World

China holds second forum on Belt and Road Initiative. Ukraine elects comedian as president. Motivation unknown for Sri Lanka terrorism. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Sri Lanka looks for clues on bombings

Mourners grieve at the burial on Monday of three members of the same family who died in the Easter Sunday blast at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
Credit: AP Photo / Gemunu Amarasinghe

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

China: On Thursday, China began hosting world leaders at a three-day forum to promote its $US1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, a globe-spanning scheme to develop trade and infrastructure.

The scheme attracted little notice when it was first announced in 2013 by Xi Jinping during visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan. But it has since gained momentum, particularly after the election of Donald Trump, whose insistence on trade wars and “America First” allowed China to present itself as a global champion of free trade. About 70 countries have now joined the scheme, which Beijing says offers a “shared destiny for all mankind”.

But, as with so much of Chinese foreign policy, the scope of the initiative and its aims remain impressively vague.

The ports, roads and rail projects will help to boost trade and, domestically, will allow China to improve the economies of its poorer western provinces and to expand markets for its exports and workers. But the scheme will also boost China’s global influence and risks leaving countries with heavy debts that could force them to hand over assets to Beijing.

Yet this week’s forum showed that the scheme continues to gain traction. It attracted about 40 world leaders and representatives from more than 150 countries. In 2017, at the first and last such forum, there were 29 leaders and 130 countries represented.

Despite its haziness, the scheme provides a clear measure of where countries fit in the new global power balance, as China’s rise undermines America’s dominance.

The United States refused to send senior officials, saying the scheme was “opaque” and could undermine stability in member states. Leaders of Japan, Britain, Canada and Australia also stayed away. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Pakistan’s Imran Khan were due to attend, as were the heads of most South-East Asian nations, which often tend to put pragmatism, rather than America, first.

The attendance list suggests the geopolitical momentum is currently in China’s favour, and that the scheme’s membership is likely to grow.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Ukraine: Yes, the incoming president of Ukraine is a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, who starred in a television show in which his character accidentally becomes president. The show, Servant of the People, is now in its third series. It is, as 41-year-old Zelensky has conceded, more Benny Hill than Monty Python.

Zelensky announced his candidacy from the set of his show on New Year’s Eve during a timeslot usually reserved for the president. He instantly became the clear election favourite. On Sunday, he won 73 per cent of the vote, defeating Petro Poroshenko, who has been president since 2014. Poroshenko has been blamed for failing to end corruption or to improve the ailing economy. He has also suffered from public fatigue over the war against Russian-backed separatists in the east, which followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Yet no one seems to know what the president-elect’s plans are for the country – including, apparently, Zelensky. During the campaign, he suggested he would prefer to avoid making policy commitments because, as he put it: “No promises, no disappointment.”

At his victory celebration, Zelensky entered to the theme song of Servant of the People, which is also the name of his new party. But analysts fear his inexperience will leave him ill-equipped to deal with Vladimir Putin, who may seek further influence in Ukraine or additional territory. Zelensky has signalled he may be open to compromise to end the war but has provided few details. His aides say they are keenly aware that in the show’s second series public support for the president turns into deep disappointment.

SPOTLIGHT: SRI LANKA

Colombo: About 8.45am last Sunday, the bombings began in Sri Lanka. First, a church and two hotels were hit in Colombo, the country’s capital, as well as another church in Negombo, a nearby seaside town. Five minutes later, a bomb exploded at another hotel in Colombo, followed by a final explosion at an evangelical church in Batticaloa, a city on the east coast. The series of suicide bombings lasted 20 minutes, killing at least 320 people and injuring more than 500. It was Easter Sunday.

Ten days earlier, a detailed intelligence memo, headlined “Information of an alleged planned attack”, was circulated by the country’s deputy inspector-general of police. It said National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a little-known Islamic group, was planning to target Catholic churches and named several alleged perpetrators. The information was based on foreign intelligence warnings, reportedly mainly from India.

The memo, which was widely leaked, has raised questions about the catastrophic failure by security services to respond and has exposed the nation’s bitterly divided political leadership. Yet it is still unclear who conducted the attack or why. On Wednesday, Daesh claimed responsibility, though this is yet to be verified. Sri Lankan authorities believe the attack involved nine suicide bombers, including one who had completed postgraduate studies in Australia.

Sri Lanka has endured years of violence, including a brutal 26-year civil war involving more than 130 suicide bombings conducted by the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group from the country’s mostly Hindu Tamil-speaking minority. But the war, which left about 100,000 people dead, ended in 2009. Since then, the linguistic-nationalist divisions that fuelled the conflict have been compounded by religious tensions. This has typically involved riots and attacks by elements of the Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority, which is about 70 per cent of the population, against the minority Muslim (10 per cent) or Christian communities (7 per cent). However, none of these prior attacks involved large-scale bombings.

According to Gehan Gunatilleke, an expert on Sri Lankan violence who is completing a doctorate at Oxford University, the attacks did not fit any of the country’s existing patterns of conflict. And this may explain why the intelligence memo went unheeded.

“It seems like a new fault line has appeared,” he told The Saturday Paper. “No one saw the Muslim community as a source of threat against the Christian community. It is almost as if this group is tone deaf to the local tensions.”

Gunatilleke said the attack appears to have involved outside actors but they were likely to have been motivated by regional, rather than global, factors. “Sri Lanka is a strange target for a global outfit,” he said.

But there was another reason why the memo may have been ignored. For months, the government has been paralysed by a feud between the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the president, Maithripala Sirisena, who controls the security services. Within hours of the attacks, Wickremesinghe and his colleagues began blaming Sirisena for the security lapse. “Information was there,” said Wickremesinghe.

Rajitha Senaratne, a minister, said: “We are responsible. We are very sorry, and we apologise to everybody.”

Yet the motivation for the bombings remains unknown. Sri Lanka’s defence minister claimed the attacks were in retaliation for the mass shooting in Christchurch last month. Security experts doubt the claim, saying the co-ordinated attack would have taken months to plan.

Meanwhile, the burials have begun, and so have the recriminations, including attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned shops. A night-time curfew was imposed in Colombo and social media platforms were blocked by authorities.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Sri Lanka looks for clues on bombings".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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