Sri Lanka’s Sacred Games | Satya Sagar

In the times we live in, where smoke and mirrors are the world’s two chief weapons of war, fiction is a better guide to contemporary events than ‘facts’ presented by governments and media. A case in point are the horrific Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, that killed over 250 and maimed scores of people, and has sparked fears of the dreaded Islamic State’s growing presence in the region.

If you really want to know what the story is, forget searching the mainstream narrative. It is far better to watch the popular Netflix serial Sacred Games – which depicts a deadly mix of the Mumbai mafia, ambitious ‘patriotic’ politicians and religious extremists causing violence and mayhem.

For, as details emerge and reactions from key players follow, the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka follow a pattern from several other similar operations over the last couple of decades. Yes, a handful of fanatics do carry out the actual attacks, but they are pawns in the hands of other very powerful forces, who monitor and even aid their actions, for various political and strategic purposes.

As of now, evidence in the public domain seems to show that the Easter Sunday attacks, were the work of a handful of home-grown Islamic radicals belonging to the National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Their claimed motive for the attack, which targeted churches and hotels frequented by foreign visitors, was to ‘avenge’ the massacre of Muslims at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand by a white supremacist.

However, it is difficult to believe this tiny group acted entirely on their own, unnoticed by those in authority or power and were not manipulated for goals that had nothing to do with what they themselves had in mind.

To begin with, given the fact that the Christchurch killings took place on 15 March,how likely is that within a month, a group of Muslim religious extremists in faraway Sri Lanka had put together enough explosives, scouted target locations, convinced eight people to become suicide bombers and carried out the well-coordinated attacks? Obviously preparations for the Sri Lanka bombings must have been done over several years if not more, as also pointed out in parliament by the former Sri Lankan Army Chief turned politician Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.

If the plan was hatched several years ago the question arises, whether at that time, the original target would still have been churches?  Why would they be a target for Muslim extremists, given there was hardly any history of animosity between the Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka? If at all the two religious minorities would have had many reasons to be supportive of each other, as both have been battling hate campaigns and violence from Sinhala chauvinists and Buddhist extremist organizations since 2009, when Sri Lanka’s four decade long civil war against the Tamil separatist group  LTTE ended.

So, was it then a target chosen by the terrorists or their handlers only in the last month or so – as a reaction to the Christchurch massacre in mid-March? That is of course possible and if true would indicate their willingness to be part of an abstract ‘global jihad’ and the extent of brainwashing the suicide bombers, mostly educated and from well-off families, had undergone.

Or was it the case that those handlingthe bombers were not aiming any message at the world in general but trying to shape politics in South Asia itself – in particular Sri Lanka and neighbouring India – both countries where ‘national security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ have become key issues determining who will win or lose national elections? It is the timing of these bombings makes them quite suspicious.

The blasts happened bang in the middle of the Indian elections – where incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy mobilizing votes for reelection, whipping up fear of terrorism and promising tougher security measures as his major planks. Modi has already used the Easter Sunday bombings repeatedly in his election speeches, citing them as an example of why India needs a ‘strong leadership’ to provide security to ordinary citizens. Since 22nd April the Indian media too has been awash with stories of how a bunch of Islamic terrorists are threatening peace all over South Asia, further feeding into the ruling BJP’s propaganda about India being under siege from Muslim ‘infiltrators and extremists’.

Sri Lanka itself is scheduled for a general election before end of 2019 – one in which Gothabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Minister is likely to be a frontrunning candidate. He and his brother, former President  Mahinda Rajapaksa, are both venerated by Sinhala nationalists for their ‘tough on terrorism’ position and for leading the country to victory against the LTTE.

Not surprisingly within a week of the Easter Sunday bombings Gothabaya has already announced that, if elected President,  he would stop the spread of Islamist extremism by rebuilding the intelligence service and increasing surveillance of citizens. Several Sri Lankan commentators have noted Gothabaya as the biggest beneficiary of the terrorist attack – in political terms- as they have hugely boosted his chances of becoming the next President.

One does not have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to suspect the mainstream narrative of what the Easter Sunday bombings were all about. A very obvious reason suspicion is the truly strange fact that Sri Lanka’s topmost political leaders and security officials did nothing to stop the bombings despite having very detailed information about these Islamist radicals, their identities, intentions and targets.

Not only did Sri Lanka’s Muslim community leaders repeatedly warn national authorities about the extremist activities of National Thowheeth Jama’ath and its leader Zahran Hashim, but Indian and other intelligence agencies tipped off top security officials in Colombo about the group’s plans along with specific sites they were targeting. Indian intelligence itself is believed to have got their information after interrogating alleged Islamic State sympathisers in September 2018 arrested from Coimbatore.

Though, they need not have interrogated anyone at all and instead just followed the incendiary YouTube videos that Zahran Hasmim, the leader of the suicide squad, was posting – many of them while based in different parts of southern India. Very strangely he was never apprehended by Indian intelligence at all and later when they tipped off their Sri Lankan counterparts about possible terrorist attacks– there was no follow up either. They could have easily gone public with the information they had, when there was no obvious action being taken. So, what exactly were they waiting for – the bombs to go off?

Another explanation for the terrible security lapse is that it was just sheer incompetence on the part of Sri Lanka’s security forces lulled into complacency after successful wiping out of the LTTE, once the world’s most deadly armed movement anywhere, a decade ago.It has also been suggested by several commentators, was the security screw-up due to infighting between Sri Lanka’s top politicians – President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Since October 2018 Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, former political rivals who became allies in 2015 to win the national elections,  have turned foes again and engaged in a bitter battle for control over the government. Sirisena sought to replace Wickremesinghe as PM by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, someone he had publicly broken away from back in 2014. The coup was however foiled by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, which ruled Wickremesinghe was the legitimate PM, as per the country’s Constitution.

For the last six months the President and PM of the country have been ostensibly working at cross purposes and plotting their strategy for the next general elections. After the Easter Sunday bombings Wickremesinghe claimed that intelligence information about possible terrorist attacks, that was given to Sirisena in early April this year, was hidden from him.

Was the Sri Lankan PM suggesting that the Sri Lankan President knew about the terrorist plot but allowed it to go ahead? What would be Sirisena’s possible motive to do that – unless he was trying to help his mentors Mahinda and Gothabaya Rajapaksa in their bid to return to power through elections later this year?[1]

All this may sound very diabolical, but one should remember that we are talking about people who conducted one of the most brutal wars against their own citizens in recent history anywhere – one which saw thousands killed, journalists and dissidents abducted, tortured and murdered.  Over 40,000 Tamils taking refuge in government-sponsored ‘No Fire Zone’ at Mullaivaikal in northern Sri Lanka, were deliberately shelled and killed by Sri Lankan armed forces just in the last few weeks of the war in 2009. After the defeat of the LTTE, many thousand Tamil youth also disappeared without trace while scores of prisoners of war were summarily executed.

Significantly, just a day after the Easter Sunday bombings Mahinda Rajapaksa blamed the security failure on the Sri Lankan government ‘succumbing’ to global pressure to ensure accountability for the 2009 war crimes.

“From the moment this government came into power in January 2015, they have been persecuting the members of the armed forces and the intelligence services that ended that war” said Rajapaksa claiming the incumbent government was paying a heavy price for running the country ‘according to the dictates coming from foreign countries’.

The ‘global pressure’ he was referring to was of course Resolution 30/1 of the United Nations Human Rights Council passed in March 2015, following a UN investigation,  calling upon the Sri Lankan government to set up a transitional justice mechanism to address allegations of  various atrocities and human rights abuses committed by both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. At that time, the newly elected President Sirisena, supported the UNHRC Resolution and pledged cooperation – facing strong criticism from the Rajapaksa brothers and Sinhala chauvinist groups.

Four years down the line it is clear that Sirisena was basically warding off international scrutiny by pretending to play along, while stalling for time.  As of date virtually none of the measures sought as part of the transitional justice mechanism have been implemented. Instead, Sri Lanka has brazenly refused to comply with Resolution 30/1, which required Sri Lanka to appoint international judges, defence lawyers, prosecutors and investigators to ensure the credibility of the justice process apart from establishing a Truth Commission, an Office of Missing Persons as also an Office for Reparations.

What is important to note here is that – despite their political rivalry – both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe have been completely united in their resolve to block all international effort to punish any Sri Lankans involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity. Since 2009, many of the top army and naval officers involved in the Mullaivaikal massacre- venerated as war heroes by Sinhala chauvinists- have been rewarded with plum diplomatic and other postings.

Incidentally, on 7 April, just two weeks prior to the Easter Sunday bombings Gothabaya Rajapaksa, a dual US-Sri Lanka citizen, was served notices charging him in two cases of torture and murder during war time. Gothbaya was in Pasadena, California and on his way to attend an event organized to “Meet the future president” by former Sri Lankan consul in Los Angeles Malraj de Silva.

While the first case was filed by International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), an NGO, on behalf of a Tamil torture victim  the other was by Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of well-known Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was shot in broad daylight by gunmen in January 2009. It is widely believed that Lasantha was killed after he exposed a controversial fighter aircraft deal implicating Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in a kickback scheme.

The two notices were, an indication of how the noose is tightening around the Rajapaksas for their past crimes. The terrorist attacks took place just two weeks later on 22 April, changing both the national and global discourse on Sri Lanka.Overnight, the story was nolonger about a country run by war criminals who need to brought to justice but one of a beleaguered nation threatened by global jihadists –none less than the biggest villain of them all – the Islamic State or Daesh itself.

 The sheer number of long-term objectives that have been achieved with the Easter Sunday bombings on behalf of Sri Lanka’s nationalists and Buddhist chauvinists – who believe the entire country belongs only to them, all others being second-class citizens – is staggering. If one stone can be used to kill two birds as the saying goes, then a few terrorist bombs seem to have knocked off an entire flock of winged creatures.

Firstly the country’s Christians – harassed for long by Buddhist extremists- have been directly hit. Their churches destroyed and many community members killed and they are not likely to raise their heads to demand any of their rights for a long time to come.

The blame for these attacks has been squarely put on extremist Muslims (which is factually correct, as per information we have now) making it easier  to put the entire community under permanent siege. Already the Sri Lankan government has ordered a house-to-house search for terrorists – no prizes for guessing whose houses- and banned the wearing of the veil in public by Muslim women. The fate of Sri Lanka’s Muslims as  second-class citizens,  a status accorded to the country’s Tamil population for long, seems to firmly sealed now.

At the latest UNHRC meeting in March 2019 Sri Lanka was censured for its failure to take any effective steps towards providing justice to the victims of the 2009 massacre but still managed to find enough international support to extend its deadline for compliance by another two years. The 22nd April attacks are now likely to be used by Sri Lanka to scuttle the entire transitional justice process imposed on it by the UN and the international community – all in the name of ‘ensuring national security’.

And the great, crowning glory of this entire, sordid episode of Sri Lanka’s Sacred Games, will be when elections happenend of the year and Gothabaya Rajapaksa is finally elected President.

The only hope now, is the possibility that he will not be greeted on this occasion by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, who may not be the Prime Minister of India anymore by that time.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]

[1]Incidentally, a December 2016 report in the Sri Lanka Mirror, that claimed both the National Thowheeth Jamaa’th and the Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena were funded from the same account set up by Sri Lankan intelligence when Mahinda was President has completely disappeared from the net.


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