Reconciling Sri Lanka to its finer self

Sunday’s bombings show why the island nation’s recent moves toward reconciliation need to be revived.

Staff at a school in Ahmadabad, India, pray for the victims of Sunday's blasts in Sri Lanka.

On Tuesday, the tear-shaped island nation of Sri Lanka will hold a day of mourning for the victims of the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday. The government was wise to bring together a country of such diversity to remember the nearly 300 people killed in three churches and three hotels. It shows Sri Lanka, which remains trapped in competing national identities, still seeks reconciliation a decade after the end of a violent civil war.

Four years ago, the South Asian nation’s path to reconciliation seemed off to a good start. Voters had elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who came out of the Buddhist majority yet did not seem to reflect its tendency toward supremacism over minorities, especially ethnic Tamils (who are mainly Hindu) as well as Muslims and Christians. He promised to address abuses of the 26-year-long war against a Tamil separatist group with a mix of truth, accountability, and forgiveness, all in the name of social healing. Most of that work remains unfulfilled.

The suicide bombings, which the government attributes to a local jihadist group, serve as a reminder that Sri Lanka cannot afford a slow pace toward reconciliation. The motives behind the attack are still unknown. And few had imagined violence by one minority on another. Yet the attacks reveal in a dramatic way the widespread fears and divisions that need to be addressed in the nation of 21 million people.

Last year Mr. Sirisena did set up a process for finding the truth about the thousands still missing during the war. He also set up an office for reparations, although the Buddhist elite opposes the idea of compensating Tamils. Yet he opposes a call by the United Nations for a hybrid court to deal with allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses.

Forging a common identity among Sri Lankans requires that the various groups deal with either the reality of past victimization, especially for Tamils, or the false narratives about becoming victims, especially among Sinhalese Buddhists. The country has a long history of ethnic and religious harmony to build on. It is also Asia’s oldest continuous democracy, which can play to either the forces of division or to those ready to restore social harmony.

Old grievances can be overcome by truth and forgiveness. The Easter bombings show why Sri Lanka must step back onto its recent path of reconciliation.

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