September 22, 2021
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    Blame game in full measure

    November 02, 2019

    The release of the report of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) into the Easter bombings last week, six months after the deadly attacks that claimed the lives of more than two hundred and fifty persons offers some significant insights regarding the workings of the security establishment while at the same time raising important questions as the country prepares for a crucial presidential election.

    This committee ran in parallel to a Commission of Inquiry appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena into the attacks. That commission comprised Supreme Court Justice Vijith Malalgoda, retired Inspector-General of Police N.K. Illangakoon and former Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order, Padmasiri Jayamanne.

    Based on the interim report of this Commission of Inquiry, Attorney General Dappula de Livera had instructed the Criminal Investigation Department to carry out a criminal investigation against former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector General of Police at the time of the attacks, Pujith Jayasundera, to determine if they failed to act on intelligence warnings about the incident.

    Thereafter in September, following demands for an impartial inquiry by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, President Sirisena appointed another commission to probe the attacks. This commission is headed by Court of Appeal Judge Janak de Silva. The other members are Court of Appeal judge Nissanka Bandula Karunarathna and retired Court of Appeal judges Nihal Sunil Rajapaksa and Bandula Kumara Atapattu.

    In contrast, the PSC was appointed by Parliament in the immediate aftermath of Easter attacks. Initially, the Joint Opposition (JO) agreed to participate in it. However, it later withdrew from the committee stating that, by requesting state intelligence officers to give evidence, it would compromise national security.

    Committee members

    The committee however was not wholly a government dominated affair. It comprised Deputy Speaker J.M. Ananda Kumarasiri as Chairman and Rauff Hakeem, Ravi Karunanayake, Rajitha Senaratne, Sarath Fonseka, M.A. Sumanthiran, Ashu Marasinghe, Jayampathy Wickremaratne and Nalinda Jayathissa.

    After it withdrew from the PSC, the JO took pains to dismiss the hearings, stating that it was politically motivated and aimed at absolving the government from any blame. Recently, it took this strategy a step further, demanding the withdrawal of Minister Hakeem from the committee.

    This was on the basis that Minister Hakeem appeared in a video with Zaharan Hashim, the mastermind who orchestrated the attacks. Minister Hakeem has since clarified that the video was filmed during the 2015 general election when Hashim was not known to have any extremist links, an assertion that has not been disputed by the JO.

    The PSC held twenty-four sittings from May to October 2019 and heard evidence from fifty-five persons. Its report is endorsed by all members of the PSC. Among those who gave evidence before the PSC were Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena. The former appeared before the PSC; the evidence of the latter was recorded at the Presidential Secretariat.

    After concluding its sittings, the PSC has now made its findings public. If anything, the findings vindicate the committee in that it has demonstrated that it is not an exercise in partiality, criticising the actions of many including President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

    The PSC has also made some critical observations regarding the management of the country’s security establishments and raised some pertinent questions which are extremely relevant in the current context of upcoming elections.

    The PSC strongly censured President Sirisena, stating in its summary that the “President failed in numerous occasions to give leadership and also actively undermined government and systems including having ad hoc NSC (National Security Council) meetings and leaving out key individuals from meetings”.

    The committee was also critical of the delay in President Sirisena, who was in Singapore at the time of the attacks, returning to Sri Lanka. The PSC notes that “the PSC was informed that His Excellency the President had checked as to whether he could return to Sri Lanka on an earlier flight but that all flights were full”.

    However, the PSC has determined that, according to Sri Lankan Airlines, there were three flights that flew from Singapore to Colombo on the day of the bombings and all three flights had available seats in both Business Class and Economy Class. The PSC noted that the evidence of the President is contradicted by the information provided by SriLankan Airlines.

    President’s statements

    In a stinging criticism, the PSC observes that, “President has not been fully upfront regarding his role in the lead up to the Easter Sunday attacks and his subsequent actions”. The committee noted discrepancies in the President’s conduct in two instances.

    “One was when he said he did not know intelligence information prior to attacks when media reports point to him being briefed on April 11, 2019. The other is his claim of the unavailability of seats on flights from Singapore to Colombo on April 21, 2019,” the committee noted. “The PSC is deeply disappointed that the President has deliberately misled the PSC on these two issues and in this light also questions the veracity of his other statements,” the committee observed.

    The PSC has also been critical of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Citing his exclusion from the National Security Council’s meetings, the committee has observed that he should have been objecting to this more assertively, after he was excluded from such meetings in the aftermath of the failed constitutional coup in October last year.

    “The Prime Minister should have raised this development in Cabinet and in Parliament but remained silent of his exclusion from the NSC for over six months,” the committee noted, adding that “The Prime Minister opting to rely on a third party for information is no substitute and is unacceptable”.

    Quite apart from the President and the Prime Minister, the PSC has strongly censured various officers of the security establishment. It notes that the “greatest responsibility” for the attacks lies with the Director, State Intelligence Service (SIS) but that the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, the Inspector General of Police, the Chief of National Intelligence and the Directorate of Military Intelligence all “failed in their responsibilities”. “All were informed of the intelligence information prior to the Easter Sunday attacks but failed to take necessary steps to mitigate or prevent it,” the report notes.

    In what is another astute observation, the PSC also queries why all arms of the intelligence apparatus failed at the same time and why the incident occurred, after ten years of relative peace, in an election year. “Further investigations will be needed to understand 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 to be held later in the year,” the report notes.

    Referring to the climate of fear that prevailed in the wake of the Easter attacks, the committee notes that “Such a situation would then lead to the call for a change of regime to contain such acts of terrorism. Coincidently or not so coincidentally, the security situation and fear would be unleashed months away from the Presidential Election”.

    This is precisely what has occurred as reflected in the campaign of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). It is no co-incidence that, days after the Easter attack, Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered to be the candidate of the SLPP, promising to restore the safety and security of the country.

    Even now, over six months after the election, the campaign rhetoric from SLPP platforms is focussed on blaming the government for the Easter attacks and thereby projecting Rajapaksa, the erstwhile Secretary of Defence, as the individual who can restore ‘peace’ to the country. The SLPP are not shy to extend this strategy to questionable lengths, as evidenced by their tactic of trying to lay the blame at the Minister Hakeem’s feet.

    That the SLPP is trying to generate a ‘fear psychosis’, when campaigning throughout the country is being conducted in a free and relatively peaceful manner with candidates mingling with crowds with the minimum of security will not be lost on the electorate.

    Easter attacks, a political tool

    Also, despite the PSC, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry and the subsequent Commission comprising of Court of Appeal justices, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has, during the election campaign pledged to appoint yet another ‘independent’ commission of inquiry into the Easter attacks. Even if such a commission eventuates, it is questionable whether it can arrive at findings at variance with the PSC.

    It is clear from these developments that the principal opposition party, the SLPP, has no qualms about using the Easter Sunday attacks as a political tool in the presidential election campaign. Their strategists, having decided on this tactic, are relying on whipping up public sentiment against the government and thereby want that to reflect on the ruling party’s presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa.

    That is a double-edged sword because, while it may sway some voters in the South of the country, it could equally alienate communities that dominate the Northern and Eastern provinces. While a final analysis will be possible only after the poll, there is no doubt that the Easter Sunday attacks will have a decisive impact on the November 16 election

     

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