By Jehan Perera –
A year ago on April 21 on Easter Sunday the country’s peaceful life for ten years since the war’s end, free from large scale terror attacks, came to an abrupt end. The people who went to the three churches and three hotels that Easter morning were subjected to simultaneous suicide bomb attacks would not have had the slightest inkling of the terrible fate that was going to befall them. At 9 am the six synchronized attacks took place and took the lives of over 250 hapless men, women and children and injured more than 500. The puzzle then, and which remains to this day, was the motivation for the attacks and who was behind them. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, whose diocese suffered the heaviest casualties, has been the most dogged of the country’s leadership in pursuing this line of inquiry.
The dead have no voice to demand justice, so it is the duty of the living to seek the truth. This is one of the reasons for the importance given worldwide to truth commissions to investigate controversial events of the past. One of the government’s commitments to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 2015 was to appoint a truth commission to ascertain the truth of what had happened during the war. Credible truth commissions are usually led by people whose integrity is very high and have had a track record of professionalism and non-partisan service to the community. In South African the chairperson of the truth commission was Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The official inquiries into the Easter bombings so far have been unconvincing. Several weeks after the attacks the government arrested the Inspector General of Police, Pujith Jayasundera and the Defense Secretary, Hemasiri Fernando on the grounds of dereliction of duty. Both of them gave evidence that they had either been kept out of the loop at the highest levels or their advice had been disregarded. Both these senior public officials who were at the peak of their respective careers were incarcerated for months in prison. The parliamentary committee of inquiry was stymied by the fact that the president and prime minister were on opposing sides which made the inquiries appear to be politicized ones.
The Easter attacks have been an embarrassment to the political leadership of the country which may be why the search for justice for the victims appears to have been a desultory one. There was reliable information prior to the attacks to suggest that a wide swathe of the country’s political leadership on both sides of the political divide knew about the possibility of danger. A senior government minister said that his father, sick in hospital, had warned him not to go to church as there was a warning about an impending attack on churches. There were media reports that the intelligence services of friendly countries, including both India and the United States, had warned the government about the impending attacks and even the time and place of the attacks. The puzzle is why were these warnings ignored?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s dogged determination to ensure that the truth be found may have its origins in the belief that the Christian worshipers were made scapegoats for a deviant political agenda. The perpetrators were Muslim, the victims were primarily Christian. There has been no history of ill will or conflict between Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka whatever may be the situation in the international arena. The Easter bombings were followed nearly a month later by instigated attacks in some parts of the country, hate speech and discriminatory practices against the Muslim community which was deemed to be collectively responsible for the bombings. This first year anniversary of the Easter atrocity is an opportune time to reflect on the dangers of extremism. There is a need to reflect on the extremism that lies within each community and to be on the alert to counter it before it grows to be a monster out of control.
The attempts being made to target communities and make them into enemies needs to be deplored and the government needs to step in and take action against those who seek to turn community against community for their own narrow purposes. One of the key recommendations of the WHO is that countries should be unified in their response to the Covid virus and there should be collaboration across party lines and between communities. The cooperation of all is vitally necessary as it will be difficult to ensure anyone’s security from the virus until all are secure from the virus. WHO has also pointed out that the regulation on the disposal of bodies of victims of the COVID virus may lead to reluctance of families and communities to report COVID virus cases in fear that they may be unable ensure proper funeral or burial rites for their loved ones.
With the battle against the COVID virus is becoming more protracted and requiring greater sacrifice than previously anticipated, there is correspondingly greater tensions within society as the curfew gets further extended and reports of new COVID cases are announced. These increasing tensions are reflected in the rise of hate speech that is targeting the Muslim community. This is a continuation of a phenomenon that has been gathering in strength over the past several years and which peaked with the Easter bombing by Islamic extremists.
On the other hand, the experience of civil society at the community level with inter-religious committees at both the district and divisional levels is that much of the charitable work that is being done to support those who are suffering most as a consequence of the curfew are Muslims leaders and businesspersons. Muslims have joined humanitarian relief efforts with almost all mosques around the country distributing provisions and dry rations to needy families in their areas without differences of race or religion. This indicates that the Muslim community is economically empowered to offer such assistance and also that they are making a special effort to reach out to the larger community.
In the coming period Sri Lanka is likely to witness multiple nationwide elections for different tiers of government. The recent arrests of persons said to be involved in the Easter bombings have come in the context of imminent general elections. In the course of his sermon this Easter Sunday, Cardinal Malcolm said he had forgiven the bombers. This statement was not surprising as it is in keeping with Christian teachings. What was more creditable on his part was holding back the Catholics from retaliating in the immediate aftermath of the bombings last year. He spoke against retaliation and did not legitimise it. In these fraught times of Covid, this is the national leadership that the country needs more than ever, that treats all communities as members of one Sri Lankan family.