Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. But this is not true of Sri Lanka, where a group of terrorists carried out suicide attacks in churches and hotels, on 21 April, snuffing out more than 250 lives and injuring about 500 others. That the government had received an intelligence warning days ahead of the Easter Sunday attacks, but no action was taken to protect the public is now only too well known.
Minister Harin Fernando admitted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks that he had been warned by his ailing father, on the eve of Easter Sunday, against going to church the following day. He has incurred the opprobrium of Catholic clergy and laity alike for not informing others of the impending danger. Minister Mano Ganeshan has also said he had been aware of the danger a few days prior to the incidents.
The Easter attacks have given rise to various theories. There are three prominent ones among them. The first is that the terrorist bombings were in retaliation for the recent Christchurch massacre of Muslims. The New Zealand government has dismissed, out of hand, this claim, as baseless. Its reaction could be due to two reasons.
It must be embarrassing for New Zealand to admit that its failure to prevent a massacre on its soil is the cause of the terror strikes in Sri Lanka. Or, it may be having reliable information to deny a connection between the two attacks. If so, why did the ISIS affiliate, the NTJ (National Thowheed Jamath) carry out a spate of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, of all places?
It is also being argued, in some quarters, that the ISIS, which suffered an ignominious defeat in Syria, ordered the Easter Sunday attacks as a face saving measure.
Another theory is that the ISIS, whose origin is shrouded in mystery, is a creation of the West to tame hostile regimes in the Muslim world, including Syria. The fact that the outfit was well equipped with the state-of-the art weapon systems from the word go is being cited as proof that it is funded by the West and its allies in the Middle East. It is claimed that the western powers are using the ISIS to further their interests in all parts of the world.
The proponents of this theory argue that the US created the Mujahideen and al-Qaeda to fight a proxy war against the Russians in Afghanistan because it saw the Soviet occupation as an integral part of the Cold War. They maintain that now that China has a strong presence in Sri Lanka, the Western powers and their allies in this part of the world are busy creating a situation where NATO could move in and gain a foothold here. They view the Easter attacks as part of a destabilisation campaign, carried out by the western powers with the help of the ISIS or some dissident groups of it, to pave the way for the entry of NATO forces into Sri Lanka, to counter China’s efforts to gain control over the vital sea routes in the region. They claim that the spy outfits of the US and the UK have already arrived here on the pretext of assisting their Sri Lankan counterparts in the ongoing investigations.
The world has never been short of conspiracy theories. When 9/11 attacks occurred, some commentators were prompt to claim that the US itself had demolished the buildings to justify its ‘war on terror’ aimed at projecting its military power to safeguard its economic and geostrategic interests.
However, the sullied history of some of the world powers and the ghost wars have waged through terrorist outfits, lends credence to claims that they do not hesitate to advance their agendas regardless of the human cost involved in their operations.
Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has not ruled out the possibility of the involvement of some external forces other than the ISIS in the Easter carnage as one can see from his post-disaster media statements.
Old battles, new theatre
Smoke was still billowing from the blast sites when a political war erupted over the terror strikes and the focus of the narrative was shifted from the victims to the political front. President Maithripala Sirisena, who also holds the defence portfolio, was holidaying overseas at the time of the disaster. He has been accused of waiting for the scheduled flight to return home without catching an earlier one though he was able to do so. He also did not care to appoint an acting Defence Minister before going overseas. Perhaps, he did not do so because he does not trust the ministers, all whom are from the UNP.
The enmity between the President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has become known to the entire world. Interestingly, some foreign leaders including US President Donald Trump chose to call Prime Minister Wickremesinghe instead of President Sirisena, who is the Head of State, to condole and pledge solidarity with Sri Lanka. The UNP has ensured that these calls get wide publicity apparently in a bid to have the public believe that it is the PM who is more recognised internationally than the President and, therefore, he alone can muster international support for the country’s fight against terrorism. Thus, we witnessed a replay of the old political battles between the PM and the President with the alignment of external forces remaining unchanged.
The fact that President Sirisena had kept Prime Minister Wickremesinghe out of the National Security Council meetings due to distrust between the duo is now as known as Ceylon tea, the world over.
Hoopla over the loop
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has sought to absolve himself of the responsibility for the security lapses that allowed the terror strikes to happen; he has claimed that he was not privy to what transpired at the NSC meetings as he was not in the loop.
But one finds it hard to believe that having humbled the President twice, last year the PM allowed himself to be sidelined in that manner. He not only aborted an attempt to oust him, last October, but also forced the President to bite the bullet and appoint him the PM. Wickremesinghe is no longer at the mercy of the President, thanks to the 19th Amendment. He may not have accepted Sirisena’s decision to keep him out of the NSC meetings, out of timidity. He either wanted to leave the lame-duck President alone with only a few months to go for the next presidential election or let the latter stew in his own juice. Else, it cannot be explained why he allowed the President to silo and ignore him.
The question Wickremesinghe is being asked by the Opposition and the media is why he had not made an issue of being excluded from the NSC meetings until 21 April. The blame for the government’s failure to prevent the Easter attacks has been laid at Wickremesinghe’s feet, as well.
Unfortunately for him, his English language proficiency as well as his parliamentary majority has attracted the international media which question him on the government lapses at issue and even ask him why he does not resign. Since the abortive October revolt staged by Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the pro-UNP yahapalana activists have maintained that the PM is more powerful than the President. If so, he cannot wash his hands of the faults of the government.
Muslims caught in a nutcracker
The Muslims are in a dilemma. Obviously, the vast majority of them do not condone the NTJ terrorism, which has become a problem for them as well. Those who oppose the extremists risk their life and limb. The NTJ members responsible for damaging some Buddhist statues in Mawanella in a bid to provoke a backlash shot the secretary to Minister Kabir Hashim for opposing their campaign. Huge hauls of explosives and weapons seized from NTJ safe houses in several parts of the country show how organised the extremists have been. No wonder the ordinary Muslims are too scared to antagonise them.
The Easter Sunday blasts, thankfully, did not trigger a backlash. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and other Catholic priests acted commendably, urging as they did the people to remain calm. But the fact remains that the Muslims are living in fear, and they have to undergo security checks more than others. Time was when the Sinhalese youth became suspects due to JVP terrorism. The LTTE made each and every Tamil youth a suspect. The NTJ has done that to the Muslim youth.
The post-disaster raids have yielded huge stocks of explosives, arms, etc., thanks to information given by the peace-loving Muslims themselves. But the ongoing search operations will not to be to the liking of the Muslim community because their freedoms are bound to be curtailed. Having been free from terrorism for nearly ten years, they are likely to consider the police and military presence a nuisance.
Political fallout of terror attacks
The Muslim political leaders are in an unenviable position. They campaigned hard to bring down the UPFA government to power mainly due to mob attacks on Muslims, under the Rajapaksa government, especially in places like Aluthgama. They threw in their lot with Sirisena and the UNP, in 2015. Much to their disappointment, anti-Muslim riots occurred in Gintota, Ampara and Digana under the present administration as well. Now, following the Easter disaster, the government has had to adopt stern counterterrorism measures which will cause much inconvenience to the Muslims community.
The PM has ordered hundreds of foreign Islamic preachers out of the country. The call for banning burqa originated from the UNP itself in view of security concerns. Some leading Muslims politicians in the government have also endorsed that decision. Not all Muslims are enamoured of the practice of women covering themselves in black garments from head to toe, but the ban on that particular dress may be seen as an infringement of their freedom of choice.
Unless these sensitive security and ethno-religious issues arising out of the extraordinary measures the government has adopted to counter terrorism are carefully handled, the Muslim politicians, aligned to the UNP, are likely to be at the receiving end of their community’s ire. Their relations with the government might be soured as a result.
Dharmapala Belt and Catholic Belt
The UNP has not fared well electorally in most of the Sinhala Buddhist majority areas, especially in the so-called Dharmapala Belt, which consists of some of the ever expanding Colombo suburbs which are predominantly pro-SLFP. The effect of its mammoth win in the electorates in the Colombo city with a considerable presence of ethnic minorities and some of its suburbs are offset by heavy defeats it suffers in electorates along the Dharmapala Belt.
The UNP has been popular in the electorates along the so-called Catholic Belt. It is dependent on its traditional support base in these populace areas to increase its national vote at a presidential election and secure a significant number of seats in Parliament. The Easter bombings have left the Catholics frustrated, nay, incensed.
The government stands accused of having done precious little to prevent the terror attacks in spite of intelligence warnings. Naturally, they feel led down.
The Cardinal speaks out
No less a person than Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has taken the government to task for its failure to warn the Catholic community of the Easter attacks. Had he been informed of the threats, he would have got the Sunday mass cancelled at all churches, he has said.
The prelate has also expressed his displeasure at the security measures the government has, so far, adopted; he considers them inadequate. He has pointed out that some houses remain closed in areas such as Negombo and they have not been searched. His warning that he would lead a street protest campaign unless the government ensures the protection of the people living in fear reflects the consternation of the Catholic community which fears for its safety.
Possible impact of blasts on polls
The economy suffered considerably due to power cuts, which lasted for weeks prior to the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, causing hardships to the public and the business community. The country became unattractive as an investment destination. No sooner had action been taken to ensure a steady power supply with the help of the private sector, came the terror strikes, which sent the economy reeling again,
The economic loss caused by the Easter carnage is incalculable. The country has been partially paralysed. It is in a state of uncertainty.
The tourism sector, which the government was dependent on to prop up the economy, has collapsed, to all intents and purposes.
The government was expecting to generate more employment opportunities in keeping its pre-election promise to create as many as one million jobs within the first five years of its rule. Instead, the country finds itself in a situation where thousands of people are likely to lose their jobs due to the massive setbacks the tourism sector has suffered.
With the economy in bad shape, the UNF government will have its work cut out to improve its electoral performance before the end of the year, when the next presidential election is scheduled to be held. This is the challenge before PM Wickremesinghe, who is widely thought to be the UNP’s presidential candidate.
President Sirisena will be in a similar predicament in that he is the head of the government though it is led by the UNP. The UNP has tactfully avoided confrontations with him, since the abortive power grab, last October. The President is, therefore, seen to be in control of the government. There is no way he could shift the blame for the serious security lapses which the NTJ exploited to carry out terror attacks to the UNP.
Sirisena managed to shore up his image to some extent with the help of his war on drugs, but his efforts to boost his popularity ratings have come to naught. Will he be able to rebuild his image within the next few months so as to be in a position to seek a second term confidently?