Jehan Perera in The Island, 19 September 2019
The Channel 4 documentary that claims to give the story behind the Easter bombing has restarted the debate, within the country, about who was behind the foul deed, and why. The answer is not proving to be simple. It has become the subject of anger, threat and controversy. The identities of the suicide bombers and their victims are known. Eight suicide bombers died. 269 innocent people also died. All of the bombers were Muslim. Some of them were highly educated and came from prosperous families. They would not have wished to sacrifice their lives except for a cause they believed in as being of the utmost importance.
The identity of the victims is also known. Most of them were Catholic, both Sinhala and Tamil, and 45 were foreigners. The victims also included a large number of children, including the three children of Scotland’s largest landowner.
By any means this was an international crime deserving of an international inquiry and international justice. The creators of the Channel 4 documentary make the storyline one that shows a conspiracy hatched to make those who had formerly ruled the country stage a comeback by undermining the government that was in power at that time. The Easter bombing, which highlighted the weakness in the country’s system of national security, paved the way for former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win the presidential elections that were held seven months later. The Channel 4 documentary has accounts by whistleblowers seeking asylum in foreign countries which claim that sections of the country’s intelligence apparatus conspired with the suicide bombers to create the conditions on the ground for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win the elections.
Those accused of this heinous crime, and others, have pointed out the illogic of stating that the suicide bombers would have sacrificed their lives to help President Gotabaya Rajapaksa win the elections. The Muslims of Sri Lanka could not have wanted him to win the presidential elections and become all powerful as they had experienced major anti-Muslim riots during his tenure as Defence Secretary in the government of his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa. A similar process of reasoning would also eliminate the possibility that the suicide bombers would, on their own volition, have chosen to target the Catholic and Christian communities when there was no history of enmity between them and the Muslims in Sri Lanka. If they had wanted to target any community it might have been the Buddhists, sections of whom have, on many occasions, rioted against them, led by Buddhist monks. It has to be therefore an external “master mind” who was behind those attacks.
The total surprise element in the bomb attacks meant that for at least two months after the bombings there was a sense of panic in the country, particularly in its urban areas. The meticulous planning that led to the six synchronized suicide attacks suggested an infrastructure that even the LTTE, which waged war for 30 years against the government, had not possessed to launch such simultaneous and coordinated attacks. In the face of this realization, the sense of crisis among the people continued for long after the bomb attacks, especially those of the Christian community but also including the others, that they might be the next victims. The most likely possessor of such a diabolical infrastructure was believed to be the ISIS that was then bombing targets in Europe and the Middle East. But after the dust settled and the government changed, the ISIS showed no interest nor did they reappear in the country in any form.
During the past four years, since that day of carnage, the government has carried out several investigations. Soon after the bombing, on 22 May, 2019, the Speaker appointed a Select Committee of Parliament which presented its report on 23 October, 2019. But as could be imagined, with a multiplicity of political parties represented in the parliamentary select committee, there was difficulty and impossibility in coming to consensual findings. Subsequently, on 22 September, 2019, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a Presidential Commission of Investigation, headed by a judge of the Supreme Court It made voluminous findings, after painstaking inquiries, and handed in its report on 01 February, 2021, which the government did not release to the general public and even to the churches that demanded the full report. In the meantime, the police investigations that followed took a turn for the worse with some of the top police investigators being accused of violations of law in other unrelated areas and one of them even fleeing the country alleging persecution. The voice of this investigator is to be heard on the Channel 4 documentary.
The search for truth and accountability in Sri Lanka extends beyond the Easter bombing. Since 1971, Sri Lanka has faced periods of mass violence where truth and accountability have remained hidden. In the period 1988 to 1989 an insurrection took place in the country in which an unknown number of people, numbering in the tens of thousands, died or went missing. The survivors of those insurrections, and their families, still harbor memory and hope that truth and justice will emerge, though it has not for the past four decades. The civil war that ended in 2009 left even more victims, both dead and missing, and the memories and hopes continue to burn within their family members and the larger communities for truth and justice.
Since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka has been one of a handful of countries being questioned at the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. For a brief period, between 2015 and 2018, Sri Lanka agreed to cooperate with the UN resolutions and there were favourable references to the country. But once again Sri Lanka appears to be back in the doghouse. The UN High Commissioner has stated, at the most recent UNHRC session last week, that lack of accountability is at the core of the problems the country faces. In addition to issues of serious human rights violations and crimes during the time of war, the UN system has now added the Easter bombing and the cause of the sudden economic collapse to their list of matters to be investigated as crimes against the people that need to be investigated and subjected to the tests of truth and accountability.
The main problem of governance in Sri Lanka today is the absence of trust which it needs to rebuild. It appears that the people do not trust the government and the government does not trust the people. For there to be trust there needs to be transparency and truth. Due to the loss of confidence in the government, due to the repeated failure of investigations it has undertaken to obtain the truth, any further government investigation into the Easter bombing will not be taken seriously by the people who see it as a time-buying exercise. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed a Committee of Investigation, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, and has stated his intention to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the allegation by the former Attorney General that there was a mastermind behind the attacks. The President has also said that upon completion of these two investigations the reports will be presented to Parliament for a final decision regarding how to proceed from there on.
Alas, President Wickremesinghe’s recent proposals appear to be similar to those already implemented without success. It is the failure to identify those who were behind the attack, take them before the law and hold them accountable through the previous national inquiries that has given rise to the continuing demands, mainly by the Catholic Church, and also by the families of victims, for an international inquiry to obtain truth and justice. Following the Channel 4 disclosures, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has also called for investigations with international support. Likewise, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has urged the Government of Sri Lanka to conduct a comprehensive follow-up investigation that is independent, transparent, and inclusive, with international support and active involvement of the victims and their representatives, such as the Catholic Church. Such an investigation, with international participation, could help to convince the Sri Lankan people, victims, and the international community, about the government’s genuine intentions to ensure accountability and justice for the victims, not only of the Easter bombing but also of the war and the economic collapse. As an additional benefit, it could also minimize international condemnations and sanctions that will be detrimental to the country at a time when it requires maximum international assistance.
ALSO NOTE … Jehan Perera’s earlier essay on the Easter Attacks in the Colombo Telegraph, 11 April 2023 …. ………………………… https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-warning-to-be-heeded/
A CRITICAL SET of COMMENTS from Thuppahi Roberts, 23 September 2023 …. TO be presented as a Fresh Item in explicit criticism of Jehan’s tack; an overview of Channel 4’s history and the failure by so many Sri Lankan commentators today (A) to take note of that history …. & (B) the considerable coverage of the Easter attacks in Thuppahi THEN which (A) pinpointed the zealous Jihadist inspirations of Zahran and his fellow-assassins and (B) the centrality of the Eastern Province localities in promoting this form of Islamic extremism.