Four years ago, on the 21st of April, as the Catholic community celebrated Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, calamity struck. Six suicide bombings were executed across Catholic churches and well-known hotels in Sri Lanka, leaving over 300 people dead and twice as many injured.
While investigations promptly revealed that the local religious extremist group National Thowheeth Jamath (NTJ) conducted the attack, there has been no concrete inference with Naufer Maulavi's and ISIS's culpability mulled over.
Allegations of Government Involvement
Recently, the UK's Channel 4, in a documentary expose by Dispatches, raised severe allegations against the previous Rajapaksa regime's involvement in the attack. These allegations are not novel to the locals, yet the documentary appears to have imprinted such globally, and the pressure on the government has necessitated calls for a comprehensive investigation.
However, four years have already passed by and calls for a fresh investigation may not sit well with the public. With all eyes on the State, it is truly a decisive moment for Sri Lanka. To understand the significance, let's analyse whom and what the expose is pointing towards.
Channel 4's accusations
The documentary begins, or for the most part, sets the stage for Channel 4's core allegation that the Easter bombing served as the vehicle through which the Rajapaksa's hereditary succession of government was nurtured. This refers to the fact that the threat of Islamist extremism in the region and the people's distrust of the then government's ability to preserve national security fuelled the portrayal of Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as somewhat of a messiah. Relying on whistleblower testimony, the expose alleges that Gotabaya's ally, Head of State Intelligence Suresh Sallay, had strong ties to the NTJ and impeded investigations both prior and post-attack.
Major General Suresh Sallay's Defence
Major General Suresh Sallay, currently serving as the Director of State Intelligence, has vehemently dismissed the accusations stating that throughout 2018, he was in Malaysia, serving as the Minister Counsellor for the Sri Lankan government. This contradicts the claim made by whistleblower Hanzeer Azad Maulana that Sallay met with members of the NTJ, including Mohamed Zahran, in February 2018 in Karadipuval, Puttalam. Sallay has challenged Channel 4 to verify his presence in Malaysia during this period through Malaysian authorities.
He further contends that on the day of the Easter Sunday attacks, April 21, 2019, he was in India, at the National Defence College (NDC). He invites verification of this claim with Indian authorities. Additionally, he refutes Maulana’s claims that he contacted him over the phone to transport an individual outside Hotel Taj Samudra. Sallay emphasises that his presence in Sri Lanka was limited to a one-week visit in December 2017, where he assisted in an official inquiry, and he returned only after concluding his course at NDC in November 2019.
Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's Response
Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also disputed the allegations in a lengthy statement calling it an "anti-Rajapaksa tirade" and a collection of lies. He alluded to Maulana’s application for political asylum in Europe as his ulterior motive. Furthermore, he emphasised that Sallay was serving as Minister-Counsellor in Malaysia from 2016 to December 2018 and was not in Sri Lanka during the alleged meeting. In the context of Military Intelligence and other political interference, he argued that the government of 2015-2019 persecuted intelligence services personnel, making it highly unlikely for that manner of sabotage to occur. Regarding the transfer of officers conducting the inquiry, including Shani Abeysekera, Rajapaksa defended his actions stating that these officers were implicated in misconduct, necessitating their removal. Finally, Rajapaksa denied withholding the report of the Presidential Commission, asserting that it has been tabled in Parliament.
But why do Sallays’ and Rajapaksa’s defences fail to convince all actors? The long and short of it is that this manner of interference is not limited to the Easter attacks.
Historical Context: Sri Lanka's Troubled Past
In the final stages of the conflict against the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government, under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa, actively removed UN personnel and observers from key conflict zones. Consequently, allegations of human rights violations and a severe lack of accountability ensued.
These war crimes were even the focus of Channel 4's documentary in 2011, 'Sri Lanka's killing fields', which has been vehemently criticised by local authorities and even some locals as mere propaganda against the State.
This time, the government may not be able to secure the support of the people. As stated by International Relations Analyst Uditha Devapriya, the audience of such a documentary extends to over a billion Catholics worldwide, as opposed to Channel 4's 2011 documentary that may have targeted a global Tamil population of about 90 million. In terms of numbers, the former may take the cake.
International Interest and Involvement
Hence, we have witnessed the involvement of external organisations such as the United Nations, the Pope as a representative of the Catholic Church, and various human rights organisations, both local and international.
Furthermore, the release of the docu-expose comes at a rather opportune time, as the UNHRC is currently engaged in discussions on reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka pursuant to Resolution 46/1 and 51/1 adopted by the Council. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recommendations have been dismissed by Sri Lanka as an "unproductive and unhelpful drain" of resources, which did not reflect the situation on the ground. They claim that OHCHR had ignored its “democratic resilience”.
More importantly, the OCHCR's call for the acceleration of investigations into the Easter attacks in their report was left unaddressed by the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative's response in Geneva. Similarly, the Ministry of Defence's response to the Channel 4 allegations falls short of nothing but disappointment. The ministry issued a statement exonerating Major General Sallay instead of initiating a formal investigative process.
Institutional Action and Political Dynamics
Although this may illustrate a lack of institutional action, the President has appointed a retired Supreme Court judge to spearhead the investigation of the allegations. A Parliamentary debate to discuss the claims was scheduled, and even the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa urged that an international inquiry immune to political inference must be conducted.
Despite several actors in the political sphere displaying some degree of interest in the matter, recent media reports showcase a possible rift in the government. With Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara stating that the Cabinet had decided to appoint a Special Parliamentary Committee to investigate the allegations, and Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena categorically denying any such discussion, the transparency and communication within the government may be called into question. It must be noted that Gunawardena is a part of the SLPP – the party largely responsible for Gotabaya's election into power – while Nanayakkara was part of the Opposition until last year.
The release of the documentary has highlighted the deep-seated divisions within Sri Lanka's political landscape and may add further strain to the already tumultuous relationship with the SLPP and intensify international scrutiny of Lanka’s political affairs. The documentary may not be able to topple the government immediately, but it sure does add a layer of uncertainty to Sri Lankan politics.
Although these calls for action are necessary, four years on, the people are left with an increasing plethora of questions with few answers to resolve. Why has the investigation been riddled with potholes? Why have the authorities shied away from pushing for answers? And why did they disregard the warning of a possible attack? These questions only appear to reinforce Channel 4's claims.
So as the country approaches possible elections, the documentary's influence on public opinion and political outcomes remains to be seen. The only closing statement I have is to think twice, maybe even a hundred times before you vote, for the consequences may or may not be dire.
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