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Sri Lankan Gov’t Responds to Unprecedented Attacks with Surveillance, Social Media Blackout, Curfew

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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 this has continued postwar, 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.

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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.


AMY GOODMAN: Lang Lang, performing Schumann. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the situation 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 churches and luxury hotels throughout Sri Lanka. The attacks killed nearly 300 people, injuring more than 500, leaving behind carnage and chaos. Sri Lankan police have now arrested about 24 people in connection with the attacks. Pope Francis condemned the attacks during his traditional Easter Sunday message at the Vatican.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Dear brothers and sisters, I learned with sadness the news of the serious attacks that today, Easter Day, brought mourning and pain to some churches and other places where people were gathered in Sri Lanka. I wish to express my affection and closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence. I entrust in the lord those who have tragically died. And I pray for the wounded and for all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event.

AMY GOODMAN: After the eight explosions Sunday, Sri Lankan officials forced the country of 21 million to go on a dawn-to-dusk curfew. Curfew is going to hit in a few hours from this broadcast today. Officials also blocked social media networks in the wake of the terrorist attacks—these terrorist attacks, the worst South Asia has seen.

For more, we’re joined in London by Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group.

Thanks so much for being with us. Can you put this in a global context? Alan Keenan, were you shocked by what took place, this Easter Day massacre in Sri Lanka?

ALAN KEENAN: Yes. Well, I think everyone was shocked. These are horrific attacks. And they’ve, rightfully, been condemned by everybody, you know, all over the world. And they really caught, I think, Sri Lanka by surprise there. As my friend Bhavani, just before me, was saying, they’re unprecedented even by Sri Lanka’s long history; you know, even relative to its long history of political violence, these are atrocious attacks.

But I think your question is a good one, because I think they’re not only unprecedented in their scale and the number of attacks in a single day and the levels of organization, but for those reasons, I think—but they’re also unprecedented in the sense that the Muslim community has never struck back at any other community in Sri Lanka, and despite, as Bhavani was saying, the last five, six years of sort of a sustained attack on the community by militants who say they’re defending Buddhism from the threat of Islamic extremism. So, until yesterday, there was really no tangible evidence of any threat of violent extremism.

And I think there are a lot of questions about to what extent those—assuming, again, that the police investigations are uncovering the real facts and that what they’ve uncovered so far is true, they’re wondering—a lot of people, I think, are wondering about whether the Sri Lankan Muslims who have been arrested were actually acting on their own or to what degree, as the government has suggested, they were working with some other kind of international organization or network. So, I think that’s one of the big questions, I think, that’s still to be sorted out.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard of this local group?

ALAN KEENAN: Not by name. So, National Thowheed Jama’ath is not an organization, I think, anybody really had heard of, other than perhaps some—the police, apparently, 10 days ago, had heard of them. There’s another organization called Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’ath, which has been in the news and is a Salafi organization known for its violent rhetoric and very aggressive anti-Buddhist and anti-Christian rhetoric at times, but not known for its physical violence.

This group named now as National Thowheed Jama’ath appears to be sort of part of the same or an aspect of or a name for a group that attacked some Buddha statues in December of last year in the central town of Mawanella. And that was really the first act of any violence whatsoever against Buddhists by Muslims, to my knowledge, in Sri Lanka. And it seemed like a local and isolated event. But police investigations, a few weeks later, linked that group of young men, who were apparently responsible for those attacks on Buddha statues, linked them to a discovery of an arms cache in the northwest of the island.

And that was the first inkling that perhaps there was some kind of a local Islamist, jihadi-type organization at work. But even then it seemed relatively modest by Sri Lankan standards, the threat. So I think what emerged yesterday is really shocking in its scale and has caught everyone by surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by T. Kumar, former international advocacy director for Amnesty International USA. Kumar was a political prisoner for over five years in his native Sri Lanka. He was adopted as a prisoner of conscience, and initiated a worldwide campaign, Amnesty did, for his release. He began his legal studies there, became a lawyer, devoted his entire practice to defending political prisoners. T. Kumar, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Can you respond to what’s happened in your native land, in Sri Lanka?

T. KUMAR: As Alan said, the scale and the way things have happened is new and took all of us by surprise. There are two aspects to it. One is, the ethnic conflict that lasted for 30 years and came to an end about 10 years ago is totally different from what happened yesterday, Easter Sunday. What happened yesterday was, allegedly, a Muslim extremist group have targeted Christian, prominent Christian, churches on a holiest day, to launch an attack. So, the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists was there for a couple of years now, but we never heard of conflict between Muslims and Christians to this extent. There may be some very low-level tensions in certain parts of the world. Both are minorities, by the way: Muslims are around 10% of the population; Christians are about 6% of the population.

So this is basically a target of Christians. It’s more than the local angle. You know, if there is a local issue, then definitely this group would have attacked Buddhist temples. But they have attacked Catholic and Christian churches. It shows that it is more than the local issue; it’s more about international. So, that’s something. I am sure the Sri Lankan officials are looking into it. That’s why I think Sri Lankan authorities are saying that this have an international angle to it.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you concerned about right now, T. Kumar, in how this plays out? And you have the Sri Lankan government apologizing. Apparently, this memo came out. There were warnings at the beginning of April, then mid-April, then apparently 10 minutes before the attack. The government has apologized for not heeding these warnings. Now they’ve shut down social media, much of social media. And if you can also talk about the role of social media?

T. KUMAR: Yeah, the role of social media, like anywhere else in the world, is a double-edged sword. So, during the attack against Muslims about a year ago, social media played a major role in—basically, that created more tensions. So the Sri Lankan government shut down social media at that time. So it’s a standard, routine security procedure that Sri Lankan security forces are doing when they see a nature of this attack.

There is also another reason—it’s the most important one—is, if you allow social media, and people started posting pictures and statements, then that could create more interreligious violence, physical violence between Buddhists, or Sinhalese, Christians and Muslims. So, that also is important to prevent that from taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: You were imprisoned in Sri Lanka for five years, a renowned prisoner of conscience. It’s where you began your legal studies, Kumar. And now you have represented political prisoners for years. You became the international advocacy director for Amnesty USA. Can you talk as a Tamil about what’s happened since the conflicts have ended in 2009?

T. KUMAR: Since the conflict ended in 2009, there was a justice issue that became one of the main issues for the affected Tamil community. So it went all the way to the Human Rights Council, and the council pretty much urged the Sri Lankan government to initiate some justice process, which still did not happen. The other aspects are the disappearance of thousands of Tamils who surrendered, as well as others who disappeared, then the victims—the plight of the victims, especially 90,000 Tamil women, who are mostly widows. So, the situation between Tamils and Sinhalese has kind of subsided more of a violent manner into a political issue and more of an international justice issue.

But the Muslim issue started about five years after the war ended. And it started between Muslims and Buddhists. Basically, Buddhist nationalists started going after Muslims, and it erupted in violence in two different places in Sri Lanka. Then, as Alan said earlier, last December, a group of Muslims, youth, went and attacked some Buddhist statues in the north—in the Sinhalese areas. And police was able to arrest most of them, but two brothers, they could not able to arrest. So, everyone was surprised that how come Sri Lankan security forces are unable to arrest these two individuals. Now it turned out that the Muslim youths are pretty much organized themselves, and you are seeing these results yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the most important questions to ask, Kumar, that the media should be asking, about what’s happening in Sri Lanka right now? Of course, it’s very important not to jump to any conclusions. We don’t know exactly who’s responsible for this attack, which is considered one of the largest terrorist attacks in South Asia.

T. KUMAR: Yeah, the most important issue that media should be focusing on is, number one, the government got intelligence report 10 days ago about specific targets. According to the reports I read, the intelligence identified churches, you know, that there are going to be attacks on churches by suicide bombers, as well as on the Indian Embassy. So they had the intelligence, but they did not act. Either they did not take it seriously or, for whatever reason, that they did not act. So, the question is why they did not act, is number one question people should ask, media should ask.

Number two is what steps Sri Lankan government is taking to prevent any ethnic-religious angles. Communal violence between Muslims and Sinhalese, both Christians and Buddhists, is going to happen. There are reports of certain attacks against Muslim shops in certain parts of Sri Lanka in the Sinhalese areas. So, that also should be raised.

And, most importantly, the final one, ensure that civil liberties and arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearance are not taking place in the context of anti-terror operations that the government will be initiating now. The danger now we are seeing is, as Tamils faced before, during the ethnic conflict and war, Sinhalese community is going to be rounded up, investigated and also singled out for everything, suspects. They are going to be the suspects.

Until—during the war, Sinhalese—I’m sorry, Sri Lankan security forces, as well as the Muslims, had a very cordial relationship. Most of the Muslims were recruited as intelligence operatives, because they live, Muslims live, among Tamils, as well as they speak the language Tamil, so it’s easy to be intelligence officers and get information. Number two, Sri Lanka also recruited Muslims as home guards. Home guards is more of a paramilitary force against Tamil Tigers, the ethnic armed group that was fighting for 30 years. So, the relationship between the Muslims as well as the political—not political, the military establishment was very, very close. There are so many senior Muslim officers in the intelligence community, Sri Lankan intelligence community, as well as in the security forces, mostly in the senior level.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, T. Kumar, for joining us, former international advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, was a political prisoner in Sri Lanka for more than five years; and, Alan Keenan, for joining us, International Crisis Group Sri Lanka project director.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s Earth Day. Stay with us.

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