Sri Lanka in May 2019: we have a man in the top job, whose incompetence has been repeatedly proven. He lies like he breathes, lets innocent citizens and their children be bombed in the most brutal way, and travels abroad on private trips. Another equally if not more incompetent man occupies the seat of Prime Minister. Given his haste to use the current crisis to pass his antiterrorism act, it is very clear that he knew all about the Easter Sunday attacks and let them happen. In a case in point of male fragility, he stated soon after the tragedy of Easter Sunday that he had been excluded from the Security Council for months. He sat on his parliamentary majority, and did absolutely nothing about that unconstitutional exclusion. The whole country was mourning, with over 250 people dead, many others injured, families shattered, children orphaned, and sacred places of worship attacked. However, cabinet ministers – all of them men – had the guts to hold press conferences and giggle away as if nothing had happened. The Prime Minister, with a smile on his face as if all were hunky-dory, gives international media interviews talking about problems with [and I kid you not!] intelligence information ‘travelling upwards and downwards’. The most patriotic guy in the block, Mahinda Rajapaksa, knew about the attacks and did absolutely nothing to stop the tragedy. Readers may kindly excuse this writer’s French; no more proof is needed to clearly establish the fact that the men in power give zero f**ks about national crises. They have also shown us that they have zero empathy [Mahinda Rajapaksa being an exception, at least in terms of political performativity], zero concern, and zero inclination to engage in constructive decision-making.
This kind of failed leadership puts Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in an extremely volatile position. The inevitable result is the country becoming easy prey to big powers who prioritise strengthening their geo-strategic power bases in the Indian Ocean region. This is where one can find the root causes of the Easter Sunday Attacks [and not in some twisted ‘story about religious antagonism, the preferred by-line of Western media].
This article, the first of a series of three, identifies the core challenge at hand in two segments:
1) an internationally-coordinated effort to destabilise Lanka, through:
2) a severe threat of considerably widespread Wahabi terrorism.
This writer’s specialism in the politics of deeply divided places and international relations aside, this article is written from the perspective of an intersectional feminist Sri Lankan citizen who loves her country, and is unconditionally committed to Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty, to the dignity and fundamental freedoms of all her fellow citizens.
Wahhabism, in sum, is an extremist discourse that is more than detrimental to our ethnically, linguistically, socio-culturally ‘plural’ social fabric, within the Muslim community and in the broader Sri Lankan citizenry at large.
It can now be clearly established that over the last nine years, the State [once again, its power-wielding men], did not pay sufficient attention when repeated warnings were raised, first by law-abiding Sri Lankan citizens of the Islamic confession, and then by intelligence sources.
The above sentence warrants a correction, based on realism and logic. It is not that the men in power did not care. In fact, they did care, but in post-LTTE Sri Lanka, they saw in rising Wahabi activity a fine opportunity to ignite a new round of ethno-national/religious tensions, which they could eventually use for power-political purposes. In his recent interview with Derana TV, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had full oversight on national security in the 2010-2015 Rajapaksa administration, gives a flimsy answer when he is asked about the rise of Wahabi activity during that time. Mr Rajapaksa makes a statement that deserves our attention: he says, at 17:22, that the Islamic extremist groups became “අන්තවාදී” and “ප්රචණ්ඩකාරී” only after 2016. He then makes another interesting claim at 17:45: “අපිට පුළුවන් කමක් නෑ ආගමික වශයෙන් තියෙන කණ්ඩායම් කඩා දාන්නට” . This statement is immediately followed by the claim that he did however create a mechanism to monitor the work of such outfits. At around 22:27, he says that he sent a senior intelligence officer to the USA to ‘gain training’, and upon his return and based on his advice, Gotabaya took measures to open a cyber terrorism control centre [23:32 onwards].
Here is a question worth asking, one that is not sufficiently raised in the ongoing discussions on the current crisis: Why did the 2010-2015 Rajapaksa administration, with its strong outer discourse on national sovereignty, not take action to ban all jama’ath organisations, launch a national crackdown on Wahabi activity in Sri Lanka, and restrict all Saudi-funded activity on Sri Lankan soil?
Firstly, one hypothesis is that the Rajapaksa administration was concerned about losing the support of Muslim politicians, some of who happen to be Wahabi sympathisers. The current governor of the Eastern Province and the destroyer of the Wilpattu forest reserve, happened to be close allies of the Rajapaksa administration. This argument, however, does not hold ground, due to the second and third points made below:
Secondly, it would be extremely unfair on the Rajapaksa administration, and especially on Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if one is to stick to the above discourse alone. Gotabaya did take measures to challenge certain developments in Islamic fundamentalism. In 2012, for instance, he took the commendable step of deporting 161 foreign Islamic [read ‘Islamist’] preachers. Chulananda Perera, the then Controller of Immigration, was quoted in international media confirming that the preachers happened to be members of Tabligh Jamat, a group founded in India to spread the teachings of Islam. Tablighi Jamat, which The Guardian [UK edition] once described as a revivalist group, is one that is well-placed to garner the attention of gullible young men, prompting the Guardian commentator to note “Where secular Britain fails is where Tablighi Jamaat wins”. Indeed, governments of multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries like Sri Lanka must be very cautious of all hues of Wahabi, Deobandi, Tablighi, Salafi ideologies creeping into our soil. These sects first target young Muslims, especially men, in their call for an extremely intolerant brand of Islam. They then target non-Muslims. According to one imam “…for the Allah-fearing ordinary Muslim, [s/]he needs to make a new start, an important step that every Muslim needs to take to get rid of the Wahabi/Deobandi/Tablighi Aqaa’id. This applies to Sunnis as well who have acquired many wrong beliefs reading Wahabi/Deobandi books”.
Thirdly, and most interestingly for that matter, let’s get back to the above-cited section of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent television interview.
Gotabaya says that he had the possibility of adopting a nip-in-the-bud strategy in relation to threats to national security. At 21:34, he in fact cites the case of an individual named Gobi, who sought to re-ignite LTTE activity, and claims that protective steps were swiftly taken, especially thanks to the work of our intelligence services. He then notes the above-quoted sentence – “අපිට පුළුවන් කමක් නෑ ආගමික වශයෙන් තියෙන කණ්ඩායම් කඩා දාන්නට”. This is followed by the claim that he nonetheless did take protective steps and sent an intelligence officer to the USA for training. The following observations can be made in relation to this section of the interview [in which he dwells upon the work done when he held full oversight over matters of national security]:
1. Not once does he mention the word ‘Wahabi’. Instead, he uses the more generalised අන්තවාදී. For a man who held the top job at the Ministry of Defence and is credited to have facilitated the provision of political leadership to a fierce war [a war deemed unwinnable at that], Mr Rajapaksa appears to be extremely cautious if not somewhat hesitant when talking about Islamist terrorism, or the brand of Islamist terrorism that we are faced with. Not once does he mention Wahhabism, Salafism, or the elephant in the room – Saudi Arabian funding and scholarship programmes, which have been crucial to the development of Wahabi groups, as well as massive Saudi investments on mosques and structures to propagate Wahhabism in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the South Asian region. He also totally avoids the local and international politics of Wahabi activity. To put things in a nutshell, the local problems include, for instance, the friction between Wahabi discourses and the belief systems/lifestyles of Muslims in Sri Lanka, Wahabi efforts to take control over mosques, and violence meted out to anti-Wahabi imams and lay folk. Internationally, material on the impact of Wahabi aggression abound, and does not require any reiteration here. Suffice to say that the hatred of Shia Iran, and that of moderate Sunnis and religious minorities across the Islamic world forms the quintessential hallmark of Wahhabism. It is also a non-discourse of such vile hatred and ignorance that it has been effectively used by Western imperialist powers to foster their interests in the Gulf region and beyond. The United States and its armada of think tanks, for instance, are very keen to move heaven and earth to salvage their close ally Saudi Arabia from being [rightly] castigated as the key vector in perpetrating Wahhabism and Wahabi -inspired extremist terrorism [for an example, click here]. Our future presidential hopeful and security expert keeps mum about all of this and more.
However, in fairness to Gotabaya, he is correct to note (at least as a passing remark) that drifts to Islamist extremisms have been in motion since the 1980s. The late Professor Newton Gunasinghe, for one, wrote about this trend back in the 1980s. His article, “පක්ෂ දේශපාලනයේ නව ප්රවණතා”, [soft copy accessible here] is a thought-provoking example. The article entitled ‘The Wahhabi Invasion of Sri Lanka’, by Stephen Schwartz and Irfan al-Alawi [published back in 2012] is yet another useful source that documents the extent of Wahabi activity in Sri Lanka. The point to remember here, is that Gotabaya is very cautious to avoid a word about Saudi Arabian support to the global propagation of Wahhabism and the underhand of the United States in promoting Wahabi terrorism in order to fulfil its strategic agendas. Here, Gotabaya’s statements stand in contrast with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s much-needed and bold words in Parliament on 23rd April 2019: “මේ ආණ්ඩුව දැන ගන්න ඕන විදේශීය රටවල් කියන විදියට මේ රට පාලනය කරන්න බෑ කියල.” [2:49 of the linked video. That these words may have been primarily intended at politically capitalising upon the current crisis is another matter].
2. Gotabaya then says that he sent a top intelligence official to the USA. In shedding light to the on-going security crisis in Sri Lanka, it is very important to juxtapose the two words ‘Gotabaya’ and ‘USA’. The former is a citizen of the latter. The former’s offspring resides in the latter. The former is a frequent traveller to the latter. The former, and many of his close family members, own private property in the latter. The former sends his senior intelligence officer for training on Islamist terrorism to the latter [despite a government with a non-US-leaning foreign policy approach being in power. More examples abound but let’s stop here for brevity]. We can therefore establish, with relative ease, that the relationship between the former and the latter is a very strong one.
The intelligence officer is sent to the USA to be trained. Upon his return, he is appointed chief of his bureau [army intelligence, according to Gotabaya], and on his advice, a cyber-terrorism monitoring centre is put in place. The USA is notorious to build relationships of trust with visiting foreign officials, and ‘deploy them’ [for want of a better word than ‘use’], for their future strategic advantage. That the Americans did not have a hand, and at least a certain level of access to, this cyber terrorism monitoring outfit is all but thoroughly unrealistic. Along this line, we can then establish with considerable certitude that a) US intelligence has long been aware of the presence of rising Wahabi activity in Sri Lanka, and b) since 2012-2013, that they have been, directly or indirectly, involved in the monitoring of Wahabi extremists in Sri Lanka.
3. The next observation we can make is that despite having the strength to pursue a nip-in-the-bud policy on any potential threat to national security, Gotabaya decided to not to take any action on rising Islamic extremism. His excuse, “අපිට පුළුවන් කමක් නෑ ආගමික වශයෙන් තියෙන කණ්ඩායම් කඩා දාන්නට”, is somewhat lame at best. We can then look at the following hypotheses:
a) That he opted to refrain from taking ‘nip-in-the-bud action’ due to coercion from his friends in the USA
b) That he saw in rising Islamist activity an opportunity to strike a ‘rapprochement’ with the USA – in a context in which relations between the State Department [let’s not forget, under the Obama-Biden administration] and Beijing-leaning Mahinda Rajapaksa were at dire straits.
c) That he saw in rising Islamist activity a factor that could help create a political context in future that would be favourable for him to take over the Rajapaksa dynastic throne. If this were the case, one can understand how, in tandem with Islamist extremism, an ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist extremism also developed [or allowed to develop] in the 2012-14 quarter. None of these groups could have functioned in a ‘security state’ without the express condoning of that security state, at the highest levels. When reflecting along these lines, the thesis advanced by some that Gotabaya simultaneously tolerated and encouraged the rise and a clash between Islamist and Buddhist fundamentalist activity sounds somewhat plausible. If he indeed did so, it backfired at the 2015 presidential election.
Or did it really backfire?
If one observes Gotabaya’s trajectory from 8 January 2015 to 2019, one can note that he is the member of the Rajapaksa family who has been most immune to scrutiny from the joint government.
That Gotabaya is friends with President Sirisena is known fact. Since 2015, he did not face any severe backlash from the UNP government either. There were sound-bite-stories, on issues such as permission to travel, of being summoned to questioning [which earned him a great deal of public sympathy], of summons issued in the USA [again garnering a great deal of public support in his favour].During the tenure of the joint government, Gotabaya also launched many initiatives to frame his profile as that of the next presidential candidate – with initiatives such as Eliya and Viyathmaga [despite receiving little support from brothers Mahinda and Basil]. At the 2018 local government elections, the Rajapaksa family ensured that Gotabaya was kept out of the picture. This writer won’t be surprised if someone develops the following hypothesis: that since 2012-2013, Gotabaya may have been in a long-term ‘deal’ with the USA, firstly to bring down his brother’s Beijing-leaning powerful government, bring the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government to power on the basis that, at the end of that government’s first term, circumstances would be put in place that would facilitate a grand entry of Gotabaya into electoral politics [and that all parties involved, including the USA and the two boys heading the joint government, would all be complicit in creating this terrain].
Once again, this writers clarifies that this is only a hypothesis based on the facts discussed above in point 3. This hypothesis can therefore certainly be wrong. However, this idea of a long-term game-plan is just about the only way to understand three the following factors:
1. That the national security apparatus did next to nothing to avoid the rise of Islamist extremist and Sinhala-Buddhist extremist tensions leading to the Aluthgama riots of mid-2014 [the mandate going to its second half, it was beyond stupid to tolerate developments that can only result in alienating a segment of the electorate from the ruling coalition].
2. That Mahinda Rajapaksa, while knowing that he had just lost a substantial chunk of the Muslim vote – decisive at a presidential poll – was still brought to a level where he did go to a presidential poll DESPITE having two more years to stay in office [the ‘Sumanadasa factor’ alone does not stand ground].
3. That Wickremesinghe, Sirisena, senior politicians and officials all knew about the Easter Sunday attacks, took measures to protect themselves and their loved ones, but did not raise a damn finger to protect the general public. How else, can one credibly explain their ‘zero f**ks’ attitude towards the attacks and the innocent victims, and their subsequent behaviour, knowing very well that it makes them look like a bunch of irresponsible idiots before fellow citizens as well as the world stage?
The above thesis could also explain the worsening of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe conflict in 2018, with both men seeking all possible avenues of sustaining their political careers. Yet another less far-fetched and basic hypothesis is that the USA may have by now gone a certain distance in striking a deal with Gotabaya, who is more marketable to the Sri Lankan electorate than Yankee Dickie’s nephew. The USA, in this sense, is looking to ensure that they do not bet on the wrong horse at the 2020 Presidential election. Their sole priority is that of ensuring a firm foothold in the Indian Ocean region, with Sri Lanka headed by someone who will follow their agenda and avoid supporting China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy [whether it is a toiya or baiya in power is an irrelevance to the Trump administration, for as long as its interests are protected]. The blokes in high politics, with zero regard for the interests of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, are desperately trying to use this situation to sustain their respective political agendas. Could we then conclude that the men in power, from MS to RW to GR and MR and others, are all a lost cause? By extension, could we then conclude that the present political/terrorist/national security crisis is a multi-level crisis of phallocentric politics and fragile, insecure and geriatric masculinities?
To be continued.