Analysis by Keith Rankin.
I was in Victoria, Canada over Easter weekend in 2019. On Easter Sunday I returned to my hotel, to the shocking news of a set of coordinated suicide bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
267 people died that day, and at least 500 others were injured. The target groups were Christian churchgoers, and western tourists. The perpetrators were jihadists. My immediate reaction was that this was utu for the Christchurch mosque shooting, just one month earlier. My partner’s reaction was the same.
I have heard nothing at all about the matter since returning to New Zealand in June 2019, neither in the New Zealand media nor the international media. While no other credible reason for the Easter Sunday massacre has come to light, I have heard it suggested that an accumulation of weaponry before March 2019 by the Sri Lankan jihadists represents evidence that they were already planning an anti-Christian mass killing for April 2019, an act of terrorism with no motive.
The important and obvious, but often overlooked, feature of the Christchurch 15 March terror attack was that this was an international event that happened to take place on New Zealand soil. The perpetrator was someone who belonged to an international community, and who played to an international audience. He happened to be living in New Zealand at the time, and New Zealand – for reasons perhaps more good than bad – represented a softish venue for such an atrocity. The terrorist’s target group was also an international group, members of one of the largest faith communities in the world. From the terrorist’s point of view the fact that many of the victims were citizens or permanent residents of New Zealand was incidental; so was the fact that almost certainly none of the people who would pray at those mosques that day had ever been perpetrators of violent crime. To the terrorist, they were simply members of a global target group who were relatively accessible.
These same comments are equally applicable to the Colombo bombings. In Sri Lanka, Islam is the third biggest faith group, and Christianity is the fourth biggest. Sri Lanka is no stranger to ethnic and sectarian violence, including suicide bombings; it’s just that the violence has generally been between the two biggest ethnic/faith groups, the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils.
Antipathy by Sinhalese towards Muslims almost certainly was inflamed by the terrorist attack in Lahore (Pakistan) on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009. There were significant anti-Muslim pogroms by Sinhalese Buddhist groups in 2018. Hence the reason why Islamic groups were accumulating weapons before March 2019. These Sri Lankan groups were well placed to retarget Christians, following the Christchurch killings.
The small Christian community in Sri Lanka has not before been a focus there of group hate. This was an international event that happened in Sri Lanka, and was able to happen there for essentially the same reason that the Christchurch attack was able to take place in New Zealand; namely, Sri Lanka was just about the last place in the world that Christians would expect to be attacked because they were Christians. By understanding both events as essentially global rather than national events, it makes perfect sense to understand one as being utu for the other.
For us in New Zealand, Sri Lanka is not really on our radar (except when there is a cricket World Cup). However, New Zealand certainly is on Sri Lanka’s radar. People in Sri Lanka are generally more aware of New Zealand events than people of New Zealand are of Sri Lankan events. Sri Lankans understand that both countries are small island nations with much larger neighbours. Sri Lanka strongly values its sporting ties with New Zealand, buys lots of food imports from New Zealand, and has been an important source of international students in New Zealand for a long time; ie going back to the Colombo Plan days in the 1960s. Over the last decade there have been various reports of refugee boat people trying to get to New Zealand (example). All of these ‘boat people’ reports that I am aware of are reports about people from Sri Lanka.
Because we New Zealanders are citizens of the world, we should feel able to (indeed feel obliged to) express sympathy and condolences to the victims of the Sri Lanka massacre; just as we rightly express sympathy and condolences towards the victims of the smaller event in Christchurch. While the jury may still be out on the precise motivation (or motivations) of the Sri Lankan jihadists, on the balance of probability the Colombo tragedy would not have happened if the Christchurch shootings a month earlier had not happened. 318 people – 310 innocent people – lost their lives. The good news is that no ongoing chain of revenge attacks has been set in motion. RIP.