I have been trying to keep abreast of the bombings in Sri Lanka that have led to global condemnation. There are reports of a armed stand-off at an apartment building where three police officers were killed. The government has reportedly made some arrests but they are not revealing the names of those taken into custody and have urged the media not to do so either. This is likely because in Sri Lanka one’s name is an almost certain indictor of one’s linguistic/ethnic group and they likely fear that there will be vigilante retaliation against innocent members of that community. One should also be wary of any early reports. Sri Lankan police tend to depend upon the ’round up the usual suspects and see if they confess’ method of investigation, not the best way of getting reliable information.
State Minister/ Defence @RWijewardene urges media not to publicise names of today's attackers. He warned other extremist groups could exploit situation & create tension between communities. "Don't give extremists a voice. Don't help to make them martyrs" #EasterSundayAttacksLK
— dharisha (@tingilye) April 21, 2019
Given Sri Lanka’s history of vigilante violence, this is not an unreasonable fear but I suspect that even with the shutting down of all social media platforms, the names will emerge soon. Authorities have said that the perpetrators appear to be local though they are investigating possible international connections. The prime minister has acknowledged that warnings of a possible attack had been received but not conveyed to him.
Prime Minister @RW_UNP says there appears to have been prior information about a possible attack. He was also not kept informed and it is one of the issues that must be looked into. "For now the priority is to apprehend the attackers" pic.twitter.com/hdm7dJ5zDK
— Azzam Ameen (@AzzamAmeen) April 21, 2019
But again, in this day and age where governments keep close surveillance on pretty much everyone, I suspect that security services get warnings of possible attacks on a regular basis and need to judge which ones to take action on and which ones to just monitor further.
The pattern of targets, both in terms of geography and nature, is perplexing. Two of the churches struck were Catholic ones on the west coast, one in Colombo and one just outside, the former an iconic shrine that even non-Catholics would patronize on occasion. Was this meant to be an attack on Catholics? Or was it just a statistical result, since Catholics make up over 80% of the 8.0% Christian minority in the country? The third church was way across on the eastern edge of the island and was an independent fundamentalist evangelical charismatic church. All three churches are patronized by mostly poor people, The perpetrators seemed to have avoided the fancier churches and cathedrals frequented by the elites. But the choice of churches on Easter Sunday to launch the attacks seems to suggest an anti-Christian focus.
But when it came to the hotels, the opposite is true, with the three main targets being the highest-end luxury hotels frequented by tourists and wealthy local business, political, and social elites. There was also an exception to this pattern, a fourth attack on what is called a ‘guest house’ in Sri Lanka, which can be described as a kind of lower-budget boutique hotel, near the national zoo just outside the Colombo city limits. These were all secular targets and the victims would be a cross-section of the island’s religious/linguistic/ethnic communities.
It may be that I am giving the people who did this too much credit by seeking to find some grand plan behind their murderous acts. In the end, there may be no deeper reason for the choice of targets than to foment fear and hatred and suspicion by killing and maiming as many random innocent people they could find located in soft targets.