Five Key Policy Lessons from the Terror Attacks in Sri Lanka

May 14, 2019        Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Time: 5 min read

Image Credits: McKay Savage/flickr

*Ganeshan Wignaraja

Over 250 people died1 in last month’s IS-linked2 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, making it one of the worst terror attacks since 9/11.3 Major incidents such as this cause extreme disruption in fragile countries like Sri Lanka, which is already grappling with the legacies of a thirty-year civil conflict, a simmering debt crisis, weak economic growth, and a fractured, unequal society.

To deal with the negative fallout, Sri Lanka must respond with a mix of security, governance and development policy actions, offering lessons for other lower-income, fragile countries.

Five policy lessons following the attacks in Sri Lanka:

  1. Re-establish security, intelligence coordination, and political stability.
    The ruthless targeting of churches and luxury hotels in a highly coordinated series of suicide bombings on Easter Sunday4 took the authorities by surprise and caused widespread panic. Media reports suggested intelligence lapses, including a lack of information sharing between the country’s seven intelligence agencies, the President, and the Prime Minister.5 That said, the authorities quickly issued a dusk to dawn curfew6 and deployed the army to support the police. More controversially, a temporary social media block7 and a ban on the use of drones8 was imposed to stop racial incitement. Within days, the authorities sought support from several foreign intelligence agencies (including Interpol and the FBI)9 to track down the perpetrators, and are mulling over a UK offer to create a Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre10 to assess reports from different agencies more effectively. The President also commissioned a report under a supreme court judge to investigate the intelligence lapses.11 These timely actions prevented more bombings and initial riots against the minority Muslim community.Nonetheless about three weeks later there was some rioting which damaged mosques and Muslim owned shops in the North-Western Province. This instance underlines the need for a systematic public information campaign to educate the public on the enormous costs of ethnic violence (including losses of business confidence, foreign investment, tourism revenue, national reputation and ultimately slower economic growth) and the harsh penalties for law breaking. Enforcement of the law regardless of political affiliation is also important.
  2. Continue nation-building efforts and improving governance.
    The end of the civil conflict in 2009 saw some reconciliation efforts (such as the recognition of Tamil and Sinhala as official languages) and a transitional justice agenda. However, a huge challenge remains in developing a modern Sri Lankan identity where each community – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Tamil – can practice their religion within a unitary state. This national narrative, which has troubled Sri Lanka since independence in 1948, has several aspects. Reforming a school system which used to segregate children by language and ethnicity; instituting a course of study in good citizenship for all high-school students; outlawing hate speech; holding politicians to account if they incite communal strife, and creating a merit-based public service are all important steps towards a more prosperous country where everyone can benefit.
  3. Develop a tourism recovery plan and raise quality standards.
    The attacks, which killed 4412 foreign nationals, attracted international media coverage and led to travel advisories being issued by all major markets.13 The Finance Minister estimates Sri Lanka could lose $1.5 billion in tourist revenue in 2019, and thousands of jobs could go as a result of the attacks.14 The experience of similar attacks in Bali, Egypt and Tunisia suggest that Sri Lanka’s tourism loses may be even greater, as the sector could take at least two years to recover. Airlines and hotels are heavily discounting prices,15 while the authorities are offering ad hoc subsidies16 and running a $2.6 million marketing campaign to boost tourism.17 Following such a major blow to a country’s tourism sector, it is essential to formulate a coherent recovery plan in close consultation with business. This should include decisive security measures, attracting inbound tourists from niche markets, better price to quality ratios for hotels, and training on world-class service standards.
  4. Pursue prudent macroeconomic management.
    Reflecting diminished business confidence, Sri Lanka’s economic growth is likely to slow to 3.0-3.5% in 2019 and 2020. Within the limited fiscal space of a debt-ridden economy, a counter-cyclical programme should be attempted, including a fiscal stimulus package, lower financing costs for small businesses, cutting red tape, and speeding up the implementation of renewable energy projects.
  5. Promote agriculture and food security.
    Lower tourism revenue, trade and foreign investment means less foreign exchange and reduced capacity to import food. This, along with variable rainfall, risks food insecurity and rising inequality. Reform of Sri Lanka’s inefficient agricultural sector, where a quarter of the population work,18 is another priority. Fixing agriculture requires consolidating multiple ministries focused on the rural sector into a single ministry of agriculture. Other measures could include: high-yielding crops, boosting irrigation, and training.

Since 9/11, the likelihood of terror attacks that cause significant disruption to the economy, politics and society of fragile countries like Sri Lanka has greatly increased. To manage to this threat, fragile countries need a comprehensive national response that involves an integrated set of security, governance and development policies.

Notes

1Ministry of Health, Nutrition & Indigenous Medicine. (2019). Press Release – Director General of Health Services. [online] Available at: http://www.health.gov.lk/moh_final/english/index.php [Accessed 09 May 2019].

2The Guardian. (2019). Sri Lanka bombings: Islamic State claims responsibility for attacks. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/23/sri-lanka-bombings-first-burials-take-place-on-day-of-mourning  [Accessed 09 May 2019].

3The Guardian. (2019). Sri Lanka terrorist attacks among world’s worst since 9/11. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/22/sri-lanka-terrorist-attacks-among-worst-world-911 [Accessed 10 May 2019].

4The New York Times. (2019). Sri Lanka Attacks: What We Know and Don’t Know. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/world/asia/sri-lanka-easter-bombing-attacks.html [Accessed 09 May 2019].

5The Diplomat. (2019). Sri Lanka’s Perfect Storm of Failure. [online] Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/23/sri-lankas-perfect-storm-of-failure-bombings-government-mistakes-terrorism/ [Accessed 09 May 2019].

6Ada Derana. (2019). Island-wide police curfew declared. [online] Available at: http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=54500 [Accessed 09 May 2019].

7Ada Derana. (2019). Social media temporarily blocked. [online] Available at: http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=54502 [Accessed 09 May 2019].

8Newsfirst. (2019). Usage of Drones Banned Until Further Notice. [online]. Available at: https://www.newsfirst.lk/2019/05/14/usage-of-drones-banned-until-further-notice/ [Accessed 14 May 2019].

9CNN. (2019). The latest on Sri Lanka’s Bombing investigation. [online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/asia/live-news/sri-lanka-bombings-latest-day-4-intl-dle/index.html [Accessed 09 May 2019].

10News First. (2019). UK to support setting up body to analyze terrorism threats. [online] Available at: https://www.newsfirst.lk/2019/05/03/uk-to-support-setting-up-body-to-analyze-terrorism-threats/ [Accessed 09 May 2019].

11Sunday Times. (2019). President appoints three-member committee headed by former SC judge Vijith Malalgoda to probe Easter Sunday attacks. [online] Available at: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/article/1084990/president-appoints-three-member-committee-to-probe-easter-sunday-attacks [Accessed 09 May 2019].

12Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. (2019). Update on Foreign National Casualties at Explosions in Sri Lanka – 06 May 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.mfa.gov.lk/update_06-may-2019/ [Accessed 09 May 2019].

13Daily News. (2019). Countries tighten travel advisories to Sri Lanka. [online] Available at: http://www.dailynews.lk/2019/04/29/local/184096/countries-tighten-travel-advisories-sri-lanka [Accessed 09 May 2019].

14Daily Mirror. (2019). Govt. assessing damage to economy: Mangala. [online] Available at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/breaking_news/Govt–assessing-damage-to-economy:-Mangala/108-166066 [Accessed 09 May 2019].

15Economy Next. (2019). Thousands of tourists cut short visits to Sri Lanka, new bookings fall. [online] Available at: https://economynext.com/Thousands_of_tourists_cut_short_visits_to_Sri_Lanka,_new_bookings_fall-3-14144-7.html [Accessed 09 May 2019].

16Economy Next. (2019). Sri Lanka announces debt moratorium, subsidized credit for tourism. [online] Available at: https://economynext.com/Sri_Lanka_announces_debt_moratorium,_subsidized_credit_for_tourism-3-14335.html [Accessed 09 May 2019].

17Daily News. (2019). Relief package to strengthen tourism sector. [online] Available at: http://www.dailynews.lk/2019/05/08/finance/184959/relief-package-strengthen-tourism-sector [Accessed 09 May 2019].

18Department of Census and Statistics. (2017). Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey Annual Report-2017. [online] Available at: http://www.statistics.gov.lk/samplesurvey/LFS_Annual%20Report_2017.pdf [Accessed 09 May 2019]

*Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja is the Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated. This article was originally published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London.

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