Editorials

Avoiding a cardinal error

Nearly two years and two elections down the road, the topic still most passionately discussed both in Parliament and on the streets is the Easter Sunday attacks. It seems that however much attempts are made to bury this volatile subject along with the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks, it finds a way of resurrecting itself in a greater avatar than the one before.

And so it was last week, first in Parliament during the debate on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) report, followed by public protests over a crime still so distant from any semblance of resolution, despite the many commissions and their reports. The cacophony calling for justice comes at a time when the full force of the law is being implemented on Opposition voices calling for equitable justice for the perpetrators as well as the victims.

Last week, Opposition Member of Parliament Ashok Abeysinghe was hauled before the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Police and grilled for five hours over comments he allegedly made recently on the Easter attacks. Then, already incarcerated Opposition MP Ranjan Ramanayake was handed down a further punishment of a two-week suspension of visitation rights over a selfie that was posted on social media by another visiting MP.

The question being raised by the public is, if the law is being implemented with such precision, then why is it that no one has yet been punished for the mass murder of 270 people and the injuring and maiming of hundreds of others who to date are suffering in silence? What of the collateral damage suffered by the destroyed hotels as well as the hit on the country’s economy consequent to the overnight crash of the tourism industry and the thousands of jobs that were lost as a result of it? Shouldn’t those responsible be identified and punished?

Report or no report, those responsible for the security lapses that led to the attacks were identified long before and the PCoI was even formed, and true to form, the report only formalised what everyone already knew. The key questions have gone unanswered. It is these answers that outspoken Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and the rest of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka are seeking through their successful Black Sunday campaign launched last week.

However, despite the noble intentions, the Cardinal raised quite a few eyebrows mainly among his own flock when just days after the Black Sunday campaign, which in essence was to express displeasure over the failure of the PCoI to identify the masterminds behind the attack and thereby bring to book those responsible, he ventured to endorse the report, stating that its contents were satisfactory. Many Catholics were dumbfounded; others frowned in suspicion over the Cardinal’s about turn. It was only later that many realised the motive behind the Cardinal’s endorsement.

Even though the report had many deficiencies, it seemed the consensus at Archbishop’s House was to accept the little redress that was on offer as opposed to nothing if the report was rejected in toto. The upshot of that would be to pave the way for the incumbent executive to appoint an altogether new commission of inquiry, which in effect would be akin to re-inventing the wheel. Therefore, it had been decided that the saner thing to do was to accept the report, flaws and all. Having done that, the next course of action was to push for full implementation of the recommendations, which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference did via a special statement.

That move, however, cut the grass from right under their own feet vis-à-vis the Black Sunday protest campaign which was to climax on Easter Sunday. As a result, it seems inevitable that the campaign will lose steam, unless of course a renewed effort is made to further pressurise the authorities to intensify investigations into exposing the masterminds behind the attacks.

Support for just such a measure came from an unlikely quarter when the Maha Sangha comprising the three main sects, quite unprecedented in itself, began a satyagraha at Independence Square, echoing the call of the Bishops to implement the PCoI recommendations without further delay. It is said that every cloud has a silver lining, and a positive outcome of the Easter carnage is the newfound unity of purpose between the Catholic and Buddhist clergy espousing a common cause.

Such unity is likely to be anathema for a regime that depends on disunity for political sustenance. Therefore, a spanner in the works is likely to materialise sooner than later and how the clergy on either side navigate such turbulence will in all probability set the tone for religious cohabitation for some time to come.

A persistent characteristic of the current regime that may eventually contribute to its capitulation has been its reactive nature – always waiting to be pushed against the wall for it to spring into action. Thallu, or push start, is beginning to look like standard operating procedure when it comes to key issues. To put it in perspective, having first brushed aside the impact of a UNHRC resolution, the regime subsequently went into damage control mode by canvassing members of the Council too late in the day.

Then on the matter of the burial of Covid victims, once again the regime fiddled while the issue kept burning not only here, but also in influential world capitals, until it caved under pressure. Then, we had the matter of the Easter Sunday PCoI report which was withheld from the public until pressure reached bursting point.

Now, once again, the cycle has been repeated with the missing 22 volumes of the report finally being handed over to the Attorney General amidst intense pressure brought upon by the Catholic and Buddhist clergy. None of these should ever have been allowed to snowball into the contentious issues they ultimately morphed into, had the Government done what it did in the end at the beginning.

Now, having presided over the creation of so many unnecessary issues, it has no option but to face the music, especially the demands of the Maha Sangha that gathered at Independence Square last Thursday. Among other demands, they sought answers to some key questions that have been glossed over in the PCoI report. Some of these demands include investigating whether money and arms were given to Easter Sunday suicide bomber Zahran and his outfit during the war with the LTTE and if arms were in fact given; as to what happened to them when the war ended; whether any individuals or politicians intervened to secure the release of any suspects arrested over the attacks and other extremist activity; whether any individual or politician had at any point harboured any terror suspects; etc.

The protesting monks also warned that failure to answer these questions and to implement the PCoI recommendations would pave the way for external interference in the country, while at the same time bemoaning the fact that the Buddhist clergy had also been targeted by the Commission.

After 30 years of brutal war, one would have expected the governments elected in the post-war period to have greater sensibilities to avert further conflicts in the future. However, the two regimes that ruled in the decade from 2009 to 2019 both displayed crass indifference to this most important aspect, one arguably by design and the other by default, the consequence of which was the Easter Sunday attacks. Therefore, the present regime has a duty cast upon it not to repeat the mistakes of the past decade. To do so for whatever reason would be a cardinal error.