Some thoughts on Channel-4 video on Easter Sunday attacks
by R Hariharan on 20 Sep 2023 0 Comment

The British TV Channel recently beamed a video alleging a conspiracy to facilitate the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President was behind the local radical Islamic terrorist attacks carried out in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. The Channel 4 video has stirred up a lot of controversy in the restive nation whose people had driven out the Rajapaksa clan in a spontaneous “Aragalaya” uprising 18 months back. 


The Easter Sunday attacks were carried out by terrorists belonging to the National Thauheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a local outfit owing allegiance to the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Six of them targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 269 people and injuring over 500 others. At least 45 foreigners were also killed. Police investigations afterwards revealed the involvement of nine people in the attacks. 


People were shocked to learn that Indian intelligence had warned Sri Lanka Intelligence Service (SIS) of the impending attacks on Easter Sunday ten days in advance. Despite this, the government failed to act upon it. The SIS passed on the information to President Maithripala Sirisena, without informing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Inspector General of Police. After the attacks, a parliamentary select committee (PSC) deliberated on the subject. Apart from this, law enforcement agencies investigated the terrorist trail and a smaller presidential inquiry was formed to look at systemic failure and individual accountability for the failure.


Both lines of investigation unravelled socio-political aberrations that encouraged, if not condoned, the evolution of NTJ as a hate spouting radical Islamic outfit and its transformation into an ISIS clone. It has also revealed the strong influence of radical Thauheeth ideology between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka on the one hand and the role of IS sympathisers in India and other countries in transforming NTJ into an active IS-inspired outfit.


It is in this backdrop the following questions are answered.


Q1. Some accuse the government of not being serious about solving the Easter Sunday Attacks amidst new allegations that the Rajapaksas are involved in it, and this new committee is just a ruse, what are your thoughts?


Firstly, Sri Lanka is suffering from a credibility gap between the government and the people for a long time now. In recent times, it started when Mahinda Rajapaksa allowed triumphalism to overtake good sense after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. He brought the three arms of good governance – the executive, judiciary and the legislature – under the family control. The executive president became all powerful after tinkering with the constitution; intelligence agencies called the shots and the rule of law was given the go by.


The totally disenchanted-public denied the President Mahinda Rajapaksa a third term and opted for rule by the unnatural coalition government of President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. They proved no better, as they prioritised the protection of their turf rather than delivering good governance. No inquiry ordered in their time – whether it was into the Rajapaksas “illegal wealth abroad” or criminal misuse of office – was ever completed.

The public was shocked when they learnt that no action was taken by Sri Lanka government though its intelligence service had received a warning ten days earlier from Indian intelligence of the impending Jihadi terrorist attack on Easter Sunday from Indian intelligence. The successful attacks were a logical sequence of the schism between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. Both of them were responsible for it, though President Sirisena who had received the information on the impending attack was more irresponsible than the PM.


The terrorist attacks were carried out when the presidential poll was around the corner. Government’s failure pushed the electorate to vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the ‘Terminator’ who “vanquished” Prabhakaran and his ilk. But Gotabaya’s rule to establish Buddha Sashana under the Rajapaksa family dispensation, rather than delivering good governance, was a disaster. All the criminal cases involving military personnel were withdrawn reinforcing the feeling of impunity of law enforcement agencies.


The Covid pandemic, mindless taxation policies and disastrous agriculture policies exposed his inept understanding and handling of national crises. As a result, the national economy was in doldrums. As already stated, the Aragalaya upsurge of the people sent the Rajapaksas scurrying to safety both at home and abroad. Public credibility in political parties and the government perhaps reached the bottom when economic woes plunged the nation into bankruptcy.


President Wickremesinghe is in office as a stop gap arrangement at the pleasure of Rajapaksas as their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and a motley collection of MPs including some from the opposition, who are not ready for a parliamentary poll. The President is busy salvaging the nation from economic disaster with the help of the IMF and friendly countries. There is increasing clamour for holding the much-delayed provincial council elections, as well as the parliamentary elections as the present parliament has lost public credibility.


There will be lot of takers for the Channel 4 video alleging the Easter Sunday attacks was a conspiracy hatched for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to gain votes in the presidential poll, as he has lost political credibility. The allegations are a mix of facts and fiction vocalised by backroom Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim political operators with possible access to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. As a follow up, President Wickremesinghe has appointed a presidential commission and a parliamentary select committee, just as President Sirisena did after the Easter Sunday attack took place. The closure of the findings of that Commission is still on the cards.


It has become the characteristic of successive governments in Colombo to appoint a parliamentary select committee and a presidential commission on any controversial national issue. After a few contrarian opinions aired in the media, the issue is wished away from public domain. As Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister fame says “it is always a victory of the heartless over the mindless.”


Q2. Do you think international involvement is required to ensure the investigation is fully transparent and the true culprits are brought to justice if this Easter Attacks was part of a sinister plan to bring the Rajapaksas to power?


After the Easter Sunday attacks the Scotland Yard, the FBI etc were approached as part of the investigation. What role they played in the investigation is still not clear. It is not enough if culprits are identified but must be brought to book. This requires not only systemic changes, but also political masters following the essential norms of good governance.


In this environment, it is not surprising that the government has not opted for international involvement. If they had done so, it will set a precedence for international participation into investigations into Sri Lanka’s human rights violations during the Eelam war demanded by the UN Human Rights Commission.


The Ministry of Defence has already come out in defence of intelligence agencies; this is perhaps a signal on how the investigation is likely to end. There is not much hope about the parliamentary select committee either; after all everyone involved in the “conspiracy” belong to the same political class as the PSC members.


Most of the members’ political value lies in purveying secrets. I can’t help quoting Sir Appleby again: “He would keep a secret, must keep it a secret that hath a secret to keep.” In any case, most of the public probably consider it as part of the drama politicians like to enact. I don’t think the public has huge expectations of anything better.


Courtesy Col R Hariharan

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