By Mohamed Harees –
Six months ago, in the wake of extremely shocking scenes relating to the Easter Sunday massacre, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on Sri Lanka’s government to “mercilessly” punish those responsible “because only animals can behave like that”. Both religious and world leaders strongly condemned these barbaric attacks as affronts to the universal values and freedoms. The attacks bore little similarity to the violence of the civil war, but initial investigations pointed out that this gory spectacle had echoes of mass ISIS terror attacks around the world in recent years. As the nation on a panic mode and armed forces mobilized to maintain law and order and to hunt for the so-called ISIS indoctrinated culprits, a serious lapse of responsibility was adduced to the government of Sri Lanka, which had been previously warned of the threat. Six months on, while hundreds of affected families are crying out for justice, a demented nation is continuing to pay Pooja to the top guns in both the present and the previous governments, who were clearly responsible for allowing this tragedy to happen, in the run-up to the November elections. Tales of woe appears to be left in limbo as the Election heats catches on.
This massacre indeed represented a massive security failure by the Sri Lankan state. Parliamentary Select Committee(PSC) Report also supported this position thus; ‘Following the attacks, evidence emerged that prior intelligence information was available regarding the impending attack but that it was not acted upon’. The PSC further notes, that whilst the greatest responsibility remains with the Director SIS, others too failed in their duties. Within the security and intelligence apparatus, the Secretary MOD, IGP, CNI and DMI failed in their responsibilities. All were informed of the intelligence information prior to the Easter Sunday attacks but failed to take necessary steps to mitigate or prevent it.
Woefully, large-scale terrorist attacks destroy lives, but they also have the power to upend political realities and the dastardly Easter Sunday attacks were no exception. The actions of the perpetrators did send political shockwaves across Sri Lanka, whatever the larger objectives of the perpetrators were. The political reverberations of the attacks were almost immediate. Within hours of the bloodshed, infighting within the government burst into public view. That simmering animosities within the Sri Lanka’s divided Post- Oct 2018 government pitting MS against RW, clearly accounted for the massive failures of intelligence and policing, made the news even worse. People were understandably appalled, who blamed the government as “guilty of culpable homicide,” from its “reckless approach towards the affairs of state.”
RW’s allies all but blamed MS for the failure to stop the attacks, saying the former was kept in the dark. It was indeed Sri Lanka’s internecine Game of Thrones-style rivalries for control – a political system in which violence, conflict and even decisions of peace and war are often part of a much wider battle! Waiting in the wings was MR, the hawkish strongman who took much political advantage of the government’s inefficiency. Thus, the bombing and its aftermath appear to be shaped by Sri Lanka’s very messy politics and history. As Alan Keenan in a ‘International crisis group (ICG) report says: ‘A better-functioning national government might not have thwarted the Easter atrocities, but political and personal battles at senior levels contributed to government complacency and weakened the ability of the security services to detect and prevent the attacks…. Theories about collusion between government officials and the attackers are given added potency by claims from some officials that military intelligence under the Rajapaksa government worked closely with various Tawhid groups, both as informants and, reportedly, as agents provocateurs, to provide targets for radical Buddhist groups’ agitations’.
The forthcoming presidential election has only increased the sense of growing polarisation. It was not surprising that MR’s camp chose to exploit the situation by keeping the tension alive. Within days of the bombings, Gotabaya Rajapaksa indicated his intention to contest for presidency and now he highlights security issues in his election campaign. He has also been endorsing Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s call for an independent commission to investigate the security failures that led to the attacks. However, humorously, in a recent TV interview, Keheliya Rambukwella admitted that former MR government has financed Muslim extremists like Zahrans to act as informants. These type of statements as well as the dismal failure of this Yahapalana government have further weakened public trust in the Post- war governments and fed political divisions. Narcissist MS was also salvaging his political career, by trying to curry favour with Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. One such stroke was the pardoning of Gnanasara Thero who was in jail for contempt of court, who had also been a leading actor in the Post war anti-Muslim hate campaign. This hate monk joined another- Ratana Thero to spread fear within the Muslim community after the Easter attack, which led to the mass resignations of Muslim Ministers and Governors.
Then the question of the extent of culpability of the Muslim political leaders in respect of the Easter disaster also surfaced in the public domain. Three of them –Minister Rishard and Governors Hisbullah and Azath Salley were forced to resign in the face of accusations by Sinhalese hardliners followed by a fast-unto death by Ratana Thero, that they shielded or assisted the Easter attackers. However , the accusations were found to be unfounded after Police investigations. Both Muslim political and religious leaders like ACJU pointed out that as the behaviour of Zaharan and his extremist elements grew more provocative and ultimately violent, many of them warned police; but no action were taken. Some writers alleged that local Muslims have been silent observers, tacit supporters and active apologists of these extremist groups. However, the ICJ Report challenges this view. Firstly, it would have been difficult to anticipate the transition Zaharan made from “a religious leader who was drawing Muslim youth with his sharp debates on religion, to a militant. Secondly, understanding the violence and hard-line Muslim attitudes that may have driven the Easter bombings requires a wider lens than “Wahhabism”. Thirdly, Muslim leaders may also have felt constrained from policing practices in their own communities given the hostility they faced in the post-war period.
In the post-Easter period, hard-line Buddhist nationalist lobby who has been accused of fostering ethnic divisions and of carrying out their own attacks on churches, rose up once again in full vigour to re-orchestrate the anti- Muslim hate campaign which had peaks during both MR and Yahapalana governments. Although the attackers ,like Zahran were fringe actors in a community that has been notably peaceful amid Sri Lanka’s political turmoil, racist politicians and Sinhalese nationalists have used the bombings to justify actions that have harassed and humiliated the broader Muslim community. They were pushing for the Muslims to collectively assume guilt for the growing “extreme”. As Alan Keenan in ICG report says, ‘The government has allowed militant Sinhalese groups purportedly defending Buddhism to ramp up their post-war anti-Muslim campaign of economic boycotts, media pressure, and organised violence with impunity. The months since the Easter bombings have seen island-wide boycotts of Muslim businesses, vigilante attacks on women wearing hijab, and old and new media rumour campaigns by Sinhala nationalist groups alleging Muslim plots to sterilise Sinhalese women. Two days of devastating riots targeting Muslim businesses and mosques in mid-May raised fears of an island-wide pogrom like the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots that led to all-out war. ..Given that members of the small group behind the Easter bombings all appear to be dead or arrested, public fears of further jihadist attacks in the short term have receded. But with dysfunction in the security services left largely unaddressed, and the country’s political and Sinhalese Buddhist religious leadership either oblivious or indifferent to the ill will they may be sowing with the nation’s law-abiding Muslim citizens, Sri Lanka is nonetheless taking steps down a dangerous path. It is past time to reverse course, lower communal tensions and focus on the critical and unfinished work of knitting together a fractured country’.
PSC Report also notes that ‘several politicians made comments subsequent to the Easter Sunday attacks which were inflammatory and irresponsible’, ‘that speeches that incite hate and racism, by politicians, religious leaders and others, are extremely dangerous and must be independently investigated and individuals held to account. Inaction will only exacerbate the impunity and contribute to further hate and fear in Sri Lanka’.
It was really pathetic that the Yahapalana government leaders including RW did little to challenge the aggressive political and rhetorical attacks on the Muslims and reassure them, except Rajitha and Mangala. As Alan Keenan echoes in the ICG Report, ‘This lacklustre show of support for the nation’s Muslims reflects a clear political calculus: the UNP, which has traditionally benefited from Muslim support in elections, is hesitant to challenge the anti-Muslim campaign too strongly, for fear of losing Sinhala voters to the more nationalist opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya. But some analysts note that in so doing they may be taking Muslim support too much for granted, and that significant numbers of Muslims may choose not to vote or decide it is safer to support the Rajapaksas in the coming election’.
This type of government apathy led to well-established Sinhala Buddhist militant groups launching major attacks on Muslim businesses, homes and mosques in Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gampaha districts in May 2019. This was not spontaneous retaliation for the Easter attacks, but a continuation of the years-long and orchestrated anti-Muslim campaign in Post war Sri Lanka. Rumours and unfounded allegations began to spread through both traditional and social media, fanning popular fears and prompting more arbitrary arrests under ICCPR. Mazahima who wore a dharma chakraya like dress was one victim of malicious detention. The more famous case was that of Dr Shafi ,who was wrongly accused of sterilizing Sinhala women. Ratana Thero mounted a campaign of attacks against Dr. Shafi in the media for attempting to destroy the Sinhala Race, as well as alleged links to terrorists and to Minister Rishard, who had also been the subject of a similar campaign. He has since been exonerated by the CID and the Courts. Further, Post- Easter boycott campaign has been causing considerably greater damage to Muslim shopkeepers and businesses across the island, than earlier attempts. Adding insult to injury, public remarks made by the chief priest of the Asgiriya chapter to “unite as Sinhalese and as Buddhists” against Muslim expansionism and endorsing the Rajapaksas return to power in the upcoming presidential election, showed debased political games at play. There was also a concerted campaign against Muslim attire as well while Niqab was banned under Emergency regulations. Ending impunity for attacks on Muslims from Aluthgama to Minuwangoda has thus become a wishful thinking. As Amnesty International said, “It is worrying to see the recurrence of hostility and violence against ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka..As long as there continues to be impunity for series crimes under international law, Sri Lanka will not be able to decisively break from that history”.
According to Christian Today Magazine, ‘attacks on members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians are not new. Religious intolerance has been on the rise in the country since 2000 and especially since the end of the civil war in 2009. Acts of violence motivated by religious hatred persist in an environment of impunity as the authorities are often reluctant to curb Buddhist nationalists and statistics on religious discrimination and harassment are often denied or ignored. The situation also drew the attention of the UN Human Rights Council, which in 2014 adopted a resolution on reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, noting its alarm “at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians’.
Yes! It was a culture of impunity and government apathy that enabled the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. It is a shame that Gotabaya Camp has already used the Easter bombings to fan the flame of Sinhalese nationalism. On the other hand, Cardinal Malcolm issued a scathing criticism of this government too, over the Easter attacks decrying a “total lack of interest”. The government of Sri Lanka must investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings and take steps to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and promoted for all Sri Lankans, ending the culture of impunity which fuels this violence. Human rights must be at the heart of the next Sri Lankan president’s policies and his government needs to live up to its commitments to provide justice, compensate those harmed, and reform laws and practices to uphold human rights standards. This should be the way forward.