After A Decade Of Calm, Explosions Kill Nearly 300 People In Sri Lanka

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 10:13 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in Sri Lanka are trying to determine who knew what and when. Coordinated attacks killed nearly 300 people on Easter Sunday, wounding hundreds more. Authorities in the capital city, Colombo, are blaming a small local Islamist group for the attacks. About two dozen people have now been arrested. Local police reportedly told national authorities about threats to churches weeks ago, but it's unclear whether anyone acted on that information. The bombings come as Sri Lanka is about to mark 10 years since the end of a decades-long civil war.

Jeffrey Feltman is here with us in the studio. He traveled to Sri Lanka frequently as the under-secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations until 2018, and he happened to have been in Sri Lanka just last month. Thank you so much for being here.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: Thank you very much for inviting me.

MARTIN: May I first ask if you happen to know anything about this group that's being blamed for the attack? I think the name is National Thowheeth Jama'ath.

FELTMAN: Rachel, the first I had heard of this group was this morning in waking up and seeing the news. In fact, I talked to a couple of Sri Lankan friends and contacts this morning, and they also had never heard of this group. So it's completely unknown to even prominent political figures in Sri Lanka. Whether or not the intelligence community there knew or not is a different matter.

And I think it's worth noting that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has tended to be quiet, has tended to stay out of the news. It's less than 10% of the population. They did not participate in the almost-30-year civil war. And in fact, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, as recently as a year ago, was victim themselves of sort of mob violence by extremist Buddhist elements. So this is, I think, a shock to at least all the Sri Lankans I've talked to.

MARTIN: So are you saying there was no - was there any religious element to the civil war in Sri Lanka?

FELTMAN: I mean, the civil war was more ethnic - between the Tamil minority, which is 11%, 12% of the population, against the Sinhala Buddhist majority, which is 70%, 74% of the population. It was more ethnic than it was religious, with Tamils extremist group called the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group - trying to - or basically, it was an independence insurgency for 30 years, finally defeated in May 2009. But it was not religious; it was more ethnic.

MARTIN: So that leads us to the current moment. I mean, as we think about the broader context of these attacks that happened on Sunday - Easter Sunday, what is the political and social situation in Sri Lanka like today?

FELTMAN: Well, I mean, there's been an effort to promote reconciliation, reform, accountability in the aftermath of the end of that civil war. The end of the civil war had a lot of basic human rights - war crimes to end the war. But it did end the war. And so there's been a 10-year attempt to try to do reconciliation, economic development, etc. And it's been - there's been some progress - incomplete homework, I would say, but some progress.

And there's been an increase in tourism. There's been some economic development. I think all of this will certainly be affected by what is a, you know, massive, massive attack that took place on Easter Sunday. And it certainly will eventually play into the politics as they're - in Sri Lanka.

Right now, of course, the government has tried to come together in a unified way to look at what happened, to see how to react. But eventually, there will be political and economic ramifications, I would guess.

MARTIN: I want to get to those in a moment. But I do want to ask about the tactics of response here. The government in Sri Lanka is blocking major social media and messaging services in the country. What does that tell you?

FELTMAN: Well, I think that's a very mixed picture because, obviously, it's hard to get the truth out if you're blocking the vehicles by which people use to communicate between families and loved ones and more broadly. But this is a direct reaction to what happened a year ago, when the Muslim community in the central city of Kandy was attacked by extremist Buddhist mobs who incited their followers to go out using social media. So there's sort of a bad history in Sri Lanka of using Facebook, etc., to spread false information and incite violence.

So I think that explains the government's reason behind stopping the use of social media. But obviously, it has - it's a very mixed bag.

MARTIN: So you alluded to political ramifications. Just when it comes to the situation today - I mean, the prime minister has acknowledged that there may have been some intelligence missteps - that the, quote, "information was there" when it came to warnings about potential attacks like this but that he was never personally informed. Does that reflect a deeper rift within the Sri Lankan government?

FELTMAN: Well, there's a - you know, there's a very uneasy relationship between the president of the country, President Sirisena, and the prime minister, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In fact, in October, the president tried to replace the prime minister with the person the president had defeated in office back in 2015. And he failed constitutionally and judicially, politically to replace the prime minister. But it's clear there's an uneasy relationship between the president and the prime minister.

But I would expect that there would be an attempt to unify the response to this horrible, horrible attack. The issue, though, is that there are presidential elections that must take place constitutionally by the end of the year. And will this become an issue by which the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was defeated in 2015, tries to promote his party's fortunes by saying he defeated terrorism in 2009 when he exterminated the Tamil Tigers and now he can protect Sri Lanka again?

So I expect this will play out politically inside Sri Lanka over the next few months, even if right now the immediate issue is the aftermath, the investigation, security.

MARTIN: Right - and lives lost and grieving those lives. Jeffrey Feltman, former under-secretary-general for Political Affairs at the United Nations. Thank you so much for coming into the studio.

FELTMAN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.