Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
The gay abandon with which Sri Lanka’s politicians and public servants at the highest level act as if they are beyond even the slightest hint of accountability boggles our perpetually astonished imagination. This is exemplified by their behaviour in relation to first, ignoring all impending warnings of the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamist jihadists and second, by casually waving away responsibilities after the event on one ground or another, notwithstanding monumentally devastating consequences.
Iceberg of political lies, prevarications and obfuscation
Indeed, the ongoing proceedings before the Parliamentary Select Committee now inquiring into the Easter Sunday demonstrates that fact in frightening detail.
As an appalled public listened to the startling testimony given by the former Inspector General of Police (IGP), the former Defence Secretary and heads of intelligence agencies this week scarcely believing what they heard, it is clear that this is the proverbial tip of a gigantic iceberg of political lies, prevarications and obfuscation.
Even as late as Saturday evening before that fateful Easter Sunday, the IGP testified that the Director State Intelligence Service (SIS) had called to inform him that ‘ tomorrow will be dangerous, something can happen.” This warning was repeated on the morning of that Sunday itself.
Yet, no decisive action was taken at the very top, which is at the Office of the President from which the order should have gone out for a nation-wide security alert. At the heart of the matter is one core question. Why was the nation’s national security being handled, so lackadaisically and nonsensically?
But if the United National Party (UNP) believes that this grim play enacted for public consumption somehow absolves them of responsibility, it is mistaken. Though the UNP attempts to make out that the failure to act was due to the aborted ‘coup’ last year, the testimony before the Parliamentary Select Committee indicates that intelligence failures at the top have a longer history.
It is now proven beyond any shadow of doubt that though national intelligence agencies were very aware and monitoring the activities of islamist jihadists in the country, most particularly in the East, their heads were at sixes and sevens with intelligence not being shared and one agency ordering another to cease monitoring with no follow-up, irrespective of whether this was before the constitutional upheaval in October 2018 or after.
This charade had taken place when the UNP was in the seat of government. It had however been (apparently), blissfully ignorant of coming dangers even though the intelligence tracking of Eastern jihadists had intensified during previous years.
Criminally culpable failure of duties
It is no answer therefore to foist the blame on President Maithripala Sirisena alone or for the Prime Minister to (magnanimously) shoulder the responsibility vicariously by virtue of office, saying that for six months, he had not been invited to the national security council meetings.
Instead, the blame is very much direct. Doubtless, both will be held to account by the public as indeed they should. For this is certainly no ‘system failure’ as airily recounted by the IGP before the Parliamentary Select Committee which, in a singular irony, includes a former UNP Minister, who is himself facing criminal action for allegedly lying before a Presidential Commission of Inquiry.
The testimony reflects utter dysfunction at the highest levels of the country’s political leadership where, even after the terrible loss of life on Easter Sunday, what prevailed was political upmanship and grandstanding.
So if, as that evidence revealed, it was true that President Maithripala Sirisena who was sojourning in Singapore at the time of the attacks and took well upon a day to return, ordered the service chiefs and heads of intelligence agencies not to meet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the wake of the chaos following the attacks, this by itself is truly unpardonable and rises well above each and every other dereliction of duty prior to the event.
It is instead, the criminally culpable failure of their duties by political heads, security heads and public officials alike.
In any other context, heads would have rolled, not only of the IGP and the Defence Secretary who ludicrously referred to himself in his testimony as a ‘poor secretary’ who has to ‘wait hours’ to get the President’s signature on documents.
Indeed the cringing and servility displayed by those who testified before this Select Committee is nauseating. It contrasts quite palpably with the arrogance with which they parade in public. The lack of accountability pervades each and every aspect of the governance structure, quite irrespective of whether we have the country’s two behemoth parties, the United National Party (UNP) or the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the helm.
Sri Lanka’s Animal Farm side-shows
Without a doubt, this cruel circus of leadership failures rebounds to the advantage of the country’s political upstart, the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP). It is no wonder therefore that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is now purring softly, much like a cat lapping the cream as a wave of national outrage washes over the country in a political tsunami of sorts.
His abrasive lieutenants have obviously been told to hold their tongues as the Government ably accomplishes its own cremation in Sri Lanka’s political graveyard with its two warring ‘yahapalanaya’ heads bagging spectacular headstones of absymal leadership failure.
That leadership failure is combined with various side-shows that are taking place in the country for the purposes of diverting public attention from the question of national security being used as a bargaining chip by politicans.
A few days ago, the Cabinet approved a proposal to to criminalise hate speech carrying hefty fines and jail sentences. There is, of course, no need for new laws in this regard as the existing law as contained in the Penal Code and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act amply suffices for the purpose.
And the problem is not an absence of law but the arbitrary working of the law. A privileged few, including fire breathing monks, are allowed to get away with clearly racist and hate-inducing speech while others, like the writer Shakthika Sathkumara is arrested and charged under the ICCPR Act for insulting Buddhism.
Sri Lanka is fast reflecting George Orwell’s Animal Farm in all its most irrational and satirical manifestations. On the one hand we have a ridiculous proposal (now suspended) that women public servants must wear the sari or the osariya to work which, as rightly pointed out by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, fails to explain the rational link between prohibited dress form and breaches of national security and violates the prohibition of sex-based discrimination under Article 12 (2) of the Constitution.
In another grotesque manifestation of the absurd, a buddhist monk cum politician fasts in order to compel action to be taken against a Muslim Minister accused of links to Islamist jihadists while the head of the Catholic Church, in an act that is extremely inappropriate, visits him to show sympathy. And to complete this vicious circle, a medical doctor is currently undergoing a savage trial by media with ‘Sinhalese Buddhist mothers’ being exhorted to come and give evidence that they were ‘sterilised’ against their will.
Truly, we can only pity the generations of Sri Lankan citizens yet unborn.