Sri Lankan soldiers inspect the damage inside St. Sebastian’s Church where a bomb blast took place in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Photographer: Tharaka Basnayaka/Bloomberg)

The Violent Backdrop to Sri Lanka’s Deadly Bombings

(Bloomberg) -- Sri Lanka is witnessing a worrying return to violence. On Easter Sunday, suicide bombers killed 253 people and injured hundreds of others in a series of coordinated attacks. The government banned social media, imposed curfews and detained about 70 people, while the U.S. State Department warned that groups "continue plotting possible attacks." The political infighting that’s followed served as a reminder of the tensions that persist as the island nation of 21 million people recovers from its brutal 26-year civil war.

1. Who was behind the bombings?

The government, which revised the death toll down from 359 because of difficulty identifying the victims, has blamed a little-known local Islamic group called the National Thowheed Jamath. The Islamic State also has claimed responsibility. Sri Lankan Muslim groups and foreign intelligence agencies said they warned intelligence agencies that the local group was becoming radicalized. But the sophisticated nature of the attacks point to international links. The suicide bombers attacked three crowded Catholic churches and three busy luxury hotels in the capital Colombo, detonating explosives that killed about 40 foreigners. In the week that followed, the city remained on edge as security forces uncovered more bombs and conducted controlled explosions, including of a pipe bomb found on the road to the airport.

2. What’s the political connection?

Several politicians, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, said not enough attention was paid to the intelligence warnings. He’s asked top defense and police officials to resign. 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?

The Violent Backdrop to Sri Lanka’s Deadly Bombings

Lawmakers voted twice to reject Sirisena’s bid to install Rajapaksa as prime minister. 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 is likely to benefit the Rajapaksa clan as they try to reclaim power. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former president’s brother who served as defense secretary during the war, told Bloomberg News the botched handling of the attacks has strengthened his resolve to run in presidential elections scheduled 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 will take a hit 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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