COLOMBO: Sri Lankans protesting near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's office on Sunday (Apr 17) remembered the more than 260 people who were killed in Islamic State-inspired terror attacks on Easter Sunday three years ago.
The protesters demanded the government uncover what they called the real conspirators behind the attacks on three churches - two Catholic and one Protestant - that included simultaneous suicide bombings during Easter celebrations on Apr 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 demonstrations were held at Colombo’s main esplanade, where thousands of people have been protesting for eight days, demanding the debt-ridden Indian Ocean island nation’s president resign, as anxiety and anger over shortages simmered.
Protesters including relatives of the victims accused the government of failing to deliver justice. They displayed a huge banner that read: “It’s been three years, we cry for justice” and placards that read: "Who was behind this attack?”
Shiran Anton, 46, said his wife and only daughter were killed in the attack.
“My entire family is gone. Today, I live a very lonely life. I have no words to explain my agony,” Anton said. “I want to find out who the real culprits were behind this attack and why they did it.”
He said he was not satisfied with the government’s investigation.
Officials have charged dozens of people who are alleged to have received weapons training and participated in indoctrination classes from 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 - was blamed for the government’s failure to act on the intelligence warnings.
The Catholic church in Sri Lanka has also been critical of the investigation into the bombings. The church has repeatedly blamed President Rajapaksa’s government for not taking action against former President Maithripala Sirisena and other top officials for failing to prevent the attacks.
Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has said the true conspirators in the attacks could still be at large and questioned the government over allegations that some members of state intelligence knew and had met with at least one attacker.
The protesters joined other anti-government protesters who have been staying in tents around the president’s office and vowed not to leave until Rajapaksa resigns.
For months, Sri Lankans have stood in long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicines, most of which come from abroad and are paid for in hard currency. The fuel shortage has caused rolling power cuts lasting several hours a day.
The country is on the brink of bankruptcy, saddled with US$25 billion in foreign debt over the next five years - nearly US$7 billion of which is due this year alone - and dwindling foreign reserves. Talks with the International Monetary Fund are expected later this month, and the government had turned to China and India for emergency loans to buy food and fuel.
Much of the anger expressed by weeks of growing protests has been directed at Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who head an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades. Five other family members are lawmakers, three of whom resigned as ministers last Sunday.
At the same time, critics accuse Rajapaksa of borrowing heavily to finance projects that earn no money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
Rajapaksa earlier proposed the creation of a unity government following the Cabinet resignations, but the main opposition party rejected the idea. Parliament has failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis after nearly 40 governing coalition lawmakers said they would no longer vote according to coalition instructions, significantly weakening the government.
With opposition parties divided, they too have not been able to show majority and take control of Parliament.