Sri Lanka’s president said Thursday that he has received the final report of an inquiry commission investigating the 2019 Easter Sunday bomb attacks and vowed he will not allow anyone responsible for the deaths of more than 260 people escape justice.
“We will not allow those responsible for designing and enabling this tragedy to escape justice. We will never allow extremism to raise its head again, in this country," he said in his address marking the country’s 73rd independence anniversary.
Two local Muslim groups that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State were blamed for the coordinated suicide bombings in six places on April 21, 2019. More than 260 people, most of them worshippers at Easter services in three churches and foreign and local holidaymakers having breakfast in three hotels, were killed.
Political infighting leading to a communications breakdown between the then president and prime minister was cited as a cause for the security lapse despite near specific foreign intelligence warnings.
Both former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were summoned before the commission.
The attacks, which came after 10 years of peace following the end of a quarter-century civil war, enabled Rajapaksa to win the presidential election later in 2019 on a platform of national security and protecting the interests of the country's majority Buddhist Sinhalese.
Sri Lanka's Freedom Day, as the independence day is known, was marked by ethnic and religious polarization. Tamil political, civil and religious leaders took part in a protest parade for a second day Thursday, marching from the country's east to the north to demand solutions to minority issues.
The protesters want justice for those killed and disappeared during the civil war and release of those detained without trial on suspicion of terrorism.
They also accused the government of moves to alter the demographic makeup of Sri Lanka's north and east, which they consider their traditional homeland, by settling the Sinhalese population there. Tensions also rose after the government made compulsory the cremation of those who died of COVID-19, which has enraged Muslims, Sri Lanka's second largest minority.
In rare show of unity, Muslim leaders and civilians joined the Tamil protest march on Thursday. It is scheduled to end on Saturday in the north.
“I am a Sinhala Buddhist leader and I will never hesitate to state so," Rajapaksa said in his speech.
“I govern this country in accordance with Buddhist teachings. Within the Buddhist philosophic tradition of peaceful coexistence, which gives due respect to all religions and ethnicities, every person in this country ... has the right to enjoy the freedom as equals under the nation’s legal framework."
On Wednesday, Sri Lanka rejected a report by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who called for “international action to ensure justice for international crimes” allegedly committed during the civil war.
She said in the report last week that Sri Lanka has “largely closed the possibility of genuine progress being made to end impunity through a domestic transitional justice process.” She said member countries now have the option of referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court to investigate and persecute violations of international law.
In his speech, Rajapaksa said that “traitorous elements always band together and seek to marshal domestic and foreign forces against the leadership that upholds indigenous way of life and country’s sovereignty." He said people should not be misled by them.
Both government forces and the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of grave human rights violations. Initial conservative U.N. estimates said about 100,000 people had died. A later U.N. experts’ report said as many as 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in just the final months of fighting.