Vasu on Easter Sunday carnage: Wheels within wheels
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 267
President Maithripala Sirisena visiting the devastated Katuwapitiya Church on Tuesday (April 23) morning. The President was away from the country when extremists mounted co-ordinated suicide attacks in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Soon after the Easter Sunday carnage, one-time Norwegian peace negotiator Erik Solheim tweeted: "When we watch the horrific pictures from Sri Lanka, it is important to remember that Muslims and Christians are small minorities. Muslims historically were moderate and peaceful. They have been victims of violence in Sri Lanka, not orchestrating it."
UN’s environment chief, Erik Solheim resigned early this year following severe criticism of his global travels and internal rule-breaking which led some nations to suspend their funding.
Solheim received a spate of reactions, with some expressing anger at his opinion. Solheim was told to keep out of Sri Lanka and also reminded him of his sordid role in Sri Lanka during the Eelam conflict.
Charith Samarakoon tweeted: "You are not needed in Sri Lanka. The same friends of you devastated the country and failed people."
Solheim responded: "My friends in Sri Lanka among many others Chandrika, Ranil and Mahinda. Everything we did in the peace process was on their request."
Raini Goonatillake, while reminding Solheim all Sri Lankans had suffered due to violence over the years, requested the former Norwegian Minister to remove the post.
Shardha Sosa asked a pertinent question from Solheim: So who, according to you, is orchestrating it? Norway?
Solheim declaration that Norway handled the peace process the way Chandrika, Ranil and Mahinda wanted was nothing but a blatant lie meant to deceive the people here and the international community. Only Wickremesinghe really believed in the Norwegian project though Oslo also failed him badly.
Norway finalized a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) under questionable circumstances in Feb 2002 between the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. They didn’t even bother to consult the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, let alone secure her blessings. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in spite of assuring his commitment to the Norwegian initiative, following the Nov 2005 presidential election, launched a sustained combined security forces campaign, in Aug 2006 once the LTTE resumed large scale hostilities.
Norway never listened to President Rajapaksa. Norwegians always believed Sri Lanka should agree to a negotiated settlement on Prabhakaran’s terms as the organization was militarily in an unbeatable position. Sri Lanka proved Norway wrong in less than three years after Prabhakaran resumed the war, with large scale simultaneous attacks in both the northern and eastern theatres.
Under Rajapaksa’s leadership, Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009.
Solheim still seems keen to influence and deceive the Sri Lankan public. Those who responded to Solheim’s tweet, the writer believes represented the interests of the vast majority of people. Unfortunately, the government lacked an efficient apparatus to counter lies and anti-Sri Lanka propaganda. Interested parties exploit Sri Lanka’s failure to counter propaganda and lies, both here and abroad. Solheim has cleverly misinterpreted facts to divert attention from the murderous group responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage - the largest single coordinated suicide attack directed against non-military targets in Sri Lanka.
Why did Solheim play down unprecedented multiple attacks on prominent places of worship, like St. Anthony’s Church at Kochchikade, Kotahena, St. Sebastian's Church at Katuwapitiya, Protestant Zion Church in Batticaloa, three leading hotels, namely Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury in Colombo, and Tropical Inn, a rest house at Dehiwela.
Former Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF) retired DIG Nimal Lewke appearing on Sirasa Pathikada yesterday (April 23) morning pointed out extremists targeting both Sinhala and Tamil Catholics.
Amidst varying claims and assertions, a senior commando, responsible for counter-terrorist measures, told the writer there were altogether nine explosions caused by suicide bombers.
Prez-UNP rift widens
A press conference, called by the UNP at Temple Trees, and another chaired by war-winning President and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Opposition Leader’s Office, on Monday afternoon (April 22), to discuss the Easter Sunday carnage and subsequent developments, revealed continuing infighting in the government.
President Maithripala Sirisena, as head of the cabinet in terms of the Constitution, is the head of the government. Therefore, President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the SLFP, and the UNP members of the cabinet, cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the deaths of over 300 men, women and children and injuries to approximately 500 others.
They proved parties, represented in Parliament, lacked political will and courage to acknowledge shortcomings and take remedial measures.
Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne accused members of the National Security Council (NSC) of spurning Premier Wickremesinghe’s move to chair an emergency meeting in the absence of President Sirisena, who was away from the country at the time terrorists launched attacks. President Sirisena returned to Colombo on Sunday night. Dr. Senaratne explained how Premier Wickremesinghe had to meet NSC members at State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene’s office. Separately, outspoken Colombo District UNP MP Mujibur Rahaman told the writer how Premier Wickremesinghe was deprived of an opportunity to participate in NSC deliberations since the abortive Oct 2018 constitutional coup. The UNP questioned as to how President Sirisena left the country without making proper arrangements in case of an emergency.
Dr. Senaratne claimed that the initial warning was received on April 04, 2019, from a foreign intelligence service though the much discussed DIG Priyalal Dissanayake letter, now in the public domain was written later.
Lawmaker Rahaman asserted that UNP leader Wickremesinghe couldn’t be held accountable for the failure on the part of the administration to thwart Sunday’s attacks as he was not in any way involved in security matters and President Sirisena held the law enforcement portfolio. Rahaman is of the opinion that since President Sirisena took credit for the successful campaign conducted against narcotics on the basis of him being in charge of the police, he should accept the failure on the part of the police to thwart Sunday’s massacre.
Opposition Leader Rajapaksa blamed the deaths of over 300 people on the government. Rajapaksa declined to comment on the battle between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe when the media raised the issue at the media briefing at the Opposition Leader’s Office. Rajapaksa pointed out that the media knew much more about the disagreement between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe than him.
Although, Dr. Senaratne and MP Rahaman blamed President Sirisena for depriving Premier Wickremesinghe information pertaining to possible attacks by an extremist group, Western Province Governor Azath Salley claimed that he in spite of personal risks, alerted President Sirisena, PM Wickremesinghe and Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando of planned terrorist strikes.
Salley told the writer how he tried, in vain, to convince political leaders and the Defence Secretary to go the whole hog after dangerous activities of some of his community were brought to his notice. Salley alleged yahapalana leaders lacked the political will to face the daunting task.
Media coverage of post-Easter Sunday attacks raised many an eyebrow with Minister Mano Ganesan’s shocking revelation at the Temple Trees media briefing how his Chief Security Officer alerted him of possible Sunday attacks days before the incident.
Ganesan is the second minister to claim that he was aware of the impending attacks. Harin Fernando was the first. The Badulla District MP claimed that his father alerted him after receiving the warning from a police officer.
Interestingly, those who ignored repeated warnings of an extremist attack on Catholic churches, called for the immediate questioning of Chatura Alwis soon after he presented ‘Derana Aruna’ on Monday at 6.30 pm. The police recorded his statement at the Derana office in the Maradana police area. His crime was allegedly inciting people over the Easter Sunday massacre.
National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, MP, who sat next to Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Opposition Leader’s Office briefing, claimed that among those who had been taken in for questioning was a person on the National List of the JVP at the August 2015 parliamentary election. Can the government ignore Weerawansa’s revelation? The JVP should explain its position on this accusation? Weerawansa alleged that the children of the arrested person were among the suicide attackers.
Weerawansa went on to accuse Salley and Rahaman of having close links with those responsible for Sunday’s attacks. The one-time JVP firebrand recalled how Rahaman chided him in parliament, early this year, when he expressed concerns over activities of extremists following incidents at Mawanella and the police raid on a hideout at Wanathavilluwa. "Rahaman accused me of seeing crocodiles in a basin of water", the NFF Leader said.
The Joint Opposition, too, knew of intelligence warning though the issue wasn’t raised until the Sunday massacre. JO lawmakers cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for those who perished.
‘Intelligence failure’ or ‘political negligence’
Defence Secretary Fernando on Monday admitted that in spite of being alerted the government couldn’t do anything for want of an Emergency declaration. The government did away with the Emergency following the end of the war a decade ago.
Having visited the devastated Colomba Kochchikade church, Fernando, in response to a query from a foreign journalist said: "We never expected an attack of this magnitude." Fernando also claimed that the government couldn’t take tangible measures though it had prior information because Sri Lanka was a democracy.
Defence Secretary Fernando’s assertion that tangible counter measures couldn’t be taken for want of legal authority should be examined taking into consideration Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake’s declaration that the military lacked authorization to respond to the threat.
Lt. Gen. Senanayake didn’t mince his words when he admitted the military though having specific intelligence couldn’t act on its own for want of proper legal cover. The shocking admission was made in response to Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith raising the failure on the part of those exercising political power to inform him of the possible attacks on Easter Sunday. The accountability on the government’s part was taken up when Lt. Gen. Senanayake met Cardinal Ranjith at the Bishop’s House, Borella, on Monday morning.
Cardinal Ranjith asked as to why the Church was deprived of the benefit of the intelligence alert. Pointing out Minister Harin Fernando’s claim that he received warning ahead of the Sunday massacre, Cardinal Ranjith strongly emphasized the responsibility on the part of the government to take the public into confidence.
Cardinal Ranjith also pointed out a person no less than Premier Wickremesinghe acknowledged the government having intelligence regarding the multiple attacks.
It would be pertinent to mention that in addition to Salley and Rahaman, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, at the briefing at Temple Trees, accused the government of turning a blind eye to specific information regarding the extremist group’s activities.
His Cabinet colleague, Kabir Hashim, the Chairman of the UNP, made a devastating revelation regarding alleged political interference that may have hindered high profile investigation into the extremist group’s activities. The Kegalle District lawmaker speculated that among those who carried out suicide attacks was a person released from custody a couple of months ago due to high level political intervention. He was among three others arrested after the detection of an arms cache in a coconut estate at Wanathawilluwa, immediately following the vandalizing of Buddhist shrines at Mawanella in December last year.
A three-member committee, appointed by President Sirisena, certainly cannot ignore shocking revelations made by ministers if it really intended to establish the truth. The committee comprises Supreme Court judge Vijith Malalgoda, former IGP N.K. Illangakoon and Former Law and Order Ministry Secretary Padmasiri Jayamanne.
A proper investigation, free of political interference, will expose those responsible for criminal negligence at different political, security and administrative levels. The Malalagoda report can be as explosive as the Supreme Court judge K.T. Chitrasiri’s on treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. Perhaps, the forthcoming report is likely to be politically far worse than the bond scams report as the recent government failure caused the deaths of over 300 people and wounded 500. Among the dead were nearly 40 foreigners.
With members of the government pulling in different directions, Sri Lanka seemed in deep political turmoil in the absence of a clear strategy to tackle the threat. Defence Secretary Fernando’s shocking declaration that those involved in the vital hotel trade should have looked after their security and the government even at the height of the war never provided security to hotels shocked the public. Fernando earned the wrath of a section of the public when he called for information from Tamil Diaspora to prosecute those who were allegedly responsible for atrocities during and after the conflict. That statement was made at an event organized in Nalanda College to felicitate him on being appointed as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.
Vasu links Lanka attacks with
Appearing on Derana 360 Monday night, UPFA lawmaker Vasudeva Nanayakkara discussed the Easter Sunday massacre and its implications with Dilka Samanmali.
Responding to a query regarding local extremists targeting churches, Nanayakkara asserted the possibility of the Easter Sunday carnage being a retaliatory strike against the New Zealand church massacre in March this year.
Nanayakkara alleged the local attackers carried out ISIS instructions to avenge the Christchurch massacre.
The group’s spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, interrupted a six-month silence to call on ISIS friends to "take vengeance for their religion" in a 44-minute audio recording.
"This slaughter in those two mosques is no more than another tragedy among past and coming tragedies, which will be followed by scenes of force that reach all who were tricked to living among the polytheist," al-Muhajir said in the message distributed by Al Furqan, a media organization allegedly linked to ISIS.
The ISIS spokesman last issued a statement in September 2018 immediately after an attack on an Iranian military parade in Ahvaz.
The Easter Sunday attack attracted journalists to Sri Lanka in droves from major news agencies a decade after the restoration of peace.
Nanayakkara underscored the pivotal importance of investigating the Easter Sunday massacre taking into consideration the alleged attempts to assassinate President Sirisena and wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Referring to allegations regarding the government turning a blind eye to intelligence warnings, Nanayakkara queried as to whether those in authority deliberately allowed the extremists to grow. The lawmaker alleged that a complicated situation existed and investigators should inquire into all aspects of the case to ensure those responsible were punished.
The lawmaker reminded that the extremist threat emanated from the Eastern Province, where an alleged plot involving interdicted DIG Namal Silva, now in remand, would have targeted President Sirisena.
Nanayakkara also speculated the possibility of those responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage planning a simultaneous operation to rescue notorious drug dealers detained at the maximum security Welikada prison. Nanayakkara requested Dilka Samanmali to interrupt him if she felt his reading of the situation was not acceptable to the television station.
Responding to another query, Nanayakkara said that he would inquire from President Sirisena whether he received the much discussed DIG’s letter dated April 11, 2019, before the Easter Sunday massacre on April 21,
2019. Nanayakkara said that he didn’t have an opportunity to raise the issue with the President. "Of course, President Sirisena owed an explanation."
Nanayakkara explained that Sri Lanka could have averted the Easter Sunday carnage had those in authority properly investigated extremist activity the following high profile raid on the Wanathavilluwa safe house in the third week of January this year.
Nanayakkara speculated whether the negligence paved the way for multiple attacks or deliberately allowed the extremists to strike. The outspoken politician expressed concerns over the US role in Sri Lanka and alleged the UNP bid to divert attention from the plot to kill the President.
With presidential election scheduled for later this year, Sri Lanka seems to be heading for a catastrophe especially against the backdrop of a deeply divided government struggling to cope up with an unprecedented security challenge.