Tuesday, 14 May 2019

NTJ-JMI combine still an enigma, threat persists, Prez away in Beijing




Brigadier M. A Azad Izadeen, the senior officer in charge of Rehabilitation Directorate, on Sunday (May 12), didn’t mince his words when he reminded a group of Mavlavis, Colombo District Masjeed Federation members et al, at the Dehiwela Jumma Mosque, the responsibility on the part of the Muslim community for the crisis in the country. Armoured Corps officer Izadeen said that he was ashamed of the situation while strongly advising the community leaders, in particular, and the community in general, they should be mindful of the sufferings of those who suffered at the hands of Muslim extremists/terrorists. Izadeen said what no other Muslim leader, including people’s representatives, dared to say in the wake of the Easter Sunday carnage.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Hilton Colombo Residences (HCR) is among those relatively high-end city hotels seriously concerned about the safety and security of its patrons in the wake of the Easter Sunday carnage. Situated at No 200, Union Place, the HCR blocked the entrance, closer to the main road, as part of its overall security precautions. Now, those entering the HCR use one entry/exit point (you can call it the rear entrance) guarded by Police and Air Force in addition to private security personnel. Patrons, in case they are Sri Lankans, have no option but to leave their National Identity Cards (NICs) at the entry point.

The writer exchanged his NIC for a HCR visitor’s pass, a few days ago, to meet a diplomat visiting Colombo on a fact-finding mission. Close on the heels of an unprecedented coordinated attack, allegedly influenced by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or IS (Islamic State); foreign governments are reviewing their position/policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. ISIS/IS declaration of a new ‘province’ in Kashmir, three weeks after the high profile operation in Sri Lanka, underscores the urgent need to re-evaluate the situation.

At the time this was being written, trouble erupted at Chilaw, on Sunday (May 12), afternoon. The government responded by declaring curfew till 6 am the following day. On the previous week, Poruthota erupted though the situation was quickly brought under control. The situation remains fragile.

Within 48 hours, for want of tangible measures to prevent untoward incidents in Chilaw and in neighbouring areas caused a fresh crisis. As a result, the government was compelled, on Monday night, to clamp a countrywide curfew, with effect from 9 pm to 4 am in the following day. By then, President Sirisena, accompanied by a group of UNP members, and officials, were in the air on their way to Beijing.

Positioning of security personnel outside hotels certainly doesn’t inspire confidence among foreigners or locals. Instead, the return of armed forces to the streets in the City and its suburbs as well as all other administrative district is grim reminder of Sri Lanka’s collective failure to guarantee security and safety of its citizens, as well as foreigners visiting the country.

Almost after a decade, people have been compelled to carry their NICs or face the consequences.

Among those killed, in the April 21 attacks, were about 50 foreigners including US Commerce Department employee Chelsea Decaminada, who suffered serious injuries as a result of two bombs, triggered by suicide cadres, within the Shangri-La Hotel, situated next to the Army Commander’s Secretariat. It would be pertinent to mention the war-winning Rajapaksa administration vacated the Army headquarters, the nerve centre of successive combined security forces campaigns against the LTTE, to pave the way for the Shangri-la, on a controversial 99-year-lease. The current dispensation, released further land, originally occupied by the Army, to Shangri-La, also on a 99-year-old lease. As far as Shangrila-La is concerned, administrations, past and present, seemed to have followed one policy. Ms. Decaminada, was on an assignment, in Colombo, when she was caught up in the blast. The US transferred her from Colombo to Singapore where she succumbed to her injuries.

A decade after the eradication of the LTTE, Sri Lanka, obviously took post-war security situation lightly. There is no doubt, the armed forces, too, took things for granted. Members of the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI) could have even made an attempt on a vehicle leaving the Army Commander’s Secretariat, the only section remaining there, pending relocation. Units, formerly based at Army headquarters, are now scattered all over the City, and its suburbs, due to undue delay in completing the Akuregoda Defence Complex, the brainchild of wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former Gajaba Regiment veteran is on record as having said that he took the decision to shift the Army headquarters, in keeping with the late President JR Jayewardene’s policy.

A divided parliament

Parliament unanimously approved the re-introduction of Emergency Regulations to pave the way for the deployment of the armed forces in support of law enforcement authorities. The police lacked the wherewithal to meet the daunting security challenge. posed by NTJ and JMI. The Easter Sunday carnage compelled those political parties, opposed to Emergency Regulations, to back the move. One-time LTTE proxy, the TNA, too, had no option but to accept Emergency Regulations, leading to the resumption of military operations in the Northern and Eastern regions. A section of the TNA publicly called for continued military presence in those areas in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday carnage, whereas its much-touted demand, since the eradication of the LTTE, was for a military free region. No less a person than Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) heavyweight Mavai Senathiraja publicly underscored the pivotal importance of continued military presence in predominately Tamil region.

The situation certainly took the TNA, and those Western countries as well as the UN pushing for sharp reduction of military presence in the Northern region to facilitate post-war national reconciliation, by surprise. The suicide bombing of Zion Church Batticaloa and alleged plan to bomb St. Theresa’s Church in Kilinochchi on Easter Sunday compelled those hell-bent on getting rid of the military to play a different tune.

Although political parties, represented in parliament, unanimously agreed on the re-imposition of Emergency Regulations, they are deeply divided over strategy, with the Government and the Opposition pulling in different directions. There is no consensus among the clergy as well as the civil society on how to face the threat. In the absence of a common strategy, all stakeholders are seeking to exploit the situation for their advantage. Public interest seems to be last thing on their mind as they seek to advance petty agendas at the expense of national interest. Over three weeks after the bombings, the Government and the Opposition are yet to reach consensus on ways and means of tackling the threat. In fact, as far as the parliament is concerned, there is agreement in respect of perks and privileges received by lawmakers. There had never been any dispute in parliament regarding lawmakers’ perks and privileges, in addition to their monthly salary.

In the wake of the NTJ-JMI bombing campaign, the UNP resumed its campaign to regain the law and order ministry. The UNP is of the view that the government should be given the law and order ministry to ensure safety and security of the people. However, President Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, rejected the UNP request. The embattled President insists he is in a better position to guarantee security by having that portfolio under his purview.

President Sirisena has rejected the UNP proposal to accommodate Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in the cabinet as the Law and Order Minister. The UNP bid to regain the law and order ministry should be studied, taking into consideration President Sirisena accusing Fonseka of being part of a high profile conspiracy, involving disgraced head of the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) DIG Nalaka de Silva, to assassinate him. Fonseka on Dec 21, 2018, in parliament, denied the accusation, citing a letter sent by then IGP Pujith Jayasundera clearing him of involvement in the alleged plot. Fonseka’s statement followed a request he made to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, on Nov 09, 2018, in respect of accusations directed at him.

Against the backdrop of a new threat, President Sirisena is unlikely to part with law and order under any circumstances. Last week, President Sirisena visited Sainthamaruthu, in the East, where a group of NTJ-JMI terrorists blew themselves up to avoid being apprehended by the police. The Sainthamaruthu blast, on April 26, effectively thwarted a second wave of attacks. If not for the chance, but timely detection of the safe-house, thanks to a specific tip off received by a traffic policeman, attached to the Kalmunai police, the NTJ-JMI combine would have certainly delivered a massive blow. The traffic policeman, obviously did very much better than the police top brass and the political leadership. Police headquarters promoted him to the rank of Sergeant and offered him half a million rupees as a reward whereas three Muslims, who provided invaluable information leading to the Sainthamaruthu detection, were given Rs 1 mn each and two more policemen - a Seageant and constable half a mn each for volunteering to help the traffic constable. The policemen as well as Muslim villagers acted promptly at a risk to their lives.

Had the Kalmunai police hesitated to act, or delayed responding, pending approval from Colombo, the result would have been catastrophic.

President Sirisena, accompanied by senior police and military officials in charge of the East, visited the Sainthamaruthu safe-house where some NTJ-JMI members detonated bombs. Among President Sirisena’s entourage was UPFA politician Mahamood Lebbe Alim Mohamed Hisbullah, current Governor of the Eastern Province, accused by political opponents as a key supporter of extremist Muslim groups. Hisbullah, a defeated candidate at the last parliamentary polls in August 2015, functioned as an UPFA National List member before being shifted in January this year to the Eastern Province.

Hisbullah is President Sirisena’s nominee. Hisbullah, like many other lawmakers, switched allegiance to various political parties on more than one occasion, after having initially entered parliament, in 1989, on the SLMC ticket. President Sirisena seems to be quite confident of Hisbullah’s non- involvement in Easter Sunday bombings for he chose to take the politician with him during the visit to the Ampara electoral district.

TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran called for an inquiry into Hisbullah’s conduct during the debate on re-imposition of Emergency Regulations. The senior attorney-at-law also strongly censured President Sirisena for having the police under his purview - a decision the President’s Counsel described as unconstitutional.

In addition to Hisbullah, still unsubstantiated allegations have been made against All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen (ACMC is a constituent of the UNP administration), UNP Colombo District lawmaker Mujibur Rahaman and Western Province Governor Azath Salley (Presidential nominee).Salley received appointment as the WP Governor at the same time Hisbullah was named EP Governor in January this year.

The UNP should have appointed Fonseka the Law and Order Minister soon after he was accommodated on the National List in Feb 2016. Defeated candidate at the January 2010 presidential poll, Fonseka contested the Aug 2015 parliamentary election as the leader of the Democratic Party. The DP failed to secure a single seat. The demise of UNP National List MP M.K.D.S. Gunawardena paved the way for Fonseka to join the government. The UNP owed an explanation as to why Fonseka was deprived of the Law and Order Ministry in spite of him being the foremost authority, in the UNP, on security. After the change of government, in January 2015, President’s Counsel Tilak Marapana received the Law and Order portfolio. Marapana quit in Nov 2015 following severe criticism of his alleged support to Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS) under high profile investigation over running a floating armoury. Marapana was replaced by Sagala Ratnayake. Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe briefly held the portfolio following the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls debacle. Subsequently, senior UNPer Ranjith Madumma Bandara held the post. President Sirisena brought the police under his purview in the wake of Oct 26, 2018 constitutional coup. At the time the suicide bombings took place, both the defence and law and order portfolios were held by President Sirisena. The President cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the current crisis. President Sirisena acknowledged his culpability for the circumstances leading to the bombings at a meeting with a selected group of journalists on April 26 at the President’s House. Subsequently, President Sirisena declared that in the wake of ISIS bombings in various parts of the world, the people never called for the resignation of leaders. Instead, they wanted terrorism eradicated.

2019 prez poll

 With nominations for the presidential poll scheduled to be called in a couple of months, political parties represented in parliament may endorse Emergency Regulations required to ensure sustained armed forces deployment though consensus is unlikely on a common agenda to overcome political, economic and security challenges.

In the absence of a genuine dialogue among political parties, those responsible for addressing growing security challenges will find their task difficult. Although there hadn’t been attacks since April 21, the NTJ-JMI combine remains an enigma. Political alliances with those even falsely accused of collaborating and influencing NTJ-JMI combine or endorsing violence by remaining mum will be quite controversial.

The government cannot under any circumstances completely rule out the possibility of fresh attacks in the run-up the to presidential poll. NTJ-JMI launched its campaign with the killing of two policemen at Vavunathivu, Batticaloa, on Nov 30, 2018. Had the police and the DMI conducted a thorough inquiry, the grouping could have been exposed. Unfortunately, the killings were conveniently blamed on ex-members of the LTTE. Authorities comfortably alleged that ex-LTTE cadres brutalized and killed two officers-a Sinhalese from the South, and a Tamil from the East, to retaliate against the Vavnativu police blocking ex-LTTE cadres organizing a public event to commemorate Heroes’ Week, an annual feature during the war.

The NTJ-JMI killings were meant to further exploit the political crisis. They struck as the UNP and the UPFA were struggling to secure control of parliament in the wake of the former seeking judicial intervention to reverse the constitutional coup. Finally, the war-winning President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa accepted defeat by giving up premiership in the third week of Dec 2018. Wickremesinghe returned as the premier though he is yet to command at least a simple majority in parliament.

At the moment, the ACMC’s five-member parliamentary group remains loyal to Wickremesinghe. Minister Bathiudeen recently declared that MP S.B. Dissanayake worked overtime to tarnish the image of him and his party because his refusal to back the Oct 2018 constitutional coup. Bathiudeen alleged that Dissanayake was seeking to avenge the toppling of the political project.

In addition to the ACMC, the main Muslim political party, the SLMC is in an unenviable situation. The SLMC parliamentary group comprises seven lawmakers, with only one elected on the SLMC ticket and the rest elected and appointed on the UNP lists and the National List, respectively. The ACMC, the SLMC and other Muslim people’s representatives in parliament are struggling to come to terms with the ground situation. They are determined to denounce those who perpetrated the Easter Sunday massacre while defending their right to practice religion as a community. It would be of pivotal importance to ensure the Muslim community didn’t suffer due to the actions of a few. SLMC leader Hakeem and MP Faiszer Musthapha, PC, both acknowledged shortcomings on their part leading to April 21 bombings.

Political parties should rationally address the threat posed by Muslim extremists/terrorists. The US and the UK and other foreign powers, such as India, should assist Sri Lanka to ascertain the threat. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how ISIS influenced the NTJ-JMI combine to take multiple targets? This should be examined against the backdrop of first Sri Lankan Muslim dying in Syria in an American air strike in the second week of July 2015. Who picked April 21 targets - St. Anthony’s Church at Kotahena, Kochikade, St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya, and the Batticaloa Church and the three hotels in Colombo?

Can Sri Lanka rule out the possibility of fresh attacks? Sophisticated nature of the coordinated strikes can inspire ISIS activists/ sympathizers the world over. Western powers have caused massive death and destruction among Muslim communities the world over, and having needlessly humiliated them, it wouldn’t take much to brainwash the followers. The government is struggling to cope up with a situation which is obviously beyond Sri Lanka’s control. The government also seems unable to comprehend the ground realities with a range of international factors, including Western powers’ determined efforts to counter China’s emergence as a global power, causing confusion. The current dispensation has also mixed up priorities with efforts being made to do away with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in accordance with an assurance given to a section of the international community. The government appears to be convinced that the Easter Sunday bombings can be exploited to bring in counter terrorism law – a move connected to post-war so called national reconciliation process following the eradication of the LTTE.