Easter Carnage Threatens to Breed More Violence in Sri Lanka

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(April 22): One of Asia’s deadliest terrorist attacks in years shattered a period of relative calm in Sri Lanka, threatening to revive sectarian tensions that fueled a three-decade civil war on the Indian Ocean island.

More than 200 people, including as many as 30 foreigners, were killed in a series of coordinated explosions on Easter Sunday at churches and luxury hotels across the country, including the capital Colombo. Several Americans are among the dead, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said.

Some of the explosions were suicide bombings, Information Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said. While as many as 13 suspects were taken into custody, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suggested authorities had received warnings but “not enough attention had been paid.”

“We have to look deeper into this,” Wickremesinghe said in an address to the nation late Sunday. “But the first task is to make sure that the country is not destabilized.”

The unprecedented strikes on Christians and foreign tourists represented a shift from the violence between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority in a conflict that ended in 2009. The Colombo Stock Exchange put its Monday opening on hold and schools will remain closed until Wednesday.

The attacks will test a government that’s reeling from a political crisis last year that has weighed on the economy and led to downgrades in Sri Lanka’s credit rating. Authorities are being cautious to keep a lid on tensions: They’ve imposed a nationwide curfew, blocked platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp, and withheld information about those detained.

Unusual Target

“What these bombings potentially do is take it from inertia and political infighting and rudderlessness to a real fear of instability and a sense of a return to the bad old days,” said Alan Keenan, a senior Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group based in London. “It’s striking that in almost three decades of war between the Tamils and government forces, foreign tourists were never targeted.”

In Photos: Sri Lanka Reels From Deadly Attacks on Hotels, Churches

No one has claimed responsibility for the six coordinated explosions that took place at 8:45 a.m. local time on Sunday, as well as separate blasts later in the day. At least 450 people were injured in the blasts on churches and luxury hotels Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

President Donald Trump condemned the “terrorist attack” and offered U.S. help. Sri Lanka needs assistance from security officials abroad to “check foreign links of these groups,” Wickremesinghe said. He didn’t elaborate on which organization might be behind the carnage.

A pipe bomb found on a road near Colombo’s airport was detonated by explosives experts, Air Force spokesman Gihan Seneviratne said by phone.

Catholics, split between the Sinhalese and Tamils, make up 6.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, according to the nation’s 2012 census. Buddhists account for 70 percent of the total, while Hindus and Muslims make up the rest.

Economic Impact

In the early 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- known as the Tamil Tigers -- began fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The conflict, marked by the use of child soldiers and human-rights violations on both sides, killed more than 100,000 people before former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government won a decisive victory in 2009.

Read more: Sri Lanka, Finally at Peace, Risks Return of Violence: QuickTake

Rajapaksa has been a key player in Sri Lanka’s political fighting over the past six months. Last October, he was suddenly appointed prime minister by President Maithripala Sirisena, leading to a constitutional crisis. Wickremesinghe, the deposed prime minister, was reinstated in December after a Supreme Court decision.

It remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka’s politicians will unite in the face of the attacks, which threaten to further hurt economic growth. Wickremesinghe said his government was taking immediate steps to contain the situation, and appealed to citizens to maintain peace and avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation.

“You will find a downward trend in the economy,” Wickremesinghe said Sunday. “Tourism will get affected. There may be fund outflows.”

‘Bad News’

Sri Lanka’s economy has struggled in recent years, forcing the government to take out a $1.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Economic growth in the quarter to December was the slowest in 19 quarters. The rupee dropped to consecutive record lows last year amid the political crisis, before recovering this year.

“That is bad news for the country where the memories of the civil war are still very much alive,” said Raffaele Bertoni, head of debt-capital markets at Gulf Investment Corp. in Kuwait City. “Tourism is a very important sector for the economy and one of the major source of external reserves.”

Sri Lanka had previously received warnings of possible attacks on churches, but not on hotels, Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando said on Sunday.

Sri Lanka has a history of communal violence between virtually all groups, according to Keenan from Crisis Group.

“What’s surprising about this is the particularly brutal and coordinated nature of the attacks and targets, this combination of what appear to be Tamil Catholic churches and high-end hotels,” he said. “These are the first classically terrorist attacks since the end of the war.” - Bloomberg