Sri Lanka is witnessing a worrying return to violence. On Easter Sunday, suicide bombers killed more than 350 people and injured another 500 in a series of highly coordinated attacks. The government banned social media and imposed a curfew as it sought to contain the fallout. But the political infighting that followed was a reminder that the South Asian island nation of 21 million people is still recovering from a recent political crisis and in rehabilitation from its brutal 26-year civil war.
1. Who was behind the bombings?
It’s not entirely clear, but the government has blamed local Islamic group National Thowheed Jamath for the attack. Some local Muslims and foreign intelligence agencies had warned that the group was becoming radicalized. But there are doubts whether the fragmented NTJ organization was capable of carrying out such a sophisticated operation. Sri Lankan officials are focusing on possible links to a second South Asian terrorist organization. Islamic State also has claimed responsibility for the attack. Suicide bombers attacked three crowded Catholic churches and three busy luxury hotels in the capital Colombo (the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand), detonating explosives that killed at least 39 foreigners.
2. What’s the political connection?
Several politicians, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, said not enough attention was paid to the intelligence warnings. Some viewed that as a barbed reference to President Maithripala Sirisena, who technically controls the police and the military -- a sign of the tension in the country’s governing coalition. Sirisena had tried to oust Wickremesinghe last year for mismanaging the economy and failing to properly investigate an alleged plot to assassinate him. Sirisena attempted to appoint in his place populist strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, claiming the move was within his constitutional rights.
3. Where did that lead?
Lawmakers voted twice to reject Sirisena’s bid to install Rajapaksa as prime minister, then froze spending by Rajapaksa’s office and ministerial salaries in an attempt to crimp the new government’s ability to implement policies. Tensions boiled over Nov. 15 when rival lawmakers exchanged blows in the middle of the parliamentary chamber. To settle the matter, Sirisena planned to dissolve parliament and call an election for Jan. 5. However, the Supreme Court ruled the plan unconstitutional, and Wickremesinghe was reinstated. Relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have remained strained.
4. Why is Rajapaksa controversial?
As president from 2005 to 2015, he was implicated in human rights violations toward the end of the civil war. He also drew criticism for his close relationship with China and the ramping up of public borrowing. Roughly 80 percent of government revenue now goes toward paying down debt. Nonetheless, Rajapaksa remains popular in part because many of the Sinhalese population (80 percent of Sri Lankans) were relieved to see a conclusion to the war and the regular bombings and assassinations it brought to Colombo and the rest of the country. The political uproar following the Easter attacks could benefit the Rajapaksa clan as they try to reclaim power, perhaps as early as presidential elections later this year.
5. What was the civil war about?
Sri Lanka has been weighed down by conflict since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. The Sinhalese sought to disenfranchise Tamil migrant workers from India -- Tamils make up 9.4 percent of the population -- and made Sinhala the official language. In 1972, the country’s name was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and Buddhism was established as the main religion. Tamils are mostly Hindu. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, was formed in 1976 and began to campaign for a Tamil homeland in the north and east. The civil war that followed killed up to 100,000 people, and both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military were accused of violations, including the use of child soldiers, before the war ended in 2009 with a government victory.
6. What’s happened since the war?
Economic growth initially took off, with Chinese loans funding infrastructure development even as western nations held back over concern about unresolved human rights violations. Extreme weather, from droughts to floods, has kept many Sri Lankans in poverty, but the country has moved to leverage strengths such as its location along key shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, a growing services industry and its palm-fringed beaches and ancient temples. Tourist arrivals -- mainly Chinese and Indians -- have gradually increased since the war, climbing to 2.3 million in 2018, but could take a hit after travel advisories issued following the Easter attacks. The broader economy has faltered, though, and the 2018 political crisis led Moody’s Investors Service, Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the island nation’s credit rating.
7. What about Sri Lanka’s international ties?
Wickremesinghe has re-balanced foreign relations toward India and Japan after Rajapaksa had shifted the country closer to China. While Rajapaksa was prime minister, Sri Lanka took large Chinese loans to fund projects including the construction of a port and airport in remote southern Hambantota -- his own political constituency. The port lost money and was eventually sold to a state-owned Chinese firm in a debt-to-equity swap on a 99-year lease, while the eerily empty airport has no scheduled daily flights.
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