(Text of Editorial appearing in the “Daily FT”of December 17th 2021 under the heading “The measure of patriotism”)
In a televised interview organised by the Presidential Media Unit, Defence Secretary Retd. General Kamal Gunaratne was questioned about alleged attempts to link the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director Suresh Sallay to the bombings that killed 269 people and injured hundreds in April 2019.
Major General Sallay has never been accused of involvement in the bombings by anyone in authority, even though several Parliamentarians have raised questions about the individual code-named ‘Sonic’ in communications between the Easter Sunday bombers.
While Secretary Gunaratne addressed matters that remain still in the realm of rumour and speculation at his own peril, his reasoning for absolving Major General Sallay of any involvement proved more revealing about the true face of the administration he represents.
In the interview, Gunaratne vouched for the SIS Chief’s innocence, claiming: “Sallay is a Muslim name, but as far as I know he is not involved in extremism. He cannot even speak a word of Tamil or Arabic. He has not even read the Qur’an. He is married to a Buddhist lady and both their children have Sinhalese names.”
This then is the Government’s criteria for determining who is an extremist and who is not, based on the assertions of the man heading the country’s security establishment. The statement was not merely a moment of naked honesty by Secretary Gunaratne, but a demonstration of the ethos and mindset of the ruling regime.
The ideology behind Gunaratne’s assertions is laid bare by the fact that numerous cases concerning Tamils and Muslims are pending before the courts.
It was only this week that Ahnaf Jazeem, a young poet and teacher from Mannar who had been incarcerated for 18 months, was finally given bail by the High Court. He was arrested and detained under the PTA, accused of promoting Islamic extremism in his book of Tamil poetry. Jazeem was arrested merely because the CID officials who came across his poetry anthology during a search of a school in Puttalam could not read or understand the Tamil language.
Also this week, the Ministry of Health decided to “reinstate” Dr. Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi and pay his salary arrears after it was suspended in 2019. The surgeon working at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital was imprisoned for months, and his family was driven out of their hometown when he was falsely accused of forcibly sterilising Sinhalese women in the operating theatre.
The campaign against Dr. Shafi, which unfolded mere months ahead of a crucial Presidential poll, was part of an elaborate plot to sow fear and hate against the Muslim community in the wake of the Easter attacks. At the centre of the conspiracy was the Director of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, who stood election on the SLPP ticket only one year later. He was ably aided by a Sinhala hardline newspaper and at least two broadcasters strongly aligned to then SLPP Presidential hopeful, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Other players include current State Minister for Health Channa Jayasumana, Minister Wimal Weerawansa and of course, Rajapaksa-aligned monk, Athuraliye Rathana Thero.
The witch-hunt against senior attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah is no different. The reprisal against Hizbullah, who was arrested in April 2020 has taken the form of long-drawn-out, torturous cruelty. Arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Easter attacks, the CID has tried and failed for nearly two years now to find evidence of such a connection. In February this year, Hizbullah was finally indicted under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act dealing with speech that could incite communal strife. The regime’s intent to punish Hizbullah is so blatantly obvious, that fear appears to be driving court after court to refuse the lawyer bail.
Perhaps General Gunaratne’s interview will be remembered for having exposed the sentiments and ideologies that drive the bigoted policies of the current regime.