Walking the PCoI tightrope 

The contents of the long-winded report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday attacks reminded us of the old Greek proverb of how the mountain laboured to produce a mouse. Following almost daily sittings over a 15-month period where hundreds of witnesses were called upon to provide evidence, the final product seems to have only put in black and white what the public already knew. 

The report has gone to great lengths, covering thousands of pages on the security lapses that took place and the individuals responsible for those lapses but large holes remain on why and how it all came about. Questions are also being raised as to why some key witnesses were not summoned before the commission leading to eyebrows being raised on the integrity of the report. 

It may not be wrong to surmise on the part of the public, that what was anticipated was a holistic report that not only concentrated on the failure of the security apparatus and the political leadership at the time but also a report that focused on the larger canvass, such as the issues, if any, that led to the carnage. What was the primary intention of the attackers? Are we to assume that if indeed there were such profound issues that motivated a bunch of young men in the prime of their youth to sacrifice their lives in order to carry out an attack of this magnitude and scale, that those weighty issues found resolution in the carnage? 

In a scenario where links to the global terror outfit ISIS have been discounted, it is to be assumed that the plot was entirely homegrown. Are we to now live happily ever after since the bombs took care of the problem that necessitated the attacks in the first place? Did the cause, the terror threat, and what the terrorists intended to achieve, die along with their bombs? If not, are there budding terrorists lurking in the shadows waiting for their opportunity to further the cause? We will not know until the issue that motivated the attacks is properly identified. 

Unfortunately, the verbose report has shed no light on this most fundamentally important matter, rendering the entire exercise futile, wasting millions of taxpayer funds. One of the only individuals alive who can provide answers to many of these nagging questions is the wife of one of the suicide bombers, Sarah Jasmine, who is said to have mysteriously fled to India after the attacks. Yet, to date, no attempt has been made on the part of the commission to elicit evidence from this prime suspect. 

Therefore, it is clear that the report which was made public only after intense pressure was brought upon the Government from various quarters, has failed to answer some pretty basic questions which the public in general and the Christian community in particular were eagerly looking forward to. The outspoken Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who has been in the vanguard clamouring for the release of the report, has since withdrawn into the shadows of the Archbishop’s House and the response of the Church is eagerly anticipated by the Catholic community that faced the brunt of the brutal attacks. 

It is unlikely that Cardinal Ranjith will find the solace he was hoping for in the commission report in the absence of the answers he has been seeking. The Cardinal has consistently campaigned, more so in the recent past, exhorting the commission to identify and expose the masterminds behind the attacks. In the absence of any such revelation, he is likely to be a disappointed man. 

That is just one aspect. Many are the other lingering questions that yet beg answers. For instance, why were the attacks carried out in the first place? In other words, what was the motive of the attackers? Was it to trigger a religious war among two minority groups or to just randomly kill people of the Christian and Catholic faith and for good measure, include some tourists too in a single, co-ordinated attack? Why would the leader of a terror group kill himself in the first and seemingly only attack? Does the attack signify the end of the Islamic extremist threat in this country? The answer to that cannot be found unless and until the mastermind behind the attacks is identified. Of this, the report states nothing. 

In the alternative, are we to believe that the terrorists who blew themselves up were in fact the masterminds, which brings us to the assumption that their collective objective, whatever that was, had been achieved when they triggered the explosives on that fateful Easter Sunday? If so, what was that objective? Killing so many people without any motive simply does not make any sense. The report does not venture an explanation to this fundamental question. 

The Commission is of the view that the Muslim extremist group Thowheed Jamath was responsible for the attack and recommends that all extremist groups including the Sinhala Buddhist Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) should henceforth be banned for propagating hatred. The outspoken BBS Leader Ven. Gnanassara Thera, rather than taking offence at the recommendation, has stated that he has no issue with his outfit being banned if all other recommendations of the Commission are also implemented to the letter. This is where it becomes tricky. Questions are being raised, even by the Catholic Church itself, whether the report will be made a scapegoat in order to further tighten the space for free expression. In fact, some of the recommendations point towards that. In addition, Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, under whose watch the attacks took place, has questioned whether the report will be used to stifle religious freedom as well, pointing to the proposed monitoring of all places of religious education including Sunday Schools. 

Wickremesinghe has only received a mild censure for his role in the whole episode, primarily due to the fact that he was ostracised by Maithripala Sirisena following the aborted coup in October 2018. Ever since, Wickremesinghe was left out of all National Security Council meetings on the specific instructions of Maithripala Sirisena. The former PM has also been rapped on the wrist for being lax on monitoring extremist groups, especially Madrasa schools that had sprouted in various places, more significantly in the East, propagating extremist Islamic ideology. 

Not surprisingly, the Commission of Inquiry has placed the bulk of the blame for the attacks on the doorstep of former President Maithripala Sirisena who now finds himself in a tight spot, with his civic rights on the line at the very minimum, with the Commission recommending that criminal charges be instituted against the former President – the first instance such a scenario has come about since the establishment of the Executive Presidency. 

The Former President and his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, are girding up their loins for what seems an inevitable confrontation with the powers that be. The new committee that was appointed recently to study the recommendations of the Easter Commission of Inquiry has been placed in an unenviable position and its members must surely be scratching their heads on how to mitigate the situation and exonerate a coalition partner. 

For all intents and purposes, the buck must stop at the top. Former President Sirisena did not help his own cause by taking matters into his own hands and wilfully side-lining his former Prime Minister and his UNP Cabinet of Ministers. As a result, they have been absolved of the lion’s share of the blame which Sirisena has acquired for himself due to his own actions. Despite its many shortcomings, all eyes will now be focused on the Government and its willingness to walk the talk in taking to task those responsible for the lapses that enabled the Easter Sunday attacks.