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Suicide Bombings In Sri Lanka Revive Painful Notoriety For The Island Nation


For the second weekend in a row, there will be no church services in Sri Lanka. This is because of fears of more attacks like the Easter suicide bombings that were blamed on Islamist extremists. More than 250 people were killed. As NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Colombo, many Sri Lankans are still wondering how such a thing could happen.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Sri Lanka knows war and suicide bombings. Its decades-long conflict between ethnic Tamil separatists and the majority Sinhalese government left more than 100,000 dead - a war that ended 10 years ago this month. Now the peace has been shattered by the bombings linked to the Islamic State.

JAYADEVA UYANGODA: Sri Lanka now is caught up in this global war.

SULLIVAN: Political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda.

UYANGODA: We suffered trauma for several decades. And there was this brief 10-year interregnum. And now we go back to living with trauma.

SULLIVAN: After the war ended in 2009, says Harinda Vidanage of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Sri Lanka's political leaders may have paid too much attention to the country's place in geopolitical rivalries in the Indian Ocean and too little on what was happening at home.

HARINDA VIDANAGE: You clearly see the return of foreign fighters coming from Syria towards their Asian destinations. There was a clear signal of polarization of Sri Lankan society both to the right and to certain Islamic groups becoming more and more radicalized. So I think these are things that we lost focus on.

SULLIVAN: And there were people who exploited that lack of focus.


ZAHRAN HASHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Like this man, the fiery preacher Zahran Hashim, police say was the leader of last month's bombings, one of two men killed in the suicide attack at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.


HASHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: In videos like this one, he rails against nonbelievers. Religious leaders here say they repeatedly warned authorities about Zahran and his message of hate to no avail. But he wasn't the only one preaching hate. Religious hardliners and the Buddhist majority community here have conducted a campaign against the Muslim minority for years, including anti-Muslim riots in 2014 and again last year.

ALAN KEENAN: There was complete impunity for these attacks. A mob swept through Muslim areas and burned people out. Absolutely no one has been prosecuted for any of this.

SULLIVAN: Alan Keenan is Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group in London.

KEENAN: And so clearly that has changed the mood within the Muslim community. They feel under siege. They feel unprotected. And the government has done very little to assuage those fears or to respond to the threat.

SULLIVAN: None of this, Keenan says, justifies the Easter attacks, and it may not have directly contributed to them.

KEENAN: But it's hard to think that it hasn't made it more likely that some small number of Muslims, feeling so alienated and feeling angry, might be more susceptible to extremely radical jihadi ideologies like IS.

SULLIVAN: Two of the bombers, brothers, the sons of a wealthy spice merchant, lived here in the affluent neighborhood of Dematagoda, where a 24-year-old grad student, a Muslim neighbor from a few doors down, is still trying to get her head around it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They had everything. They had money. They had all the wealth they needed. They were educated. So I asked my mom, why do you think they did this? What was wrong with them?

SULLIVAN: She's angry at them for taking life and for making her wary of leaving the house Since the Easter attacks. She doesn't want her name used because she's afraid. And she was shocked to see what some of her schoolmates have been saying about Muslims on social media since the attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now I'm really scared to even step out of this lane with my national identity card which has this address.

SULLIVAN: Because you think you will be branded.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, because I think I'd be branded. Oh, yeah. I used to be so proud, but not anymore.

SULLIVAN: The civil war here ended, she says. But now, now she too says Sri Lanka is part of something much bigger, and that scares her even more. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Colombo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.