By Amrit Muttukumaru –
It is now patently clear that all those at the political helm responsible for national security and the safety of citizens have been economical with the truth and running for cover to evade responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage. We are talking here of 253 persons killed – many of them children, around 500 injured and the national psyche badly wounded. An already weakened economy on the ‘Grey List’ of the ‘Financial Action Task Force’ and subsequent ‘Black List’ of the European Union for money laundering has been further debilitated. The crucial tourist industry in particular has been dealt a body blow and will take at least a year or two to recover provided sensible measures are taken to address the root causes leading to such tragedies. One suspects that money laundering and Sri Lanka developing into a regional hub for illicit drugs may have also facilitated the Easter Sunday carnage.
Now we get back to the focus of this article on the political responsibility for the carnage and the imperative for accountability. All three major players responsible for national security (i) President Sirisena – Minister of Defence and Minister of Law & Order (ii) Ranil Wickremesinghe – Prime Minister (iii) Ruwan Wijewardene – Minister of State for Defence have claimed they were completely unaware of all intelligence reports commencing 4 April 2019 on the possibility of terrorist attacks through suicide bombers on Christian churches and the Indian High Commission. The Cabinet of Ministers also make a similar claim with the exception of Harin Fernando – Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure and Mano Ganeshan – Minister of National Integration, Official Languages and Hindu Religious Affairs. The ‘million dollar question’ is what is the likelihood they did not inform the Prime Minister and their Cabinet colleagues, particularly John Amaratunga – Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs?
Under the circumstances it is a stretch for anyone to give credence to the pathetic excuse of our political leaders they were unaware of all visible signs that something sinister was brewing for a long time among the miniscule extremist section of the Muslim community.
The mere resignation/dismissal of public officials while ‘key’ political leaders responsible for national security ‘stay put’, signals to the people and more importantly to extremist forces that it is ‘business as usual’.
Run-Up to Carnage
Some of which follows below which have a bearing on the 21 April Easter Sunday carnage have been in the public domain from late 2016. The pathetic excuse by politicians of being unaware cannot be trotted out in this instance! Others were available to intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The likelihood of political leaders responsible for intelligence and law enforcement agencies being unaware is almost zero. This is to say nothing of the role of the heads of law enforcement and military/defence agencies who were in possession of vital information and chose to await political direction instead of taking steps to avert the carnage.
1) 18 November 2016: Reuters reported that then Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaskhe “told parliament” that “Thirty-two Sri Lankan Muslims from “well-educated and elite” families have joined Islamic State in Syria”
2) 26 December 2018: Suspects said to belong to a radical Islamic entity were arrested by the CID for allegedly causing severe damage to Buddhist statues in the Mawanella area.
3) 17 January 2019: Interrogation of suspects by the CID on the Mawanella issue led them to a coconut plantation in Wanathawillu in the Puttalam area where a large cache of buried lethal explosives were found. UNP Chairman and Cabinet Minister Kabir Hashim has reportedly disclosed to the media that from among those arrested at Wanathawillu one or two of them were released due to “political pressure”. Tragically one of the released persons has been allegedly identified as one of the Easter Sunday suicide bombers. Why is Kabir Hashim or the authorities not identifying those responsible for the “political pressure”?
No less a person than Government Spokesman and Cabinet Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne while acknowledging security lapses despite warnings from international and local intelligence agencies has revealed:
4) 4 April 2019: Intelligence agencies from India and US had “alerted the Government about threats on possible suicide bombing by Islamic extremists”
5) 9 April 2019:“first memo was issued on 9 April by Chief of National Intelligence Sisira Mendis to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) including all details of the terrorist group with the names”.
6) 11 April 2019: “DIG Priyalal Dasanayake in a security memo addressed to Directors of Ministerial Security Division, Judicial Security Division, retired Presidential Security Division, and Ambassador’s Security Division warned that the State Intelligence Service (SIS) had alerted by a foreign intelligence service that the Nation of Thawheed Jamath was planning suicide attacks targeting Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka.”
There is no question that President Sirisena as Minister of Defence and Minister of Law & Order has to bear the major responsibility for preventing the carnage.
Whatever the reason, it was a monumental dereliction of duty for the President to deliberately keep away the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister of State for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene from meetings of the National Security Council (NSC) for the past 6 months. Both Wickremesinghe and Wijewardene bringing this to the attention of Parliament and the citizens only AFTER the Easter Sunday tragedy is also a dereliction of their duty.
The President has emphatically denied he was informed of intelligence reports also forwarded to (i) Ministry of Defence (MoD) of which he is Minister in charge (ii) Inspector General of Police (IGP) who reports to him as the Minister of Law & Order.
Be that as it may notwithstanding the President’s denials being incredulous, ‘Colombo Telegraph’ reports that Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena – Director, State Intelligence Service (SIS) said to be close to the President had PERSONALLY briefed the President at least on “three separate occasions” of “foreign intelligence reports predicting the attacks”. The briefings were on April 11, 16 and finally on the eve of the tragedy 20 April.
More DAMNINGLY Colombo Telegraph reports that the 20 April briefing was on the telephone to the President who was “holidaying in Singapore with his family after a 3 day pilgrimage to India”. This was subsequent to the tip-off by Indian intelligence on 20 April that an attack was “imminent” the next day.
Surely it is not difficult to ascertain whether an ‘eleventh hour’ telephone call was indeed made to the President who was in Singapore and possibly even its contents. It is hoped that the Presidential Commission to investigate the Easter Sunday Terror attacks will also probe this as well as issues which include whether the Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defence were indeed unaware of the several intelligence reports .
Prime Minister & Minister of State for Defence
Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and his first cousin Ruwan Wijewardene – Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defence respectively have also emphatically denied they were aware of any of the intelligence reports and memos to law enforcement agencies which include the MoD and the IGP.
Is the public to believe that Cabinet Ministers Harin Fernando and Mano Ganeshan who have themselves admitted they were aware of intelligence reports warning of the possibility of terror attacks also on Churches did not inform the Prime Minister and any of their Cabinet colleagues particularly John Amaratunga – Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs?
Is the public also to believe that intelligence reports made available also to Directors of Ministerial Security Division escaped the attention of the PM, State Minister Wijewardene and all Ministers including Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs, John Amaratunga?
Ruwan Wijewardene the son of the country’s largest print media owner, irrespective of ‘conflict of interest’ is also Minister of Mass Media. Under the circumstances, are we to believe that he has no sources in either the state or private media who can convey to him information on intelligence reports pertaining to the possibility of terror attacks by Islamic extremist forces? His father’s media organization has very skilled investigative reporters who are up-to-date on matters of national security and who pride themselves in having their ear to the ground. We are expected to believe they have not tipped him off even to the extent of Harin Fernando’s hospitalized father!
As to how serious PM Wickremesinghe and Minister of State for Defence, Wijewardene are on matters of NATIONAL SECURITY is reflected on their silence for 6 long months until the Easter Sunday tragedy to disclose to Parliament they were deliberately kept away from meetings of the National Security Council.
The belief that no matter who is in political power this country will continue to bleed is apparent when although the security chiefs of former Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa were reportedly privy to the intelligence reports of an imminent terrorist strike through suicide bombing, the former Presidents seemingly did not bother to disseminate this crucial information to the public. Are we to believe that in this instance too the former Presidents were kept in the dark by their respective security chiefs?
In the context of big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean, the long festering ethnic conflict and the resultant armed conflict coming to a controversial end in 2009 in the absence of credible accountability, reconciliation issues still festering, extremist groups and hate speech creating instability, is it not imperative to have competent professionals of proven experience with humane values and integrity to guide the security of this country?
While undoubtedly President Sirisena as Minister of Defence and Minister of Law & Order has to bear the major responsibility for preventing the carnage, have not the powers and responsibilities of the Prime Minister increased in the Post 19th Amendment scenario? Was not this position canvassed by PM Wickremesinghe himself in the aftermath of the October 2018 constitutional coup? One gets the general impression that the entire political responsibility for the Easter Sunday massacre is being placed at the doorstep of President Sirisena .
Could anyone rationalize why PM Wickremesinghe and Minister of State for Defence, Wijewardene waited for 6 long months until the Easter Sunday massacre to reveal to the country they were deliberately kept away by the President from meetings of the National Security Council? Did they so much as even write to the President in protest?
Should not PM Wickremesinghe who is Chairman, Asia-Pacific Democrat Union affiliated to the International Democrat Union who never tires of lecturing on the ‘Latimer House’ (Commonwealth) Principles on the Separation of Powers in all three branches of government be held to a higher degree of accountability?
Was it not PM Wickremesinghe himself who appointed his first cousin Ruwan Wijewardene to the crucial position of State Minister of Defence at the inception of the yahapalana government in January 2015? Is the position of State Minister of Defence merely ornamental ? Is not the holder of this office effectively the ‘Deputy Minister’?
While it is undoubtedly an unforgivable dereliction of duty for the President not to have made acting appointments when he was away from the country, does it not stand to reason that Ruwan Wijewardene as State Minister of Defence should have proactively filled the breach particularly during a time of national calamity?
The mere resignation/dismissal of public officials while ‘key’ political leaders responsible for national security ‘stay put’, signals to the people and more importantly to extremist forces that it is ‘business as usual’. The silence of the selectively vociferous Colombo ‘Civil Society’ led by NGOs largely funded by western donors screaming from the rooftops about good governance and accountability is deafening.