Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
With the shadow of tragedy looming over a still stunned nation in the wake of the Easter Sunday atrocities, there is a curiously stark contrast at play in Sri Lanka. Even as politicians shriek, lie and pontificate for partisan advantage, the triumph of the human spirit soars above this ugly cacaphony.
Buddhist priests in vivid yellow robes join in sweeping the debris within the precincts of the devastated Katuwapitiya Church, a mosque offers its halls for Catholics to hold prayers and in Katukelle, Kandy, the Jumma Mosque hosts monks to preach to its afflicted congregation who thereafter contribute to a fund for agonised innocents to whom horror in the shape of a young man wearing a suicide bomb came suddenly out of a clear blue morning on the holiest of days.
Meeting difficult challenges ahead of us
These are the inspiring images that Sri Lankans must resolutely keep in mind as difficult challenges arise ahead of us. With the dawning of the third week since the attacks took place, Sri Lanka’s Muslims are insidiously and sullenly withdrawing into themselves in fear, dreading racial profiling in security searches and increasing abuse leveled by zenophobists and racists.
While strong community and religious leadership is important, soothing words have their limits when the public is gripped by overriding anxious tension as to where the next bomb will explode or when the next attack will take place. The Government’s rhetoric must yeld to concrete operation of the law against protectors of islamist radicalisation, not its foot soldiers, bomb carriers and tiffin bearers.
Yet there is no end, it seems, to ingenious ‘games’ of politicians while ordinary life in Sri Lanka remains largely paralysed by fear.
This week, the Leader of the House called upon the Opposition to submit a proposal for the appointment of a Parliamentary Committee to investigate the alleged dereliction of duty by Sri Lanka’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara in regard to Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attacks by islamist jihadists. Despite President Maithripala Sirisena calling for his resignation, the IGP has refused to do so in what is another unenviable first for the country.
And the United National Front (UNF) Government’s curious perambulations over accountability for more than three hundred and fifty lives lost, countless more seriously injured and the catapulting of Sri Lanka into a calamitous state of insecurity under its watch must be questioned in good conscience. This ‘passing the buck’ between a bickering President and Prime Minister will not do. Why is the Opposition being called upon to submit the motion to remove the IGP when it is the Government’s own and bounden duty to do so?
Bewilderment regarding the growth of islamist radicalism
To be clear, this issue goes beyond a single individual. As percipient political observers may have realised, the airy insouciance of the UNF over the IGP’s removal in the wake of the Easter Sunday mayhem has become grist for the excitable mill of opposition politicians who are cackling that the appointment and dismissal of high public officers must not be fettered by independent commissions.
It is also commonly (and wrongly) claimed that the failure to deal summarily with the IGP is due to the 19th Amendment. That is not correct. Its many internal contradictions and convolutions notwithstanding, the 19th Amendment has nothing whatsoever to do with the removal of the IGP.
As stated earlier in these column spaces, the Removal of Officers (Procedure) Act, No. 5 of 2002 following the praised 17th Amendment prescribes a simple parliamentary process for the removal of the IGP and the Attorney General. The incorporation of safeguards preventing hasty executive dismissal was thought to be necessary to insulate these posts from political pressure. Indeed, the procedure for the IGP’s removal should have been resorted to by the Government even before the Easter Sunday attacks given the erratic behaviour of the incumbent in office. But this hand was stayed due to political agendas.
Yet as a few islamist radicals bloomed in Sri Lanka like fronds of a poisonous undergrowth, arming themselves and training themselves to silently carry out a strike spectacularly exceeding their best expectation, there are questions in issue. Did this utterly inept Government and a self-serving Opposition have to wait till Catholics and Christians were killed while praying at the altar and tourists blown up while having breakfast to wake up to the Wahabi infiltration of Sri Lanka?
How did massive grants from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a so-called ‘Batticaloa Campus’ overcome stringent bureaucratic requirements and the Eastern Province Governor’s son grab shares worth Rs 500 million of this ‘campus’?
Turning a blind eye to the radicalisation of a few
Similarly how did an islamist training camp (whether ten acres, one acre, or half an acre) in densely packed and populated Kattankudy function without general knowledge?
While the rise of radical Salafism in the East were objected to by Muslim citizens who were its first victims, were their complaints highlighted in Colombo’s discourses on ‘ethnicity’ and ‘victimisation’ apart from the favorite focus being anti-Muslim violence by ultra-nationalist Sinhala Buddhist groups like the Boda Bala Sena?
Indeed, critics attempting to unravel these issues were met with rebuttals, some smugly if not stupidly pointing to ‘reconciliation projects’ in ‘affected areas’ in support. Such explanations, as we see to our cost now, were catastrophically misguided.
This begs the question as to how much pre and post 2015 ‘reconciliation projects’ are/were rooted in the community soil as opposed to being ‘remote controlled’ by a selected few in a never ending cycle of exploitation (of some) and gain (of others). Was turning a blind eye to radicalisation by a few with ‘privileged’ political cover, a necessary evil in securing a stake for ‘minority interests’ at the national level?
If so, history has repeated itself with islamists gradually consolidating themselves in exclusive political niches of the East and in Colombo without much challenge while a menacingly opportunistic political vaccum yawned. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are now thrust into a raging fire of distrust and suspicion with increased social alienation amidst communal rhetoric spewed from political platforms.
A day after the Easter Sunday attacks, Highways and Petroleum Resource Minister Kabir Hashim claimed that a suicide bomber in the Easter Sunday attacks had been released upon arrest a few months ago following involvement in extremist activities due to ‘pressure from a powerful politician.’ We assume that this statement was made responsibly, given also the fact that the Minister’s coordinating secretary had been shot by the same radicals in retaliation for the investigations. But later, only a fumbling explanation was offered that investigators were ‘looking into this.’
Dangerous pointer to what lies ahead
Even now, the Sri Lankan people are none the wiser on this matter apart from certain Muslim politicians furiously denying the charge. Has the cat (idiomatically) got hold of the Government’s collective tongue on a serious allegation made by its own Minister, himself of Muslim ethnicity no less? The public needs to know.
The nation awaits clear answers to questions ranging from the IGP’s removal to the politicisation of police investigations. The Government’s distasteful shadow-boxing on accountability for the Easter Sunday destruction has undermined the validity of the constitutional argument for independent institutions and facilitated the return of the discredited 18th Amendment’s power-aggrandising rationale.
Even as ordinary Sri Lankans show grace under fire in the most indomitable way, the Government may be well advised to respond to public pressure without playing nonsensical games if fury is not to spill over to the streets.