Current efforts by top Sri Lankan politicians to exploit the chaos following the Easter attacks will likely spell disaster for Sri Lanka’s religious minorities who are themselves the most frequent victims of state-sponsored and religiously motivated terrorism in the island nation.
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Still grappling with the fall-out from the deadliest terror attack in its history, Sri Lanka’s already dysfunctional government is struggling to come to terms with how the attack came to pass and who exactly is to blame. Since the attacks, for which Daesh (ISIS) has claimed responsibility, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been handed their share of the blame, especially since it was revealed that Indian intelligence attempted to warn Sri Lanka on April 4 of an imminent terror attack from an extremist Wahhabi Muslim group. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have denied receiving that intelligence.
As often happens following terror attacks, the aftermath of last Sunday’s Easter bombings is being exploited politically by several key players in Sri Lankan politics, with several seeking to score political points by capitalizing off the tragedy prior to the country’s upcoming elections.
Equally if not more troubling is the political effort to use the tragedy to push through a controversial “Counter Terrorism” bill that critics argue would criminalize democratic dissent, and independent journalism as well as increase state prosecution and repression of the country’s Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities. This bill — which has inspired numerous protests in recent months, including some just prior to the bombings — may now be pushed through Sri Lanka’s legislature, as the fear of terrorism runs high — much as the United States pushed through the liberty-busting Patriot Act following the 9/11 attacks.
With the fallout from the tragedy likely to stifle opposition to the bill, the real threat to the country’s democracy could well be the “solution” currently being offered by opportunistic politicians to a frightened populace.
Easter attacks stifle dissent to draconian “counter terrorism” law
Since 2016, Sri Lanka’s government — particularly the Wickremesinghe-led UNP Party — has been promoting a new counter-terrorism law to replace the dated Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1978. Mainstream reports following last Sunday’s bombing have characterized this bill as “designed to be a) more rights-friendly, and b) more responsive to current forms of threat.” It has, however, been roundly criticized by international rights groups as well as many Sri Lankans who fear that the new draft bill — far from minimizing rights abuses — will dramatically increase them and transform Sri Lanka into an ethno-police state, where Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Hindu minorities will be subjected to increased scrutiny for “terrorism” by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
A quick review of the new Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which was approved last September and was expected to be entered into parliament just a few weeks before the bombing, reveals why it has inspired such vocal opposition. For example, the CTA draft — as of April 9 — defines terrorism as “wrongfully or unlawfully compelling the government of Sri Lanka, or any other government, or an international organization, to do or to abstain from doing any act; … obstructing essential services; … [or] causing serious damage to public or private property,” among other vague clauses that could easily be used to target dissent or demonstrations.
Furthermore, distributing or writing anti-government information is also criminalized and treated as a terror offense. Section 10 of the bill states that “intentionally and unlawfully distributing or otherwise making available any information to the public, having intent to incite the commission of the offence of terrorism” is a terror offense, and also labels as terrorists those who “gather confidential information” in an “unauthorized manner … for the purpose of supplying such information to a person who commits an offence under this act.” Civil rights advocates in Sri Lanka and abroad have argued that these passages will be used to target government whistleblowers and independent journalists shining light on activities the Sri Lankan government does not want exposed.
The bill also allows “any police officer, an officer or member of the armed forces or a coast guard officer” to make arrests without a warrant if any military or police officer “receives information or a complaint which he believes to be reliable that a person has committed or [is] concerned in committing an offence under this Act.” Thus, merely the suspicion of having committed any of the vague “terrorism” offenses in the bill would be enough to warrant arrest. Given that Sri Lankan police have often selectively targeted the country’s Hindu and Muslim minorities under the current PTA, this proposed expansion of police power has troubling implications.
Some analysts have also argued that another goal of the CTA will be the silencing and criminalizing of dissent regarding unpopular austerity measures, which have been championed by Wickremesinghe and his political party, the UNP, which are also the chief architects of the CTA bill, as well as Wickremesinghe’s political rival, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.
For the past several months, rights activists and journalists have been vocally condemning the CTA and organizing numerous demonstrations to oppose its passage. Since the bombings, however, the CTA has received increased media attention but in a very different light. For instance, Wickremesinghe told Sky News on Thursday:
We knew they went to Syria. . . . But in our country, to go abroad and return or to take part in a foreign armed uprising is not an offense here. We have no laws which enable us to take into custody people who join foreign terrorist groups. We can take those who are, who belong to terrorist groups operating in Sri Lanka.”
Other media reports also characterized Sri Lanka’s counter-terrorism as “weak” and “outdated,” blaming the lack of a new counter-terrorism bill, like the CTA, for the attacks. As previously mentioned, influential outlets like the Washington Post have sought to characterize the CTA as “more rights-friendly,” running directly counter to what journalists, activists and international rights organizations were saying just prior to the attacks.
Fierce opposition from citizens and rights groups prevented the passage of a previous iteration of the CTA in 2016. Yet, in the wake of the Easter bombings, the passage of this draconian bill is now essentially assured, as Sirisena struggles to retain political legitimacy after the attack and maintain his image of being tougher than Wickremesinghe, his prime minister and chief political rival, on issues of national security. The combination of political fall-out from the attacks and the fact that the UNP holds the largest number of seats in Sri Lanka’s parliament will likely result in the bill’s passage through the legislature.
Notably, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe from his role as prime minister and replace him last November with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former Sri Lankan president with close ties to China who has openly condemned the new CTA bill. After Sirisena sought to resolve what then became a constitutional crisis by re-installing Wickremesinghe as prime minister last December, political tensions have greatly shaped Sri Lankan politics and have again been brought into international focus following the Easter bombings.
Washington’s man in Colombo set to gain from post-bombing political fallout
Since last October, the relationship between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena — who have long been political rivals — has devolved into extreme dysfunction. On October 26 of last year, Sirisena shocked many within and outside of Sri Lanka by abruptly removing Wickremesinghe as prime minister and replacing him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s predecessor and one of the country’s most controversial past presidents.
It is unknown exactly why Sirisena made this sudden move, though one plausible explanation is Wickremesinghe’s involvement in the country’s largest ever financial scam, which robbed Sri Lanka’s public institutions of $11 million, though some have placed the real cost of the scam to the Sri Lankan economy at around $5 billion. Given Wickremesinghe’s promotion of unpopular austerity measures, the corruption scandal greatly angered the middle and lower classes and may have prompted Sirisena to instead ally with Rajapaksa, who is popular among middle and lower class Sinhalese. However, the move led to protests from those who viewed it as undemocratic and those who oppose Rajapaksa’s Sinhalese nationalism and history of brutal repression targeting minority groups.
Another potential explanation for the move could have been Wickremesinghe and the UNP’s efforts to distance Sri Lanka from China and move the country closer to India and the West. Rajapaksa, the prior president, had made several deals with Beijing and also taken out considerable loans from China. Those loans resulted in China taking control of a strategic Sri Lankan port when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was unable to pay them back.
Wickremesinghe is close to Western conservative political parties and India’s current ruling party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through his leadership position in the International Democrat Union (IDU), where he serves as one of the group’s vice chairmen. The IDU was founded in 1983 by a group of mostly Western politicians, including Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush, to form a global alliance of political parties dedicated to “free market,” neoliberal economics and other center-right policies.
According to its website, “Through the IDU, member Parties can exchange policy ideas, assist each other to win the political argument, and to win elections.” Political parties that are IDU members include India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Israel’s Likud Party, the U.S. Republican Party, the U.K. Conservative Party and Wickremesinghe’s UNP.
Regardless of the reason for Sirisena’s surprise move to oust Wickremesinghe last October, it failed spectacularly, resulting in a constitutional crisis that forced Sirisena to reinstate Wickremesinghe last December. Since then, the rift between the two has been pronounced and resulted in considerable dysfunction.
However, following the Easter bombings, Wickremesinghe stands to gain politically from the fall-out. Though he is a member of the government, which has been blamed for failing to prevent the attacks, the discord between him and Sirisena has led to Wickremesinghe’s exclusion from national security meetings, allowing Wickremesinghe to argue more convincingly than Sirisena that he was not responsible for the intelligence failure.
Wickremesinghe also appears likely to gain from the results of the investigation into the Easter attacks, which is notably being done in conjunction with the United States, Australia, India, the United Kingdom and the UAE, political allies of Wickremesinghe’s UNP Party. With Daesh (ISIS) having claimed responsibility for the attacks, the inclusion of the U.S. is interesting, given the well-documented links between the CA and the terror group. In addition, the UAE is well-known for funding Wahhabi terror groups, making its role in the investigation of an ISIS bombing also suspect.
Furthermore, the investigation thus far has centered around the family of the wealthy spice merchant Mohammed Ibrahim, with two of his sons said to have been two of the suicide bombers responsible for last Sunday’s attack. Ibrahim, according to The Indian Express, is well-connected politically, particularly to Sirisena, who awarded him the prestigious Presidential Export Excellence Award two years ago.
Any link between Sirisena and Ibrahim, particularly if Ibrahim himself is implicated directly, is likely to benefit Wickremesinghe considerably and distract from his own personal scandals. Additionally, the fall-out from the bombings is likely to favor the passage of the CTA, which the UNP and Wickremesinghe have enthusiastically supported and which, if passed, could be used by the UNP to silence dissent to already unpopular economic reforms, especially if the fall-out from the attacks weakens Sirisena’s political clout.
Notably, a previous UNP president and Wickremesinghe’s uncle, former Prime Minister Junius Richard Jayewardene, was known for using the PTA to silence dissent while implementing unpopular neoliberal reforms in Sri Lanka. Jayewardene, like his nephew, was also very close to Washington.
Nationalist “strongman” seizes opportunity to sell authoritarianism
Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa — who briefly replaced Wickremesinghe late last year — has also appeared to be exploiting the chaos in Sri Lanka’s government following the attacks, condemning both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for failing to prevent the attacks. Rajapaksa has also claimed that the current government has been weakening the country’s military and intelligence apparatus at the behest of foreign governments and that this may have played a role in the intelligence failure that resulted in the bombings.
Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, and past role in brutally crushing the Tamil Tiger rebellion and pursuing the country’s Hindu minority may hold strong appeal to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority — and perhaps the Christian and Muslim minorities — ahead of elections, particularly after the Easter attacks.
Though Rajapaksa cannot run for another presidential term in Sri Lankan elections planned for later this year, his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to run, according to a Rajapaska family aide cited by Reuters. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is currently facing lawsuits in the U.S. for allegedly ordering the extrajudicial murder of a journalist and the torture of Tamil Tiger members while he served as defense minister during his brother’s presidency. He has called the lawsuits politically motivated and aimed at sabotaging his potential presidential campaign.
Though the Rajapaksas are far from innocent players, it is likely that the U.S. government seeks to prevent the family’s return to politics, owing to their promotion of Chinese interests in Sri Lanka. As Reuters noted, Sri Lanka has recently “gained in geopolitical importance, becoming an arena for influence peddling between India, its traditional partner, and China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure.” Owing to the UNP’s membership in the IDU, the U.S. is likely to favor Wickremesinghe and his political allies in the coming election.
Post-attack authoritarianism a seeming political imperative
With both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa moving to exploit the chaos following the Easter attacks for each’s own political gain, it appears that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is set to be the biggest loser.
Indeed, as previously mentioned, the rift between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe led Sirisena to exclude his alienated prime minister from national security meetings, inadvertently making Wickremesinghe’s claims of knowing nothing of the intelligence warning of imminent terror attacks more plausible than Sirisena’s own similar claims. Furthermore, Sirisena — in addition to being president — controls the defense ministry and oversees the country’s federal police force, laying ever more responsibility for the intelligence failure at his feet.
While Sirisena has played an important role in the promotion of the draconian CTA and failed to rein in the worst of police and military abuses, he was also lauded by rights organizations for shifting away from the prosecution of journalists and dissidents that defined much of Rajapaksa’s presidency, as well as for his willingness to investigate human-rights abuses committed by the military and intelligence agencies during the long conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
Yet, especially following last year’s constitutional crisis where Sirisena moved to replace Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa, Sirisena has abandoned many of these policies that aided his surprise win in the 2015 elections, including his efforts to prosecute war crimes committed under Rajapaksa’s presidency.
A Rajapaksa victory in the upcoming elections would likely ensure that those investigations — and with it any semblance of military or police accountability — are never revived. This would be especially true if the CTA is passed, and the controversial bill would likely be used by an incoming Rajapaksa administration to pursue Sri Lankan minority groups — particularly Hindus, given Goyabata Rajapaksa’s past. On the other hand, a victory for Wickremesinghe’s UNP would likely see the CTA used to target those opposed to its neoliberal and pro-Washington agenda.
Yet, it appears that the political fallout from the bombing may result in Sirisena emulating the tactics of these political rivals within his own party (Rajapaksa) and in his rival party (Wickremesinghe). Indeed, as the New York Times noted on Friday:
Seeking to deflect blame for the intelligence failure, President Maithripala Sirisena vowed a ‘total reorganization’ of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus and argued that the prosecution of military intelligence officers for abuses during the country’s long civil war had left the nation vulnerable. He promised a get-tough approach that he likened to the campaign against Tamil rebels in that war.”
Every household in the country will be checked,’ Mr. Sirisena said in a meeting at his official residence with the heads of Sri Lankan media organizations, according to a statement released by his office. The lists of permanent residents of every house will be established to ensure no unknown persons could live anywhere.’”
Such statements echo those recently made by Rajapaksa and seem to work against Sirisena, who helped lead the prosecution of military intelligence officers he now blames for making Sri Lanka “vulnerable” to terror attacks. Sirisena’s statements following the attack seem to show that the rift between him and Rajapaksa is closing, with Rajapaksa’s policies and influence now again dominating the party. Notably, after Sirisena’s presidential victory in 2015 over Rajapaksa, Sirisena accused him of plotting a “coup” to prevent Sirisena from assuming the presidency. The fall-out from last Sunday’s attacks and the dysfunction caused by the recent constitutional crisis seem to have pushed Sirisena to get back in line behind Rajapaksa with no coup necessary.
In such a politically fragmented landscape, it seems that the only clear result following the Easter bombings is that Sri Lankan politicians will seek to cast themselves as increasingly authoritarian “strong men” in a bid to ride the political fallout. Such posturing, though currently politically expedient, will likely spell disaster for Sri Lanka’s minority groups, who are themselves the most frequent victims of state-sponsored and religiously motivated terrorism in the island nation.
Feature photo | Sri Lankans stand near a roadside shop as a Naval soldier stand near damaged St. Anthony’s Church, in Colombo, April 27, 2019. Manish Swarup | AP
Whitney Webb is a MintPress News journalist based in Chile. She has contributed to several independent media outlets including Global Research, EcoWatch, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has made several radio and television appearances and is the 2019 winner of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism.