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Sri Lanka Attacks 'A Sad Day For A Country Trying To Overcome' Civil War Past


Now we're going to place the attacks in context. With us is the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz. She's been serving as ambassador there since October, and she joins us from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo.

Thank you for joining us, Ambassador Teplitz.

ALAINA TEPLITZ: Thank you, Sacha. It's a pleasure to be with you tonight.

PFEIFFER: This is obviously a developing story, but the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, issued a statement saying that several U.S. citizens were among the more than 200 people killed. Do you have any information more about who those people were?

TEPLITZ: There are U.S. citizens who've been caught up in these really devastating attacks. I can't give out more details at this time because of privacy concerns. But I think we're all just very shocked and saddened by the breadth of the attacks and how senseless they were, particularly targeting people as they worship this morning at Sunday services and were enjoying holiday meals at several of the big hotels.

PFEIFFER: Right - Easter day. Now, a decade ago, Sri Lanka ended an extremely violent civil war where large-scale suicide bombings were common. Do we know why this now after a relatively peaceful past 10 years?

TEPLITZ: That's a good question. We don't really have all the answers we want about who was behind these attacks. I don't believe they were linked to that conflict period. But for a country trying to recover, trying to achieve reconciliation among the ethnic and religious groups here, this is not going to support that effort.

PFEIFFER: Could you tell us more about the ethnic and religious makeup of Sri Lanka and whether those demographics are relevant to what is happening today?

TEPLITZ: There are three major ethnic religious groups in Sri Lanka. There's a large, Sinhalese-speaking, Buddhist population. They make up the majority of the population here. Then there's a smaller, Tamil-speaking, largely Hindu population and then a slightly smaller, Muslim, Tamil-speaking population. These three groups have lived side by side for hundreds of years but don't always get along well. And the 30-year conflict that we spoke about earlier was a result of the Tamil Hindu population and the Sinhalese Buddhist population being at odds about local autonomy.

So I think the efforts to try and overcome, you know, a history of strife through 30 years of brutal civil war has been tremendous. There's still a lot more progress that needs to be made, though. And why today's attacks on Christian churches and, again, local major hotels happened is unclear. It's a sad day for a country trying to overcome this history.

PFEIFFER: Online disinformation and misinformation, particularly on social media, is such a huge issue today. Sri Lanka did something unusual and interesting, which was basically preemptively shut down things like WhatsApp and Facebook - things that might spread information. Do you have any information about why they made that decision and what the history is that would prompt that?

TEPLITZ: About a year ago, there were attacks on the Muslim community in Kandy, which is a city in central Sri Lanka. And social media postings helped fuel false information and helped accelerate the violence during that episode. It was around February of 2018. And I think there's concern that that kind of thing could have happened today. Again, given a history of intra-community strife and occasional sparks of violence, the government was probably very concerned that social media could again fuel that kind of activity.

PFEIFFER: Shutting down those sites also makes it hard for people outside the country to get accurate information. Have you been getting any feedback from people who are struggling to get information and can't get it?

TEPLITZ: Yeah. It's obviously a two-way street. When you shut down those avenues of communication, it just makes it that much harder to get the right information out there. We haven't heard any complaints at this point from people, but we clearly noticed the same thing.

PFEIFFER: Does the U.S. have any plans at this point for how to help Sri Lanka with this?

TEPLITZ: Well, we're very interested in supporting the government here and conducting a thorough investigation behind the attack. There were American victims of this attack. We'd like to know who perpetrated it, find the networks that they're connected to and ensure that it never happens again.

PFEIFFER: That's the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz.

Thanks for making time for us today.

TEPLITZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.