Easter Sunday Blasts Exacerbates Elite and Ethno-Religious Tensions in Sri Lanka

The Easter Sunday blasts at three churches and four hotels in Sri Lanka killed at least 350 people and wounded several hundred others. While ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, this claim has not been independently verified. In fact, Sri Lankan officials have alleged that a little-known local Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), was involved in the bombings. 

The attacks have led to a high-stakes political blame-game over ministerial responsibility. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said that the intelligence services circulated warnings about the impending attacks two weeks before the bombings, but that higher levels did not act on them. According to Bloomberg, the remark was an implicit critique of the prime minister’s nemesis, President Maithripala Sirisena, who is in direct control of both the police and military. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne also claimed that even though the intelligence services had information on the people who might be involved in an attack, the prime minister was never informed. To avoid being blamed for this security blunder, the president announced the dismissal of both the defence secretary and the inspector general of police. The president also insisted that he was in the dark regarding an intelligence report warning of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka.

The event also marks a new development in Sri Lanka’s tragic history of ethnic and religious conflicts. Sri Lankan officials suggested that the attacks may have been carried out in retaliation for the shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March. Previously, relations between Christian and Muslims in Sri Lanka were good. The recent attacks might also be a reaction to a continued wave of hostility towards the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka, which has been fomented by the Singhalese Buddhist clergy, the police, and leading politicians, and culminated in anti-Muslim riots in 2018.