By Niresh Eliatamby –
There is little doubt that the government’s pussyfooting around for more than three weeks since the horrendous attacks on Easter Sunday, led directly to the violent situation that erupted in some parts of the country over the last few days, bringing Sri Lanka to the brink of another civil war.
In the absence of proper national leadership, while political leaders mucked around, trading accusations and shamelessly trying to gain political capital for themselves, radicals on all sides made merry, creating tension among communities and finally launching a devastating campaign of murder, arson and mayhem through the Northwestern Province and parts of the Western Province.
Nothing demonstrates the ineptitude or deliberate foot-dragging of politicians in office, together with some of the officials involved with public security, than the fact that the organisations responsible for Easter Sunday attacks were only banned by the Government of Sri Lanka on 14th May 2019. That’s an extraordinary 23 days after the event that shook the world. Gazette Extraordinary No. 2123 dated May 13, 2019 under the Public Security Ordinance (Chapter 40) finally proscribed the National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), the Jama’ath Milla’athe Ibrahim (JMI) and the Willayath As Seylani.
This is quite incredible, considering that the State Minister for Defense as far back as 23rd April publicly named the first two of these three organisations as being behind the suicide blasts, which was the worst terror attack on civilians in the world since the World Trade Centre assault in 2001.
The actual writing of the gazette notice would have taken an experienced legal draftsman all of 15 minutes. Simply look up the last such gazette notification, perhaps the one that proscribed the LTTE, and change the name of the organisation, the gazette number and the date. And of course, the name of the president. Or perhaps the officials were unsure of how to spell the name of the president? The process of translating it into the other two national languages would take another 15 minutes. Obtaining approval from the various layers of bureaucracy and the president himself would take perhaps the rest of the day. So it is quite clear that there was a deliberate delay in proscribing these organisations. Considering that the president issued a statement more than two weeks ago stating his intention to ban the first two organisations, the delay is indeed a mystery that the president needs to clarify. Or perhaps we need another presidential commission to inquire into the matter.
Just as mystifying is the fact that the gazette was issued while the president was not even in Sri Lanka. Perhaps he signed it just before he left. Don’t even get me started on the fact that he waltzed off to China on Monday, after the rioting started on Sunday! And he didn’t seem to feel the need to rush back. That’s three countries he’s visited in the last 30 days, during which time he also celebrated his son’s wedding.
Even more incredible is the fact that the GOSL is yet to make any concrete move to ban Islamic State or the acronyms it’s known by – ISIS and ISIL – which on 23rd April claimed to have carried out the Easter Sunday bombings. Since then, it has become abundantly clear that the NTJ and perhaps other groups have been directly linked and supported by ISIL. Yet, at the time this article is being written, ISIL remains an unbanned organisation in Sri Lanka, and there doesn’t even seem to be a discussion going on within the GOSL to ban it. This is quite extraordinary, considering the fact that more than 60 countries around the world have banned ISIL, including India, Pakistan, China, the USA, Russia, the UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia. The United Nations and European Union banned it as far back as 2004, a full 15 years ago!
But perhaps the GOSL’s reluctance to ban international terrorist organisations runs deeper. Remember the attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Lahore in 2009? The Pakistani government blamed the radical Afghan-Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for the attack. This group is currently banned by the United Nations, USA, Pakistan, UK, Australia, Canada, etc. But here in Sri Lanka, to my knowledge, our government has not seen fit to ban it. No matter that they wounded eight members of the team and one of the umpires, and killed six Pakistani policemen guarding the team.
What that practically means is that groups such as ISIL and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi could operate with impunity in our own country even now.
In fact, take the head of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He personally appeared in a video in which he praised the Easter Sunday attackers and spoke with great pride of the carnage that ISIL engineered in Sri Lanka. Our president actually addressed him directly and asked him to leave Sri Lanka alone. But incredibly, al-Baghdadi himself is not a wanted man in Sri Lanka. The GOSL has not instituted any legal proceedings against him, or sought an international or local arrest warrant on him. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that such a legal move would result in al-Baghdadi’s capture. But these are steps that any rational government should take. Such steps could be initiated by any number of branches of the government – Police, Sri Lanka Army, Attorney General, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc.
Al-Baghdadi could fly in to Bandaranaike International Airport and ask for an on-arrival tourist visa right now, and the only thing preventing him would be the alertness of the immigration officer at BIA!
The same goes for the GOSL’s attitude towards other organisations in Sri Lanka which practice terrorism, including militant Buddhist organisations that have for years sown terror among Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The heads of several of these organisations have quite belatedly been arrested now. But why on earth wasn’t this done before they created this week’s mayhem? In fact, they’ve been advocating anarchy and destruction for many years now, but governments and police alike have looked the other way. Is the government giving any thought to banning some of these organisations?
By the way, what is the world is the Willayath As Seylani, which is the third organisation proscribed in this gazette? I don’t think the general public is quite familiar with this organisation, although we were introduced to the other two by the State Minister for Defense three weeks ago. What role did it have in this mess? Who is its leader? Were any of the suicide bombers members of it? Is it also connected to ISIL? In which parts of Sri Lanka is it active?
What many people find really tiring is that over the last three weeks there have been more and more questions raised with regard to the conduct of so many who are drawing salaries from the public purse to protect us. What in the world have they been doing for three weeks, and what are they doing now?
(Niresh Eliatamby spent nearly two decades covering Sri Lanka’s civil war)