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Sri Lanka bomb blasts: Growing divide within government and history of Emergency paint grim picture ahead

In a press conference, Sri Lankan government spokesperson and minister Rajitha Senaratne confirmed that information about possible suicide attacks at Christian places of worship and tourist areas had been shared prior to the attacks by foreign intelligence and local intelligence, including with the DIG of the Special Security Division of the Sri Lankan police. Intelligence had been shared two weeks, four days prior and even ten minutes prior to the attack, Seneratne said.

Minister Rauff Hakeem, who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, called these revelations a colossal failure on the part of the intelligence services. He claimed that sharing all information about the lapses on part of the government is not to pass the blame, but to take responsibility for these inactions and strategise how to move forward.

 Sri Lanka bomb blasts: Growing divide within government and history of Emergency paint grim picture ahead

Sri Lankan Army soldiers secure the area around St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo. AP

A government analyst speaking to the media confirmed that the explosions at St Anthony's Kochchikade, St Sebastian’s Katuwapitiya, Zion Church Batticaloa, Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand were carried out by suicide bombers. Twenty-four persons have been arrested so far, and police believe most of them are part of a ‘radical Islamist group’.

At 8.07 pm on Monday, a day after the blasts rocked Sri Lanka, the death toll of the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka rose to 290. Curfew was lifted at 6 am on Monday, and reimposed at 8 pm in the evening.

Senaratne named the radical group as the National Thowheed Jama'ath; all those arrested have been locals, and the government does not know if it has any international connections.

The rest of his press conference highlighted the continued division within the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government after the political crisis of October 2018. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has not been invited to a National Security Council meeting since the crisis. Following the attacks, he had invited the Security Council for a meeting, which they refused to attend. He himself therefore went to the defence establishment to join their meeting, and was kept waiting for some time before he was able to participate.

The letter was issued from IGP Pujith Jayasundera, chief of Sri Lanka’s police, to local intelligence as well. All these institutions currently fall under the purview of President Sirisena, who also heads the Ministry of Defence. Constitutionally, he only holds the defence portfolio, but after the crisis last year, he ordered that the police department be brought under the Ministry of Defence as well, in an extension of his executive power.

Senaratne apologised to the families of the dead and injured for the huge lapse on the part of the government for failing to follow up on this information. However, the apology does not eradicate the government’s failure to act, and the many lives lost as a result.

The government spokesperson also said that the lack of emergency regulations meant little could be done with the information available. This is despite the fact that Sri Lanka’s state security and intelligence apparatus has remained active in the ten years since the end of the ethnic conflict. Surveillance by military and intelligence of activists and journalists has continued, especially on Tamil populations in the North and the East. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando has since claimed that state authorities will be receiving FBI, Interpol and Australian Police assistance in the investigations.

The National Security Council has gone on to impose a conditional State of Emergency with articles on combating terrorism to come into effect at midnight on 22 April.

While the details of these clauses and their implementation is yet unknown, it is important to note that enacting a State of Emergency comes against a backdrop where activists have been campaigning for the removal or improvement of counter-terror legislation in the country. For decades, civil society has pushed for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that has been long used to target the Tamil population, the media and dissenters.

While the latest draft of the Counter-Terrorism Bill improves on some of the PTA’s problematic provisions, it still raises several concerns; these are mainly the broad nature of the definition of terrorism and the wide arrest powers given to forces personnel. Given these concerns and despite the threat level, that forces are now allowed to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders, continue to be a problematic reality for minorities. In the past, Sri Lanka has been under Emergency for extended periods of time, long after an immediate threat, leading to systematic intimidation and arbitrary arrests.

On Monday, a contained blast was reported at 4.25 pm, when security forces personnel attempted to defuse a bomb in a van parked close to St Anthony's Shrine in Kochchikade.

Funerals for the deceased have begun to take place in Kotahena and Negombo, while 23 April has been declared as national day of mourning for the deceased of these attacks.

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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2019 00:18:02 IST