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Sri Lanka Buries Its Dead After Easter Sunday Attacks Kill Hundreds


Sri Lanka is burying its dead. Memorial services have begun to honor the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings there. The coordinated attacks targeted Christians, who are a minority in Sri Lanka. The country ended a long civil war a decade ago. And the end to the relative peace has many wondering what's next. And should Christians, who largely had not been targeted in the country before - should they worry about the future? To help us understand the divisions in Sri Lanka, we are joined by Jehan Perera. He is a political columnist in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. He also leads an advocacy group, the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.

Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

JEHAN PERERA: It's great to be on line with you.

MARTIN: The government in Sri Lanka is blaming two small, domestic Islamist groups for these attacks. ISIS has claimed responsibility as well. What do you make of the motives behind this attack?

PERERA: I think that the motive is international rather than domestic. Actually, when we heard that these attacks had taken place, we didn't know what the reason for them was because it was very difficult for me to imagine that Muslims had attacked the Catholics because both groups are minorities in Sri Lanka. The Muslims are a minority around 10 percent. The Christians are a minority of less than 7 percent.

MARTIN: It's an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

PERERA: Yes, and they basically have good relations with each other. So it did not make any sense because the domestic context did not indicate that there should be such an attack - such a monumentally hateful attack against the Christians.

MARTIN: So there wasn't a religious element to the civil war then.

PERERA: No, the civil war was really ethnic - national between - and the protagonists there were the Sinhalese, who are the ethnic majority - about 75 percent of the population - and the Sri Lanka - the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, who are about 12 percent. Of course, the Sinhalese are Buddhists - most of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, and most of the Tamils are Hindu. But there is a significant minority of Sinhalese who are Christian and Tamils who are Christian, too. Now, it is these Christians - Sinhalese Christians and Tamil Christians who have become the victims in this bomb attack by the Muslims.

MARTIN: So these attacks come 10 years after the civil war ended, and the country has really been at peace ever since. So how is what happened - the tragedy that unfolded on Easter Sunday - how is that threatening to change people's sense of security there?

PERERA: Oh, it has come as a great shock. I mean, it is something we never expected because after the end of the war - the war itself took 30 years; three decades. But when it ended in 2009, after it ended, the conditions changed dramatically because, of course, one reason being that the rebel group, LTTE, was completely eliminated, which itself is another story because the way it was - the war ended has given rise to a lot of issues of accountability and human rights violations. But after it ended, the situation was transformed. And especially in the last four years, since a new government came to power, the security situation has, you know, it has become so free here. Like, to get into a government office, you can get in without any checks - any security checks. Hotels - without any security checks. That's freedom of movement. This government has given a lot of space, freedom for people to do peace work, to engage in trade union action.

MARTIN: Do you expect that to change now?

PERERA: Unfortunately, it is likely to change now. Yesterday, the government declared emergency. There is limited emergency laws. They brought in very harsh laws, which enable also the military now to go into people's homes and search. It is probably necessary at this time, but what we feel is that the military is not trained to go into people's homes and search. And this itself can start generating new resentments among the target population, which, in this case, is the Muslim population. And we are very worried about this.

MARTIN: You say you understand that tension though. I mean, what's your overall assessment of how the government is handling this?

PERERA: The government - I think the government was very remiss in not averting this catastrophe. And very tragically, it appears that about two weeks ago, there was foreign intelligence reports and an internal report by the police, which went to the government, to the politicians, and to the defense ministry but which was not acted on.


PERERA: Astonishing what has happened - so we are very disappointed with the inability of the government to prevent this. They could have taken some action. They knew that something terrible was going to happen. But maybe - but they say they didn't expect it to be so bad. But still, it's very bad. But even if they didn't think it was going to be so bad, they should have warned the general population, which they didn't do.

MARTIN: And elections are upcoming in Sri Lanka this year, so we'll see if there's a political toll for all this. Jehan Perera, political commentator in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He's also executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He joined us on Skype.

Thank you so much.

PERERA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's turn now to Michael Sullivan. He's reporting for NPR in Colombo.

Michael, what can you tell us about the latest in the investigation?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: A state deputy minister of defense today offered some information but not a lot of information in terms of where his information was coming from, he said one of the suicide bombers was highly educated, studied in Great Britain and did his postgrad work in Australia before returning to settle in Sri Lanka and suggested many of the other bombers fit the same profile and that one was a woman and that it appeared the leader of the group had been one of the bombers who was killed. But again, not a lot of proof to back it up - and there've been lots of conflicting statements from government officials since Sunday.

MARTIN: And, of course, all this is happening as the grieving continues, right? Every day seems to bring a higher death toll. The bombings have now claimed the lives of at least 359 people. And the memorial masses are taking place, remembering the lives that were lost. Michael Sullivan, reporter on the ground in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He spoke with us on Skype.

Thanks so much, Michael.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.