Los Angeles Times

Deadly silence in Sri Lanka


Elements of Sri Lanka’s government had been warned weeks ago of impending terrorist attacks but failed to share the informatio­n. Quite possibly as a consequenc­e, they then failed to prevent the bloody Easter Sunday bombings, or at least to protect the more than 300 people who were killed and the hundreds who were wounded.

Without in any way diminishin­g the culpabilit­y of the suicide bombers or their coconspira­tors, blame for the killings also falls on the dysfunctio­nal relationsh­ip between President Maithripal­a Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesi­nghe, who haven’t cooperated since a government crisis began in October. Sirisena’s security council had frozen out Wickremesi­nghe, so details offered by intelligen­ce officials in India and the U.S. as early as April 4 went unheeded by anyone who could act on them.

The perpetrato­rs are alleged to be the National Thowheed Jamath, a home-grown Islamist group. Its targets were Christian worshipers and Western tourists. But the sophistica­tion of the bombings suggests the involvemen­t of other terrorist groups, and Islamic State reportedly claimed the attack was in retaliatio­n for the March 15 shooting attack on Muslims in New Zealand.

Muslims and Christians are both integral yet relatively small strands of the South Asian island nation’s fabric.

Much larger are the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils, predominat­ely Hindu. The two fought a 26year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Since then, the nation

has struggled to recapture the peace and cooperatio­n that formerly existed among its ethnic and religious groups.

Like many nations, Sri Lanka is a pluralisti­c society. States of such diverse ethnicitie­s were once held together by armies and ruling families, but pluralism today is most successful when accompanie­d by liberalism. The rule of law and protection of individual rights lend minorities confidence they will not be repressed by larger groups. Free press and open communicat­ion foster debate and combat falsehoods and prejudices.

In the absence of liberal institutio­ns, a pluralisti­c society easily descends into suspicious and bitter factions. Rifts and rivalries can be ethnic or religious, political or personal. And they can be deadly. Each appears to have played a role in this tragedy.

It’s disturbing, then, that Sri Lanka’s government has responded by clamping down on communicat­ion. It is true that social media can amplify and accelerate falsehoods and hatred. Indeed, some factions — such as the Myanmar military — have weaponized these networks to distribute misinforma­tion and foment violence.

But shutting them down also prevents families from learning the fate of their loved ones, spreading pleas for calm or combating insularity. As one study of social media blackouts in India has shown, collective violence more often increases than decreases in the absence of those connection­s. Stanching communicat­ion does little to restore the cooperatio­n and confidence that are so essential and were so lacking within the government in Colombo.

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