By Harim Peiris
Local media quoted His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith as saying at a recent press conference that an action plan is being organized by the Sri Lankan Catholic Church, in collaboration with the Vatican, but we don’t will divulge nothing about it now. It is the government that must be responsible for the consequences that Sri Lanka must suffer if the church asks for international help to bring justice to those affected by the chaos of Easter Sunday.
The latest drama in the long saga of the Easter Sunday bombings was the sudden arrest, by the CID, and then the release by the trial court of the social activist and campaigner for the defense of justice against the attack Easter Sunday, Shehan Malaka. It was even as the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, fully backed by the Vatican in Rome, consistently urged the state to seek the truth regarding the horrific coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in 2019. This column does not intend to discuss the issues of the case as such, but rather examine the political dynamics of the Easter attacks.
That the attack had political ramifications is obvious. As Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith made clear, the current administration of the SLPP and its then presidential candidate chose the immediate aftermath of the bombing to announce his candidacy for the presidency, an occasion to say the least. unusual for a political ad. However, the rationale for the announcement was very clear, once the campaign for the presidency began soon after. The issues were national security, the prevention of terrorism, and generally the protection of the country’s majority community from real and perceived enemies within. However, once the election results were in, both in November 2019 and again in August 2020, it was not entirely clear who won. Was it nationalist security rhetoric or political hara-kiri or self-destruction in which Yahapalanaya Administration, engaged in constant infighting between its two main constituents, the President and Prime Minister and their respective parties, ostensibly in a governing alliance.
Searching for answers more than 1000 days after the event
The Catholic vote in the Western Province, mainly Sinhalese, Colombo and especially Gampaha districts, tends to be quite large in national elections although it is not really a bloc vote fixed. It tends to move with the political winds of the day. CBK was able to capture that vote on a pro-peace platform, Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to capture that vote for a more nationalist agenda, and then candidate Gotabaya was able to capture it on national security rhetoric or less charitably labeled alarmist. The question that now comes to haunt him is that there is a widespread perception that has not been delivered on this, or on most other points. The cardinal has some very salient points that lead his eminence to oppose the administration. Chief among them has been the state’s inability to identify the conspirators or the main mastermind(s) behind the attack and not just the triggers that were pulverized in their own explosions. There is also widespread interest in the alleged role, if any, played by sections of state intelligence services. The codename Sonic is a household name in Sri Lanka today. Harassment by law enforcement of activists ranging from Fr. Cyril Gamini to young Shehan Malaka and other civil society actors demanding and working for justice for victims, also does the state no good advancing the argument that there is nothing to hide.
Richard Nixon, became the only President of the United States to be successfully impeached; he resigned on the eve of the vote in Congress, when it became clear he would lose the vote and be impeached, when the Watergate saga, and especially the attempts to cover it up, finally led straight to the White House. There is a particular loss of popular and political legitimacy that comes with being associated with something considered a national atrocity. The Easter attack was such an atrocity. The Roman Catholic Church, on behalf of the victims, calls for justice. The association of any political actor with this atrocity would be politically fatal to them. It is unwise for powerful state actors to believe this belief.
UNHRC and an international investigation
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution and process on Sri Lanka has internationalized our human rights weaknesses and problems. Seeking to snatch the initiative and arguing for purely domestic remedies has been the subject of bipartisan consensus on Sri Lanka, with even the resolution co-sponsored by the previous government’s Human Rights Council clearly stating that remedial measures would be a national Sri Lankan process, albeit with the participation of non-nationals.
Incidentally, an important feature of the 20th Amendment was to allow dual citizens to be Members of Parliament and Government Ministers. A key feature of the national process consensus in Sri Lanka is that our judicial system delivers justice. This argument is however accepted in Sri Lanka, where the judiciary is fortunately held in high esteem by the Sri Lankan public, merciful because confidence in the efficiency of the judiciary is essential for social order; the same is contested at the international level where well-documented research exists on the culture of impunity and the lack of legal remedies that exist in relation to the violation of human rights, particularly by actors associated with the ‘State.
The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been vocal and public enough to say that they have not received a response and do not really believe that the victims will truly obtain justice in Sri Lanka, at least at the stage of the investigation and calls for an international investigation, which can provide evidence of perhaps purely local legal remedies. Now, cooperation between law enforcement agencies, whether through the interpolar structure or other bilateral agreements, exists and is therefore not impossible. But what he does is create for the first time a powerful national lobby and constituency in southern Sinhalese demanding an international investigation.
To add insult to injury for the Roman Catholic Church was the tragicomedy of the pomegranate at All-Saints Borella Church and the rather public exchange of words between the Inspector General of Police and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Politicians calling the police biased and a political tool of the government of the day are common, but what is new is when religious leaders with significant influence over their followers and with a global network of sympathetic followers, essentially call the law of the state law enforcement and security structures on their actions and inaction. Something we haven’t seen before happens and the genie doesn’t go back inside the bottle.
(The writer served as
Advisor to the former president