Podcast: The Detail

Sri Lanka fights a new war

At 8.45am on Easter Sunday, the first explosion in Sri Lanka lifted the veil on the country’s violent past and its volatile present.

Seven explosions left bodies in a state so unrecognisable the death toll is fluctuating.

Sri Lanka has a war-stricken history: It’s been colonised three times: by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. There was a fight for independence and a move towards nationalism. The new constitution made Sinhalese the national language and Buddhism the religious cornerstone.

The next three decades of racial war between a militant group - The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - and the state, saw both sides bury tens of thousands.

The Detail’s associate producer, Kethaki Masilamani, is a Sri Lankan New Zealander.

In this episode, she speaks to her aunt; her father’s classmate, Godfrey Yogarajah, CEO of the Zion Evangelical Group in Sri Lanka; and Dr Sharika Thiranagama of Stanford University, who has studied the years of ethnic violence.

They all share the same sentiment - shock.

While there have been nationalist efforts in the past to stamp out the two minority religions, until now there had been no conflict between two persecuted groups.

There was no warning before the attack.

“We have, up to now, never experienced something so large-scale, happening at the same time,” says Yogarajah.

The funeral of a 13-year-old girl killed in the blasts. Photo: Amalini De Sayrah

He says the community is reeling from the loss of loved ones.

“It really tore our hearts."

The country has seen every type of violence: suicide bombings, presidential assassinations, localised bombings, riots - but never one this coordinated.

Thiranagama says the attack stunned her.

“We’ve never had simultaneous attacks in different parts of the country.”

She, like many Sri Lankans, is tired of carrying around decades' worth of trauma.

Thiranagama lost her own mother to the civil war.

“Why Sri Lanka?” she laments. “Isn’t it enough for us?”

She echoes her own mother, prominent university lecturer and activist Dr Rajini Thiranagama, who was assassinated in the civil war in 1989. She had diaried, “One needs enormous energies to restart, lose, restart, lose, restart, lose.”

More than 24 hours after the attack, ISIS claimed responsibility for the devastation. The government says all the suicide bombers and explosions were made at the hands of local radicals.

It says it knew of the locals' involvement with ISIS - but being a part of an international terrorist group isn’t illegal in Sri Lanka.

More than 500 Muslims in Sri Lanka - infants, parents, and siblings - have fled their homes for refugee camps, fearing retaliation. They’ve been warned not to attend local masjid for prayers, and told to remove their niqab, hijab and burqa.

Thiranagama says: “It looks like we’ve been brought into a larger story that isn’t local.”

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