By Jehan Perera –
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith expressed the sentiments that are with most Sri Lankans today irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. At the reopening of St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, which was one of the two Catholic churches that were heavily damaged in the suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday, he said that many people in the country are living in confusion in the aftermath of the attacks and are wondering whether the country can overcome the situation. He said “What we need is a leadership that will work for the country rather than themselves. A leader with a backbone who will not protect the guilty. A leader who is not afraid to punish wrongdoers.” He added that the country needed leaders who would safeguard the rights of the people and would provide for economic upliftment. “These are the kind of leaders that the country needs today. We pray that there will be such leaders.”
As the most prominent Catholic leader in the country today, the Cardinal’s words will carry weight on their own. Sri Lanka is a country where people give deference to religious clergy who are trusted by the communities as having the people’s interests in mind rather than how to obtain their votes. The Cardinal’s words have even greater weight at the present time as he speaks as the voice of those 259 persons who are no longer on this earth, having lost their lives in the bombings that took place in two Catholic churches and four other locations, including one evangelical Christian church. Cardinal Ranjith said the Islamist extremists who staged the suicide attacks against three churches and three luxury hotels were misguided youth who will have no place in heaven. “The innocent victims who died while in church are now angels in heaven.”
The Cardinal’s words take on urgency and relevance because the 259 who lost their lives should not have died at all. There needs to be accountability on the part of all those who failed in their duty to safeguard the lives of people who depended on them for their safety. The ongoing proceedings of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) into the reasons for the failure to prevent the attacks have disclosed that for several years prior to the Easter Sunday bombings, there were intelligence reports about the mobilisation of Islamist extremism in some parts of the country. Those who eventually organized the suicide bombers had been engaging in extremist party politics and befriending political leaders who wanted to get the votes to which these extremists had access. The political leaders may also have wanted to use them as instruments to weaken their local political rivals.
According to the basic principles of political science, the primary purpose of the state is to have a monopoly on the use of coercive force and use it to protect the people. By that standard, the responsibility for the death of the 259 will fall upon those political leaders who were, and remain, in charge of the highest offices of state. The revelations at the PSC hearings have disclosed how the supreme body vested with protecting the people’s security, the National Security Council, was virtually non-functional during the crucial period leading up to the Easter Sunday bombings and did not take up these issues. The time period includes the 52 day period of the constitutional coup, which saw President Maithripala Sirisena sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, and appoint former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister of a new government. During that period too, the National Security Council failed to take up these issues, which added to the vulnerability of national security.
Security forces personnel who served on the ground have said that post-2015 period was one that saw an escalation of militant activism by members of the radical Muslim groups, such as the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) in those pockets in the Eastern Province in which Muslims are a local majority. The NTJ members, or those who eventually became its members, attacked other Muslim groups. They used to fire their weapons in their training camps. The field commanders of the security forces would have routinely sent in their reports to their superiors. These incidents of militant Islamists using Sri Lankan territory to conduct their own military training would have been reported up the chain of command of the security forces but to no avail. They were not given orders to either arrest the militants or to search the areas in which they live for arms.
Unfortunately, the government has still not given its response as to how it will ensure that the terrible and terrific mistakes of the past will not be repeated. Instead, the president together with the opposition want the PSC shut down on the basis that it is letting out state secrets and undermining national security. The irony is that those who neglected national security should now make national security the reason to shut down a mechanism that is exposing how the government failed to uphold the most basic of the state’s duties to its people. As a result of this neglect, 259 people lost their lives and 500 others were injured. The primary duty of those who govern is to ensure that the rights of the people are safeguarded, and most of all their safety is assured. Unfortunately the primary task of those who currently govern Sri Lanka, or seek to govern it, appears to be to win elections at any or all costs.
Instead of working together for accountability and justice, what is happening is a major political tussle between the different political actors who seem to show no interest in ensuring accountability of those who are responsible for dereliction of duty that facilitated the Easter Sunday attack taking place. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are called upon, in the midst of this current crisis, to work together to resolve the outstanding issues and put a new framework of counter-terrorism laws approved by parliament. However, the president has stated that he will not preside over cabinet meetings nor will he sign cabinet papers that will make them law. In addition, the president is threatening to continue his boycott of the cabinet meetings until the PSC in its present form is halted. It is the country and people who will be negatively affected as a result due to the paralysis of government.
In an unfortunate indicator that partisan politics is motivating such decisions, there are reports coming in that the President is contemplating a non-binding referendum on the issue of whether or not to dissolve parliament before the presidential elections. Having created the problem of government paralysis by refusing to attend cabinet meetings and failing to come up with an action plan to prevent a recurrence of the failure of the Nations Security Council of which is he the chairperson, the president is trying to change the constitution through a non-binding referendum. However, the constitution clearly says that parliament can only be dissolved four and a half years after the elections of the new parliament. This means that the current parliament can run until February 2020.
It is strange to call a referendum to see if an existing constitutional provision may be overridden without even checking to see if a majority in parliament is in favour of this. A non-binding referendum would be meaningless in a context in which a 2/3 majority in parliament is an absolute requirement for any change of constitutional provision. An additional factor that goes against having a non-binding referendum is its cost, which will be in the region of half a billion rupees. The government could better utilise these resources to secure the future of the 259 innocent families who lost their loved ones and the 500 others who were injured as a result of government failure to discharge its most basic duty. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith’s prayer will need to be answered if Sri Lanka is to overcome the mis-governance it is being subjected to.