September 21, 2019
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    Rising from 4/21 calamity

    May 09, 2019

    Almost three weeks after the Easter Sunday massacres, Sri Lanka is now slowly beginning to feel the full impact of the bomb attacks carried out by extremists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It appeared that the greatest effect was on the sense of freedom Sri Lankans enjoyed prior to the attacks. The country had been engulfed in a fear psychosis during almost three decades of Eelam war. When that conflict ended in 2009, Sri Lankans took to enjoying peace as never before. That sense of tranquillity has been shattered now, replaced by a pervasive sense of dread instead.

    This was evident as the government attempted to re-open schools which were shut down in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. Schools re-opened on Monday amidst tight security measures but attendance was reported to be less than ten per cent, indicating that parents were still quite worried about the safety of their children.A similar crisis looms in the tourism. Sri Lanka’s tourist arrivals were hovering around the half a million per year mark during the Eelam war and was less than 450,000 in 2009. Since the end of the war, they rose exponentially, recording 2.3 million visitors in 2018. The country’s tourist arrivals had already risen 4.6 per cent from January to March in 2019 and tourism sector officials were bracing themselves for another boom year when the Easter attacks occurred.

    April arrivals have declined by 7.5 per cent already, despite the attacks occurring only on April 21. The industry is reporting cancelations en masse, not helped by the adverse travel advisories announced by many countries. The industry faces dire prospects, a fact recognised by the government. This week, President Sirisena met members of the diplomatic community to appeal to them to lift travel advisories issued against Sri Lanka but the crisis is unlikely to be resolved in the short term.

    While it can be argued that terrorist attacks have occurred in countries such as Britain and France, other nations do not rush to impose travel advisories on those countries. However, the counter argument is that Sri Lanka experienced a colossal intelligence failure in the Easter attacks and that can hardly be reassuring for the prospective visitor. Given the prevailing environment in the country, May Day passed with the anniversary being hardly noticed. In a year where a presidential election is due, this would have otherwise been a showcase event for major political parties to show their strength.

    A similar fate awaits Vesak celebrations. Already, the Mahanyakes of the four Buddhist sects have urged restraint in celebrating Vesak and requested the public to be vigilant. “Devotees should refrain from conducting mega Vesak celebrations that involves large public gatherings owing to the security situation prevalent in the country. Instead, they are requested to focus more on religious programmes aimed at spiritual development,” they said in a statement.

    Fear psychosis

    In a bid to defuse the fear psychosis engulfing the country, Army Commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake provided assurances to the public and requested them to return to their normal routines as much as possible. The Sri Lanka Army, other Security Forces and the Police have implemented strategic plans to ensure security, Senanayake said on Tuesday.

    The government has granted all the required powers to the Security Forces under emergency regulations, Senanayake explained. “I request the people not to worry and be afraid over rumours and have faith in the Security Forces and the Police,” the Commander assured.

    While there has been a relative calm in the country since the Easter attacks, tensions between communities have surfaced from time to time. This week, clashes erupted in Poruthota in Negombo, leading to some property damage. The government was quick to clamp a police curfew in the area and block social media again in a bid to squash speculation about the incident, which had the potential to spread to other regions. That was successful but similar incidents in the future cannot be ruled out.

    Meanwhile, the hunt for terrorists continues in earnest. Authorities believe that all those responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks have now been detained or killed but investigators are closing in on what appears to be a wider network of operatives and their international links.

    The regular discoveries of weapons and explosives has surprised even investigators, indicating that the Easter attacks were not a ‘one-off’ phenomenon but a clandestine operation that has been in the making for some time.

    Among the startling discoveries made last week were the discovery of a plot of land in Kattankudy which appeared to have been used to train recruits and manufacture explosives by the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and a guest house in Nuwara Eliya which the organisation is alleged to have used in training.

    The fate of the purported NTJ leader Mohomed Zahran has also given rise to speculation. While it had been declared that Zahran was one of the two suicide bombers who perished in the bomb blast at the Shangri La hotel, authorities are still awaiting DNA confirmation.

    Some analysts have also suggested that if Zahran did indeed die in that attack, there is a possibility that the head of the NTJ was another individual, as it would not be logical for the leader to die in the attack, as the organisation would then be left without a head.

    Counter-terrorism operations

    Speaking in Parliament on a debate on the Easter attacks on Tuesday, President Maithripala Sirisena also provided some details on the operations conducted by the Security Forces.

    A large number of terrorists had already been arrested, out of which twelve were hard-core members, the President said.

    The President said that thirteen safe houses belonging to those who were responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage had been taken over by the Security Forces, while forty-one bank accounts belonging to the terror group have been frozen. He expressed optimism that the terror network would be crippled soon.

    Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was however cautious in his sentiments during the debate. “One should remember that Sri Lanka is yet to overcome the terrorist threats. This is because Sri Lanka had become a victim of global terrorism,” he said.

    The Prime Minister continued his advocacy of the Counter Terrorism Act which he argued was necessary to counteract the evolving nature of terrorism in this day and age. Acknowledging that the government was obtaining assistance from foreign intelligence services, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe however denied that this would lead to military personnel from other countries being involved in counter-terrorism operations.

    The political and administrative consequences of the Easter attacks also continue. Defence Secretary at the time of the attacks, Hemasiri Fernando has resigned, complying with a request from the President. Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera has however declined to do so. As a consequence, he has been sent on compulsory leave and C. D. Wickremerathne has been appointed as Acting IGP. Jayasundera is said to be considering his options for legal redress. He is an appointee of the Constitutional Council, like many others in high positions as mandated by the Constitution.

    Fish in troubled waters

    Despite the appeals for calm from religious leaders, politicians too have continued to fish in troubled waters. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa met retired commanders of the Armed Forces who then produced a set of proposals to strengthen security.

    Rajapaksa was then shown handing them over to the President at a brief meeting. The proposals themselves maybe laudable, but trying to secure photo opportunities and attempting to convey the message that Rajapaksa knows best what to do in a time of national crisis smacks of political opportunism.

    Utterances by Dayasiri Jayasekara, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which the leader is President Sirisena, would also not be of help. Jayasekara publicly accused two nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of financing Muslim extremists in Sri Lanka such as the NTJ. “There is firm evidence to prove that religious extremists in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the ISIS funded the Muslim fundamentalists in Sri Lanka for several years,” Jayasekara said.

    Both countries are perceived as friendly nations whose support would be essential to Sri Lanka at this juncture. If there were any concerns regarding their conduct, they could have been better dealt with through the proper channels, rather than resorting to megaphone diplomacy but over the years, Jayasekara has acquired a reputation for speaking first and thinking later.

    A similar gaffe was committed Governor of the Western Province, Azath Salley who said that he knew of a judge who aided and abetted terrorism. “I will be getting documents of a judge who was involved in aiding and abetting terrorism. I will hand over the documents to the President,” Salley told the media, only to be promptly rebuked by Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale. Salley’s comments only served to undermine the judiciary and any information he has could have been forwarded to the President without resorting to statements made before cameras, Minister Atukorale said.

    Sri Lanka maybe slowly limping towards near normalcy in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks.However, stability maybe months away as the nation grapples with the prospect of another battle against terrorism- this time, of the global kind.

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