COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankans who protested for days near the president’s office have criticized the lack of progress in finding those responsible for the deaths of more than 260 people in the bombings inspired by the Islamic State on Easter Sunday three years ago, putting pressure on a government already in deep economic crisis.
Protesters demanded the government find out what they called the real conspirators behind attacks on three churches – two Catholic and one Protestant – which included simultaneous suicide bombings during Easter celebrations on April 21, 2019. Three tourist hotels were also targeted, killing 42 foreigners from 14 countries.
On Sunday, hundreds of people lit candles and displayed banners and placards during a silent protest in the capital, Colombo, calling for justice for the victims of the attacks.
The protests took place on Colombo’s main plaza, where thousands have been demonstrating for eight days to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa following the worst debt crisis that has caused critical shortages of fuel, food and of medicines in the Indian Ocean island nation.
Protesters, including relatives of the victims, accused the government of failing to deliver justice for the bombings. They displayed a huge banner that read: “It’s been 3 years, we are crying out for justice” and signs that read: “Who was behind this attack?
“My whole family is gone. Today, I live a very lonely life. I have no words to explain my agony,” said Shiran Anton, whose wife and only daughter died in the attacks.
“I want to find out who the real culprits were behind this attack and why they did it,” he said, adding he was unhappy with the investigation.
Officials charged dozens of people who allegedly received weapons training and participated in indoctrination classes conducted by the two local Islamic extremist groups accused of carrying out the attacks.
The groups had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. Friction between the country’s former president and former prime minister – who belonged to different political parties – has been blamed for failing to act on warnings from intelligence services.
The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has also criticized the investigation into the bombings. Church leaders have repeatedly blamed the Rajapaksa government for failing to take action against former President Maithripala Sirisena and other senior officials for failing to prevent the bombings.
The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said the real conspirators of the attacks may still be at large and questioned the government over allegations that some members of state intelligence knew and had met at least an attacker.
The attacks shattered the country’s tourism industry – a key source of hard currency – just a year before the pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the economy. Protesters also blame the government’s mismanagement of paying down the country’s debt, including taking out loans for dodgy investments.
The country is on the brink of bankruptcy, struggling with $25 billion in external debt over the next five years — nearly $7 billion of which is due this year alone — and dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Talks with the International Monetary Fund are expected later this month, and the government has turned to China and India for emergency loans to buy food and fuel.
Much of the anger has been directed at Rajapaksa and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lead an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades.