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Easter Sunday attacks: Maithripala’s Indian hand claim and its far-reaching implications on bilateral ties

03 Apr 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      



Having languished in relative obscurity and been found responsible by the Supreme Court for failing to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage  former President Maithripala Sirisena is making headlines again for all the wrong reasons.
Two weeks back, he made an astounding revelation that he knew who was behind the Easter Sunday attacks which killed 269 worshippers and tourists and wounded over 500. 

Intriguingly, it didn’t occur to the former president that he should alert the investigation agencies of his new information about the worst-ever terrorist attack since the end of the war. Instead, he casually told the reporters during a visit to Kandy. In his admission, he became privy to new information three weeks ago. (Even the International Cricket Council requires players and managers to inform it about any approaches made by bookie makers immediately.) Opposition political parties and civil society groups have called on the police to arrest Sirisena for withholding crucial information from investigators. 
Instead, the CID summoned him to obtain a statement.

There, Sirisena dropped a bombshell.
He claimed that an Indian diplomat had confessed to him that India was behind the attack. The Indian gripe leading to the attack,  he quoted his imaginary Indian as saying, is because Sri Lanka had not given any major development projects to India. He offers no prima facia evidence. Instead, he expects the government to investigate his latest conspiracy theory. 

Your average Sri Lankan politician

Sirisena is your average Sri Lankan politician, one who is conspiracy theory-prone, tunnel-visioned, self-seeking and moderately educated (a vernacular degree or practice as a village lawyer does not necessarily equip one with intellectual and analytical vigour in the affairs of governance).

But, he is special for, albeit that modest background and all the idiosyncrasies and deficiencies it entailed, he made a great leap to the highest elected office. 
UNP heavyweights of his Yahapalanaya government might have considered him a village fool. However,  Sirisena is still a former president and whatever he says carries heft and consequences, especially when he implicates a friendly neighbour and a regional hegemon. 

Probably, Sirisena is so thin-brained that he failed to comprehend the full scope of implications of his latest antic. Probably, he is trying to pull off a sinister ploy to make a political comeback, riding on a wave of anti-India backlash. Or he is trying to atone for his sins- for his criminal negligence over failing to prevent the Easter Sunday massacre, despite multiple intelligence warnings, including from India’s Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW)- by diverting the responsibility. Either or all of these calculations are feasible given the calibre of the politicians that Sri Lankans have elected to public office.

 It was revealed in the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday Attack that Sirisena downplayed the rising Islamist threat even after the discovery of explosives in a militant hideout in Wanathavilluwa, fearing to upset the Muslim political parties in his coalition government. He removed investigations from other agencies and assigned his loyalist Nilantha Jayawardene.
No matter Sirisena’s calculations or even if this is just an ill-thought-out publicity stunt, this latest antic is bound to have local and bilateral consequences. 

Consequences of the Wild Claim

The immediate danger at home is that Sirisena’s concoction could end up being a political football to be kicked around by equally petty-minded and opportunistic politicians of both sides. One Opposition member queried in Parliament at whose behest had India carried out the attack? “Who is the mastermind,” he asked.   This is a new low in Sri Lankan politics, where an unfathomable loss of lives and limbs has been politicized. All this quest to find an imaginary mastermind is to implicate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The very idea that nine Islamist terrorists, having vouched for allegiance to the Islamic State, killed themselves and 269 others just to bring an ardent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist to power is bizarre. But, many local conspiracy theorists have not given up on it. Gotabaya can be blamed on many things, including extrajudicial killings when he was the Defence Secretary,  but the Easter Sunday monstrosity is not something he is even remotely complicit.  

His election campaign surely capitalized on fear psychosis and raw emotions created by terrorist atrocity. The same factors contributed to his overwhelming win in the presidential election. That is not uniquely Sri Lankans. Terrorist attacks could flip an election. For instance, the 2004 Madrid train bombing is considered a catalyst for the defeat of the Christian Conservative government in the general election which was held days later. The outgoing government did not accuse Socialists who won the election of masterminding the attack. But Sri Lankans have sent to Parliament a long list of lowlifes who have no qualms about politicizing the monumental loss of innocent lives.

The second concern is that Sirisena’s imaginary villains could distract the political and security establishment from the real threat of Islamist terrorism. Last week’s Moscow terrorist attacks which the Islamic State claimed are another reminder for those who naively expect Islamist terrorism and Salafi Jihadi ideology, which provide the key ideological driver, to wither away just because the IS lost its rear bases in Iraq and Syria. 
Any Sri Lankan security watcher worth his salt would pay attention to the rising Islamism in the Maldives under its new Islamist-leaning government, considering the geographic proximity. 

This observation has nothing to do with the Maldives’ recent rift with India, but an Islamist government that is relying on hardline Salafi preachers for regime legitimization risks creating fertile grounds for Islamist extremism. 
Even before, the Maldives had the highest per capita contribution in fighters to the Islamic State. 

Thirdly, Sirisena’s conspiracy theory could be exploited by fellow travellers to wage a campaign against the growing Indian investments and political relations. The average Sri Lankan, in their default self, is likely to demonstrate against their interest at the mention of a concocted conspiracy theory.
On the bilateral front, Sirisena’s remarks would have equally serious consequences. Worst still, it is election time in India which is heading for the general elections. Domestic political impulses to respond to an affront by the smaller neighbour from the South would be high. 

The best form of damage control: Investigate 

Also, considering all the Indian generosity and $ 4 billion economic lifeline that stopped Sri Lanka from free fall and other interventions on Colombo’s behalf with Western donors, New Delhi might feel it had been stabbed in the back by the former Sri Lankan President.

The Sri Lankan government should get into damage control. The best form of damage control is to investigate Sirisena’s claim. For that, he should be made to reveal his source, the Indian diplomat, who he said confessed about the plot. The Journalist in me knows how easy it is to concoct stories based on unnamed sources. Journalists have an ethical responsibility to protect their sources. However, on the larger scale of things, where information as crucial as the complicity in a mass atrocity is concerned, ethical claims and quasi-professional rights are subject to interpretation.