Investigation Into The Easter Sunday Attacks Continues In Sri Lanka

Apr 23, 2019
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Flags were lowered across Sri Lanka today. It's a national day of mourning for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels. More than 320 people died in those bombings.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sri Lankan authorities have launched a full investigation, and police say they've arrested 40 suspects. Government officials say at least one local Islamic extremist group carried out the attacks but did not act alone.

CORNISH: The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, reiterated that point in a press conference today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRIME MINISTER RANIL WICKREMESINGHE: This could not have been done just locally. There had been training given and a coordination which we are not seeing earlier.

CORNISH: That coordination may have come from the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility. ISIS released a video that it says shows the attackers pledging allegiance to the group.

SHAPIRO: In his press conference, the prime minister also addressed reports that some Sri Lankan officials were warned weeks ago about the risk of an attack. He said that information never reached his office.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

WICKREMESINGHE: If it was known, certainly we could have prevented many of the attacks in the churches and had more security in the hotels. We could have prevented all the attacks or at least reduced the number of attacks that could have taken place.

CORNISH: All of this has many people asking why more wasn't done to protect the churches or disrupt the attackers' plot. And I put that question to Sarath Dissanayake earlier today. He's a Sri Lankan charge d'affaires in the U.S.

SARATH DISSANAYAKE: I would not give a very definite answer to that because if there had been any lapses, the government will certainly look at it. And they will see what has happened, and they will really going - go deep into that. But it is too early for me because hardly three days have lapsed.

CORNISH: What concerns are there about potential further attacks?

DISSANAYAKE: I don't know really because so far, for the last three days, the police and the army and the law enforcement authorities have taken measures to, you know, strengthen security to vulnerable places, and they have also maintained law and order. And then no tensions, no attacks have been reported towards any minorities. So that shows that, you know, people are really resilient. They understand the, you know, importance of maintaining law and order right now.

Otherwise, we would give in to, you know, people who are - you know, instigate fear and violence. So that has not happened. That has not been the case for the last 30 years, even during the height of troubles. So they haven't taken law into their hands, nor they have attacked anybody. So that shows that we are very resilient.

CORNISH: The troubles he's referring to are Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war. During that conflict, the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant group, regularly used suicide bombings against both military and civilian targets. That war killed tens of thousands of people before it ended in 2009. Dissanayake doesn't see Sri Lanka returning to the violence of that era, but he defended new emergency measures that the government says are necessary to maintain safety. I asked him about one - the decision to temporarily block social media in the country.

DISSANAYAKE: Although we welcome, you know, free media, we also see the importance of having social media. But at times, we find that, you know, people with vested interest - they, you know, spread hate and misinformation which can really, you know, damage the fabric of the country. That is why the government has taken this measure. It is a very temporary measure. I hope that this is not going to be the case in the long term.

CORNISH: What kind of misinformation do you worry about?

DISSANAYAKE: Now, you know, if you ask me - because we are a multireligious, multicultural and multi-ethnic community. And we - you know, we haven't had any tensions between - among the communities over the last three, four decades. So - but there can be people, you know, who can use the social media platforms to, you know, instigate fear and also instigate violence by spreading false information. So what we - what is needed is to give accurate information to all those who need them right now.

CORNISH: You talk about Sri Lanka being multi-ethnic and multiracial but - and mostly harmonious. But there have been incidents of attacks - right? - Buddhist against Muslim minorities, for instance.

DISSANAYAKE: That is - these are really isolated incidents. I don't think that they have had anything to do with peace-loving Sri Lankans. These are very isolated incidents. This has not been a pattern in Sri Lanka. Of course there can be, you know, elements within a society who maybe are doing things that can harm the others. But we have been a very peaceful, very law-and-order-abiding country. Our people are very peaceful.

CORNISH: Do you worry about? That peacefulness as the country has declared a state of emergency?

DISSANAYAKE: Not really, no. The state of emergency has been declared just to maintain law and order in the current situation, which is unprecedented in our history.

CORNISH: Are you hearing from many people at the embassy, from Sri Lankans here in the U.S.?

DISSANAYAKE: Certainly we get a lot of calls. And you know, we have been offered condolences and, you know, offer of support. And you know, things are coming. (Unintelligible) to say that things are very much, you know, alive here. And we must thank the U.S., you know, people also. They are coming in large numbers. So we are - we feel that. We are touched by their kindness and their sentiments and of course their offer of support.

CORNISH: Sarath Dissanayake - he's the charge d'affaires of Sri Lanka in the U.S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.