By Kalinga Tudor Silva –
The Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated the Easter Sunday attacks submitted its report to the parliament on October 26, 2019. This report is important from a number of angles. Obtaining evidence from 55 persons (mostly members of the security establishment, politicians and Muslim community leaders) over the period from May to October 2019, it provided the first ever official account of the brutal Easter Sunday attacks targeting Christian churches at the time of their customary Easter Sunday service and premier tourist hotels in Colombo at the time of Easter breakfast on April 21 this year. As we know many reports of official enquiries in Sri Lanka irrespective of the subject matter never see the light of the day, irrespective of their high profile submission to the dignitaries routinely featured on national TV. This was indeed the case with the report of the Three Member Committee appointed by the president to investigate the same attacks that submitted its final report on June 10, 2019. In a country where many of the official enquiries conducted at heavy cost to the treasury and the public are merely used to legitimize the status quo and divert public attention away from the moral panic around crises of one kind or another, the publication of the PSC report within six months of its formation and efforts to disseminate its findings and recommendations are indeed commendable.
That said, it has to be pointed out that the PSC report is not entirely free of politicizing national security issues and engaging in the blame game rather than trying to understand and remedy the roots causes of religious extremism which is the most serious security challenge facing Sri Lanka at present. In some ways this political sidestepping is inevitable in a country where everything from poverty alleviation to garbage disposal is highly politicized particularly at a time when the country is gearing up to a presidential election. While critically reflecting on the findings and recommendations of the PSC report, this essay also questions some of its assumptions and highlights the need to push the debate around Easter Sunday attacks and the wave of religious violence among us beyond the national security paradigm that has engaged the PSC and much of the media hype and public discourse around multiple episodes of violence in the country.
At the outset it must be noted that the PSC only represented some political parties involved in the parliament and not others. It consisted of nominees of UNP, JVP, TNA and SLMC. Most importantly SLPP and SLFP opted out of the PSC both in terms of composition and deliberations. In early June Mahinda Rajapaksa, leader of the opposition, refused to nominate members from his political group to the relevant PSC on the grounds that the PSC hearings were exposing intelligence operatives and endangering their safety. In a cabinet meeting President Maithripala Sirisena wanted PSC hearings stopped, describing it as a personal witch hunt against him. Wimal Weerawamsa, the leader of the National Freedom Front aligned with SLPP claimed that involving certain Muslim politicians reportedly with links to Zahran group in the PSC work was like “horage ammagen pena ahanawa” (consulting an oracle who is the mother of the robber being suspected). Throughout the period from May to September opposition parties and the president himself tried to discredit and obstruct the working of PSC, also ordering public servants not to take part in PSC hearings. This, however, was not successful as many of the public servants who were called in by the PSC eventually gave evidence and the president himself had a meeting with PSC at the request of the latter. The government party helped by the speaker and supported by minority parties proceeded with PSC deliberations in spite of the objections raised by those in the opposition camp. Given this background the report of PSC is unlikely to be seen as a credible account by some key actors in the political spectrum in Sri Lanka.
The PSC found that first intelligence information about impending attacks reached Mr. Nilantha Jayawardena, the Director, State Intelligence Services (SIS) as a WhatsApp message on April 4th and as a letter the following day and that he failed to act on this information immediately and activate the security apparatus to arrest the perpetrators and safeguard the possible targets due to a combination of factors, including lack of professionalism, institutional lethargy and lack of understanding about how to respond to a security warning received from outside.
The PSC notes that the Director SIS bears the greatest responsibility. This is compounded by the fact that since 8th April 2018, a full one year before the incident, he had in writing to the IGP requested for the shutting down of investigations by others into Zahran, which resulted in the SIS becoming the sole investigator into Zahran. (PSC report, p. 2).
By the time this security alert was received from an external source not divulged in the PSC proceedings, the SIS and other intelligence agencies of the state had enough internal security information that would have alerted them to a possible attack by Zahran’s group. This included repeated complaints by many Muslim groups about increasing radicalization of Zahran’s group and its call for violence against so-called kafirs (non-believers), vandalism against Buddha statues in Mawanella in December 2018, March 10th shooting of the Coordinating Secretary of Minister Kabir Hashim who reportedly had cooperated with police investigations into vandalism against Buddha statues and the subsequent detection of a huge quantity of explosives in a farm in Wanathavilluwa on January 17th. Anyone with common sense let alone national security responsibilities would have immediately responded to this security alert given this background. The Director, SIS who was slow to respond, shared this information with Head, Centre for National Intelligence on 7th of April and he in turn passed this information to Secretary of MOD and IGP. The PSC reported with concern that neither the Director/SIS nor any other high ranking officials who had been informed about the security alert brought up this issue of security warning at the weekly Intelligence Coordinating Meeting (ICM) held on April 9th attended by all service chiefs indicating a serious security lapse in responding to a vital security information. According to PSC, this in turn, averted a coordinated joint action for preventing the attack at least in identified targets. The Director, SIS received a further security alert after the April 16 explosion in Kathankudy identified as “a dry run” in the PSC report and this apparently caused some panic reaction from him, nevertheless producing no coordinated effort on the part of security establishment for averting the attack.
Apart from the Director, SIS who is singled out in the PSC report, it also notes failures on the part of several other high ranking officials in the security establishment, including Secretary, MOD, IGP and Chief, CNI.
Witch Hunt against the President?
In describing the background to the attack, the PSC blamed the President on a number of counts:
“… the PSC observes that the President failed in numerous occasions to give leadership and also actively undermined government and systems including having ad hoc NSC meetings and leaving out key individuals from meetings.” (PSC report, p. 3).
The report highlights the role of the president in the following matters:
1. The constitutional crisis that started in October 2018 also resulting in a strained relationship between the President and the ruling party in general and the President and the Prime Minister in particular. This made life difficult for many officials in the security establishment with president as the Minister of Defense and the commander of security forces at the helm of the security establishment and all the other ministries and government establishments directly under the PM and other members of the cabinet. The Easter Sunday attack took place within this scenario of government incapacity and security limbo.
2. The President was overseas at the time of the attack and he had not appointed an acting Minister of Defense for the time he was away. Moreover, an annex attached to the report and compiled by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, a member of the PSC, alleges that President did not make a genuine effort to get back to the country as soon as he came to know about the attack. By implication the presidential action and inaction did not contribute to facilitate a prompt emergency response and crisis management at the time of the attack.
3. The President had deliberately left out the Prime Minister and the State Minister of Defense from the National Security Council (NSC) meetings from October 2018 onwards keeping them in the dark about security matters in the country. When the PM did convene an emergency NSC meeting in the immediate aftermath of the attack the President reportedly advised his secretary and Secretary of Defense not to participate in this meeting undermining the credibility of the process even at the time of this security crisis. The PSC also notes with concern the irregular and haphazard manner in which NSC meetings were convened and conducted, resulting in poor monitoring and surveillance of the security situation in the country.
4. The President also left out IGP from NSC meetings from October 2018 onwards reportedly due to the latter not following his instructions and not paying adequate attention during PSC meetings. Further, the Director, SIS was closer to the president perhaps upsetting the chain of command within the security establishment. For instance, “Testimony indicates that the President had regular contact with the Director, SIS than the Secretary, MOD” (p. 71). “..,the PSC is also aware that due to the practice established by His Excellency the President and the Director, SIS of regular communication bypassing the Secretary, MOD…This special arrangement between the President and the Director, SIS must require further scrutiny and the disregard towards established channels of communication and structures.” (p. 73), “What was also notable is the direct access the Director, SIS had with the President, unprecedented in comparison to others in the intelligence apparatus.” (p. 79).
5. The PSC report and, in particular the annex prepared by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, view with suspicion the claim by the President that he was unaware of the security alert received on April 4th. Given the open access the Director, SIS, had with the President, the PSC views with suspicion his claim that he did not share this vital piece of intelligence information with the head of the state. This, however, may be a questionable assumption in the light of how personal loyalties rather than genuine concerns about what will happen if this information is withdrawn from the head of state playing a more crucial role in deciding information to be shared by the relevant official with the head of state.
These allegations may resonate with the President’s original claim that the PSC was indeed a witch hunt against the head of state. In fairness to PSC it must be stated that they have marshalled evidence to support the claim that the President has indeed played politics with a number of matters related to national security perhaps endangering national security, even though its specific bearing on Easter Sunday events have not been clearly established in the report. Moreover, some key leaders of the ruling party, including the PM himself and the State Minister of Defense, are also blamed for a number of failures on their part in allowing the security stalemate to continue. Even though the PSC report leaves us with the impression that it has apparently dealt with these other politicians more lightly, it cannot be claimed that PSC was a one sided effort to find fault with the President alone.
What is missing in the PSC report
The PSC report tends to blame the individuals in positions of responsibility instead of trying to uncover structural issues that plague the public sector in the country, inclusive of the security establishment and the underlying social and economic causes that actually contributed to Easter Sunday attacks.
Appointment of persons to high ranking position in the state, including the security establishment, has been guided by personal loyalties rather than a proper assessment of the professional competencies, experience, personal integrity and past record. The secretary of MOD has been replaced four times within the space of four years making a mockery of good governance (yahapalanaya). This is not a unique feature of administration of national security but a general malaise applicable to all key appointments in public service, foreign service and banking services, including the Central Bank, where such an irregular appointment actually produced the infamous bond scam. Until and unless politicization of appointments cease to exist we will always have self-serving officials who do not deliver what they are expected to deliver to the public but who will nevertheless survive in the system because they know how to please their political masters no matter what they do. If Sri Lanka is to make any headway in governance, efficiency and public accountability, we need to have a new breed of politicians who will put a stop to political appointments and a new breed of public servants who serve the country and not the short-term political masters who are only concerned about their own survival and how to maximize their windfall as long as the opportunity lasts.
The PSC report does provide a useful account of the emergence of radical Islam among a marginal group of Muslims, but it tends to gloss over certain issues related to this phenomenon. For instance, it states that “investigations to date have not shown any evidence that Zahran had direct links with the ISIS” (p.4). While this may be an accurate statement when we consider whether the attack was actually sponsored by ISIS, there is enough evidence that this attack was ISIS-inspired in the sense that the ideology of jihad against non-believers that clearly triggered the attack directly stems from online activities of ISIS to which Zahran and his followers were directly exposed over a long period of time as was indeed confirmed by Nalaka de Silva, the former head of TID who monitored Zahran’s activities from 2016 in his testimonial to the PSC. (p.84-86). While the report does point to some 2000 people trained in the terrorist camps and that the number of people arrested so far is only a small fraction of the people so trained for violence contrary to the view publicly expressed by both the President and the PM that nearly 95% of the group is in state custody, what it fails to recognize is that this is also a religiously radicalized group with strong feelings and dogmatic views about the world within an environment where the political and religious leadership among Muslims vehemently and unequivocally condemned the attack and misuse of Islam for inciting violence and assisted the state in tracking down the perpetrators.
Another important point that the report glosses over is the anti-Muslim violence committed by Sinhala mobs in North Western part of Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attack. This anti-Muslim violence is important to the subject matter covered by the PSC for two reasons. One is that this anti-Muslim violence causing one death, many injuries and large scale property destruction along the lines of previous rampages in Digana, Ampara, Aluthgama and so on, is not construed as a serious security lapse directly connected with Easter Sunday events. It is important to point out that this break down of law and order took place at a time of emergency and high security alert when security forces have been alerted to the possibility of such a communally motivated backlash against the Muslim community in the light of previous attacks triggered by hate campaigns over mass media and social media. On the one hand, it is imperative to see these events as a continuation of a rising tide of communal violence dating back to 2012 with possible implications for mutual radicalization of sections of each community.
In spite of its high visibility and maximum damage within a short span of time, the Easter Sunday attack was not an isolated event unconnected with preceding events in Sri Lanka and abroad. The extreme and unprecedented religious intolerance of Zahran and his followers was partly a reflection of the militant jihadist ideology stemming from organizations such as ISIS, but clearly it was also a reaction against the wave of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka as was indeed declared by Zahran in his widely circulated You Tube videos. This phenomenon of attacks and counter attacks reflected in physical violence as well as in the barrage of hate messages going viral in social media indicate that the state must think beyond the national security paradigm and seriously work towards reconciliation, promotion of mutual trust among communities and foster cultural diversity as well as mutual respect across the entrenched ethnic and religious divides. The PSC has obviously considered this outside its scope, but the fact remains that this is the need of the hour and this is the only way in which we can avoid the next round of communal violence which could be even more devastating than the one before. Appropriate and timely state intervention is absolutely necessary for de-escalation of ethnoreligious tension and deradicalization of extremist groups across the board.
*The author is professor emeritus at University of Peradeniya