On Easter Sunday, tragedy struck the island nation of Sri Lanka, as a series of bombs exploded across the country. These explosions, suspected to be from suicide bombers, targeted Roman Catholic churches and luxury hotels where large amounts of people were converging to celebrate Easter Sunday. The powerful explosives killed hundreds and wounded many more, in one of the worst attacks in Sri Lankan history.
Reports have emerged that the Sri Lankan police had issued a letter to government security officials on April 11th, warning of possible suicide attacks directed towards Catholic Churches. The threat was identified as coming from a radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Initially, the police arrested 24 individuals for suspected roles in the attack and have publicly blamed the extremist group for the attacks. However, as events unfolded, the government has now announced that another group was also involved: Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. Investigators believe the attackers have “overseas links”, and the Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for the attacks. Sectarian violence has been a rising problem recently, with Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim-owned homes and businesses last year, prompting a state of emergency declaration in the central district of Kandy.
Disturbingly, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has publicly stated that neither he nor his ministers were informed of this possible threat. He announced that Sri Lankan officials will be looking into why “adequate precautions were not taken” in response to the intelligence gathered. Some have interpreted these comments as a subtle jab at President Maithripala Sirisena, who heads the security forces. These two men have had a turbulent relationship, exacerbated by the constitutional crisis this past October. President Sirisena has ordered a special police task force and the military to investigate the attacks and determine the attackers, along with their agenda.
In an effort to stop misinformation and curb potential retaliatory attacks or mob violence, the Sri Lankan government implemented a state-wide ban on social media networks, blocking sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Youtube. Presidential adviser Harindra Dassanayake said that “this was a unilateral decision”, reflecting the growing concern that these social media networks can create or fuel more violence. Sri Lanka has a troubled history with social media, especially Facebook. On the popular social media network, viral rumors and calls to violence appeared to have provoked a wave of anti-Muslim riots and lynchings last year, leaving government officials wary of the potential dangers social media presents to their society. Interestingly, in the wake of the Easter attacks, the Sri Lankan government shut down social media prior to any further instances of violence. This unusual move perhaps reveals that the government does not trust these companies’ ability or willingness to police their platforms and prevent further violence from occurring.
While this move may have provoked significant outrage only a few years ago, with critics accusing the government of censorship or limiting free speech, it has steadily grown more and more acceptable. Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, a digital advocacy and journalism organization, believes that such a move would have been “outrageous” a few years ago, but now these companies are no longer seen as “effective, benevolent or possibly positive”. Other countries nearby, such as India and Myanmar, have also experienced significant difficulties caused by these social media networks.
The situation has changed rapidly, as the government has declared emergency law, giving them wide powers to arrest and question suspects without a warrant. As such, the number of suspects arrested has jumped from 24 to 40. Disturbingly, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this attack through their Amaq news agency. While some Western officials boasting that the Islamic State is defeated, many have feared that the terrorist organization would move towards South and South East Asia.
As the police and military continue their investigation into the attacks, leaders around the world offered their sympathies and support to the grieving nation. Religious figures on all sides have issued calls for harmony and peace among the religious groups on the island. In the coming days hopefully the perpetrators can be brought to justice and further attacks prevented.