The past ten years most Sri Lankans enjoyed a great deal of freedom compared to those in neigbouring countries in the region and even internationally. The end of the thirty year war was interpreted by leaders of government and the general public as a restoration of peace and normalcy. People could move throughout the country in their vehicles without being checked at security checkpoints and could enter any government building or hotel without being subjected to body checks. Security experts have given this as a primary reason for Sri Lanka being selected as a target for attack. It was a soft target. This enabled the suicide bombers to walk freely into their targeted churches and hotels to explode themselves.
It has now become evident that the freedom from security checks that Sri Lankan enjoyed enabled Islamic State trained groups to penetrate and spread their tentacles through a significant segment of Sri Lankan society. The extent of this penetration is becoming more evident by the day as more and more arrests of suspects take place. There has no doubt been a failure of intelligence gathering of serious proportions. On the other hand, mainstream Muslim organisations have said that they repeatedly informed the government authorities at the highest levels going back to 2014 that infiltration by Islamic radicals was taking place but to no avail.
There is no reason to doubt that there was awareness at the highest levels of the polity, under both the previous government and the present one, that extremist Islamic tentacles were spreading. The failure was not so much in intelligence gathering than a failure of those in positions of decision making power to act. In the post-graduate classes I have taught at Colombo university on peacebuilding, the military personnel who were students often brought up the issue of radicalization of Muslims in the east. The fact that the government was not taking visible action made me believe that the problem was being dealt with politically. But now it is clear it was not.
President Maithripala Sirisean has sought to give the impression that the process of accountability has already started. The President’s dismissal of Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando shortly after the Easter bombing and the President’s demand that IGP Pujitha Jayasundera should resign as head of the police has been part of that process. Both of them are public officers with long records of competent service, even if they have been seen as closer to one political side than to another. It is no secret that in Sri Lanka, it is the political masters who call the shots especially where decision making on highly sensitive issues are concerned. IGP Jayasundera has refused be scapegoated. He has refused to resign and therefore been sent on compulsory leave.
President Maithripala Sirisena is constitutionally the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the state and Minister of Defence. During the 52 day period of the failed attempt to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and dissolve parliament, President Sirisena appointed the present Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister. It was during this period of the failed government that President Sirisena appointed Hemasiri Fernand as Defense Secretary. President Sirisena also took control over the Police Department and the Ministry of Law and Order under which the police had been placed. It is beyond belief that the Defense Secretary and IGP did not keep the President briefed about the developments in the country.
The president also chairs the meeting of the National Security Council in which the Defense Secretary, heads of the armed forces and police, and the intelligence services are also members. It has been publicly reported that the Indian government and its intelligence agencies gave repeated warnings to their Sri Lankan counterparts about the potential attacks, the names of the assailants, their targets and even the dates. If the leaders of government did know and did not act on the information at their disposal, they need to be held accountable. If they did not know, as they all claim, they are not worthy to hold the positions of responsibility they currently hold.
The failure of the government leadership to take action against those were creating Islamic extremist cells needs to be assessed in the context of allegations made against the opposition of having been part of a process of supporting Islamic extremists to divide the Muslim community for political reasons. There was a failure of the previous government leadership to act on the information made available to it in 2014 when they were in power. It appears that the vast international financial resources at the disposal of the Islamic extremists, and their potential for weakening the Muslim moderate politicians, were a too powerful a combination in the eyes of political leaders seeking to be in power.
The causes of disaffection within the larger Muslim community also needs to be assessed. Since 2014, the Muslims of Sri Lanka have been under siege. They were attacked in Aluthgama, Ampara, Digana to mention some of the worst incidents. The reaction of the governments, both previous and present, were tardy. The police failed to act immediately. The wrongdoers acted with impunity in some cases. The alienation within the Muslim community would set in and get worse especially amongst the less stable and more volatile members of the younger generation. There needs to be introspection on the part of mainstream society, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
In the immediate and short terms, the responses to the crisis will be primarily led by the security forces. They have got to neutralize the threat of terror bombings and killings. The ruthlessness of the simultaneous suicide bombings on Easter Sunday, and the demonstrated willingness of the bombers to sacrifice their wives and little children has terrified the rest of society who love their children and do not wish to expose them to danger. Therefore, more than three weeks after the bombings, the schools remain largely empty.
In an ominous development, reflecting the gravity of the present crisis, there is a media report quoting the Army Commander to the effect that “The main suspect in the abduction of journalist Keith Noyahr in May 2008, who also led the shadowy military intelligence unit suspected to have been behind the 2009 murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, has been restored to active service.” Given the dire situation in the country most people might agree with the army commander. But the danger of further increase of alienation and polarisation in society is manifest.
Fear breeds hatred, and the manifestations of mass alienation is already visible in the eruptions of small scale violence at the community level in a number of locations. In this context it is important that the leaders of government and opposition should jointly address the people and strictly forbid any section of people from taking the law into their own hands. With presidential elections due in less than six months, it is too late for another attempt at a national government, but it is not too late for the political leaders of all parties to work together in a spirit of repentance and find the best solutions in the circumstances.