By Tessa Martin
It was April 21st. My partner came barging into the living room, a look of shock on his face.
“Tessa, there was just a terror attack in Sri Lanka, multiple bombs have gone off.”
Thirteen days later, my flight landed in Colombo.
So much can be said about the attack itself…
About the victims.
The 257 people who lost their lives and all the others left behind.
All that has been lost… the families blown apart.
About the perpetrators.
The fact that they were only a tiny radicalized group who most likely had outside help.
About the fact that this attack made little sense locally,
as there were no prior issues between Muslims and Christians to speak of
– only between Muslims and Buddhists, and Muslims and Hindus.
This attack did not feed into any pre-existing local narrative.
About the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to react to all past and recent warnings
(from the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself
as well as from International Intelligence Agencies & Bodies)
about this specific group and a potential attack.
But there have been hundreds of news articles about that…
No, instead I want to talk about what happens after. How does society move on, or not?
I want to talk about what happens when the international eyes have turned away, following the dizzying spin of the news cycle, like flies drawn to the next brightest light. I do not mean this as an insult, as I also tend to fall into this rhythm.
But what happens after we stop watching?
I wish to talk about three things: Everyday life (locals), Islamophobia and Tourism.
Everything I have to say, of course, either comes from my experiences as an outsider, local news, or from countless Sri Lankans – friends, colleagues, random encounters and a lot of Tuk Tuk drivers – who have shared their thoughts, experiences and knowledge with me. I will do my best to relay what little understanding of the current situation I have gained over a mere two and a half months’ time.
I wish I could say this was my first time going to a city right after a terror attack. It wasn’t.
The memories of Paris in November of 2015 remain all too fresh.
Some parallels will be drawn.
I’ll begin with what perhaps, at first, appears most trivial… Tourism.
Only last year, Sri Lanka was rated the best country to travel to in 2019 by Lonely Planet. After a long a brutal civil war which ended in 2009, Sri Lanka had skyrocketed to the top of the travel charts.
The attacks quickly reversed this trend.
It did not take long to fall witness to this… On my second day in Sri Lanka, I decided to make my way to Gangaramaya Temple. While I was immediately dazzled by the peace and beauty of this place, one thing struck me all the more; the temple was completely empty. On the way back home from the temple I spoke to a Tuk Tuk driver/ tourist guide named Geethan, who told me that prior to the terror attacks an average of 800 tourists visited the temple every day. In the midst of our conversation, Geethan told me that he had gone from making 8000 rupees ($60 CAD) to 300 rupees ($2 CAD) a day because of the fall in tourism. He said, “I’m sure that in six months tourists will be back, but until then I don’t know how I will feed my 12-year-old daughter.”
The 70% fall in the hotel occupancy rate tells a similar story. In an effort to attract local tourism, the prices of rooms have dropped drastically. Although big hotels can take the hit, small hostel owners have been placed in a more precarious position.
While I was in Kandy, I found myself as the only occupant in a small hostel. One evening, I joined the owner of the hostel, Ramesh, for a drink and some nice conversation. Ramesh told me that prior to the attacks the place was always fully booked. In anticipation of the influx of tourists following the Lonely Planet rating, he had poured substantial finances into renovating the place. Ramesh is one of the many people now struggling to pay back their investment…
The East Coast, though in peak season right now, is deserted. Given the general upwards trend, many enterprising people from the area took out bank loans to open B&B’s and cafes and now are sitting empty while defaulting on their loans.
I hope this serves as a reminder of how important it is to come and support local economies in times of crisis. To us it’s a vacation; to them it’s a matter of subsistence.
Everyday life (locals)
My previous experience from being in Paris a week after the terror attacks in 2015 prepared me for one central sensation: the quiet. The feeling that time stood still… the deserted streets… the shock reverberating in everyone’s expressions. A rhythm of life slowed. The weight of the silence. The aura of mourning stagnant in the air.
To be honest, I did not fully grasp this upon first arriving in Sri Lanka. The constant flow of cars passing by and the periodic honking deluded me into a sense of ongoing activity. I was all the more confused when person after person commented on how quiet and empty the streets were. Today, now that the flow of traffic has mostly resumed to its pre-exiting insanity, I realize just how quiet Colombo had in fact been when I first arrived. ‘Quiet’ and ‘deserted’ are relative terms. Standstill looked different in Colombo as it had in Paris, but standstill it was.
In fact, I was not prepared for the level of disruption the attacks would have on people’s daily lives. Sri Lankans’ previous experience with 30 years of civil war – a war that only ended 10 years ago – did not desensitize people to the recent attacks, but rather triggered them. Over the course of my first couple of weeks in Colombo, I slowly came to understand that these attacks had shattered any sense of peace that people had finally acquired over the last decade.
The general feeling in the weeks following the attacks was: “we are back to square one.”
While the sight of the military in Paris felt absurd, almost like a parallel universe, the presence of the military in Colombo was all too familiar. I think this was best expressed by one of my co-workers, who said:
“I was driving my kids to school this morning and there were soldiers everywhere.
For a second, I thought WHAT YEAR IS THIS!? I was transported back to the war.
I don’t want my kids to get used to this… I don’t want this to be their reality too…”
She was one of the few people driving her kids to school that day.
This is where Paris in 2015 serves as an interesting, albeit morose, comparison. You see, the whole of Paris was in shock, but people kept going to work… kids continued to attend school… This was not the case in Colombo.
When schools reopened two weeks after the attacks, student attendance in major cities was reported to be as low as 5%.
In fact, people refused to leave their homes altogether. Supermarkets ran out of food as locals bunkered down in their houses for at least a week or two following the attacks.
The fear was palpable… Driven by a general mistrust in the government, and one another.
Over the past two months, I have watched as things slowly get back to normal.
But back to normal for who?
This brings me to the last and most important point I wish to make: the demonization of Muslims following the attacks…
Sri Lankan Muslims, representing 10% of the country’s population, are not new to Islamophobic attacks.
Communal violence erupted in 2014, and later in 2018 in Ampara and Kandy, as Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, with complicity of law enforcement agencies, rioted and destroyed Mosques, archeological sites, businesses and properties of Muslims. The reasons for the attacks were: (1) the phobia of a growing Muslim population, (2) the myth of sterilization pills, and (3) economic jealousy and rivalry between Muslims and Sinhalese. The idea of radicalization did not feature into the debate.
The Easter bombings didn’t just bring about a rise in Islamophobia, but birthed an entirely new reason to discriminate: fear of radicalization… of terrorism…
Muslims are not just seen as competitors today, they are seen as dangerous… as a threat to people’s safety.
The international Islamophobic narrative has made its debut in Sri Lanka, galvanizing the fears of the majority. The actions of a few have been held to represent an entire group, casting a dark shadow over Sri Lankan Muslims as a whole, all painted with the same brush. How… classic, I know. The predictability of human irrationality never falters.
It did not take long to see the effects…
The week of the bombings, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena outlawed the Niqab and Burqa, invoking emergency law. The fact that the suicide bombers had all been men with uncovered faces apparently did not feature into the decision.
In fear of backlash, many Muslim men shaved their beards and women removed their hijabs.
Their fear was not misplaced…
Three weeks after the bombings, a wave of Anti-Muslim riots by Buddhist hardliners broke out across the country. Mosques, Muslim business and homes were burned to the ground. A Muslim man lost his life, stabbed to death in front of his family while trying to protect his carpentry workshop. A nation-wide curfew and a social media ban were imposed, lasting 4 days and a week respectively.
On the evening of the second day of the curfew I walked into the living room to find my housemate sitting on the couch on her phone. I asked her what she was doing.
“Watching my country burn,” she replied.
There was a simplicity in the way she said it… Her tone matter-of-fact, yet conveying all the emotion in the world. The phrase keeps resonating in my head.
Rumour was that the police had done little to stop the mob… The descent into unbridled violence had been sparked by a Facebook post by a Muslim shopkeeper stating, “Don’t laugh more, 1 day u will cry.” It was interpreted by locals to be a warning of an impending attack. The man was arrested. Most of the rioters, were not.
Muslims, activists and politicians have reported a rise in the arbitrary arrest of Muslims and police harassment in Sri Lanka, a reality which has even garnered the attention of the EU. A Muslim doctor, falsely accused of performing sterilization surgeries on Sinhalese women by certain individuals seeking political mileage, has been refused bail because it would cause ‘societal unrest’. Meanwhile, a hardline Buddhist monk convicted of spewing hate speech received a Presidential pardon.
What’s worse? On June 3rd, all of Sri Lanka’s Muslim ministers and their deputies resigned, following demands by hardline Buddhist monks to fire five Muslim provincial governors and a minister from the government. Sri Lankan Muslims have therefore been left largely unrepresented in government, causing warranted apprehension.
While more could be said on the subject, I wish instead to turn to my own encounters with day to day incidents of Islamophobia – incidents that I either witnessed or which were recounted to me by people I met.
A month and a half after the attack, I went on a trip to the South with a Sri Lankan friend of mine named Fadhl. We were in Gall fort trying to rent a motorcycle, but that did not go as planned. After demanding that Fadhl give him his passport, the motorcycle owner blatantly asked Fadhl if he was Muslim. Rather than explaining his mixed heritage (being ½ Moor, ¼ Sinhala and ¼ Tamil), Fadhl simply walked away, refusing to dignify the man’s comment with a response.
Later that day, we met a local coffee shop owner named Kat, who told us that a Tuk Tuk driver had tried to persuade her to go to a Sinhalese shop instead of the Muslim grocer that she always got her groceries from.
Boycotting of Muslim shops is a common occurrence these days. According to a documentary filmmaker who I met last week, 60% of Muslim businesses in Batticaloa (which has one of the highest percentages of Muslims in the country) have been boycotted. Meanwhile, Muslim Tuk Tuk drivers on Pick Me (the local equivalent to Uber) have started warning passengers that they are Muslim, leaving many people to decide to get another Tuk. This, I think, is representative of a greater, perhaps more troubling, trend – A trend which this filmmaker pointed out to me.
When I asked what surprised her most about her interviews with Muslims from across the country, it only took her a second to respond:
“The Guilt,” she said.
I nodded silently, trying to push down my outrage at the thought that victims of discrimination so often internalize people’s misconceptions. Outraged because the world has succeeded in making Muslims feel responsible for the actions of others whose beliefs share no resemblance to their own.
And you know what really scares me most? This isn’t local at all…
What I am witnessing here feels like just another facet to the global rise of Islamophobia.