By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Presidential contender Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) has made national security the focal point of his campaign. He and his supporters have enough ammunition in their arsenal in the Easter Sunday bombings. Security lapses of the kind during the Yahapalana term of office would not and did not happen during ten years of Rajapaksa rule.
Unable to ignore the issue, the other leading contender, Sajith Premadasa (SP), has waded in by promising citizens to revamp the entire security apparatus in the country. He has announced a ‘smart national security strategy,’ whatever that means with a National Security Advisor to boot.
The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) has finally completed its task and handed in their report. Other than what transpired in camera not released to the public domain, it revealed little to add to what was already in the public domain. However, one could think of many a grey area not dealt with by this committee.
About a month before the Easter Sunday bombings, the Department of Muslim Cultural and Religious Affairs Director MRM Malik announced over 500 unregistered mosques in the country. It is in addition to the nearly 2,400 registered mosques. He further stated, “We are now in the process of sending them reminders.” The law of the land requires the registration of all religious places of worship with the relevant department within six months of being set up. What is not known is how many of these 500 structures have obtained the necessary building and other permits.
Broadly speaking, acts of terrorism were perpetrated mainly by two types until around 1980.
The first group was the likes of Ho Chi Ming and the Taliban in countries occupied by foreign powers.
The second group consisted of those who wished to change the political direction of a country. It was mostly ideology-based. The likes of Lenin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Tsung, and Castro all carried out terror attacks and were branded terrorists by the rulers of the day. They became national leaders and heroes after their successful revolutions.
Yasser Arafat and his PLO movement terrorized the world to win back their land taken forcibly from the Palestinians.
However, with the end of the cold war and with communism all but dead, religious extremism and resulting terrorism replaced politics-based terrorism.
Religious extremism and radicalism are not the monopolies of the followers of Islam. There are radicals and extremists among followers of all religions (Buddhism is a philosophy but will be referred to as a religion for convenience). Unfortunately, terrorists among followers of Islam have carried out terror acts in more trouble spots around the world than any other religious group for a gamut of reasons. It has regrettably led to Islamophobia.
Only a handful of such types are required to ferment radical ideas within a group, village, town, etc. The most convenient for such activity are places of worship where worshipers gather. The weak and disgruntled make easy prey for recruitment by hardcore extremists, whether Muslim, Buddhist or any other.
Having all places of worship registered should be a mandatory requirement. It applies across the board to mosques as well as Buddhist temples, including those constructed by armed forces in the North, Hindu Kovils, Christian churches, and those of other faiths. Equally important is the close monitoring of their finances, both local and foreign. Accurate record-keeping is essential.
The arrest of over a 150-visa overstaying foreign Islamic preachers in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings is a known fact. The Singapore Straits Times quoting Minister Vajira Abeywardena reported 600 visa overstaying deportees, including around 200 Islamic preachers. The same figures were reported by Sunday Times quoting an unnamed Immigration Department official. The BBC reported 161 Islamic preachers. According to Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, 800 foreign Islamic clerics have entered the country with tourist visas.
According to informed sources, these preachers had entered the country using the tourist visa facility. However, preaching Islam and not tourism had been their reason for coming to Sri Lanka. They were also found to have overstayed their visas, which then leads to two questions.
Firstly, why did they enter as tourists when they were Islamic preachers? Secondly, why break the law without regularizing their stay? The mosques hosting them should be held accountable and hefty fines imposed for violating immigration laws.
It is unknown if some of the Preachers were preaching a radical brand of Islam in line with Easter Sunday bomber Zahran’s ideology. Did security officials interrogate these Preachers and their disciples? Have they been deported, are they still in retention or have they been released?
According to Police Spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekera, the CID had identified Rs 140 million cash and other assets worth over Rs 7 billion belonging to Zahran’s National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ). He stated, “Half of the cash has been taken under CID custody, and the remainder was found deposited in several bank accounts. The CID has taken measures to suspend those accounts.” Where and how did this group of young men manage to obtain that kind of money, and who helped them? Has any effort been made to follow the money trail?
Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, the father of two suicide bomber brothers, owned a scrap iron and copper factory in Wellampitiy. It is the suspected assembly point for the suicide vests. The Wellampitiya Police arrested nine factory workers and produced before the Colombo Magistrate on April 22. They had been remanded till May 6 but mysteriously released on bail shortly after that, supposedly due to political interference. Who had the remand order revoked? Police Spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekera promised an investigation. What happened?
Batticaloa Campus Pvt. Ltd. promoted by former Governor of Eastern Province MLAM Hizbullah and his Heera Foundation had received Rs 3.6 billion (approx. USD 24 million) in seven fund transfers into its Bank of Ceylon account from a Charity Foundation in Saudi Arabia within 15 months between 2016 and 2017. Though claimed to be a grant, no documentary proof was available. A document was eventually produced from the Al Juffali Foundation in Saudi Arabia, stating it was a soft loan on a differed payment basis. The letter was dated January 1, 2019. If that be the case, what was the basis of the seven inward remittances in 2016 and 2017? We ordinary citizens must provide personal details and sources of funds when banking over Rs 1 million. Yet the seven inward remittances of Rs 3.6 billion did not get flagged by Central Bank and Bank of Ceylon systems. Or were they surreptitiously de-flagged? Who is investigating?
The farcical PSC failed miserably to raise some of these and many other issues. There is no record of cross-examining those responsible for importing foreign Islamic Preachers nor trustees of Mosques who hosted immigration lawbreakers. On the subject of Arabizing Kattankudy, they readily accepted the former Governor’s reasoning. He spoke of the need to construct buildings based on Arabic architecture, grow date palms, and name roads in the Arabic language to attract Arab tourists!
Committee members MA Sumanthiran and Rauf Hakeem pounced on Secretary to Ministry of Public Administration JJ Rathnasiri over the face veil issue related to the dress code for state employees. Their enthusiasm was noticeably absent when cross-examining the likes of Rishard Bathiudeen and Hizbullah.
A few days back, a video went viral of Minister Rauf Hakeem and terrorist leader Zahran in the same room during a group meeting. Hakeem has gone to great lengths to justify his presence and refute allegations of any links with the terrorist. What is relevant is not the public meeting but the fact, he failed to disclose the presence of Zahran during a meeting attended by him, at the time of his appointment as a PSC member. The Speaker, notoriously shy of dealing with Members of Parliament on matters of conduct, has failed to question Hakeem to date on his lack of transparency.
GR and SP are grandstanding on the issue of national security. They are full of it.
GR has, on occasion mentioned, he intends setting up an independent investigation to investigate the Easter Sunday bombings.
SP, while ignoring the Easter Sunday bombings, has promised to ‘unleash’ Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. He is to be appointed to the post of Minister for Defense and Law & Order tasked with revamping the country’s security apparatus. He is sufficiently naïve and green behind his ears not to understand, only in Banana Republics is defense overlooking the armed forces and law & order or Interior overlooking the police entrusted to the same person.
AKD and MS, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, have remained silent on the subject.
MS, the newcomer to politics, could perhaps commence by being forthright. He could provide the real question which prompted him to tell Minister Bathiudeen, “give me a call in one and a half years” over a detainee.
Parliamentary Elections will follow the Presidential election within six months or less. With a one million-plus Muslim vote bank to be harvested, methinks all of them, the winner and losers will do nothing.
Presidential contenders, political leaders, the Speaker, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry, with an agenda, pay lip service to national security.
Yet actions speak louder than words. Whereas words echo national security, their actions reek of political expediency.