When the luxury Shangri-La hotel opened in Colombo in late 2017, it pointed to the relative calm that had emerged in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s decadeslong civil war.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the capital had been a regular target for separatist Tamil rebels, with suicide bomb attacks striking at the heart of the city.
In the years following the war’s end in 2009, the city had remained largely free of violence.
All that changed on Sunday, when a series of bombs targeting churches and high-end hotels – including the Shangri-La – ripped through Colombo, killing hundreds.
Sri Lanka’s government has said it believes international terrorist networks were behind Sunday’s attacks. But while the motive remains unknown, the violence is all too familiar.
History of violence
On Sunday a leaked memo revealed that police had been warned of a potential suicide attack by an organization called Nations Thawahid Jaman (NTJ), a little-known Islamist group.
Though it is unclear whether the information related to Sunday’s bombings, the release of the memo has led to questions about whether Sri Lanka – a multi-ethnic nation of 22.4 million people – is now facing a new, previously undetected sectarian threat.
Sri Lanka’s main ethnic populations are the Sinhalese, the majority of whom are Buddhist; Tamils, who are mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority; and Muslims, who self-identify as a separate ethnic group.
According to data compiled by the US Department of State, Buddhism is the island’s majority religion, accounting for just over 70% of the population. The remaining minority communities are made up of Hindus (12.6%), Muslims (9.7%) and Christians (7.4%).
Communal violence has been an ever-present part of life in Sri Lanka since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, with sporadic conflicts breaking out between minority groups and the government.
The most damaging period of violence was between 1983 and 2009, when armed separatist Tamil militants launched deadly attacks throughout the country as part of a sustained guerilla-style military campaign.
In response, the military attacked Tamil strongholds in the north, engaging in large-scale battles.
A 2011 UN report found credible allegations of war crimes committed by both sides during the final stages of the fighting.
In total, the 25-year civil war is believed to have claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Religious-based violence has continued to erupt periodically throughout the postwar period in towns and cities across Sri Lanka, though nothing on the scale of Sunday’s attack.
In particular, tensions between Muslim groups and the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community have escalated sharply In recent years.
In March 2018, a state of emergency was imposed across the country for the first time since the civil war, following days of violence between Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim communities in the central city of Kandy.
The violence, which was sparked by the death of a Sinhalese Buddhist youth, allegedly at the hands of a group of Muslim men, resulted in riots and arson attacks on scores of Muslim businesses and mosques.
A report by the US Department of State on religious freedom in Sri Lanka attributes the growing sectarian divide between the two communities to the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, with groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) seeking to suppress minority voices.
Since its formation in 2012, the ultra-nationalist group has campaigned against halal certification, the burqa, mosque construction, Islamic conversion and alleged Islamic militancy.
The group has been blamed by many for inciting deadly violence against Muslims and other minority groups, including in the town of Aluthgama, where at least three Muslims died during mob attacks in 2014.
Trouble has emerged elsewhere, too. An attempt to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2018 resulted in a constitutional crisis, the effects of which remain evident today.
In October, President Maithripala Sirisena made the shock decision to dismiss his entire Cabinet, suspend Parliament and appointment former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa – who led the campaign to defeat Tamil guerrillas in 2009 – as the new Prime Minister.
Sri Lanka’s institutions fought back, with Parliament passing a no-confidence motion in Rajapaksa in November and declaring his appointment “void and invalid.”
The country’s Supreme Court later ruled that the firing of the Prime Minister violated the constitution and Wickremesinghe was restored to office.
In a press conference Monday, Harin Fernando, the country’s telecommunications minister, appeared to blame his government’s inability to prevent the bombings on the political fallout from last year’s turmoil.
“Sri Lanka had a coup (that lasted) about 51 days … and from there on there has been lapses and certain infighting within the government,” Fernando said.
“Being brutally honest, I did not see the government working together. Will this be one of the causes? I am saying, without being a politician, that yes, it could be that’s what actually happened and that’s one of the outcomes of this.”
On Sunday, Wickremesinghe said intelligence on the contents of the memo had not been shared with him or other ministers.