Sunday July 21, 2019 marks 3 months since the Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka. Justice for the victims of the massacre seem to be a receding dream at this time: Collective amnesia seems to have gripped civil society and NGO activists — given the geopolitical dimensions of the attacks, while there is an absence of genuine accountability and justice for the victims. Rather, than a day of mourning, a vigil for the victims, and a call for inter-religious unity and peace this weekend, the Colombo Municipality and Government of Sri Lanka has seen fit to organize a street party in Central Colombo. Meanwhile, the politics of diversion, division, and duplicity has taken center stage with public hearings of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate the Easter Crime in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people, including 40 foreign nationals, being turned into TV reality show along with images of swords unearthed in mosques by police and military investigators and search parties, although no body died of sword cuts, but rather high tech bomb explosive materials.
This is a revised version of the article that appeared in the Journal of the India International Center, New Delhi, Summer 2019, Vol. 46. No 1. June 2019:
Easter In Sri Lanka: China, Chagos Islands, and the weaponization of Religion as a Cold War looms in the Indian Ocean
“A Paul Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ (1920) shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” ~ Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
It is as if someone, perhaps Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’, somehow managed to pause the storm that blows from Paradise; the ceaseless getting and spending that lays waste our powers in the mad rush to modernity, progress and development. Three weeks after the Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, the nation appears to have paused collectively to mourn for a long, long moment. Or, perhaps, a fear psychosis has gripped a land once only too familiar with terrorist violence, now puzzled, confused and unconvinced by international terror expert narratives that claim that the Islamic State (IS) had somehow chosen a tropical island for its caliphate, following the Hollywood-style “shock and awe” attacks staged by hooded villains morphed into backpacker suicide bombers on Easter.
As tourists retreated and so-called friendly countries—whose intelligence experts arrived in droves to craft the post-disaster narrative on Sri Lanka—issued travel warnings on Paradise Lost, commentators familiar with the country note that it has taken much longer to return to normal than at any point during its 30-year war when similar explosions rocked the island, such as the LTTE attack on the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Has the country lost its resilience? Or is it wiser, questioning the narratives, the potted history that dooms Sri Lanka to endless spirals of ethnic and religious violence that are so easily reproduced?
There exists a long history and tendency of fetishising ethno-religious violence in much of the social science literature and political analysis on Sri Lanka, while overlooking geo-political and economic factors that might lie at the root of apparently ethno-religious conflicts. Although geo-strategically important and hence vulnerable to ‘soft power” and big power plays, Sri Lanka, has been often literally ‘islanded’ in the scholarly imagination. Indeed, many Colombo NGOs, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Asia Foundation, had undertaken detailed studies of inter-religious relations for their US funders in the past couple of years, without any grasp of how religious identity politics, particularly Buddhism and Islam, were weaponized by the US during the Cold War period in the South and Southeast Asia region.
Various columns by international and local political analysts, experts and social scientists have tried to fit and frame the Easter attacks on Catholic churches and luxury hotels by suicide bombers in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka into what is already known: either about ethnic, party–political conflicts, or religious tensions and the history of so-called ethnic conflict between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Most of these analysts have focused on religious identity politics, and forgotten, or chosen to ignore, geopolitics and the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean that is being rapidly militarised as a Cold War looms between the United States and China— between America First and Asia Rising—the fact that tourist hotels were attacked, and that there was also a clear economic and security motive in the design of the crime and targets selected.
However, three months after the Easter Sunday crime in Sri Lanka, it is an open secret among Colombo’s diplomatic community and intelligentsia that Saudi Arabia funded and had prior notice, while the United States had prime motive to stage the Hollywood-style “shock and awe” suicide attacks, mysteriously claimed by the Islamic State two days later. Sri Lanka is a 70% Buddhist county with around 10% each of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and hence the Euro-American, Christian-Islam “Clash of civilizations” narrative has little traction in the island – a detail that seems to have confounded the masterminds of the attacks on selected churches and luxury hotels in a carefully planned logistics operation.
The US had planned to sign the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) after the attacks that effectively paralyzed and destabilized the country for weeks, when acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would visit the island after the Shangri-la Dialogue. In an “emergency”, such as April 21, SOFA would enable US troops to enter the strategically located Indian Ocean island, which would be effectively rendered a ‘servicing and logistics hub’ (code for military base), centred on the coveted Trincomalee deep-sea natural harbour in the Eastern Province, which some ‘terrorism experts’ claim IS wants for its Caliphate. There is no evidence to suggest that IS has Indian Ocean blue-water ambitions.
As the shock of the 4-21 carnage ebbs in Sri Lanka, questions regarding the motives embedded in the crime’s empirical detail and design have come to the fore. There is a growing divide between ‘international expert’ narratives that claim IS was responsible and local perception that the US had a hand in the attacks, particularly give visits of the US Ambassador to Buddhist Sangha heads to encourage signing of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), indicative of how religion is used and weaponized overseas to further US strategic interests, despite the American Constitutional separation of religion (Church) and State.
What many current analyses ignore, or choose to ignore, is that there is no history of conflict between local Muslim communities and Christians. Therefore, the lens of religious conflict might not be relevant to an explaination of the Easter Sunday crime, the designers of which clearly had other interests.
As various expert narratives in Sri Lanka pile up, with as many unanswered questions, it is clear that a paradigm shift, even a break in history, has occurred. Old explanatory frames, lenses and perspectives of, and for, analyses, seem increasingly inadequate to illuminate or decode the attacks on sea-front luxury hotels and coastal churches by minority Muslims in the absence of any motive or local history of attacking fellow minority Christians. Undoubtedly, it is as Benjamin described it (1968).
The process of thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, that configuration receives a shock by which it crystallises into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure, he recognises the signs of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history by blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result, the lifework is preserved in this work and, at the same time, cancelled*—in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious, but tasteless, seed.
Indeed, it is increasingly evident that a monad has appeared—a configuration pregnant with tension. The facts on the ground, the local realities of everyday life belie the global grand narrative of foreign experts that the Islamic Caliphate somehow came to be interested in a tropical Indian Ocean island. A paradigm shift has taken place in patterns of conflict in the country, and so too a paradigm shift is needed to blast open the continuum of history to explain the apparently ‘religious’ violence. Taking cognizance of this shift, this break in history is important to lay open the easy, lazy history of ethno-religious violence redux re-played?.
Clearly, the Sri Lankans’ struggle for a narrative to frame and contextualise events, and explain the plot, continues. Even as it is increasingly clear that history is longer seen to be fit for such a purpose, or no longer adequate to provide substantive answers, such questions arise as: why now; why did the IS choose Sri Lanka; and why an Indian Ocean island with a Buddhist majority? The questions seem to call for a different sort of analysis, a hermeneutics of suspicion, or in Benjamin words ‘to brush history against the grain’.
The analysis of the Easter carnage in Sri Lanka that has focused on the massacre of innocents, which took place in three of the nation’s coastal churches and in three luxury hotels in Colombo, largely overlooks the fact that the ocean-front, super-luxury, five-star Shangri La Hotel was the only non-Sri Lankan ‘asset’ (to use security jargon) that was targeted. Moreover, the masterminds of the crime ensured that two bombers, including the leader, Mohamed Zaharan, were used at the Chinese-owned Shangri La Hotel, indicating that this was their primary target, whereas the other targets were hit by a single bomber in this carefully coordinated and minutely planned logistics operation.
That there were no reprisals against the Muslims of Sri Lanka two weeks after the carnage, which killed over 250 people and wounded many more, is a tribute to the leadership of the Church and Cardinal Malcom Ranjith. It is also a tribute to the silent majority of peaceful and long-suffering people of Sri Lanka who, perhaps, through this disaster, may rediscover the value and strength of the island’s diverse religious communities and traditions.
However, unless solid answers regarding the motives, and masterminds, of the crime are forthcoming, so that the future may be discerned and national fear psychosis calmed, the quiet may not be sustained. Dead men tell no tales— those who might have had some clues appear to have died later in Sainthumaruthu. The number of foreign intelligence agencies in the country appear counterproductive to a focused investigation conducive to revealing the masterminds behind the carnage.
The struggle for the narrative and the search for motives behind the suicide bombing has revealed much about radicalised and deluded local youth who killed themselves and others. Nevertheless, little is known about the master planners of the crime. The manner in which the story is framed to explain this apparently religious and economic violence will be most critical to how soon these most recent wounds inflicted on this already beleaguered nation may be healed, and the recovery of the country as a whole from this attack on its diverse and plural public culture and economy.
At the time of writing, stories about plans to bomb bridges and indefinite school closures amidst parents’ fears for the safety of their children continue to circulate based on unspecified, mainly foreign ‘intelligence’, warnings. Attempts may be ongoing by some of the masterminds of the carnage to build and sustain this fear psychosis to prevent a return to normal life, and to start a cycle of violence to destabilise the nation in order to distract and deflect attention from the search for them. There have been unfortunate incidents of harassment of refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan, even as there has been significant support, both private and state, for them.
Therefore, it is urgent and important that the masterminds, who guided the suicide bombers, are identified: to name, shame and let them know that we are watching, even if relatively powerless to do much else at this moment, in order to try to prevent more violence.
There is evidence to suggest that attempts are ongoing to mislead the Sri Lankan people about the identity of the masterminds. For example, the video of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, purportedly speaking of the attacks in Sri Lanka, appears to have an audio recording that has been introduced later. It has been questioned, and rejected, by Arab and French intelligence experts. The Arch Bishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has suggested that there is a hidden hand behind the Easter carnage and the subsequent Islamophobic IS narrative that encouraged attacks on innocent Muslims.
COLOMBO’S SEA-FRONT LUXURY HOTELS
In addition to the three selected churches, suicide bombers hit three carefully chosen five-star hotels, out of a line-up of six- or seven-star hotels on Colombo’s seafront luxury hotel strip, indicating that this was also a planned and systematic attack on the country’s already debt-trapped and currency manipulated economy.
The Galadhri and Taj Hotels that are located on the same strip and flank the Shangri La escaped unscathed, as did others—Galle Face, Hilton and Ramada. The other two hotels that were targeted, the Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury, were owned by local Sri Lankan conglomerates. John Keells (JKH), which owns Cinnamon Grand, is building its most recent Tri-Zen property Development with China State Construction Engineering Corporation Ltd.).
According to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, four oceanic scientists, who were staying at the Kingsbury, were among the six Chinese nationals who lost their lives. The deceased included Li Jian, 38; and Pan Wenliang, 35, who were senior engineers at the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (SCSIO). Two others—Li Dawei, 30; and Wang Liwei, 26— were from the First Institute of Oceanography, Ministry of Natural Resources, according to the state-run Global Times. They had been scheduled to board the Chinese research vessel Shiyan 3 to begin China–Sri Lanka joint scientific exploration missions in the East Indian Ocean.
MARITIME DOMAIN AWARENESS: INDIAN OCEAN COMMUNITIES AND THE DIEGO GARCIA MILITARY BASE
The design of the attack and the venues—churches in coastal communities with congregations whose livelihoods largely depend on fisheries; Indian Ocean resources in Colombo, Negambo and Batticaloa; and luxury hotels—suggests a theme as well as a coded message.
Marine affairs is the red thread that runs through the design and detail of the attacks—no inland cities were targeted—and thus a pattern emerges. It would appear that the engineers of the attack were attempting to draw a security cordon sanitaire around strategically located Sri Lanka that sits atop major global energy and trade routes, and crucial global Internet Undersea Data Cables (UDC). After the attack and arrival of droves of intelligence experts and agencies, habours in the island were locked down.
In other words, it would appear that the masterminds had an interest in Sri Lanka’s oceans and marine affairs, described by the US ambassador in Sri Lanka Alina Teplitz as ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ (MDA) in a recent interview to Ada Derana TV, regarding the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that provides assistance to Sri Lanka for so-called ‘poverty alleviation’.
While it has been announced that the IS is behind the attacks and the suicide bombers, there is no evidence at this time to suggest that the IS, which has a history of operating in deserts and mountainous regions, had any special interest in the Indian Ocean, or China, or affinity for tropical islands, or even a great deal of MDA to support the narrative of Singapore’s Technical University expert Rohan Gunaratne, who has established connections to IS terror networks and the US military business industrial complex.
Gunaratne recently claimed that IS had declared South Asia as a ‘Province of the Islamic Caliphate’ and would continue to target Sri Lanka—a claim seemingly calculated to spread fear psychosis among the general public of Sri Lanka. It is, in fact, the United States that invented a new ocean called the ‘Indo–Pacific’, reflecting keen interest in Indian Ocean MDA, also evident in its so-called MCC Compact with Sri Lanka.
However, it was only on 25 February 2019, in a landmark case, that the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations’ (UN) highest court, called on the United Kingdom (UK) to decolonise the Chagos Islands. Located just south of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the islands were to be returned to Mauritius to enable its native peoples, who were forcibly displaced to build the top-secret US military base, Diego Garcia, to return. The Chagossians were brutally driven from their Indian Ocean island home in the late 1960s so that the UK government could lease the islands to build a US military base and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Black Site.
The Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean, located south of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the largest base outside mainland United States, is currently maintained under the ruse of fighting global terrorism. Maintaining Diego Garcia, despite the ICJ ruling, is a top US priority, and arguably the second ‘hidden signifier’ or motive for the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka.
For years, the base has been vital to the US military, serving as a landing spot for bombers that fly missions across Asia, including over the South China Sea. The ICJ ruling, which is ‘advisory’, raises questions about its future, as the UK has a history of following ICJ rulings. CNN quoted Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said that the Indian Ocean base was ‘very important to US operations in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean’ and its loss could have a major impact, forcing the United States ‘to change logistics support’ in the region. ‘It wouldn’t weaken (US military strength) necessarily but logistics are everything,’ he added. Diego Garcia was used to guide tactical aircraft supporting US military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and featured remote satellite tracking stations, an Air Force Space Command and Pacific Air Force support and logistics teams.
The United States has faced legal challenges to its Diego Garcia naval base for the past five decades. The bereft Chagossians took their case to British courts, hoping to exert pressure. Subsequently, the attempt by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the UN to constitute the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’ posed a challenge to US operations on Chagos Islands. In 1970, the NAM summit in Lusaka, Zambia, declared the Indian Ocean a ‘zone of peace from which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases’ must be excluded (Prashad, V: 2019). The United States attacked this idea. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt told the US Congress in 1974 that the USSR stood atop the ‘central part of the West’s energy jugular down to the Persian Gulf.’ For that reason, the Indian Ocean—and Diego Garcia—has ‘become a focal point of US foreign and economic policies and has a growing impact on our security.’ (Prashad, V; 2019_
Questions arise as to why various foreign intelligence agencies and experts involved in the investigation have refrained from drawing attention to information regarding the economic and geopolitical dimensions of the attack, and would rather focus exclusively on religious motivations and networks, especially as there appears to be no history or motive for Sri Lankan Muslims to bomb their fellow minority Christian brothers and sisters.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
These bombings, targeting minority coastal Catholic communities and churches, constitute a ‘paradigm shift’ in patterns of ethno-religious co-existence and conflict in Sri Lanka. This is indexed by the fact that there was, and is, no local history of and no motive for Muslim–Christian violence in the country as both, Christians and Muslims are minority communities. Both have sometimes been under siege from extremist majoritarian Buddhist groups. There is no conceivable motive for local Muslims to attack Christians, who number roughly eight per cent of the Sri Lankan population. In fact, during the conflict years, Christians, who are well integrated into Sinhala and Tamil communities, often played an important bridging role.
In such a context, recourse to ‘history’, past violence, and endless excavation and examination of old patterns of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka serve little purpose—rather, they might obscure the facts on the ground. This is precisely what the planners of the attacks want us to do in order to distract ourselves from the big picture, or on-going geopolitical developments and external engagements in the country.
Few self-respecting Sri Lankan social scientists or political analysts would, or should, accept at face value the ‘narrative’ of Muslim–Christian violence to explain this attack, 10 years after war between the state and LTTE ended. Critical researchers on religious coexistence and conflict, who study deep structures and patterns of conflict and amity between multi-religious communities, are increasingly convinced that the bomb blasts at three churches are part of a wider systematic post-war weaponisation of religious identity politics by external parties to divide, distract and destabilise this strategically located island which is in the cross hairs of Cold War tensions between the United States, India and allies on the one hand, and China on the other.
As such, explanations of this particular violence, which focus on old patterns of internal religious politics and violence rather than external and geopolitical explanations may not be very useful to grasp the problem and help to try and prevent more violence. The narrative of Christian–Muslim conflict is a Euro-American one that does not mesh with local history and will not gain traction in Sri Lanka, but may provide clues to the external parties involved in and behind the highly sophisticated logistics operation of simultaneous bombing in disparate locations.
The bomb attacks on St. Anthony’s Church in the heart of Colombo’s old city, which is a famous multi-religious site with a long history of attracting believers of all faiths—Buddhist, Hindus and occasional Muslims—were attacks on multi-religiosity, religious amity and tolerance in Sri Lanka. Likewise, the suicide bombings were not and should not been seen merely as attacks on a single minority religious community. In fact, the bomb blasts in three churches were body blows to the very heart of the county’s plural, multi-religious, social fabric and, ipso facto, an attack on all religious congregations in the country. They were undoubtedly meant to sow confusion, mistrust and a spiral of violence in the island and destabilise the country, making it prey to larger geopolitical forces and superpower designs.
The Bodu Bala Senava (BBS) and Ravana Balaya, two ultra-nationalist Buddhist organizations emerged in the post-war period in the South, while the Ravana Senai, a Hindu organisation came into existence in the predominantly Tamil northeast. All of them seemingly, targeting Muslims and Christians. During fieldwork interviews at multi-religious sites in Batticaloa in 2018, I was informed by members of a Sufi shrine that funding from Saudi Arabia and Iran were changing the texture of Islam and gender relations in the country, as women did not wear the burqa and hijab a few decades ago. Similarly, lCatholic and Anglican community members noted that ‘new churches’ with more fundamentalist leaning that did not blend with local cultural traditions, unlike the older established churches, presented a challenge to established traditions and practices of inter-religious amity and cooperation. Funding from various so-called diaspora groups and networks were also resulting in competitive religiosity and religious outbidding, and struggles of public space and territory in the post-war period. Ten years after the war between the state and LTTE, we are clearly witnessing what may be termed the ‘Weaponisation of Religious Identity Politics’, and the fanning of religious conflict in this vulnerable island nation.
Sri Lanka has historically been home to four great world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam—and has a long history of multi-religiosity. However, religion, like ethnicity, has been periodically weaponised by local political actors who use and politicise religion, whom we may term ‘ethno-religious entrepreneurs’. Nonetheless there are also clearly external interests working in collusion with local political actors in order to divide, distract, rule and loot the resources of the Indian Ocean and advance external geostrategic interests. Ever since the United States invented an ocean called the Indo–Pacific, there has been increased militarisation of the Indian Ocean, with Sri Lanka’s ports being visited by warships of big powers and their allies.
As political transitions and elections loom in the country, we may be seeing a revival of 1983, even as geopolitical tensions and instability increase. Even then, in 1983, there were external interests at play, as ethnic tensions and civilian riots were militarised and weaponised by a neighbouring state’s intelligence agencies and security apparatus. Small nations are often targets of ethno-religious identity politics and weaponisation in Cold War proxy wars— and these are dangerous times, as in 1983.
Crucial information on the Bondscam, at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, where the Prime Minister was implicated was to be revealed, as well as information on the inquiry into threats to the life of the president after the end of the Sinhala–Tamil new year and Easter holiday. A pattern of religious riots may be discerned when pro-Western leaders are in peril. Anti-Muslim riots in Digana and Kandy took place when the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Bondscam (PCOI) was released, apparently as a distraction from calls for impeachment of those responsible. While those who are being protected with violence may not have direct knowledge of the attack, they are complicit in so far as proper investigations into the Digana attacks were not carried out and the culprits tried in open court.
The bomb blasts at the churches appear to be part of a systematic weaponisation of religious identity politics by external parties working with small local political–religious groups, even as the current regime’s days are numbered and elections due in a year.
Ironically, but perhaps not coincidentally, the worst cases of ethnic and religious violence in Sri Lanka have taken place during neo-liberal governments—as with the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, the anti-Muslim riots of May 2018, and now the current attack on multi-religion religious tolerance and coexistence. Moreover, there is clearly an economic dimension to these attacks which are an attempt to destabilise the Sri Lankan economy, debt-trapped and suffering from currency manipulation.
At this time, further attempts to promote a fear psychosis about the IS and pass a new so-called anti-terrorism law to prevent democratic protests, instrumentalise party–political divisions, and postpone elections in order to keep the current pro-American prime minister in power may be ongoing by external parties and related intelligence agencies and networks.
In this context, it is important that all communities keep calm and seek to understand some of the deeper historical patterns, structures and issues that underlie these terror attacks on religious diversity and tolerance in Sri Lanka as well as new geopolitical developments.
ZOOMING OUT: LOCAL–GLOBAL CONNECTIONS
Even though a naïve article written by New York Times journalist Hannah Beech (2019) may suggest that Sri Lanka is a country where ethnic and religious ‘hate’ is entrenched in the final analysis, in a zoom out to take a look at the bigger picture of global geopolitics China may well emerge as the hidden signifier in the violence experienced, with a Cold War brewing in the Indian Ocean seemingly coming to a head.
Yale University academic Eugene Ford (2017) details how, during the height of the Cold War, religion was researched and weaponised to fight communism and socialism. Ford, who analysed declassified Asia Foundation documents, guides us to recognise exogenous factors that configure patterns of apparently endogenous religious violence in Asia, and deep structures and histories that appear as roadblocks to incitements to religious violence in some of South and Southeast Asia’s diverse and multi-religious polities. Sri Lanka and Burma were both part of the US Southeast Asia strategy to use Buddhism to fight communism at the time.
At the same time, Islam too was weaponised in Afghanistan, various parts of Southeast Asia and the Middle East against communism and socialism, and later violence was directed inward and within its own communities, including the Sunni–Shia conflict.
Asia Rising and the quietly emerging superpower, China (that has yet to make formal comment on events in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday), with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), may well have been the prime target of the bombings. Moreover, in recent times, there has been a propaganda war to blame China for Sri Lanka’s primarily international sovereign bond, IMF, Eurobond and ABD development debt trap.
In such a context, the Easter Sunday suicide bombers appear as pawns, bit-players—victims, even—caught in a murky web of intertwined terror and counterterror networks and the narrative of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ following Huntington’s thesis emanating from war-torn Syria and Iraq, as much as from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. Simultaneously, hundreds of the dead, wounded, maimed, injured, grief stricken and traumatised, along with the Sri Lankan economy in shambles after the attacks, all currently appear as ‘collateral damage’ in a high-stakes global (in) security great game in the Indian Ocean.
Finally, critical thinking, or what philosopher Paul Ricoeur termed the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, or ‘brushing history against the grain’, as Jewish Frankfurt school social theorist Walter Benjamin who lived and worked in an extended ‘moment of emergency’ in Nazi Germany termed it, is called for at this time of crisis in Sri Lanka. Careful analyses and decoding of global and local ‘expert narratives’ on economy and security are needed to critique an increasingly popular narrative of a so-called clash of civilizations that renders Christian–Muslim conflict and other forms of religious violence a self-fulfilling prophesy everywhere in the world.
Such narratives often are intended to further strategic security and business interests, including massive sales of arms, hyper-security and surveillance systems, and the setting up and/or continued existence of the colonial occupation of Indian Ocean islands, with military bases such as Diego Garcia even after the ICJ ruled against it in February 2019.
A careful study of deep local histories, structures and patterns of ethno-religious coexistence as much as conflict, coupled with local knowledge and attention to global geopolitical currents, enables critical thinking that may possibly bring us nearer the truth, so that informed action could be taken to avert future violence, both locally and globally.
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still, and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.
Benjamin, saw the ‘enlightenment’ view of historical progression as a justification of the status quo: ‘a triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’ (1968: 256). It is once such triumphant history is set aside or blasted open that we see the ongoing colonisation of the Indian Ocean and South Asia to advance Euro–American imperialism.
One such blasting open of the (neo) liberal historicist narrative occurred on 14 May 2019 when his Eminence, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, spoke of the intervention of Western nations in Sri Lanka to the Sri Lankan News First TV channel. While noting that the United States has strategically placed its warships across the globe in key positions, the Archbishop pointed out that their positions allow the United States to take over any country at a moment’s notice. The Cardinal explained that countries, such as the United States, want to create conflicts in other nations in order to sell the weapons they manufacture; that they create these conflicts by identifying countries and groups with differences and highlighting these differences. He also noted that they implement a programme that creates disharmony among various religions and groups in order to create these conflicts. It was his belief that the ISIS is a part of such a programme.
The Easter Sunday carnage happened a few weeks prior to the Sri Lankan government signing of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States, which would enable US forces to enter Sri Lanka in a situation of ‘emergency’. Two days prior to the Cardinal’s comments, Sri Lankan Army Commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake had opposed SOFA. Senanayake termed it a lop-sided treaty that ‘undermines’ domestic laws and tax regimes without reciprocity from the United States, and with which he disagreed. Several opposition parliamentarians had earlier alleged that Washington had requested American military personnel be subject to US law when in Sri Lanka. There was also a request to exempt US military personnel from taxes in Sri Lanka, when the United States has all but declared war on Iran, unilaterally withdrawn from the Nuclear Pact, and imposed sanctions on Iran while trying to choke China, India and Sri Lanka, which are dependent on Iranian oil imports.
The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire, with a hookah in its mouth, sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. In reality, a little hunchback, who was an expert chess player, sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is meant to win always. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology that today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.
Benjamin, Walter. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History.’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections translation by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt (1968). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.
Beech, Hannah. 2019. ‘A New Enemy but the Same Hate: Can Sri Lanka Heal its Divisions?’, New York Times, 5 May.
Eugene Ford. 2017. Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order . New York :Touchstone, 1997.
Prashad, Vijay. 2019. ‘A US Military Base, a British Occupation and a UN Judgment for the decolonization of Mauritius. Peoples dispatch March 12, 2019