Such sustained and widespread fear did not grip the country even during the worst days of the three decade long war with the LTTE. There were suicide and other bombings then too but they did not denude the streets of people for so many days at a time. The willingness of the NJT to expend the lives of as many as nine of its members as suicide bombers on a single day suggests the availability of more waiting in the wings. This is a major cause for apprehension.
The NJT is reported to have had about 150 members. Whether they are all ready to be suicide bombers is a matter for speculation when little is known of this organization. So far the security forces have made many arrests. Whether they are all members of the organization or others who are supportive of them or members of other extremist groups is not known. The people await the government’s announcement that security is assured before they will be willing to venture out of their homes with confidence.
The ending of the nationwide curfew on Sunday a week after attacks seems to have had a positive impact on the public mood. There is more of normalcy in the flow of traffic and in office attendance. The continuation of the curfew was an indication that the government was adopting a cautious attitude to national security. The country cannot afford another bomb attack that kills and maims people.
There is already much anger seething in society about the government’s failure to give the people advance warning about the possibility of these attacks. This is anger that can be turned into a communal conflagration as in the past which needs to be prevented at all costs. Information regarding Muslim extremists was given by the Muslim religious and civil leaders to the government as long as three years ago and also more recently. This information was detailed, giving names and even videos of the speeches that these extremists were giving.
There was information that came from Indian intelligence services of the day and specific targets. It is a grave dereliction of responsibilities that the government failed to take all these warnings into account to protect the people. It is beyond belief that the top political leaders of the government and opposition did not get these intelligence reports about the impending catastrophe. These intelligence reports appear to have been widely disseminated within the security and intelligence services, and it is difficult to believe that none of them shared this information with those who were leading the country and with whom they had been working closely.
The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that no one takes responsibility for the security lapse or for downplaying the threat or for waiting to take political advantage of the crisis that was bound to come. The president and prime minister who lead the country have been pulling in different directions since their working relations began to seriously deteriorate last year. The government from which so much was expected has failed to deliver on its potential due to infighting.
The leaders of the opposition who continue to have influence in the area of national security claim innocence. They promise to come back to power and deal effectively with the situation. There is widespread public yearning for strong leaders who will do the needful to eliminate terrorism. Indeed there is a very powerful undercurrent of emotion amongst the people that unscrupulous political leaders can seek to exploit. When anger is mixed with fear it can easily get transmuted into hate.
One of the achievements of the present time, and in which Sri Lankan society can take strength, is that there have been no acts of retaliatory violence. The primary credit for this should go to the clergy of the Catholic Church whose adherents paid the biggest price in terms of the numbers of lives lost. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has been the public face of the church in calling for accountability from the government leaders who did not take the necessary action to prevent this catastrophe and for asking the people not to take the law into their own hands.
Sri Lanka can also take strength in the competence of its security forces that once battled the LTTE and set up systems of information gathering and counter terrorism that military personnel from other countries have come to study. The government has brought in Emergency Regulations to arm the security forces with additional powers. It is important that they be reminded of the need to function within the laws and to respect the dignity and honour of the people whose homes they may have to enter in search of terror suspects.
Dealing with religion based extremism requires a sophisticated approach. Civic, moral and religious leaders of all communities should reflect on the areas in which each of their communities could do more to improve engagement and relationships with those of other communities. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past. In 1979, President J R Jayewardene issued orders to the security forces to go to the North and eradicate terrorism in six months. However, the alienation that set in as a result of heavy handed counter-terrorism action alienated the people and the seeds of the thirty year war were sown.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the Catholic Church have set a good example in a time of national anguish and fear, and in a situation in which the Catholic community feels that they have been targeted. Muslim-Christian relations in Sri Lanka were never bad or conflictual and must not ever become so, which is what the Cardinal and other leaders of the Church have sought to ensure. The reliance on the coercive power of the state needs to be backed by the moral and reconciliatory power of religion as it is meant to be.