The Smell of Terror

by Tissaranee Gunasekera, Groundviews, Colombo, April 23, 2023

“On land a tiger, in the water a crocodile.” A Bengali proverb

A statue amid debris at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, following the Easter Sunday bombing, BBC

In Sri Lanka terror means Tamil or Muslim. When the J.R. Jayewardene government responded to the ethnic problem not with the promised political reforms but with repression and the PTA was born, the concept of terror (and its prevention) invoked an image. Not of the Tiger chief, for his face was yet to be seared into the collective memory of the Sinhala South, but of the Tamil. Every Tamil symbolised terror, from the politician defending the Eelam demand in parliament to the old woman sweeping the street who knew nothing of a separate state. They were the descendents of South Indian invaders of yore, political heirs of the timeless project of occupying and unmaking this land of Sinhala-Buddhism.

The PTA was thus born and lived most of its 44 year existence as an anti-Tamil law. It was first enacted as a temporary measure when the armed Eelam movement was in its infancy, hardly a movement, just a ragtag band of dreamers and malcontents. Within four years of the PTA’s birth, the fledgling insurgency had turned into a raging war, fed by innumerable political crimes and mistakes, ranging from the burning of the Jaffna library to Black July. Had those atrocities not happened, had a political solution to the ethnic problem been enacted, the Eelam War could have been prevented, with or without the PTA.

So the PTA was a colossal failure. It failed not only to nip the Tamil insurgency in the bud, or to do the same with the JVP insurgency of 1987-89. It also failed to stop the Easter Sunday massacre. The anatomy of that final failure is extensively documented through a number of investigations and inquiries. Revisiting their findings is timely since that tragedy is being used by the administration to push through the potentially more draconian ATA.

The Easter Sunday massacre was preventable. It wasn’t prevented not because the PTA had loopholes but because of “the deplorable want of oversight and inaction…in the conduct of affairs pertaining to security, law and order and intelligence.” That was the Supreme Court in its January 2023 judgement. Information about an impending attack first became available on April 4, 2019, yet the men in charge of ensuring national security and public safety did nothing. That failure happened not because the PTA didn’t confer enough powers on the security establishment but because of their “lack of strategic co-ordination, expertise and preparedness,” as the Supreme Court put it succinctly.

If any one man symbolises this failure, it is Nilantha Jayawardana, the then head of the SIS. He was the first top official to receive concrete information about an impending attack. By April 21, he had in his possession the names of several potential attackers: Mohamed Zaharan, Mohamed Milhan, and Mohamedu Rilwan. If even one of these was arrested, the massacre might not have happened. As the Supreme Court pointed out, “All this shows that there was so much information that was available before Nilantha Jayawardena…but it cannot be said that Nilantha Jayawardena acted with alacrity and promptitude.” The court ruled that disciplinary action must be taken against him within six months, as part of a broader revamping of “security systems and intelligence structures.”

The same point was made by the parliamentary select committee in October 2019. In its final report the committee said that the SIS chief, MOD secretary, IGP, CNI, DMI “failed in their responsibilities. All were informed of the intelligence information prior to the Easter Sunday attacks but failed to take the necessary steps to mitigate or prevent it.” But doing anything about these structural or personnel problems was impossible. Within hours of the attack, the Rajapaksas had blamed the government for permitting it by weakening and demoralising the intelligence agencies. This cry was later taken up by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who accused the government of dismantling “The intelligence agencies that were once very strong. This was done to fulfil the needs of international organisations and NGOs.”

Innocents like Hejaaz Hisbullah and Ahnaf Jazim were arrested. The man the Supreme Court singled out for negligence, Nilantha Jayawardana, was made a senior DIG on January 3, 2023. Three and a half months later, he remains in that august position. And the security systems and intelligence structures remain as they were, moving to a beat that has very little to do with national security and public safety. The government is busy pushing the ATA. The opposition and the Cardinal are busy chasing the elusive mastermind. And the Rajapaksas are poised to benefit from both preoccupations.

The Mastermind Syndrome

The idea of a hidden hand, a mysterious mastermind behind the Easter Sunday massacre was birthed and popularised by the Rajapaksa camp. Two days after the massacre, Mahinda Rajapaksa mentioned the possible presence of a foreign hand behind the attack. In the next several weeks, this amorphous foreign hand was given shape and form by his acolytes. Wimal Weerawansa said that the American Ambassador could be behind the attack, with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s complicity, to turn us into a Libya or Syria. Udaya Gammanpila informed the parliament that the IS was an American cat’s paw. Americans had Muslims ready, complete with Sinhala names, to attack other Muslims thereby igniting another Black July. Muslim countries would protest and the West would invade in the guise of peacekeeping, he claimed.

These ravings were rendered respectable when Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith joined the bandwagon. In June, at a ceremony to re-consecrate the Katuwapitiya church, he said, “The youth who carried out the bomb attacks were used by the international conspirators…I have seen a report that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi is in a military camp which is run by the most powerful country in the world. I won’t mention the name of this country but clearly the ISIS leader is in a military camp which is run by this powerful nation…  We question whether this nation knew about the bomb attacks.” The paper was Divina, which was less coy than the cardinal and mentioned the name of the country supposedly hosting the IS chief, the US.

The possible identity of the mastermind changed according to the political climate. At first it was the foreign hand. Later parliamentarian Rishard Bathiudeen became the top contender for the role. Athuraliye Rathana thero began a fast against him. The Catholic Church backed a no-confidence motion by the pro-Rajapaksa opposition against him. He was even arrested during the Gotabaya presidency. Today, for many, the Rajapaksas are the mastermind. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith even quoted from the parliamentary select committee report to this effect. (The report wondered “whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instil fear and uncertainty in the country in the lead up to the presidential election.” At that time, the Cardinal didn’t heed the warning.)

The mindless preoccupation with a mastermind is a convenient scapegoat for political and security establishments, as well as for the people. Politicians promise to find the mastermind when in opposition and use the mastermind to evade the difficult task of revamping the security establishment once in power. The security establishment depend on the mastermind to deflect attention from their own culpability. We, the people, need not face how we failed to take a public stand against extremists in our own communities.

When the police came to the Dematagoda house of Ilham Ibrahim, the Shangri La bomber, his pregnant wife detonated a bomb, killing herself, her three children, and unborn baby. What would make a father consent to such a horrendous plan or a mother carry it out? The question, if asked, would compel us to face the dark side of religion, how extreme belief and piety can result in inconceivable horror (this is true of ideological extremisms of the secular variety too). But if we busy ourselves with the forever search for the mastermind, we need not face the role played by Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and Islamism in preparing the ground for the massacre. We are not guilty for the mastermind did it.

The mastermind obsession also served to discredit the only serious investigation into the massacre carried out by the CID under DIG Ravi Seneviratne and SSP Shani Abeysekara. When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa transferred 700 CID personnel including the members of the investigative teams, hardly anyone protested. The Rajapaksa opposition also boycotted the parliamentary select committee. Both the investigation and the select committee pinpointed how the Rajapaksas’ anti-Muslim campaign played into the hands of Mohamed Zharan and other extremists. As the then acting head of the TID Jagath Vishantha informed the parliamentary select committee, “After the Digana incident they published a lot of posts against Sinhala-Buddhist extremism. And from our Research and Analysis units we could see that they got many comments and likes.” “Zahran started a campaign to radicalise Muslim youth and motivate them to use violence to achieve their ends post March 2018 attacks on Muslims in Digana…” the select committee concluded. “He was able to recruit many by using that incident and the Aluthgama incidents of 2014 to embrace the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq ideology.” The report also highlighted increasing levels of Wahabism and Arabisation in parts of Sri Lanka or rather Saudi-Arabisation.

So without the Rajapaksa’s anti-Muslim campaign, without Aluthgama and Digana, the Easter Sunday massacre could have been prevented just as the long Eelam War could have been avoided if Black July didn’t happen. The key is political, a state and a society that enable moderates of all religions while marginalising extremists of every religion. But those necessary political changes need not even be discussed so long as we can cling to the never ending search for the mastermind. For there will never be a mastermind that can satisfy all the diverse elements who need him.

The problem with the ATA

Shakthika Sathkumara was an award-winning writer and a Sinhala-Buddhist father of three. Fathima Nushara Zarook was a Muslim mother of one who had worked in the Middle East as a housemaid. Mr. Sathkumara was arrested in early April and Ms. Zarook in early May 2019. Both had fallen foul of ICCPR, an international covenant created to protect fundamental rights and was being used to violate them in Sri Lanka.

ICCPR is being wielded against minorities and dissenting Sinhalese via Section 3: “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that contributes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” The proposed ATA includes in its definition of terrorism, “causing destruction or damage to religious or cultural property or heritage.” This clause is ripe for abuse by Sinhala supremacists within and outside the state. For instance, a Muslim woman believed to be wearing a kaftan featuring a dhamma chakka or a Sinhala man writing a story about predation within the Sangha can be deemed guilty of damaging our heritage. Tamils protesting the implanting of a bo sapling in an area without a single Buddhist inhabitant can be accused of damaging cultural property. “Causing serious risk to health and safety of the public or a section thereof’ would be terrorism under ATA. This in a country where Muslims were accused of spreading Covid-19! If passed sans amendments, ATA could create an abusive system like pre-revolutionary Frances’s lettre de cachet. This may not happen under President Wickremesinghe. What about his successors?

The normally fractious opposition is united against the ATA. The Rajapaksas are hedging their bets, waiting to cut the best deal either way. To get the law through the parliament, President Wickremesinghe will need the votes of all SLPPers and not just those backing him. To get that support, he will have to concede whatever pound of flesh the Rajapaksas demand. This is likely to be ministerial posts to Namal Rajapaksa and hardcore acolytes like Johnston Fernando and Rohitha Abeygunawardana, perhaps even premiership for Mahinda Rajapaksa. If the president concedes, that would tarnish his recovering reputation beyond redemption and give a new life to the outdated myth of Ranil Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksas retain the backing of their devotees, but most of the 6.9 million have long deserted them. Angry at being deceived by the family, burdened by indirect taxes and high rates, they will react with unappeasable anger at any attempt to give cabinet portfolios to men they blame for their condition. This anger may well work against President Wickremesinghe at any future election, especially a presidential poll.

The government’s determination to push the ATA is creating new political fault lines the economy could ill afford. Sri Lanka has avoided Lebanon’s fate and achieved a modicum of stability thanks to President Wickremesinghe’s economic policies. The steady increase in foreign remittances is the latest indication of a country that is on the path to recovery. The focus should be on justice, good governance, and rule of law, specifically preventing incidents like the recent attack on a foreign-owned garment factory by supporters of a Gampaha district state minister. ATA is a diversion from that sensible path. If repressive laws and armed power suffice to maintain status quos, Bastille would still be standing.

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