By 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.
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.