First published in Peace Chronicle, the mnagazine of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Summer 2019.
Write whatever makes sense to you, I was told. Though I understood the instruction, I struggled with its execution. The suicide bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka massacred over 250 people. This included 45 children, or about the same number as those killed by the awful terrorism in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month earlier. Many hundreds more were injured, some severely. News reports on children who survived the attacks—too scared to speak and many scarred for life—I admit I glossed over. The content was just too hard to read, much less comprehend. While international media attention covered the terrorism on Easter Sunday and the days immediately following, then moved on to other world events, the violence, instability, confusion and chaos on the ground and across the country continued for over a fortnight. Struggling for words to capture what unfolded on the 21st of April, those of a certain age were reminded of and reverted to a time in the late 1980’s, when Sri Lanka was dealing with open war in the North-East, a brutal radical Marxist uprising in the South and a government of the day that was equally vicious in response and reaction.
After the awful terrorism in Christchurch a month prior, I was asked to respond to the violence by those in my University and beyond who harboured the assumption that I was used to that level of violence. I didn’t know quite what to say to my interlocutors, many of whom had had the envious privilege of mostly studying violent conflict in a library. The assumption was partly true. Many born to protracted conflict, faced with systemic discrimination or living in violence normalize the abnormal, the exceptional and chronic instability. Once normalised, ordinary life is conducted in frames that consider a day at a time. My parents, for example, when my sister and I were growing up, never came to any event in public together. Their logic, which I learnt as an adult, was that if one were to be killed by a suicide bomb—a common occurrence in the country of my childhood and youth—we would not be orphaned. This is not an equation I had to make with my son, who is now 12. Growing up in Sri Lanka, he has for almost all his life, never experienced the violence his mother and I grew up with and learned to negotiate.
These old considerations are now real and reborn. You don’t ever get used to this violence. It takes its toll in what is often not documented. The pauses, silences, shuttering of doors, closing of windows, darkening of rooms, cancellations, closures and concerns that grow within, but aren’t ever fully vocalized. You don’t get used to the loss of life. You don’t get used to seeing children die. You don’t get used to the constant anxiety. You learn to live, laugh and love despite the violence. But you never get used to it.
How then to make sense of what happened? I took recourse to my doctoral research, which looks at the role, reach and relevance of social media in Sri Lanka. I look at Facebook and Twitter in particular, but my focus extends to other platforms as well. Variously called networked gatekeeping or complex media ecologies, at its simplest, this area of research involves looking at how content produced or promoted digitally impacts public opinion as well as kinetic, physical reactions and responses. This is not as simple as positing a causal relationship between what’s posted online and what happens in the real world. And yet, Western scholarship and writing, very evident in the media framing and responses to the Easter Sunday violence, tends to simplistically project social media as an accelerant to violence on the ground. Contributing to this perspective, the Sri Lankan government blocked social media on Easter Sunday for nine days, ostensibly to protect citizens from misinformation seeded and spread on social media. It was Sri Lanka’s longest social media disruption. A few from outside the country and from Western countries supported this. However, many in Sri Lanka and I pushed back. Lived experience, context, culture and hard data, amongst other pulse points, very clearly indicated that blocks initiated by the government were entirely ineffective in their stated aims and counter-productive to boot.
Faced with the catastrophic failure of government to act on intelligence reports provided well in advance of the attacks, the near total collapse of crisis communications by the President and Prime Minister, the insensitivity of MPs who laughed and joked at a press conference held a day after the attacks, the shifting of blame, incredible denials, jostling for parochial or partisan advantage and in general, a complete lack of contrition and unity in responding to the massacre, tens of thousands expressed their frustration on social media. Data collected during the week saw unprecedented levels of grief on the 21st. By the 28th, this had transformed to very high levels of anger across more than 1,000 web pages dealing with politics, news, information, gossip, memes, entertainment and religion that I closely monitor. There was also, statistically, a lot of love on Facebook. More qualitative analysis indicated the emotion was closely pegged to criticism of the government. Violent rhetoric against the Muslim community grew apace, despite the social media block. Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the country suffered the brunt of the pushback, with many forced out of their shelters and housing.
Seven million of the country’s 22 million are on Facebook. There are around 23 million SIM cards registered in the country. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram are used by millions, daily, for everything from business and commerce to family chats and news. In just a week, some of the videos on Facebook uploaded by prominent news channels or politicians, even with a social media block in place, were viewed more times than the population of the country. Especially in the aftermath of a disaster, citizens turn to social media for news and information. Facebook is inextricably entwined into the country’s socio-political, economic and communications DNA. In this context, the blocking of social media added to the anger. It also weaponised grief, fear and anxiety by creating the space for content that whipped up emotions or incited hate. Importantly, this hate and violent othering have festered for decades in the country. Aside from ethno-political conflict, the country has, even after the end of war ten years ago, witnessed sustained violence against the Muslim community, condoned and even openly architected by sections of the Buddhist clergy. The terrorism on Easter Sunday was intentionally aimed at exacerbating these tensions.
Sri Lanka is already a tragic example of a new kind of transnational terrorism. For those of us who call it home, much of the commentary and framing in the media is a blur at best. We remain paralysed, not just by the magnitude of the events on Easter Sunday, but what is essentially a reset for the country’s post-war trajectory. With presidential elections due later this year revolving around populist incumbents and candidates, this terrorism plays into deeply problematic framing and responses. Comments by President Maithripala Sirisena, other politicians, and the army, blaming human rights activists and “too much of peace” for the violence, indicates the contours of a hostile terrain for peace and reconciliation which is both distressingly familiar and disturbingly novel.
I was asked to make sense of the violence on Easter Sunday. The reader, I hope, will forgive me for my failure to do so. Writing five op-eds published in New Zealand, studying and responding to the violence in Christchurch, I thought, would somehow prepare me better to capture what Sri Lanka experienced. The challenge for many of us in peacebuilding is to intellectually engage when emotionally overwhelmed. I am not alone in this and join many others in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and beyond who seem destined to find new meaning or take refuge in the pregnant lines of Robert Frost,
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.