SPECIAL REPORT : Part 271May 21, 2019, 8:15 pm
In accordance with Collective Engagement for Religious Freedom (CERF), Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims, including religious leaders, came together, in Weligama, the day after the Easter Sunday bombings, on April 21, to pray for the victims
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Economic Reforms and Public Distribution Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva was the first lawmaker to reach Shangri-La in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings. Shangri-La was targeted by two suicide bombers, including Zaharan Hashim, widely believed to be a key leader of the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ).
The UNPer had been alerted by the 1990 Suwaseriya ambulance service soon after its command and control centre started receiving calls seeking assistance in the wake of the April 21 suicide bombings in Colombo, Katuwapitiya (Negombo) and Batticaloa. Minister de Silva had been at an aluth avurudu event at Nugegoda when he was alerted by the Suwaseriya ambulance service and rushed to Fort.
It would be pertinent to mention that the economist retained a special relationship with 1990 Suwaseriya ambulance service due to his spearheading role in the controversial project launched in 2016 with Indian grant assistance. India launched the project, second only to the ongoing massive housing programme with initial investment of USD 7.56 mn. The project was launched on Sri Lanka’s request. Harsha de Silva played a pivotal role in securing the Indian investment at a time the Joint Opposition aggressively campaigned against it. India gradually extended the project to cover all regions except the Eastern Province. Suwaseriya service is scheduled to be extended to the Eastern Province comprising Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts on May 30, 2019.
The total Indian grant for the unprecedented service amounted to a little over USD 22 mn. Whatever the criticism as regards New Delhi’s motive, Sri Lankans certainly benefited from the service immensely at times of medical emergencies of individual nature, as well as in major incidents like the Easter Sunday carnage.
The then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who had been subsequently forced to quit over negligence that facilitated the April 21 bombings, got in touch with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene on de Silva’s phone. Premier Wickremesinghe had been at Bentota at the time, suicide bombers launched near simultaneous attacks in three districts. President Maithripala Sirisena had been holidaying in Singapore after worshiping Tirupathi when the bombers struck. Premier Wickremesinghe, accompanied by his wife, Prof. Maithree, worshiped Tirupathi in the first week of March 2019. Wickremesinghe’s previous visit was in August 2018, two months before President Sirisena sacked him. President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe remain at loggerheads over a range of issues, from the fate of the Colombo Port East Container Terminal to constitutional reforms.
In spite of Wickremesinghe regaining the premiership, in mid Dec 2018, consequent to 122 lawmakers representing the UNP and its partners ACMC (All Ceylon Makkal Congress), SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress), JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya), DPF (Democratic People’s Front), LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) as well as the TNA and the JVP successfully moving court, the country is in deep political crisis. Misguided fanatical Sri Lankan Muslim youth, in collusion with the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), carried out coordinated attacks. The terrorist operation was meant to intensify political chaos. Obviously, the perpetrators of the April 21 bombings took the simmering political crisis as well as the impending 2019 presidential poll into consideration before execution of the operation.
At the time the bombers struck, President Sirisena, in addition to being the Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, held the law and order portfolio, hence he cannot absolve himself of responsibility for the worst atrocity committed on our soil since the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE a decade ago.
The previous government brought the war to an end on the morning of May 19, 2009, with the killing of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Having visited Shangrila-La, Harsha and ministerial colleague Harin Fernando visited Kingsbury and St. Anthony’s church, Kochchikade, separately. Fernando earned the wrath of the vast majority of people for claiming that he knew of the impending attack, thanks to his father. His shocking revelation received the attention of Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who censured the minister on several occasions.
Those who had attended the first meeting at the Defence Ministry following the multiple blasts acknowledged the top security apparatus knew of the impending attack though he did absolutely nothing to thwart it. A well informed source quoted another colleague as having said, following the Defence Ministry briefing: ‘I was more than surprised at what I heard. They pretty much knew everything’.
State Defence Minister Wijewardene chaired the meeting. Among those present were Defence Secretary, service commanders, IGP et al.
Both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe claimed they weren’t informed of the imminent threat. On that basis, President Sirisena demanded the immediate resignation of Defence Secretary Fernando and IGP Jayasundera. However, Western Province Governor Azath Salley, who is at the receiving end over alleged patronage extended to Muslim extremists, told the writer how he alerted President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and Defence Secretary Fernando regarding extremist groups. Salley, one-time Deputy Mayor of Colombo Municipal Council, at the time the UNP had been at the helm, subsequently switched sides and ended up with the UPFA. Salley’s claims hadn’t been disputed so far by the President’s or the Prime Minister’s Office. His accusations are too serious to be ignored, especially at a time law enforcement authorities are struggling to ascertain the truth.
Salley is clear about complaints regarding the failure on the part of the top political leadership to tackle the threat posed by those who propagated extremist views. Salley also revealed to the writer a direct link between Atchchi Muhammadu Muhammadu Hasthun, who blew up the Easter Sunday congregation at St. Sebastian Church, Katuwapitiya, and Abdul Razik of the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamat (SLTJ), who had appeared on television on several occasions following the bombings. Salley alleged that those in authority lacked the political will to go the whole hog. The Sirisena loyalist pushed for a wider investigation into the Easter Sunday carnage. Many an eyebrow was raised when he accused some judges of backing extremist elements.
However, the violence directed at the Muslim community in the North Western Province, comprising Kurunegala and Puttalam districts as well as Minuwangoda in the Gampaha District, obviously took the pressure off the Muslim community. Those who carried out attacks on May 12, 13 and 14 played into the hands of those waiting to divert the attention away from the Easter Sunday carnage. The Muslim leadership, too, changed its mode, in the aftermath of violence against the Muslim community. The Muslim leadership conveniently forgot the failure on its part to address the contentious issue of extremism among the youth. They cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for allowing the likes of Zaharan to subvert an entire community, leading to an unprecedented national security threat. It would be the responsibility of the community to ensure that it took tangible measures to counter the threat posed by extremist elements. But, it would be their responsibility to identify those who promoted and encouraged extremism over a period of time until the ISIS stepped in. The Muslim leadership shouldn’t exploit the recent violence to divert attention from their culpability and proceed as if the Easter Sunday carnage didn’t take place. Now, despicable attempts are being made to muddy the water. Interested parties had even found fault with the Catholic Church instigating anti-Muslim violence, a charge contemptuously rejected by Rev. Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, parish priest of St. Anne’s, Kurana. The former spokesperson for the Catholic Church told the writer nothing could be further from the truth. Under the leadership of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Church did everything possible to prevent retaliatory attacks in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. In fact, there hadn’t been a single incident in predominately Catholic areas until interested parties caused mayhem at Poruthota on May 05, followed by unbridled violence in the Wayamba Province and Minuwangoda.
The Island sought an explanation from the National Peace Council (NPC) regarding foreign-funded projects undertaken by the outfit following the end of the conflict to promote close relationship among communities.
The Island submitted the following questions to Jehan Perera, the Executive Director of the NPC: (1) number of specific projects conducted since the end of war in May 2009 to improve relations/religious harmony among communities/identify the projects (2) focus of those projects (3) sponsors (4) Did Muslim religious leaders or members of the community complain about extremists among their community and (5) Did NPC ever raise the issue of extremism among youth with those who participated in various events organized by you.
Dr. Perera provided the following answers:
NPC – List of inter religious projects
Humanitarian Solutions through Multi-Religious Cooperation – (12 districts/ establishing District Inter-Religious Committees (DIRCs). EU funded project.
RIID – Reconciling Inter-Religious and Inter-Ethnic Differences project (continuing work with 12 DIRCs). USAID funded project.
Inter-faith and Inter-ethnic Dialogue in Sri Lanka (2 districts). Funded by the British High Commission and the Asia Foundation
Initiating Multi-level Partnership Action for Conflict Transformation (IMPACT) 16 districts - (continuing work with DIRCs and targeting new groups including media, universities and local politicians.) Funded by Misereor (Germany)/CAFOD (UK)
= Religions to Reconcile: Strengthening Inter Religious People to People Community Engagement for Reconciliation and Social Cohesion in Post Conflict Sri Lanka. USAID funded project.
= Collective Engagement for Religious Freedom (CERF). Local inter religious groups will engage with police officials to ensure that people are able to practice their religion freely in areas identified as possible sites of tension. Funded by US Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor.
(4) Did Muslim religious leaders or members of the community complain about extremists among the community?
The main purpose of the inter-religious committees formed by the National Peace Council has been to promote social cohesion and mitigate conflict that may occur at the local level. One of the issues that came up in the discussions was the internal clash amongst Muslim groups about the proper religious procedures to be followed in the mosques.
The issue of the danger of Muslim youth getting radicalized came up in discussions that followed the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy in March 2018. The Kandy District Inter Religious Committee conducted a fact finding inquiry after the riots. During the course of meeting people in May 2018, they encountered Muslim youth who warned of youth unrest and that they would no longer follow their elders.
(5) Did NPC ever raise the issue of extremism among youth with those who participated in various events organized by the outfit?
The issue of Muslim extremism did not arise at these discussions as this was not a public issue prior to the Easter Sunday attacks. The National Peace Council’s focus has been on the thirty-year war, its causes and the path to be taken to reach national reconciliation. The main focus was on Tamil grievances and how to deal with them. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, this focus will change.
In the post-graduate classes at Colombo University on peace-building, the military personnel who were students brought up the issue of radicalization of Muslims in the east. The fact that the government was not taking visible action made me believe that the problem was being dealt with politically. But now it is clear it was not.
The Easter Sunday carnage should compel the civil society as well as those who fund costly project to reexamine their strategies. Obviously, there cannot be any justifiable excuse for the participants as well as the organizers of these projects to miss growing danger signs.
In the aftermath of the Oslo-arranged Ceasefire Agreement in Feb 2002, a section of the international community funded a spate of costly projects meant to strengthen the peace process. The NPC was among those recipients of foreign-funding made available for fancy projects Westerners believed were quite useful. They believed such projects could help secure an agreement with the LTTE. The LTTE believed in war. Those who undertook projects believing in the LTTE never bothered to understand the LTTE strategies. Similarly, the NPC appeared to have completely missed the danger signals though being involved in a spate of projects since 2010. Perhaps, the NPC should revisit the projects; inquire from those who represented the Muslim community to know whether they knew what was going on clandestinely within the community. The NPC certainly owed an explanation to the public and its sponsors as to how it failed to recognize extremism. The NPC projects covered Ampara and Batticaloa - two districts badly affected by extremist activity, as well as the Vanni region. The NPC, according to a public announcement made in Oct 2017, intended to identify what it called hot spots and then proceed to take tangible measures to neutralize threats.
The NPC is the only outfit to undertake large scale projects at grassroots level meant to improve relations among communities. Against the backdrop of the Easter Sunday carnage as a result of the level of sophistication achieved by Muslim youth is nothing but a warning to those who value genuine religious freedom. Can NPC explain how it missed causing of damages to Buddha statues in the Mawanella police area leading to the Wanathavilluwa explosives recovery?
The Army cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for failing to thwart the Easter Sunday carnage. The Army shouldn’t expect the public to buy often repeated complain that the DMI was deprieved of the Indian warning via proper channels therefore the fault lies elsewhere. The Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in spite of being aware of the extremist build-up here and their link up with the ISIS too was caught napping.
Having failed to thwart the attack, the Army is now engaged in an exercise to curb extremism and also to improve relations among the communities by deploying a group of Muslim Army officers to seek consensus with Moulavis, State Administrators, Educational authorities and sections of senior citizens in Trincomalee, Muttur, Kinniya, Batticaloa, Kattankudy and Eravur areas.
Led by Brigadier M.A Azad Izadeen, Director Rehabilitation, Bureau of Commissioner General Rehabilitation, the Army intends to continue the project.
During their three-day long interactions in the East, those Muslim Army Officers spoke to Moulavis and others at Akkarechenai Jumma Mosque in Muttur, Masjidul Jummah Mosque in Kinniya, Trincomalee Jummah Mosque, Eravur Divisional Secretariat Office in Batticaloa, Kattankudy Islamic Centre and Batticaloa Jummah Mosque. In each place, at least 100 Moulavis, Divisional Secretaries in Muttur and Kinniya, State officials, Education Department authorities and senior community leaders listened to those Senior Army Officers who emphatically underlined the significance of co-existence and reconciliation at this hour of national concern.
The Army should examine its failures to identify the threat much earlier though its current efforts to address the daunting challenges should be appreciated.