By Rohana R. Wasala
Sri Lankan Catholics, led by His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, Bishop of Colombo, marked Black Sunday on March 7, with the participation of representatives from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious communities, demanding justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks carried out by local Islamist Jihadists two years ago. The Archbishop threatened further activism including asking for international help unless there emerge sure signs before April 21 that the real masterminds behind the horrendous crime are clearly identified and duly punished so that no repetition of the like will occur in the future. The event was immediately provoked by what was perceived by them and members of the Opposition as well as some law-makers of the ruling alliance, and sections of the civil society, as foot-dragging by the government over punishing the guilty.
That questionable perception was prompted by the President’s appointment on February 19 of a six-member ministerial committee to study the Final Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Easter Sunday attacks which had been presented to him nearly three weeks before, and also the report submitted to Parliament by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security. (I, for one, do not question the appropriateness of the president’s move; it must be part of the proper procedure he has chosen to deal with the matter. Considering the dismal history of commissions of inquiry in our country, which a past left politician in Parliament likened to a ‘loo visit’ – sitting, deliberating, reporting and dropping the matter, what is at present happening under President Gotabaya is quite efficient quick.) The ministerial committee was required to hand over its report before March 15. Committee member Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said yesterday (March 8) that the report will be submitted on March 15, as scheduled. The PCoI was appointed by (previous) President Sirisena in September, 2019, and its term was extended several times by incumbent president Gotabaya without introducing any change to the composition of its membership. It is not likely that the unacceptable practice of interfering with the judiciary or in legal processes for which the previous yahapalanaya was severely criticised and was made to pay a heavy price in the form of a humiliating electoral defeat would be repeated by the present government, especially by Gotabaya, given his unsullied professional record and his immaculate personal probity. (Incidentally, something I observed in Gotabaya’s campaign speeches in Sinhala was his studied avoidance of noncommittal promissory statements containing (First Person Singular) verbs ending in the suffix -nnam, e. g., karannam (I shall/will do); he always used the present affirmative forms like ‘mama karanawa’ ‘I do’ instead of the future optative ‘karannam’ (I’ll do) form; ‘karanawa’ expresses a solemn pledge, not a casual promise. Gotabaya has already amply proved that he is a man of his word, just as much as he is a man of action.) Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the Cardinal has lost his trust in the President, who had repeatedly reassured him that the culprits won’t be allowed to go free, though the former has found it fit to observe a Black Sunday. That must be to provide a shot in the arm for the President and the government to reaffirm their commitment and renew their resolve for expediting the commencement of due processes for ultimately meting out justice to all affected persons; but that kind of coaxing is redundant, in my opinion.
A day before the Black Sunday was marked (i.e., Saturday 6), the President held the 13th session of his ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ ‘Conversation with the Country’ programme with the people of the village of Giribawe, Weragala, in Kurunegala. He had a copy of the final report, and spoke turning its pages, which showed that he had a good idea of its contents. He explained to the people that he had got the report on February 1, and that the commission had been appointed by the previous President. President Gotabaya pointed out that the report clearly blamed the (Yahapalana) government; it identified governmental inefficiency as the principal contributory factor that led to the Easter Sunday attacks. He stressed the fact that the report apportioned blame not only to former President Sirisena and the ex-Premier (Ranil), but also to the government (that they headed).
‘But today’, he added, ‘those who were in that government speak as if they weren’t in it. During president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, we gave priority to state security…. This report makes it clear that a situation like this resulted from the discontinuance of that security framework. We completely reject the absurd, baseless allegation that our government must be held responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks … The Report has recorded who is accountable for them. It is our responsibility to see them punished, because we are the government now. We will properly execute that (duty). We have not only this report, but also (reports from) the CID, the TID, and intelligence sectors. Since we came to power, we have apprehended many other new suspects. We are continuing (with this process). Punishments will be meted out to these people and those.’
My feeling, for what it is worth, is that the President and the government must be allowed time and freedom to deal with the burning issues in the current unprecedented critical circumstances. A local, Sri Lanka-bashing, propagandist tabloid has started calling the President ‘Nandasena’ (from his full name ‘Gotabaya Nandasena Rajapaksa’). This is clearly meant to be derogatory, for it acoustically links him with his failed predecessor Sirisena, who in actuality, through his ungrateful 2014-November betrayal of his elder brother the then President Mahinda, has brought endless disaster to the country. Such inimical portrayal of President Gotabaya as a failure is wrong. (It is tragic that some prominent monks who helped bring Gotabaya to power, have now been duped into looking away from him in apparent disillusion and defend Sirisena instead who is being justly threatened with possible prosecution in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks). With a little hindsight Gotabaya supporters may draw fresh inspiration.
The newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa handled with aplomb the sham kidnap episode which had been staged, courtesy the Swiss Embassy in Colombo on November 25, 2019, and which had certainly been meant to embarrass and undermine him internationally. The alleged abduction and rape of a local female employee of the Embassy was soon revealed by the police to have been a hoax, driven by anti-Sri Lanka politics. Having been elected President without a burdensome backpack of a professional political background, he was able to adopt a confident, unperturbed, and matter-of-fact approach to get at the truth, and suitably dispose of the filthy stuff. The naive Embassy officials who had been taken for a ride by the plotters of the hoax had egg on their faces; but the President treated them with the respect that their posts deserved, without any rancour. He even offered them a piece of friendly advice about the importance of guarding against being misled by fabrications of liars against the country (or something to that effect).
Currently, a worse, more damaging, drama is being acted out by the powers that be centering on the release of the Final Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday Attacks. This must be intended to bamboozle the SLPP government under Gotabaya’s presidency to veer off its course into floundering in the stormy seas of geopolitics. This time however, the issue that is to be tackled is not so straightforward as the silly embassy skit. It will need Gotabaya’s hard-nosed practical approach as well as a seasoned politician’s pragmatism. Unfortunately, according to my lights, at present, Gotabaya is not getting the undivided support of those who are closest to him, but who are apparently pulling in different directions, though their loyalty may be unquestioned; this is an unacknowledged dichotomy in the government’s inner circle, which is good for his and the country’s enemies.
This unnecessary division of opinion or lack of unanimity has significantly stymied the resolution of a range of issues including the trivial burial problem fraudulently blown into international proportions by Jihadist apologists. How the government ignominiously embarrassed itself through unnecessarily bungling the issue is now common knowledge. Mandatory cremation of Covid-19 dead was a sound scientific decision. It was just yesterday (March 8) that 9NEWS, the national news service of the Nine Network in Australia, reported Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Chris Lease revealing at a press conference held the day before (March 7) that a ‘very strong positive’ COVID-19 sample had been detected in Adelaide’s wastewater and that in response to this South Australia had been put on coronavirus alert. Doesn’t this suggest that Sri Lankan experts’ caution regarding possible contamination of groundwater was correct? Mandatory cremation (condemned as ‘forced cremation’ by vested interests) was not politically motivated to hurt the feelings of a particular religious community.
The ad hoc use of plots of land on the edge of environmentally sensitive forest reserves for rural poverty alleviation in these hard times is a process that must be strictly supervised by state officials and utilized by a properly informed, responsible civilian population with the least environmental impact. This need not be a basis for attacks on the government. Of course, it is absolutely necessary to protect the forest reserves from endless encroachments in the future by unscrupulous elements. It is the authorities’ responsibility to turn the local beneficiaries of the concession into committed environment protectors. This can be done by injecting into them a dose of patriotism. Issues relating to the development of important sea ports with or without foreign collaboration, and the findings and recommendations of various commissions of inquiry appointed to look into bank scams, political victimizations, and the Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, 2019 should be dealt with as national issues that should not be mishandled inviting detrimental foreign intervention in our domestic affairs.