By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
At a special service held recently at the St Anthony’s church in Kochchikade, Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith made a number of interesting and unpalatable comments. His grievance with the Government is its failure to take immediate action against those responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage. He charged the Government over its failure to conduct an independent investigation into the Easter Sunday carnage. The Government is yet to implement in full the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed into the carnage.
The Government in its defence had pointed out that the PCoI was just one inquiry into the heinous crime. The investigations also include those conducted by other arms of the law as the CID. Indeed, as per the findings of these investigations the prosecution has brought 23,270 charges. Earlier this month the prosecutor indicted 24 suspects. Among those indicted is also Maulavi Mohamed Naufer, who the authorities maintain is the mastermind of the Easter Attack. According to the Government’s opinion, investigations into terror attacks cannot be hurried but need to be thorough.
Otherwise, the culprits may escape justice using loopholes in the law. Therefore, the evidence presented against the accused needs to be waterproof. Even America, took over 10 years to bring the masterminds of 11/09 to justice. The Government’s argument is not without merit. Former Western Province Governor Azath Sally’s case proves this point. At a press conference on 9 March, this year, the politician sneered at the laws of the country and stated that Muslims need follow only Muslim laws. This statement naturally caused much agitation amongst the other communities.
The matter however runs deeper. The utter and undisguised contempt the politician treated the laws of the land is a hallmark of Zaharan and his followers’ attitude. They too thought laws that are not adopted by Islamic principles of Government need not be followed. The Cinnamon Grand bomber Insaf Ahmed and his wife distanced themselves from their own relatives, including his own mother-in-law, for maintaining links with other communities. While the root causes that attracted youth to both JVP insurrections in early ‘71 and late ‘80s and the thirty-year Tamil terrorism were instigated by lack of economic opportunities, the Islamic terrorists’ mission is motivated over different reasons.
Their fight is for the incredible demand that only those who believe in Allah and follow Sharia laws should be allowed to live. It is in this context that Sally’s comment needs to be reviewed. While a mere statement reflecting the thinking of the extremists need not necessarily link Sally with the terror attack itself, it does not exonerate him either. It is the general suspicion of the Nation that Muslim politicians as Sally and Rishad Bathiudeen actively aided and abetted the terrorists. Bathiudeen’s case is similarly challenging for the investigators.
It has been exposed that while Bathiudeen was the Minister for Industry and Commerce during the Yahapalana Government he had used his political clout to illegally release a sizeable stock of copper to the factory owned by Ahmed, who blew himself up at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. The investigations had revealed that the money accrued through the export of copper had been used to fund the Easter Sunday attack.
If the investigators fail to find conclusive evidence to the effect that Sally released the copper with the explicit knowledge that its proceedings would be used to fund terrorism in the Island, then the matter becomes a simple case of bribery and corruption. Sally would still not be able to escape from the arm of the law. The law and lawmakers however would be helpless to arrest the growing problem of Islam extremism, which is being actively supported by Muslim politicians as Sally.
It would also deny the Easter Attack victims of the kind of justice Cardinal Ranjith is seeking. Therefore, only careful investigations could reveal the extent of these two politicians’ involvement with the terrorists. Otherwise, they could easily escape justice by portraying the links as mere circumstantial evidences or lack of substance to proceed.
Reflection as much as Investigation
The conduct of these two politicians however and the environment they operated within also warrants further examination. Currently, the focus is merely on their role to aid the suicide bombers. Yet, this atrocity does not begin nor end with the Easter carnage. The bane of the prevailing democratic system in Sri Lanka is that Governments are not formed by a particular party but through alliances.
Even the Government that came to power with an overwhelming mandate is a composition of numerous parties. The SLPP is the umbrella under which a number of smaller parties stand. Individually, these smaller parties do not have any political stand. Yet, it is the support they lend that makes a sitting Government powerful. This is a fact that none of the smaller parties allow the main party to forget.
Dual Citizenship Holders
The drama that preceded the 20th Amendment to the Constitution is a case in point. The main opposition President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced was not from the Opposition but from its own alliance and some of their main promoters. One of their contentions was over the dual citizenship holders holding top Government positions. Disgraced former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s name was often dragged into the argument to support their argument.
Even though Mahendran is not a dual citizenship holder but a Singaporean, the argument was clear – Dual Citizenship holders can easily evade the law of one country by fleeing to the other. Another reason that stands against dual citizenship holders is that they are often equated to the LTTE Diaspora. However, Gotabaya Rajapaksa proved that not all dual citizenship holders are from the LTTE Diaspora. In fact, when those who promoted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate first rallied around him, he was a dual citizenship holder.
However, that was a minute matter at that time. Then, when the very ones who supported and promoted a dual citizenship holder to President start opposing dual citizenship holders from holding top Governmental positions, their argument loses merit. As lawmakers and social leaders, they could have instead promoted laws to protect these positions from treacherous elements – citizenship notwithstanding. This would have allowed dual citizens holders who wish to contribute their services to their country of birth to do so whilst protecting national interests from crooks.
This would be an important step at a time when we are trying to attract our brains back home. Hence, the brouhaha over the dual citizenship could be for two reasons. One is obviously the lack of reflection on the matter. The other is the desire to remind the President as to who brought him to power. It can be seen that the discontent nursed most against this Government is by these so-called kingmakers.
They feel that their efforts and sacrifices are not acknowledged enough by the President. This is not a new situation in Sri Lanka. Ever since the country entered the two-party system and power yo-yoed between the then two main parties – UNP and SLFP – each has been dependent on smaller parties. The circumstances have improved with this Government in as much the parties with which it has allied with is powered by the same ideology.
Therefore, the vote base is more or less the same. Depending on the perceived performance of the Government and its Ministers, the main vote will float within this ring. During the previous Governments, the alliances were with different communities and ideologies. The Yahapalana Government especially was formed with the support of the minority parties. Their only common denominator was the fact that it represented a minority community. Their political objective was to win privileges for their community – even at the expense of national interest.
The Government’s challenge was to give in so as to keep this support intact. Various politicians from the main parties did their best to bite into this exclusive vote base. In this endeavour they themselves became active advocates of minority aspirations. Some even changed their dress code to be identified closer with these communities. President Ranasinghe Premadasa perhaps did the most damage by shifting the percentage of votes received from 12.5 per cent to five per cent to enter parliament.
This allowed the Muslim politicians to make their own presence in Parliament without depending on the support of the main party. Theoretically, this sounds good and inclusive. Practically, this led to exclusivity that has now plagued the country. When the intelligence reports emerged on the extremists’ increased activities, the Yahapalana Government made a conscientious effort to ignore it. When the then Minister of Justice Wijayadasa Rajapaksa presented to Parliament the statistics of ISIS activities in Sri Lanka, he was quietly removed from position.
Thus, more than the then President Maithripala Sirisena, the blame is directed to Ranil Wickremesinghe, who spearheaded the Yahapalana Government. It is true that it was Sirisena who forbade Wickremesinghe from being invited into the Security Council meetings. This was not a matter that Wickremesinghe took to heart either for he never raised this issue in Parliament. The seriousness however is on the underlining message delivered by almost all police officers for their failure to prevent the atrocity.
They tipi-toed as the then Government was anxious not to antagonize the minority communities. As one wag aptly points out, the police is like a bunch of hares pretending to be lions. They thus dare not tread where political support is absent. Yet curiously the PCoI does not dwell into these facts. The police was obviously intimidated by the Yahapalana Government’s politics. Here, the separation of power was obscured to the point it is not possible to separate the blame from President and Premier.
Yet, ignoring Wickremesinghe’s role, the PCoI recommends “that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provisions in the Penal Code.” The exclusion of Wickremesinghe from its conclusions precipitates the question as to whether the PCoI findings are comprehensive. It is almost a foregone conclusion of many that this Government would not touch former President Sirisena. The reason being, he is now a partner in the Government. If action against him was initiated then it might lead to a split in the Government.
This is something the Government can ill afford – especially when the Government is planning to bring in a new Constitution. Whether this conclusion that the Government is protecting Sirisena for political survival is true or not remains to be seen. Even if Sirisena is enjoying such protection, there is no logical reason for the Government to protect Wickremesinghe. In fact, most Ministers have personal reason to see Wickremesinghe being wrung by the law.
Yet, he seems to have escaped the attention of all – including the Catholic community that is crying for justice for its victims. Cardinal Ranjith believes that this Government came to power using the Easter Sunday attacks. It appears that His Eminence had forgotten that Sirisena garnered the highest preferential votes from the Polonnaruwa district at the 2020 general elections.
Conversely, Wickremesinghe from Colombo district did not attract votes even to warrant a count. Again, it is curious that the PCoI did not share the public perception. In fact, the PCoI summoned Wickremesinghe only a couple of times. The effort seemed more cosmetic than sincere. Yet, except for a few raised eyebrows this did not attract much comment from the observers.
It is also curious that the Catholic community led by Cardinal Ranjith too has opted to ignore Wickremesinghe’s role in the Easter carnage. Instead of demanding a probe on his conduct, Cardinal is pressurizing the Government to enact the PCoI recommendations to the letter. Just as the Government can be accused of protecting Sirisena, the Catholic community can be accused of protecting Wickremesinghe for his Catholic roots. It is really difficult to discern the truth in either of these accusations.
Role Cardinal Must Play
Cardinal Ranjith earned the respect of all Sri Lankans through his conduct in the aftermath of the atrocity. He observed that this was a foreign engineered attack. Overall, he came across as calm and worldly. His Eminence should not let impatience cloud his vision now. He is in a unique position to agitate for much needed political reforms where politicians’ concerns for vote bases or political survival do not hinder national interests – including national security. While keeping the peddle firmly on pressurising the Government for justice, Cardinal must play a definite role in supporting the Government’s endeavours. The silence maintained by His Eminence over the criticism levelled at the Government over the detention of Hijaaz Hisbulla and other suspects was disturbing.
Cardinal should have made an attempt to rectify the damaging and erroneous statements made by MP Hakeem to the EU delegation. According to Hakeem, the present Government is arbitrarily arresting Muslims irrespective of gender or age. New Zealand’s efforts to deport an identified Islam extremist to Sri Lanka without sharing intelligence with the authorities should have been condemned by all Sri Lankans – notably those seeking justice for Islam extremists’ victims. Likewise, when New Zealand hindered investigations into the role of a suspect connected to the Easter Attack by granting him asylum the Catholic community kept quiet.
The only discernible result was that the Cardinal stopped threatening to take his case to the International Community. Both Cardinal and the Catholic community have thus distanced themselves from the truth and attempt to seek truth. Then, Cardinal’s statement that they have done everything in their power to get to the Easter Attack is false. It is the unhappy observation that all the Catholic Church has done so far is to agitate for the implementation of the PCoI recommendations, even though it does not appear to be comprehensive.
Threatening to topple the Government cannot be construed as seeking justice. His current comments that unless the truth about the attacks were exposed, it would be a curse to both leaders and people are not fitting for a man of his calibre. He elaborated his statement further with the observation that the country has been plagued with catastrophes since the atrocity. The catastrophe that afflicted the country since the Easter Attack was COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the pandemic has not only affected Sri Lanka but is a global crisis. To misinterpret this calamity as a divine punishment for the Easter carnage is an affront to all victims of the pandemic. The rising Islam extremism is not exclusive to Sri Lanka. With the return of the Taliban, the situation has become graver. Operating as individual self-motivated cells, based on a common ideology, all Governments across the world are plagued by these extremists. As responsible global citizens, our focus should not be on toppling Governments but on eradicating the causes.