During an address to senior Buddhists leaders at the Vibhajjavadi Dhamma Symposium and Maha Tripitaka Pooja on 4 January, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that the defence of the Buddhist order is central to ensuring unity and the protection of religious freedom of Sri Lankans who profess other faiths. Just one day prior, his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged his commitment before parliament to protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana as part of his government’s policy. In the Sri Lankan context this is often understood as the ‘physical bounds of the land consecrated by the Buddha.’ 

Buddhism is enshrined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Article 9 states: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana,” while assuring the freedom of thought, conscience and religion to everyone. Furthermore, with a 2003 Supreme Court ruling which affirms that only Buddhism should be protected by the state, Sri Lanka established in law that there is no constitutional guarantee that other religions will receive similar protection.

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A Fork in the Road: What lies ahead for religious minorities in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia?

Sri Lanka and India are facing pivotal moments, both for their future, and the future of South Asia as a whole. Both countries’ drives towards religious hegemony have left little place for Christians and Muslims, a factor which will certainly lead to more instability and intolerance in the region.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist nationalists vindicated

Sri Lanka was the site of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which over 250 people were killed when terrorists targeted a number of churches and hotels across the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, there were reports of violent attacks against Muslims and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice. Some reprisals against the Muslim population have been carried out by Christians, in contrast to the previous relative harmony between the two communities as they both battled intolerance from sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

Furthermore, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been portraying Islam as a threat to both Buddhism and Sri Lanka for years, consider their stance vindicated by the bombings.

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Burma’s identity crisis

The forced closure last week of three temporary Muslim prayer sites in Yangon is just the latest in a litany of abuses inflicted on Burma’s religious minorities by ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Add this to the decades-long persecution by the Burma Army of non-Burman ethnic minorities, many of whom are also non-Buddhists, and you get a nationwide cocktail of religious intolerance and conflict.

Muslims, Christians, and indeed Buddhists, who oppose the extremists are increasingly living in fear, in a country where ethno-religious nationalism has led to hate speech, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and, in one particularly egregious case, genocide.

That is the picture presented by CSW’s new report, Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide, published today. The report is the result of over three years’ work, involving first-hand front-line research, supplemented by information provided by CSW’s contacts in Burma and by other organisations working on these issues. It tells the human stories, it analyses the legislative framework, it assesses the international community’s response and it provides a call for action.

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The Plight of the Rohingya – His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo Addresses the Houses of Parliament, London, 25 May 2016

On May 25th Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma, spoke before a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network. Below are sections from that speech, on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Burma and the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Please contact CSW‘s office for a copy of the full speech and further recommendations. 


My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice, with five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Easter seemed a distant dream. My country was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades.

But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen. But it brings with it fresh challenges: reconciliation and peace-making, religious intolerance, land grabbing, constitutional limitations, and the fragile nature of a nascent democratic transition. And the old dangers have not gone away: the military remains powerful, corruption is widespread, and ethnic conflict continues in some parts of Myanmar.

“We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice (…) But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen.”

Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.

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