Sri Lankan Government Responds to Attacks With Surveillance, Curfew

In one of the worst terrorist attacks to hit South Asia, Sri Lankan government officials say a local Islamist extremist group called the National Thowheed Jama’ath coordinated a series of eight bombings on Easter Sunday at churches and luxury hotels throughout the country. The attacks killed at least 290 people, injured more than 500 and left behind scenes of carnage and chaos. The government has apologized for not taking more preventative measures. Sri Lanka’s telecommunications minister said a government memo circulated by Sri Lanka’s top police official 10 days earlier warned of a possible attack, but that the warning was ignored. Officials have forced the country of 21 million people to go on a dawn-to-dusk curfew, and blocked many social media networks in the wake of terrorist attacks. We go to the capital, Colombo, for an update from Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Alternatives. “The discrimination, the targeting and the ethnic tensions have been there for decades,” says Fonseka. “This was most evident during the [Sri Lankan civil] war, but has continued post-war, as well.” We are also joined by Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group, and T. Kumar, former international advocacy director for Amnesty International USA. Kumar was a political prisoner for over five years in his native Sri Lanka.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Sri Lanka, where government officials say a local Islamist extremist group called the National Thowheed Jama’ath carried out a series of eight bombings on Easter Sunday at Catholic churches and luxury hotels throughout Sri Lanka. The attacks killed at least 290 people, injured more than 500 and left behind scenes of carnage and chaos. Sri Lankan police have arrested 24 people in connection with the attacks. Today, Monday, another bomb exploded in a van near a church, where scores were killed the previous day, as bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it. This comes as many residents are still searching for their loved ones from Sunday’s attacks.

SRI LANKAN RESIDENT: [translated] She went to church yesterday. We kept calling her after we heard of the incident, but there was no response. We didn’t hear from her, even in the night. That is why we came here first thing in the morning.

AMY GOODMAN: The round of attacks on Sunday hit busy Easter services at churches in the heart of Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community in the cities of Colombo and Negombo and Batticaloa. Bombs also exploded in three luxury hotels in the capital city of Colombo: the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury. Another blast hit a hotel near the zoo, and a final blast struck a private house in Dematagoda during a raid in connection with the attacks, officials said. Three police officers were killed.

Sri Lanka’s president said, in a statement, that, quote, “international organizations” were behind what he called, quote, “acts of local terrorists.” The statement also said the government would implement anti-terrorism measures that give additional powers to police. Sri Lanka’s health minister spoke Monday about the death toll.

RAJITHA SENARATNE: Nearly 300 people have died. Over 500 people have been injured, severely injured. Some are disabled. So, we are very, very, very sorry, as a government, we have to say. And we have to apologize to the families and the other institutions about this incident.

AMY GOODMAN: The government’s apology comes amidst questions about whether more preventative measures could have been taken. Sri Lanka’s telecommunications minister said a government memo circulated by Sri Lanka’s top police official 10 days earlier warned of a possible attack, but that the warning was ignored.

After the eight explosions on Sunday, Sri Lankan officials forced the country of 21 million people to go on a dawn-to-dusk curfew. Officials also blocked a number of social media networks in the wake of the terrorist attacks, including Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat.

Sunday’s violence comes after a decade of relative peace in Sri Lanka following the end of the 25-year civil war in 2009.

We hope to be going first to the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. We are trying to reach Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Alternatives. The phone lines have been difficult, but we’re going to see if we have her on the line right now.

Thank you so much for joining us. Can you describe what’s happening in the capital, Bhavani Fonseka?

BHAVANI FONSEKA: Thank you for having me. As we speak, there seems to have been another explosion in Colombo today, near where one of the explosions happened yesterday, in Kochchikade. So there continues to be security risks and uncertainty in Colombo and across Sri Lanka.

What happened yesterday, the multiple attacks, also is unprecedented. And it comes 10 years after the end of the war. So, it’s a very novel situation for many. And the coordinated attacks at the same time has now cost nearly 300 lives, possibly more. We don’t know at the moment, but it’s had a high casualty number, as well as many others injured. So, the situation in Colombo is very uncertain. And with the security situation as we speak, explosions happening, we really don’t know where things stand at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain exactly what you understand, Bhavani, has happened and who this local group is that many, including the government, say could not possibly have carried out this massive level of attacks, eight different explosions now, almost 300 people dead. It’s being called one of the worst terrorist attacks in South Asia.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: So, what happened yesterday, on Easter Sunday, was these eight attacks — three in churches, three in major hotels in Sri Lanka, in Colombo, the hotels — and this actually created a lot of fears, because people really had no idea. And it came at a time where there was no information in terms of security threats. Since the attacks have happened, the prime minister has gone on record and given a press conference, and today there were several other ministers in government who spoke to the media. And what has transpired is that the intelligence had actually informed of security threats a few days ago, but, according to the prime minister and some other ministers, they were not informed. So there is a huge issue of a lapse in security as to why measures were not taken.

According to the government, also they now claim there’s a particular group that seems to be associated. Now, this is going on what the government has said. I think we need to be a bit more careful in terms of what really this real situation is. But several arrests have taken place. And what we are seeing now is more surveillance, more questioning happening. And the explosion today was also in terms of a suspicious vehicle, and they actually found more explosives.

So, again, this is, as I said, a very new situation in Sri Lanka. We haven’t seen this kind of violence for over a decade. But the coordinated nature of it and from the statements made by the government, they seem to indicate it’s a local group but with possible foreign links. And this is something that we will have to see how it plays out and what more information comes to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last year, there were attacks on mosques and Muslim communities by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. That was last year. What happened there? And now talk about this targeting, which looks like — I mean, the three churches were Catholic.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: Yes. So, last year, and not just last year, the recent past, we’ve seen several incidents of ethno-religious violence where religious minorities have come under attack, and places of religious worship, from mosques to churches, have come under attack. This is not the first time a church has been attacked, but this is the largest attack. So there’s been other incidents where places of worship have come under attack.

What happened in March 2018 was in — outside of Colombo, there were different areas where the Muslim community, which is a religious minority, came under attack by extremist Sinhala Buddhist forces. There were arrests that happened with those incidents, but, to date, we have not seen anyone being prosecuted for the violence that was unleashed over a year ago. So there’s a concern in terms of accountability and whether there were actually investigations that really led to justice. Even as recent as a couple of days ago, there was a place of religious worship, a Methodist prayer center, that came under attack by Sinhala nationalist forces. There’s reported that it’s linked to a particular political group.

So these incidents are not new. It’s not isolated. It’s the scale and the coordinated nature that is new. And so, you know, there is a history. We’ve had nearly a three-decade war, but the conflicts have remained. What we’ve seen postwar, since 2009, is more increased attacks on ethno-religious lines. So, there’s a serious concern as to what the recent spate of attacks mean, the terrorist angle and the responses so far, or the lack of it. And these are the main concerns at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can explain, Bhavani Fonseka — there’s been a long history of identity-based violence, although 2009, largely, the violence between the Sinhalese and the Tamil minority, that came to — largely, came to an end. Can you give us that history?

BHAVANI FONSEKA: So, Sri Lanka has had decades of tensions, discrimination, violence. And this predates the conflict, the war, which commenced in 1983. And in 2009, the war came to a brutal end, in May 2009. And in a few weeks, we actually mark 10 years since the end of the war. But the discrimination, the targeting and the ethnic tensions have been there for decades. This was most evident during the war, but this has continued postwar, as well. So, it was ethnic, on the ethnic lines, for several decades, but now we see tensions, threats, violence on the religious lines, as well, and largely the religious minorities coming under severe attack. Financial, there’s economic interests of minorities coming under attack, so there has been several businesses also attacked.

But, unfortunately, as I said, the violence, the impunity has continued, because there has been very limited action to hold the perpetrators to account. And successive governments, not just the present government, successive governments have promised action, promised to address the ethnic question, promised a political solution, promised accountability, truth, but nothing has really materialized. So, the more recent spate of attacks and yesterday’s and today’s incidents really begs the question whether these incidents can be resolved. I feel it’s a new stage we are entering, because of the nature of the attacks we’ve seen in the last 36 hours. So, many, many more questions than answers at the present moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the shutting down of social media, Bhavani, the history of the use of this media? The government shut down WhatsApp. It shut down Facebook and a number of other platforms. Why?

BHAVANI FONSEKA: So, even in March 2018, the government shut down certain platforms, so, as we speak, WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber, several others are not accessible for those living in Sri Lanka. And this we saw in March, as well. And the rationale being that they were trying to contain the violence, the misinformation being spread. And this was — in 2018, we saw the block on certain social media platforms happening for a couple of days.

Now, in Sri Lanka, the violence happened at 8:45, or around that time, yesterday morning, Easter Sunday, and the block commenced a few hours later, and it’s still ongoing. There’s no word as to when this block would be lifted. So, the rationale from the government is that they need to monitor; they need to contain violence; they don’t want to spread hate and misinformation. So we will have to see how this is going to play out. But a worrying announcement today is that the government is going to bring a state of emergency in Sri Lanka. And we have a history of emergency during the war. Even last year we saw a few days where emergency was imposed. And this could lead to further restrictions, in communication, in terms of movement. And again, something we would have to see as to how this plays out.

AMY GOODMAN: We were going to have you on a live shot in Colombo. You had gotten in your car. But just explain the scene in Colombo right now. You ultimately could not make your way there in downtown Colombo.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: Yes, unfortunately. I was going to meet with some of your colleagues at a location near one of the sites which was attacked yesterday, which is just outside of Colombo, St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade. Your colleagues were there, and I was on my way there, when the second explosion happened. And access to that area has been now restricted, and no one can actually go in. And footage on local TV, local media, shows that there was an explosive device they found, and that’s why the area was cordoned off.

So, as I said at the very outset, it’s a very dynamic situation on the ground. A curfew was imposed yesterday. It was lifted in the morning. They now have announced curfew will be imposed again in a few hours’ time. So, between curfew and emergency being brought in, I think it captures some of the security concerns. But at a large issue of civil liberties rights, there are also concerns as to how those would be handled and whether it will be a measured response or whether this would lead to further panic and confusion.

AMY GOODMAN: Bhavani Fonseka, I want to thank you for being with us, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Stay safe.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we speak with a former Tamil political prisoner, a well-known international human rights researcher now, T. Kumar, as well as Alan Keenan with the International Crisis Group. Stay with us.