By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka is still trying to emerge out of its three decade long ethnic war that ended in 2009. Unfortunately, the Easter Sunday bombings linked to the Islamic State (IS), and the damaging reaction to it by those who ought to be responsible political leaders, are taking our country once again in the direction of another ethnic conflict. The bombing has been used to create a great rift in Sri Lankan society. The new ethnic polarization that has set in has led to the first post-independence government in which there is no Muslim representation at the ministerial level.
In this context the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) into the Easter Sunday bombing has become a matter of political controversy. President Maithripala Sirisena and several opposition leaders have been voicing their strong opposition to the inquiry. They have expressed their objections as being due to their concern for national security and the exposure of those who are engaged in intelligence operations on behalf of the state. President Sirisena has gone to the extent of asserting that he will not give his consent to serving personnel of the security forces to give evidence before the PSC.
The controversy over the PSC is that it has brought the focus back to the bombings that occurred on Easter Sunday and to the issues of accountability that must necessarily accompany it. This bombing signified the end of the illusion that Sri Lanka had transited from being a country at war to one in which peace was assured. On that fateful day 250 persons died, the country’s economy received a massive set back and relations between the ethnic and religious communities got sundered. But what followed the bombing was also so serious that the bombings themselves were taken away from the public attention.
Among the serious issues that followed the Easter Sunday bombing was the eruption of anti-Muslim violence by organized groups, which led to the destruction of places of religious worship, factories and homes. Attention got also focused on the cordon and search operations that targeted members of the Muslim community and the death fast of Ven Athureliya Ratana thero, which threatened to bring in its wake further polarization in the country.
Although more than seven weeks have passed since the Easter Sunday bombings its antecedents remain shrouded in mystery. Those bombings came as a total surprise to nearly the whole country, to the general public and to those who run the government it seems. But it was not a surprise to all. The PSC investigation is disclosing that President Sirisena played a major role in the failure to act. This is what the evidence given by police chief Pujith Jayasuriya who has been suspended from his job, and defense secretary Hemasiri Fernando who resigned from his job seem to be saying.
The police chief in particular has made damning allegations. One of these is that he was ordered to stop investigating extremist Muslim organisations in April 2018. The president further excluded him from attending National Security Council meetings from early October 2018. This was another fateful period in which the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was suddenly and unconstitutionally sacked by President Sirisena to the astonishment of the general public who believed that such an act was not possible. The sacked prime minister was replaced by the current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who formed the new government.
The question is why was the order to stop the investigations into extremist Muslim organisations a year before the attacks took place. According to the police chief’s submissions to the Supreme Court, he was asked to stop the investigations so that the State Intelligence Service whose chief directly reported to the president could take charge. President Sirisena is the best person to answer this as he is the head of the security forces, the intelligence services and the police. However, due to the immunity provisions in the constitution, at present he cannot be summoned before the PSC to answer those questions. That opportunity will only arise after he relinquishes his presidential office in January next year.
The importance of ascertaining the truth behind the Easter Sunday bombings sooner rather than later is that it can help to prevent a recurrence of such a terrible possibility. The public apprehension about a second wave of bombings was very high in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. As those bombings were totally unexpected and inexplicable there was countrywide panic about the likelihood of follow up attacks. The arrest of a large number of suspects and the assurances of the security forces that the terror network has been disabled has allayed fears to a great extent. But the threat remains.
The Easter Sunday bombings done in the name of religion has brought into focus the problem of religious extremism in the country. This problem has generally been focused on the Buddhist majority, sections of which have engaged openly in violence against selected minority targets. But in the case of the Easter Sunday bombings the attack came from the Muslim religious minority against the Christian religious minority. In the longer term coping with this problem will require the management of space in society so that extremists will not have that free space.
During the three decades that Sri Lanka spent combatting the Tamil separatist movement, there was a recognition that political rights of aggrieved communities need to be respected and that human rights violations can push more people into taking militant positions. There was recognition that political solutions that meet the needs and interests of the different ethnic and religious communities are hard to come by, but need to be strived for. There is today recognition of the need to mininise the push factors of human rights violations and treating others with disrespect that drives more and more people into militancy.
In the shorter term, regaining confidence in Sri Lanka’s institutions, such as the police, and strengthening their independence to act with integrity, will play an important role in ensuring national security. The PSC process will hopefully reveal how the country’s national security system, which stood firmly and fast against the threat of the LTTE, succumbed in this instance despite being in possession of top grade intelligence material provided by the government of India. Was it foreign money, geopolitics or simply venal politics that set the stage for the Easter Sunday bombings, and more to come?
In the case of the Easter Sunday bombings however there is an additional determinant at work. This is the pull factor of global Islam with its religious ideology that is buttressed by enormous economic resources. Since the end of the war in 2009 the space has opened up in Sri Lanka for different philosophical and religious ideologies to enter and for leaders with their own agendas to champion them. These need to be studied. There is a need to probe not only the public officials but also the political leaders who have had connections with the extremists and who have been photographed along with them prior to the Easter Sunday attacks. The PSC process needs to be expanded not stopped and hushed up.