Review of Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State Gets Out of Its Depth by Rajan Hoole. Ravaya, 2019
Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy sets out to answer the question many Sri Lankans were asking in the wake of the carnage in April 2019: How could this happen, when the state had prior warning of the attacks? The author explains that by the ‘Deep State’ he means ‘a body of organised interests comprising dominant sections of the political establishment and the security apparatus, ready and willing to pursue partisan goals in contempt of the law’ (p.18). He traces its origins back to 1972 and says that it grew exponentially during J.R. Jayawardene’s Presidency. Since then, the deep state has been used by politicians in successive governments to carry out policies that are incompatible with the rule of law. This includes patronising extremist groups that arise independently but can further their agenda.
- Wickremesinghe and his cabinet colleagues too knew of the warnings, and could at least have raised the alarm
- After Karuna’s Eastern faction split from the LTTE in April 2004, Army intelligence used it to recruit and train Muslims to fight against the LTTE
- A senior police official under transfer orders said that ‘political pressures were so heavy that one could not work according to one’s conscience’
Wahhabi Islamists constituted one such group. Hoole reports that after Karuna’s Eastern faction split from the LTTE in April 2004, Army intelligence used it to recruit and train Muslims to fight against the LTTE. In October 2004, around 500 of these militants who had been attracted to Wahhabism set the Sufi Meditation Centre in Kattankudy ablaze, along with the homes and businesses of more than 200 Sufi Muslim families. In December 2006, they started a riot in which the houses of 117 Sufis were levelled by fire and many were threatened and fled the district. Despite this large-scale violence, no arrests were made. According to Hoole, M.L.A.M. Hisbullah of the UPFA played the role of local godfather to the Islamic militants, protecting them from the law, while overall control over the militants was exerted by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Mohamed Zahran was associated with several Wahhabi organisations from 2005, and in 2015 registered the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ). He started speaking out against Catholics and distributing leaflets calling on people not to celebrate Christmas. In public meetings from September 2016 to March 2017, he supported ISIS, saying that raising the national flag went against the Islamic State and that non-Muslims should be killed (p.33).
Mohamed Zahran was associated with several Wahhabi organisations from 2005, and in 2015 registered the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ)
On 10 March 2017, Zahran and his associates in the NTJ used swords and iron rods to attack ‘those they identified as not belonging to their religious persuasion,’ according to OIC Wedegedera’s B-Report to the Batticaloa Court. ‘They stoned houses and threw petrol bombs and did not cease from violence when the police ordered them to do so.’ Nine NTJ rioters were arrested, and on 30 June Magistrate Ganesharajah issued arrest warrants for Zahran, his brother Rilvan and Mohamed Mohideen, and refused to grant bail to the detainees.
However in July Wedegedara was transferred and replaced by Inspector Kasturiarachchi, who did not object to bail for the arrested NTJ militants. Magistrate Ganesharajah was also transferred, and High Court Judge M.I.M. Izzadeen granted the detainees bail in October 2017. Referring to obstacles to the arrest of Zahran, a senior police official under transfer orders said that ‘political pressures were so heavy that one could not work according to one’s conscience’ (p.47).
On 27 March 2017, representatives of the Sufi community met leading members of the government, delivered a six-page complaint against Zahran’s extremist teachings, and described the horror they had been through on 10 March. One of the officials they met was Nalaka de Silva, DIG Terrorist Investigation Division, who began monitoring Zahran and his family members. On 2 July 2018, he filed a B-Report at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court, got a warrant for Zahran’s arrest, and obtained an Interpol Blue Notice against him. But in October 2018 de Silva was suspended from the police and arrested for his supposed involvement in an India-backed assassination attempt on President Sirisena and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a plot for which no evidence was ever produced.
A clear pattern emerges whereby any official who tried to take action against Zahran and the NTJ was targeted, providing evidence for Hoole’s allegation that the Islamists were protected by the deep state. The allegation is supported by Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s claim on 2 May 2019 that both Buddhist and Islamist extremist groups had been bankrolled by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in an operation controlled by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. When Minister Lakshman Kiriella announced in June that 30 NTJ members including Zahran were being paid by the Rajapaksa regime, Mahinda Rajapaksa responded that such matters should not be disclosed in public, tacitly admitting it was true.
The author sketches the background to all this, namely the regime change in 2015, when Maithripala Sirisena stood against Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Presidential election and won, opening up the possibility of genuine investigation and prosecution of horrific crimes committed by the previous regime. A promising start was made, but as early as October 2016 Sirisena began switching back to the Rajapaksa camp, finally doing so completely in the October 2018 coup. From that time onwards, he could be regarded as acting in the interests of the Rajapaksas. Having taken charge of security and excluded the PM, State Minister of Defence and IGP from Security Council meetings, he has ultimate responsibility for allowing the Easter bombings to take place despite receiving warnings from Indian intelligence. But Wickremesinghe and his cabinet colleagues too knew of the warnings, and could at least have raised the alarm.
Having taken charge of security and excluded the PM, State Minister of Defence and IGP from Security Council meetings, he has ultimate responsibility for allowing the Easter bombings to take place despite receiving warnings from Indian intelligence
Why did the Rajapaksas support Islamist terrorists? The author’s hypothesis is that along with anti-Muslim attacks, this was an attempt to minimise the Muslim vote. But his evidence also supports the hypothesis that the Easter blasts and the grotesque charges that Dr Shafi was engaged in criminal sterilisation of Sinhalese women and Muslim restaurants were sterilising Sinhalese men were aimed at convincing Sinhalese Buddhists that they faced an existential threat from Muslims, and only a regime that dispensed with ‘human rights’, ‘ethnic reconciliation’ and ‘individual freedoms,’ as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa put it, could save them (p.115).
This is an important book, throwing light on recent events in Sri Lanka. While much of its content is deeply disturbing, it also credits conscientious officials, sections of the press, and the majority of Sinhalese and Tamil Christians as well as Sinhalese Buddhists with resisting the tide of communal violence against innocent Muslims.