The massive intelligence failure on the part of the Maitripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government in Sri Lanka that led to the ghastly Easter Sunday bombings that took the lives of nearly 300 innocents, has already set off calls for the return to power of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. One of the many tweets doing the rounds says “none of this would have happened if MR was in charge...”
The strongman who decimated the Tamil Tigers in 2009, and who has been unapologetic about the manner in which he did it, ably assisted by his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the architect of the LTTE’s annihilation, and widely credited for the 10 years of unprecedented peace, cannot stand for office again under Sri Lankan law. But if anything prepares the ground for a Rajapaksa 2.0, it is this Easter Sunday massacre.
Incidentally Gotabhaya Rajapaksa last week began the protracted paperwork for his candidacy for the coming presidential polls early next year, by applying to the American authorities to divest himself of his US (dual) nationality. No Sri Lankan holding dual nationality is eligible to stand for the presidency. Officials in the know say that Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa’s dual nationality issue could be resolved by then, especially as the United States is invested in speeding things up. As is, not surprisingly, India, which leans towards the Sri Lankan strongman.
Speculation is also rife in some circles in Colombo that one doesn’t have to look too far for the reasons behind the Sri Lankan intelligence failure, and that it is nothing more than a deliberate move by President Maitripala Sirisena to make the Ranil Wickremesinghe government look weak and inept, particularly as the Maitri-Ranil running battle is now par for the course, and is only marking time until the presidential polls, due for January 2020, when Mr Sirisena’s presidential term comes to an end.
The blame game has already begun in earnest, with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe pointing fingers at Mr Sirisena, who as President has direct control over the police and all security and intelligence forces on the island. Mr Sirisena had already reached out to his arch-enemy, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to arrive at a compact to pull the government down once before, and has only done so again, believes the Ranil camp.
Sunday’s bombings, in fact, which the police was quick to say were executed by locals and that the foreign connections — particularly, between hitherto non-existent Muslim fundamentalist groups on the island nation, and the string of madrasas in the Maldives that were set up under the benign eye of the previous Abdulla Yameen government, funded by the Salafist groups in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East — would have to be investigated further. These also beg several questions that look beyond the “Rajapaksa conspiracy” theory. The first, whether it could also be complacency brought on by 10 years of peace that led to officials working under President Sirisena to ignore the extremely specific warning, which, shockingly, not only lists the targets, as in the churches in Colombo city, but also the extremely well-guarded Indian high commission that sits directly opposite the string of sea-facing five-star hotels where the suicide bombers detonated themselves among the clientele, settling down for Sunday breakfast.
The letter from the police chief is curiously dated April 11, which is five days after the first alert was sent out by the “foreign intelligence network”, with the obvious buzz in Colombo being that the April 7 alert was from India’s Research and Analysis Wing, the country’s external intelligence agency. Either way, the fact that the police alert was sent out, just ahead of the Sri Lankan new year, celebrated by Sri Lankans across the country, when Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims alike are on holiday and all offices shut down, was also seen as contributing to the police being blindsided.
The third standout was that the warning letter actually names and lists the 30-man team of “extremists” who would execute the attacks as members of the little-known National Thawheed Jama’aat.
Its connections to the original Thawheed Jamaat of Tamil Nadu, with its founder of Tamil ancestry, raises questions on the resurgence of Tamil terror in a far more violent form and its spillover into India’s southern underbelly.
The NTJ was implicated last year in a string of attacks on Buddhist shrines and the destruction of Buddha statues and were probably also fashioned into a group, drawn from the ranks of those smarting from the attacks on Muslim communities in 2014 in Kalutara, and again in 2018 in Kandy and Ampara. In a sign that these were all men under watch, the letter names the suicide bombers and the others in the attack team, from the leader Mohammed Sahran and Hashemi, Jalal and Rilwan, and details what each of their assignments would be. Adding to the mystery of why they were allowed to check in as hotel guests, the letter lists their headquarters in the Colombo suburb of Dematagoda, the same address that the guests-turned-suicide bombers had also used when they had checked in to the hotel. The Dematagoda offices would be raided by the police late on Sunday, leaving three policemen dead, as the authorities finally stepped up efforts to secure the city from further bomb attacks.
The sheer scale and the synchronicity of the attacks, not just in Colombo but in Batticaloa, Negombo and Dehiwala does beg the question on where the Muslims of Sri Lanka stand, and what kind of threat they pose not just to the island nation, slowly emerging from 30 years of bloodshed, but also to the greater South Asian region.
Despite threats and blandishments by the Tamil Tigers, Rauf Hakeem, who heads the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, stayed away from the fratricidal Sinhala versus Tamil warfare that consumed the nation. As a minister in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, he raised his voice against the targeted attacks against Muslims in March last year when the Bodhu Bala Sena, a Buddhist group, went on the rampage. Muslims make up a mere 10 per cent of the population and will pay a huge price for what seems to be the radicalisation of the fringe, possibly drawn into social media calls for a Christchurch payback as they become the new “enemy”.
Either way, Sri Lanka can do little but brace for the violent fallout as the clamour to settle scores and the prospect of a return to bombs and bloodshed, ends this island’s — and the wider region’s — all too brief dalliance with peace. Or to wait for the return of the Rajapaksas.