- The need of the hour, is the removal of fear.
- The ban on media reportage of the results of search operations and other investigative activity must be discontinued
- The public are, justifiably, enraged by reports of powerful politicians being released after peremptory questioning
The most obvious consequence of the Easter Day calamity is the fear psychosis which has gripped our society. Arguably, not even at the height of the war was this feeling as strong and pervasive as it is today. The need of the hour, then, is the removal of fear. This can be done only by the restoration of confidence by practical and credible means.
Right now, it is obviously futile to call on foreign missions in Colombo to soften travel advisories, nor will it be of any avail to request donor agencies for assistance to keep the travel industry afloat, or to appeal for concessions regarding travel insurance and the like. Parents will send their children to school only when they are satisfied that the prevailing situation is sufficiently safe and secure.
I. A Functioning Security Apparatus
Before any of this can be realistically expected to happen, there is one vital condition: Government must, without any further delay, set up a security apparatus which will engender confidence. The critical requirement is coordination between intelligence and law enforcement authorities.
During the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, such a mechanism had been put in place by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary at that time, with the Directorate of Military Intelligence as the pivotal institution. Sifting, analysis and evaluation of intelligence gathered from a multiplicity of sources of varying probative value was done here before transmission of the material to agencies of the Police, such as CID, CCD, TID and the Special Branch. In the absence of a comprehensive structure of this kind, ad hoc responses – even when they do occur – are fragmented and of very limited value. This well-knit apparatus, which was dismantled during the last four years, must be immediately re-established, and officers meticulously trained in specialised institutions abroad for these very purposes, but regrettably dispensed with of late, must be re-assigned appropriate responsibility. No amount of discussion, meetings or homilies will produce even the most meagre result in the absence of this mandatory first step.
II. An Effective and Unified Communications Network
Once this security-oriented apparatus is brought into being, but not before this is done, the task of communication must be systematically addressed. A spokesperson, either a Minister or senior official, should be identified and amply empowered to be in touch on a daily basis with the public of our country, with foreign missions, local and foreign media and with the business sector. Bereft of window dressing, there should be a candid explanation of what is being done, day by day, to safeguard the public, results achieved by the security authorities, and plans for further action.
Establishment of a focal point will achieve coherence and consistency of a single message, rather than a cacophony of voices, blatant contradictions and consequent confusion. We have learnt to our exorbitant cost that there cannot be two competing centres of power within one government, especially during a crisis of this magnitude. Responsibility for defence, maintenance of law and order and the total array of Police functions must be clearly demarcated, and lines of command unequivocally defined. The political authority is unreservedly accountable, and no attempt to make scapegoats of officials can possibly pass muster. Clarity and unity of one message, giving expression to the stance of the government, is indispensable for both
credibility and efficacy.
Our country has had to grapple with even greater crises in the past; what enabled us to bounce back, given the inherent resilience of our people, was the perception, and indeed the reality, that there did exist a resolute leadership firmly in charge, with its authority unquestioned throughout the spectrum of the Administration.
"The critical requirement is coordination between intelligence and law enforcement authorities"
III. Uncompromising Exclusion of Political Interference
Political influence, direct or insidious, in respect of current investigations, in particular search and seize operations, must instantly cease. Quite definitely, there has to be zero tolerance of any form of immunity with regard to suspect venues or individuals. Emergency regulations must be promulgated immediately to enable the Army to interrogate suspects upon arrest.
The public are, justifiably, enraged by reports of powerful politicians being released after peremptory questioning and nonchalantly leaving the country soon afterwards. Inquiries handled in this way have nothing to do with discovery of the truth; they are merely a clumsy cover-up. Any exalted functionary – Minister, Governor or legislator – found obstructing or tampering with an investigation, must be removed forthwith from office. A scale of values and a sense of proportion is the point of departure: lives carry greater weight than votes.
IV. Provision of Required Assistance to Police and Intelligence Authorities
There must be no shadow of doubt about the fullest political backing and technical assistance being at the disposal of the police and intelligence authorities. Situations like the Wellampitiya fiasco, where nine suspects employed in a metal factory said to have been the source of material used in the bombs, were released because of the inability of the police to explain to the Magistrate the statutory regime under which the charges were laid, jarringly erode public and must not be allowed to recur.
De-motivation of the intelligence establishment must stop at once. The pernicious culture of considering the intelligence arm an embarrassment and hindrance to a disastrously misconceived approach to “reconciliation” must be relegated as a relic of the past. More than 40 officers who performed vital functions in the war against terrorism were, at one time or another, during the last four years, harassed and imprisoned, and their families rendered destitute. One close relative, in sheer desperation, committed suicide. Unless this trend is reversed decisively, the nation’s security cannot be assured except by empty utterances.
V. Abandon Concealment of the Truth
The ban on media reportage of the results of search operations and other investigative activity must be discontinued. This disingenuous effort has only fuelled rumour mongering, irresponsible speculation and intentional or inadvertent exaggeration. Honesty and transparency is a far better option.
Suppression of the truth will not induce parents to send their children to school in response to strident exhortations by the Government, when they hear of Ministers openly admitting that they are compelled to work from home because they consider travelling to their Ministries, albeit under heavy armed guard, unsafe, and when Parliament is being asked to approve 7,100 million rupees out of public funds for the purchase of bullet-proof vehicles for Government leaders. The inspiring example of His Eminence, the Cardinal, in this regard, does our nation proud.
" Government must, without any further delay, set up a security apparatus which will engender confidence"
VI. Empower Religious and Community Leaders
The true heroes emerging in the aftermath of this crisis are religious leaders who enjoy today, in the eyes of the public, an unprecedented level of trust and acceptance. Moral leadership of this calibre proved exceedingly salutary in containing the dimensions of this catastrophe. An expanded role, possibly fortified by statute, for religious leaders working in close association with their communities, and opportune mechanisms for cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, represent a compelling need.
VII. Continuity of Measures for the Protection of the Public
Laws enabling the armed forces to be called in to buttress suitably the functions discharged by the Police, must remain in force until the threat ceases to be active. This assessment must be made entirely professionally, with no reference whatsoever to political considerations, such as the desire to create an illusory impression of normalcy, especially on the eve of Vesak, for the sake of partisan political advantage. Lives cannot be sacrificed on the altar of political gain.
The banning of terrorist groups devastating our country must perforce be carried out immediately by appropriate legal instruments. Moreover, framing of the required regulations must be done at a tolerable level of competence. The last Gazette Notification contained an unacceptably large number of
VIII. Eschew Political Expediency
This is hardly the time to engage in interminable debates about the desirability of highly controversial legislative innovations strongly opposed by a significant swath of the community. It is certainly my contention that the proposed Counter Terrorism Act, while extending every latitude to terrorist suspects, sets out to destroy the very foundation of legitimate rights and freedoms of trade unions, media and civil society organisations in a manner not attempted by any other legislation over the 25 year time span of my experience of teaching Law at university. I remain convinced that the existing laws of Sri Lanka – consisting of the tripod of the Penal Code, the Public Security Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act – confer on the State ample power to combat terrorism, if only there is the political will and a concerted plan to do so.
If specifically targeted amendments to improve and strengthen particular legislative provisions are considered timely, these can of course
IX. Enhanced Surveillance and Openness of Dialogue
Availability of information in the fullest measure to the public is the best guarantee of confidence. The Army Commander has stated on electronic media that, out of the 150 or 200 terrorists thought to be involved (apart from possible peripheral groups), about 85 have been killed or captured.
The public is entitled to continuing access to accurate information regarding initiatives in respect of the remainder, and further action contemplated. There must, as well, be complete disclosure regarding at least 880 foreign preachers in the Madrasas throughout the Island and the paramount necessity of reintroducing the exacting filtering process which had been in place prior to 2015 in respect of the grant of visas.
In Parliament the Government showed marked reluctance to divulge particulars about the thousands of refugees in the country, with a substantial concentration in the Negombo area, after Sri Lanka voluntarily assumed the status of a transit country.
As much information as possible gleaned from the two Interim Reports of the Vijith Malalgoda Committee, as well as the report of the senior military officials who had served the Rajapaksa Administration, should be shared early with the public.
The most potent cause of disenchantment evident in the country at large is the perceived attitude of evasion and vacillation. The paramount need, then, is for the Government (by which I mean both sections of it, without discrimination) to grasp the nettle and to face up to its responsibility and accountability which cannot by any conceivable means be wished away, delegated or abdicated.
The sooner this happens, the better are the country’s chances of recovery, within a reasonable time frame.