25 January, 2021

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Bloody Easter Sunday: Terrible Tragedies & Pathetic Explanations 

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The worldwide coverage of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday calamities has established most of the facts about the stunning scale and coordinated execution of the bombings, and raised some fundamental questions about the external dimensions to this tragedy, its internal agencies and the senseless way they have implicated the social and political interests of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, and above all the abject failure of the divided Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to act on more than sufficient prior information and potentially prevent the Easter Sunday Tragedy. The former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka rightfully lambasted both the government and the (joint) opposition in parliament for their collective omissions. As he said, the entire government deserves to stand down and resign itself before the people. 

General Fonseka pulled no punches at the Rajapaksas for failing to lay the foundation to develop a professional security intelligence apparatus for the state after the war, instead of using state resources to spy on and silence political opponents and personal enemies. Even now, it is political calculations rather than genuine concerns that seems to be driving the leading figures of the establishment – that includes Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas and their entourages, in their reactions to the Easter Sunday tragedy. With elections on the radar, the potential candidates will do everything to shift blame and gain political mileage. This is reprehensible but not at all surprising. 

To be clear, while taking to task the establishment leaders for their collective failure, we should not divert from the hugely individual and familial tragedies involving over three hundred people who died and over five hundred who were injured on Easter Sunday. The majority of them had congregated to celebrate mass on Easter Sunday, which marks the resurrection of Christ, one of the two most canonically important religious celebrations on the Christian calendar (the other is not Christmas, but the arrival of the holy spirit, fifty days after Easter). The others were unsuspecting tourists, many of whom were repeat visitors to the island. It will take many seasons to fully repair the psychological scar that Sri Lankan tourism was dealt last Sunday. While we cavil at the Sri Lankan establishment and commiserate with those who suffered, we should also applaud the hundreds of Sri Lankans – the individual medical doctors (thankfully, the GMOA has kept its mouth shut so far), emergency relief workers and ordinary good Samaritans, who rose to the occasion to compensate for the disaster that their leaders had collectively failed to prevent.

Going by the news reports and commentaries over one whole week, it seems to me that the American government, and – for different reasons, the Indian Government, are officially more worried about the tragic events in Sri Lanka than the island’s establishment figures. A few American commentators have called the Easter Sunday attacks as the biggest coordinated terrorist attack after 9/11 (2001) in New York and Washington. Both Indian and American agencies have reportedly been providing intelligence information to Sri Lankan authorities. Although the American Ambassador in Colombo has denied that her government had any prior knowledge of the attacks, that does necessarily mean there was no intelligence sharing by American agencies. The FBI officially arrived in Sri Lanka after the tragedy to help the Sri Lankan government with the investigations.  

There are no doubts, however, about the information provided by India. India alerted Sri Lankan officials on three occasions – a coincidental number for the Holy Weekend, recalling St. Peter’s three disownments of Christ after his agony in the garden of Gethsemane. The first was on April 4, second on Holy Saturday, and finally on the morning of Easter Sunday before the services. The warnings were not acted upon and the explanations have been pathetic. More heads should have rolled, and should continue to roll, than the singular and the open-mouthed head of the Defence Secretary. Many questions remain and below is a representative selection of them.          

Probing Questions

The Heads who were not informed: This has been the stock explanation of the Head of State and the two, but divided, Heads of Government. Many people believed the Prime Minister when he confessed that he had not been kept in the know – about information provided by India. That seemed believable given the antipathy between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the Sirisena’s exclusion of Ranil Wickremesinghe from National Security Council effectively since October. But when the President belatedly arrived from Singapore and added that he too was left out of the intelligence loop about Easter Sunday warnings, it did not convince anybody but only added a ton of suspicion to the vast national disbelief in our political leaders. 

If the people are to believe that the President is not lying, he should do something more than get only the resignation of the Defence Secretary. He should also explain on what basis he kept the Prime Minister out of the National Security Council (NSC) and ordered the NSC officials to disregard the Prime Minister. The President might have been getting wrongheaded advice that he has the power to do anything with the Prime Minister except firing him. But Sirisena should know that even unlimited powers do not give the President the right to act like a mad hatter and endanger national security. 

The Prime Minister’s insouciance: The President’s exclusion does not absolve the Prime Minister of his own omissions. He should have protested this serious breach of national security protocol at the top of his voice in cabinet, in parliament and to the country at large. That he did nothing of the kind is a monumental dereliction of duty considering what the country had to suffer on Easter Sunday as a result of the petty political games between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. Sirisena’s puerile games are well known, but Ranil Wickremesinghe may have been playing his special long game – giving Sirisena the long rope to hang himself by keeping quiet about his (RW’s) being kept out of the national security look. And not for the first time, the Prime Minister’s cunningness has boomeranged, except this time it has taken a huge toll of lives on the country.  

Security sleep at the switch: Was it only the breakdown in high level communications that left the police and security forces to literally sleep at the switch until they were woken up by the early morning blasts on Easter Sunday? Or was there anything deliberate in not disseminating the information given by India and not acting on those warnings? What surprised and angered many people was the lightning speed with which police and security forces began arresting suspects, and arresting them in stunningly large numbers. Obviously, police had information on these suspects and when a warning was given about impending attacks targeting churches and hotels, it should have been obvious to anyone to connect the two dots. 

The New Year holidays the previous weekend has been suggested as a potential reason for the security lapse. The lapse was really a crime and holidays can never be a mitigating factor. Another red herring is about the President’s war on drugs and the attendant neglect of security issues. This red herring has spawned its own conspiratorial red herring – that vested interests who are alarmed by the President’s war on drugs wanted to create a diversion away from the world of drug business. Are the drug lords smiling now? No cause is implausible after a plausibly preventable tragedy has occurred in spite of prior warnings about it.

In 1962, it was the tormented senior police officer’s (Stanley Senanayake) drunken loose talk at home that led to the government being alerted by the officer’s father-in-law (P de S Kularatne) at the nick of time to foil a well-planned coup d’etat against the first government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In the light of the crucial role that rumours and gossip play in Sri Lanka, especially in Colombo’s establishment and political circles, it is difficult to believe that information about a major attack could have been so severely ignored only as a result of negligence. Will the Presidential Commission of Inquiry be able to separate truth from gossip and rumour and let the people know what really happened?  

Political interference and Police indifference: A remarkable development immediately after Easter Sunday was the rallying of several Muslim community leaders not only condemning the senseless attacks on Easter Sunday, but also complaining that police and their political masters have consistently failed to take action even though community leaders had been warning about extremist activities of miscreants who were fully free to put their plans into action on Easter Sunday. On Easter Monday, Minister Kabir Hashim dropped a political bombshell accusing “a powerful politician” of forcing the police to release from custody a suspect who had arrested over incidents in Mawenella. The released suspect became one of the suicide bombers on Easter Sunday. The identities of individuals who carried out the attacks and the influential politicians who allegedly sponsored them or protected them from police action have all been exposed now. 

The main worry, however, should be that these interferences are systemic, and they fit into the larger practice of government and political leaders telling police what to do and what not to do. The practice in its most blatant form was started and perfected by the Rajapaksas. The main reason the present government could not firmly put an end to this practice is because the two main government leaders separately wanted to protect the Rajapaksas from prosecution. Once you start politically interfering with the system, you cannot limit the beneficiaries to be only those whom you like. Rank outsiders can also benefit and wreak havoc after they are set free. That’s what the nine suicide bombers did on Easter Sunday. They are now known to be who they were. But what is not known sufficiently is the broader of cast people in the establishment who knowing or unknowingly sat on their hands when the prior information from India was swirling around. They too serve, who only sit and wait.                    

ISIS and the Indian Factor

For the whole of last week until the statement by Brigadier Chula Kodituwakku on Friday, virtually all detailed reports were provided by the Indian, American and British media, and they were reproduced by the local media. A missing component in the reporting of the information provided by India to Sri Lanka is whether and how Sri Lankan officials engaged their Indian counterparts after the information was passed on to them. As far as I have seen, there has been no report of any serious engagement by anyone in Sri Lanka with anyone in India, or even with the Indian High Commission in Colombo which was making its own arrangements to protect its precincts, to follow up on the information provided by India. This lacuna raises a number of questions, and one would hope that the Presidential Commission of Inquiry will spend some time probing this matter. The main question is weather there is a tendency in Colombo to downplay any information that comes from India. And whether President Sirisena is part of this bias. 

No doubt, there is an understandably entrenched bias against India within the Sri Lankan establishment circles. But how far will Sri Lanka go cutting its security nose to spite India? At one point, India played the regional-imperial role in aggravating Sri Lanka’s national question, although it was the blunders by successive Sri Lankan governments that enabled India to gatecrash into Sri Lankan politics. At a later point, India was forced to deploy its army against the LTTE and eventually extend a strong helping hand to the Sri Lankan government to exterminate the LTTE. Putting old and recent histories aside, there is much common ground between India and Sri Lanka in dealing with the fundamentalist abuse of Islam (that is the true phenomenon, and not Islamic fundamentalism which is a misnomer) and its violent manifestations in India and in Sri Lanka. 

A special feature of this common ground is the linguistic and cultural affinities between the Muslims in South India and Sri Lanka. Indian intelligence reports have alluded to connections between fundamentalists and militants in the two countries. Moderate community leaders in both countries should establish their own connections to combat the rising menace of extremism. The Sri Lankan government for its part must focus on developing better relationships with state governments in South India. The establishment leaders in Colombo will do their countrymen a great service by striving more to co-operate with state governments in South India rather than flying to South Indian shrines and consulting South Indian astrologers. 

At the same time, it would be regressive and counterproductive to seek a chauvinistic common ground based on Hindutva in India and Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka to counter Islamic extremism. Hindutva is the mode of operation for Prime Minister Modi. A Sri Lankan version of that would be the preferred mode someone like Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Barring Pakistan, South Asia has provided a buffer against the spread of extremist ideologies from the Middle East into Asian countries. The basis for this resistance has been India’s secularism. The rise of Hindutva and other religious extremism will only fan the flames of extremism on all sides. For Sri Lanka, it would be a colossal folly. 

The birth of the hotchpotch movement for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in many respects a reaction to the failure of west’s interference in the Middle East, and its support of the state of Israel against the stateless Palestinians. President Trump has dropped all the pretentions of his predecessors and fully aligned his America-First policy with the Israeli-Only policy of the re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu. Even though Trump has found common cause with Arab countries who are opposed to Iran and ISIS, the fundamental source of the Arab world’s resentment against America and the west is not disappearing anywhere. Even though, ISIS has been dealt a crushing territorial defeat, its capacity to sporadically sprout attacks in far flung places is a constant worry to the Americans. 

The Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka is being seen by the Americans is one such attack in a far-flung location. As commented in the New York Times yesterday, the Sri Lankan attacks came four weeks after the “ISIS caliphate was erased in Iraq and Syria, four months after Trump had declared victory over ISIS. Even though there is no overarching evidence about the role of ISIS in the Sri Lankan attacks, observers have pointed out the many indicators of ISIS’s inspirational involvement in the attacks. They view the Sri Lankan bombings as a “harbinger for a new phase of ISIS attacks.” 

Whatever might have been the provocations for its genesis, the methods and madness of ISIS do not belong in a civilized world. Since Sri Lanka has been sucked into its orbit, it has no choice but to act in concert with others. But a greater part of what Sri Lanka can and must do involves domestic politics and the way in which the state will reconfigures its relationship with its plural population and address their specific resentments. Historically, political resentment among the Sinhalese was manifested by the JVP insurrection, the LTTE took the Tamil resentment to unprecedentedly deadly levels, and now the Muslim resentment has been devastatingly played out by a small group of Sri Lankan Muslims on Easter Sunday. But unlike the JVP and the LTTE, which had no external inspiration, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, or its splinter group, would seem to be driven almost entirely by external (ISIS) inspiration. 

The external inspiration did not start with ISIS, or come about in a sudden flash. It has been building up over a number of decades and through multiple channels. Yet, without dismissing the domestic support for the Thowheeth group as lunatic fringe, it is fair to say that the overwhelming feeling in the Muslim community to the group and its actions on Easter Sunday is one of horror and revulsion. The current and future governments must consolidate this sense of horror and revulsion among broad sections of the Muslim community and encourage them to push back on the fundamentalist abuse of their religion by small groups of misguided individuals.  

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Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    Good analysis.

    Who will listen? Who among them had the power to change, and implement an international-level and effective cooperation with intelligence and military powers in India and the US?

    Furthermore, what will the likes of Navi Pillai, Guitterez and Yasmin Sooka do to counter Sri Lanka’s efforts to combat terrorism here?

    What about the Tamil diaspora in UK and North America? Won’t they scuttle plans to ramp up our military capabilities?

    Do our politicians have the guts to stand up to the UN bullies?

  • 5
    3

    CT editor
    we are tired of reading articles on the same theme by every tom dick and harry
    we want the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth as the cardinal said
    so when you publish the next article it must answer the following questions
    was the president informed of the impending attacks
    surely intelligent underlings always inform the boss
    if so did he ask them not to tell the PM
    why did he extend his stay in a country where he recently critcised the prime minister

  • 6
    0

    The problem here is that, quite unlike the JVP, and the LTTE which were home-grown outfits,the NTJ has a SPONSOR IN ISIS. Even though Trump claims that he has driven out the ISIS from Iraq,Syria etc it seems that they have now shifted their terror into South-East Asia. With the ushering in of Modi as head of State in India[ Most probably] the Muslims in India could expect hard times ahead. Srilanka in that sense would turn out to be a good pitch for bowling and Batting for the ISIS through their proxy the NTJ.
    Who knows, the Easter Sunday terror attack was by the openers ,in just their first innings!
    But for them to be Bowled out in both innings ,it could take quite awhile.

    • 2
      0

      Plato
      Can you throw light on the following intriguing issues?

      1 With what motive did ISIS and NTJ execute the blasts?
      2 By what reasoning or logic were they a strategy to fructify the purported end?
      3 Why was Sri Lanka selected as the best location to serve their strategy?
      4 Why churches and that too on Easter Sunday?
      5 Why hotels and among them why Shangrila?

      Hope I can await a reply from you or from among the readership

      • 1
        0

        1. IS want to kill Christians wherever they find them anywhere in the world
        2 ?
        3 Sri Lanka has a Muslim minority some of whom have been radicalised. Also it is a nation run by corrupt incompetent politicians who can be bribed.
        4 Churches are packed on Sundays and even more so on Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian calendar.
        5 Hotels are full of tourists most of whom are Christian. The Shangri La is very popular so it was bound to be full.

  • 5
    0

    Any religion is based on feelings and how to direct them in to good use.
    ..
    Justice focuses on the future goals of the nation and how the occurred incident will affect the future.
    ..
    The problem is, our judicial system is not effective. Hence, people are following their feelings.
    ..
    Each religion on surface value, creates different feelings. These differences within our communities are the fuel for political power.
    ..
    Politics is about, playing an attractive role to gain popularity. As a political party you gain more power with more divisions.
    ..
    Until we learn to respect each other’s differences, and strengthen our judicial system, no matter who comes to power we will continue to loose.

  • 4
    0

    What is the motive of ISIS in choosing Sri Lanka,why not India?.

    In Sri Lanka the Muslims are a contented minority doing quite well and upward social mobility is quite impressive.

    They have powerful ministries and have satisfactory share in government and private sector.

    The mainstream Muslims will definitely disassociates from the terrorist elements and bring back normalcy quickly unless the majority community makes a wrong move.

    .The Muslims in Sri Lanka are not fools o disturb the applecart.

    On the contrary, the situation is India is quite different.

    They are a discontented minority community especially in the Northern region and happy to see India in difficulties.

    Indian handling of Muslim community is worrisome especially when the BJB is in the ascendancy.
    .
    India is struggling to manage the frequent terrorist onslaughts in the North with Pakistani support.

    The ISIS may be happy to intervene with a few bombs, open a new front, and compensate for their defeats in Syria and Iraq.

    The Easter Sri Lanka bombing is really a warning to India. The terrorism may open another front from a relatively calm South India.

    Then India is really in danger, the Easter Bombing is more a warning to India than to Sri Lanka

  • 1
    0

    In the last paragraph Rajan Philips observes {“…..it is fair to say that the overwhelming feeling in the Muslim community to the group and its actions on Easter Sunday is one of horror and revulsion…”}.
    This is unique. Are the Very Important Politicos using this to defuse the tension?
    Not at all. They are plotting to gain political advantage!

  • 0
    0

    [In the last paragraph Rajan Philips observes {“…..it is fair to say that the overwhelming feeling in the Muslim community to the group and its actions on Easter Sunday is one of horror and revulsion…”}.]

    Well this statement needs further verification. What Muslims were and are doing to the Tamils in the East is a proof of their attitude. So many tamils killed and so many temples destroyed and so much lands taken over from tamils. Thanks to the Sinhala army that gave them full backing and protection. What the Muslim home guards did to tamils is unbelievable. Every sinhala attacks on tamils were used by Muslims. There are some guys talking of Mosque attack and eviction of Muslims from North. Why did that happen? As long as their double game continues we tamils and sinhalese will be exploited without an end.

  • 1
    0

    Barathan.

    The questions that you have raised are some of the issues
    that has nonplussed me too.
    However, the fact is that the roots of ISIS lie in a crisis within Islam.
    It is based on Islamic texts that are reinterpreted according to how they see it!

    Be that as it may, we now know that the Eastern Province has been a hotbed of Islamic extremism and their choice of targets Five-star hotels, and Catholics/ Christians may just be the start.
    Who knows, the next Targets could also keep us guessing about their intent and motive.

    They think that they are winners regardless of whether the kill you they get killed
    If they kill someone,they win a battle.If they get killed they go to heaven, so they imagine.
    Once when a frustrated would-be Suicide bomber was caught, he screamed at his captors……..I was just 10 minutes away from being united with the Prophet Muhammad!
    So really the only way to defeat them is to eliminate them.

    • 1
      0

      Plato
      Thank you for your frank response.

      Some 12 years ago, in a book (about 500 pages) by VS Naipal, on travels in 5 countries which included Indonesia, Middle East and may be India and Pakistan I was able to get some glimmerings of Islamic militant activity as a global phenomenon.

      Strangely enough there was an account on happenings, Madarasas, indoctrination, funding and training in Sri Lanka. Recent anti Muslim rioting did not surprise me much 5 years back. In the current bombings one can see their genesis no less than 20 years ago. The country apparently has been in a state of somnolence.

      In the Defence Establishment, intellection and scholarship are also needed.

  • 0
    0

    Today the much loved Japanese emperor Akihito abdicated after decades of caring for his people. Emperor Akihito who is in his eighties gave way to his son.

    At eighty our leaders are just reaching their prime. They still have a lot more thieving, lying and cheating left in them. Old age is not going to stop them from squeezing the last rupee out of the hands of the poor. That is why they are hated at worst and tolerated at best. Honesty, honour, truth, graciousness are things that are unknown to them. They thrive on self importance, servility and buck passing. If ever you accidentally swallow something poisonous and want to vomit it out, just think of our leaders. They will make you sick.

    • 1
      0

      How about the glorious example of Nelson Mandela? Before him was Nyrere who relinquished voluntarily.

      What does Ramayana teach the world? Emperor Dasaratha noticed one morning a grey hair on his head. He decided that he must relinquish his duties as he was past his prime. He immediately summoned his cabinet for consultation on his retirement and on his eldest son, the Crown Prince Rama succeeding him.

      Of what calibre were the Ministers? They cared little about the security of their lives. Even when their King got into a fury, they remained calm, considered only what was best by the nation and persisted in standing their ground, come what may. However harsh or hard their deliberations, they presented their cabinet conclusion in a single voice.
      This is the Tamil poet Kamban’s portraiture of the cabinet and its sense of collective responsibility.

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