Socialist Worker

Brutal state repression lies behind horrific attacks in Sri Lanka

Issue No. 2651

Security staff stand on guard outside the St. Anthonys Church where a blast took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 21 April 21

Security staff stand on guard outside the St. Anthony's Church where a blast took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 21 April 21 (Pic: A.Hapuarachchi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images)

At least 290 people were killed and hundreds more injured in a series of eight bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday.

In a co-ordinated action bombs hit Christian churches and major hotels frequented by tourists and the wealthy on the island. The blasts tore through packed Easter services, scattering body parts among pews and building rubble.

Hospitals were overwhelmed by large numbers of the seriously injured.

By Monday afternoon no group had claimed responsibility for the appalling attack. But the Sri Lankan government said that Islamist militant groups are its main suspects.

Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency and shut down all social media, claiming that it can be used to spread fake news.

Sri Lanka is grimly familiar with campaigns of violence.

A civil war between the government – which identifies with the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority – and the Tamil minority, raged for a quarter of a century. The Tamil independence movement was finally crushed in May 2009.

The Sri Lankan military used the utmost brutality to supress the Tamils, using bombs, chemical weapons and concentration camps. According the United Nations (UN) some 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the war.


Many of those in government had a personal hand in the slaughter, dictating that the military should target hospitals and even Red Cross ships bringing aid.

The political establishment maintains close connections to militant Sinhala Buddhist parties that regard all Tamils, as well as Christians and Muslims, as inferior and alien.

These groups ensure that attacks on religious minorities are common. Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of threats or violence against Christians, according to an organisation that represents hundreds of churches on the Island.

Sinhala militia were also responsible for anti-Muslim riots last year, in which mobs attacked Muslim businesses, houses and Mosques. Many victims complained that the mobs were guided by Buddhist monks while police looked on.

“There were mistakes on the part of the local police in implementing the law,” a government spokesperson admitted at the time. “Some of the attacks happened in front of them.”

In the wake of this week’s attacks world leaders, including Theresa May and Donald Trump, were quick to offer their condolences to the people of Sri Lanka and all the victims. But for years both countries have been happy to prop up a vicious regime that feels free to use violence.

The British government signed export licences for weapons shipments to Sri Lanka just months after the damning UN report into government atrocities.

Those who cultivate ethnic and religious divisions on the island have long had blood on their hands. Hope must lie with those who fight against oppression and for working class unity.

How the British divided to rule

Just over 20 million people live in Sri Lanka, on an island about a quarter the size of Britain – just a few dozen miles off the south east coast of India.

The majority describe themselves as Buddhists and speak Sinhalese, but there are significant minorities of differing religions and languages.

Sri Lanka was ruled as Ceylon by the British until 1948. The island was rich in tea, spices, precious stones and rubber, and all were used to enrich British coffers.

The empire used ethnic divisions in a bid to solidify its rule and imposed English as the official language.

Independence gave rise to a power struggle that saw differing groups use those divisions to boost their own power. A battle over language came to define the conflict and eventually Sinhalese replaced English. This marginalised sections of the middle class who generally spoke English and Tamil.

The logic of divide and rule was extended to all ethnic and religious groups.

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