The following reflection comes from J.M. Jospeh Jeyaseelan, CMF, an alumnus of MPI's 2018 Annual Peacebuilding Training. Fr. Joseph is a member of the Claretian Missionaries and author of the book Reconciliation and Peacebuilding in Post-war Sri Lanka: through the Healing of Memories and the Role of the Catholic Church. This reflection is part of Fr. Joseph's "Occasional Thoughts" series.
Sri Lanka is experiencing one of its darkest times in history. I am receiving email after email from concerned friends from around the world with inquiries about the situation in Sri Lanka. As I prepare this short write-up, I hear about an incident of a bomb explosion in Colombo (22 April at 4:30 PM). I have received also an alert on my mobile phone about a suspicious vehicle being checked in the outskirts of Colombo (5 PM). The government has decided to declare tomorrow (23 April) as a national day of mourning. Some form of emergency laws is going to come into effect from midnight today. The police curfew that was lifted early this morning is going to be re-imposed. More and more suspicious peoples, articles, and vehicles are being checked or apprehended. And fear and uncertainty is enveloping the entire nation.
The government looks helpless as it is struggling to comprehend the motivation and the culprits behind the mayhem that has rocked the country since the Easter morning. However, people are confused with the announcement by the country's Prime Minister that there was some early warning which had not been sufficiently attended to. And, this is damn serious given the scenario that has unfolded in the country in less than 48 hours. One government Minister, a presidential aspirant, was seen making promises to rebuild to their former glory all the churches that have been damaged. He seems not to have comprehended the fact that the lost lives cannot be recovered and that it is that loss the country is mourning now and not the desecration of walls and sacred objects.
When visiting the Negombo General Hospital, a former president Mahinda Rajapakse in his characteristic style announced that he remembered the Kebithigollewa bomb explosion when he saw the tragedy. He was doing politics there. He was indicating that the country was re-living the times when the LTTE was there. If this was not his motivation, he should have also remembered other similar human tragedies that occurred namely as a result of his military campaign.
I write about these responses/reactions of the politicians of this ill-fated country because the country is where it is now mainly because of the dirty politics that has been prevailing in Sri Lanka in post-independence time. So, people of Sri Lanka, please don't allow your politicians to do partisan and selfish politics in this time of national tragedy and don't be hoodwinked by their gestures and words of pseudo-empathy. And honorable sirs and madams, whatever that means, kindly don't try to advance your petty political agendas during this time of grief. You all have done enough damage and we don't want more.
Numbers don't tell everything. But the death toll has increased to a shocking level. It seems the death toll has been calculated based on bodies remaining in hospitals. But there are "disfigured" or rather "dismantled" bodies that have not been included in these figures. Therefore, possibly the number of people who lost their lives is more than what is available for public information. The loss is huge in whichever scale it is placed.
When I heard about the explosion in the hallowed Shrine of Kochchikade, my immediate thought was whether the drug lords were taking revenge from the Cardinal-Archbishop of Colombo for his campaign against the drug menace. But it was not before too late that I heard about the explosion in Zion's church in Batticoloa. So, I dropped my initial suspicion. Maybe someone is targeting the Christians in general was the next presumption. But how do you explain the blasts in the three hotels in Colombo that occurred around the same time? This increased my confusion. So, it is unlikely that the Archbishop was being retaliated against. It is also unlikely that a particular ethnic group was being targeted. If it happened only in Katuwapitiya, Negombo where a predominantly Sinhalese congregation was attending Easter Mass, people would have thought it was the Sinhalese Christians (Catholics) that were being targeted. Or if it happened only in Zion's church in the East, people would have presumed that it was an attack on the Tamil Christians (non-Catholics). Otherwise, if it had happened only in Kochchikade, a conclusion would have been that Catholics in general were being targeted as the City's St. Anthony's Shrine is frequented by both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics.
It is unlikely that a particular ethnic group was being targeted. If it had stopped with explosions in the churches, it could have been interpreted as an attack on the Christians, Sinhalese and Tamils. But it happened in hotels and in other places, frequented by people irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Over 30 foreign nationals have died in the explosions. So, who was being targeted here? Sinhalese? Tamils? Muslims? Burghers? Sri Lankans? Citizens of other countries? This is where our confusion as a nation lies. We really don't know who the culprits are. We do not know their motivations. We are not sure about who their targets were. In short, this is an attack on all of us. Therefore, this is not the time to be guided by emotions pitting one ethnic or religious group against another. This is not the time for us to make guesses and start to victimize one or another group.
We need from our political leaders the states(wo)manship that the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern displayed after the Christchurch mosque shooting that happened less than six weeks ago. We have a big lesson to learn from New Zealand about how to manage the national crisis at hand. The religious leaders and leaders of all kinds in all levels have a big role to play modeling restraint, empathy, and solidarity. Let us stand together as a suffering nation and let us come out of this tragedy together. Let us not take the laws of the country into our hands or become laws unto ourselves. Let us leave the law enforcing authorities to do their job, support them in ways we can to help them do it, and let us maintain peace and restraint as responsible citizens. When it is time the perpetrators will be brought to book and they will have to suffer the consequences of their own actions. May they who endure the crisis and loss soon receive shalom/salaam. May they also find the strength some day to murmur these words: "May they be forgiven for they didn't know what they were doing."
Father Jeyaseelan wrote a follow-up piece to this article on May 5, 2019; Sri Lanka: Calling forth Extremely Difficult Responses in Extremely Difficult Times.
The Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute Foundation, Inc. (MPI), is deeply saddened and shocked by the news of the tragic bombings in Sri Lanka. After a long struggle toward peace and reconciliation, new wounds have been opened with these senseless and devastating attacks. We express our solidarity with the 35 MPI alumni who are from or worked in Sri Lanka as peacebuilders, many who come from the Catholic communities that were struck by several of the bombs as well as with all the people of Sri Lanka who have been traumatized by these appalling actions. We extend our thoughts and prayers to the people of Sri Lanka and again affirm our commitment to working for justice and peace with peacebuilders throughout the world in the face of such wanton violence and adversity. We will not be deterred and we will not lose hope by these destructive actions and we will continue to foster enduring relationships among all peacebuilders as a way to support and sustain each other in ending violence and transforming conflict through peaceful means.
View of South India and Sri Lanka from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle in earth orbit – Courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade – AntanO [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]