Cardinal’s Crusade for Truth, won’t make him a Darling of the Administration
Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith does not seem to be a happy man these days.
Well, he couldn’t, could he, when he finds himself between a rock and hard place?
The bone of contention is the recently released Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) report, commissioned by former President Maithripala Sirisena into the Easter Sunday Bombings, on April 21, 2019.
The bombings which shook Sri Lankans to the core, resulted in more than 250 deaths, and at least five hundred being maimed, a majority of them Catholics who were attending the Easter Sunday service that morn. Two prominent catholic churches and one evangelical church were bombed, while three hotels in Colombo too met the same fate, killing and injuring both locals and foreigners.
The report which was presented to current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in January was only released to the Parliament late February, and later to the Cardinal and leaders of the Buddhist Congregations. And that was after considerable agitation from the Cardinal.
But when the report was released, it was only one of six volumes; the one that contains the recommendations. Of course, had it not been for the Samagi Janabalavegaya MP Harin Fernando, who photographed and tweeted pages of the recommendations from the copy presented to the parliament, the public would have been none the wiser to its contents.
It is not a surprise that the Commission has recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against President Sirisena and several others for neglecting to act on prior information received of the imminent attack. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the then Prime Minister, got slapped on the wrist for ignoring the rising religious extremism in the country, and failing to make it public, that Sirisena had, since October 2018, following his infamous, failed constitutional coup, excluded him from the Security Council meetings. The Bodu Bala Sena, led by Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, has been cited as one of the reasons for the rise of religious extremism in the country.
The suicide bombers were all Muslims, led by a man named Zaharan.
Ignoring calls by the Cardinal in particular, to release the report to the public, President Rajapaksa appointed a six member all-male committee, from his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna to study the report of the commission.
That got the Cardinal’s ire; he took a shot at the committee members, and other parliamentarians who do not have much of an education, when he said that the committee appointees have not even passed the Ordinary Level examination.
But the issue here is not about the recommendations, the lapses on the part of the then president, the prime minister or the credentials of those appointed to the new committee. That Sirisena failed in his duty to prevent the massacre, and that Wickremasinghe and his band of United National Party members gleefully declared they had no knowledge of the planned attack as he had not been invited to security council meetings, days after that shocking event, is common knowledge. Neither party won any sympathy from anyone.
Following that dastardly attack, security was beefed at all churches, with vigilante committees appointed to check handbags, which also had to be very small, vehicles had to be registered with the church, they had to be parked outside the church premises, and no one was allowed to linger after mass, even for a quick greeting with an acquaintance. There were police and civil force members guarding the churches, and constant announcements to be aware of ones surroundings. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the congregation was once again reminded at Mass, to be aware of their surroundings. There had, the faithful were told, information that a similar attack could happen again.
Naturally, there was heightened fear amongst the congregation, who also directed their anger and hatred towards the Muslim community.
Muslim bashing, especially since the end of the ethnic war between State forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended in 2009, had intensified. They were accused of attempting to convert the country to Islam, sterilise and lace food with substances that could harm non-Muslims; the list was endless, and with time, almost all of the population had begun to look at Muslims with disgust and suspicion.
For his part the Cardinal continued in his usual manner; hardly speaking up for those of other faiths or other Christian denominations when they were harassed.
Rather, he carried on as he always did; it was quite obvious that he was an admirer of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and that he enjoyed a close rapport with them. His admiration never wavered, and following the Easter carnage in particular, he nursed the hope that justice would be served when the Rajapaksa’s returned to power. He never missed an opportunity to show his disdain of the Yahapalanaya government.
The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration, he would often say was no good. It had no backbone. He rejected the findings of the all-party report on the Easter Sunday massacre appointed by that administration.
Indeed, the Easter Sunday massacre just provided the perfect opportunity for the Cardinal to up the ante!
Of the report put together by the All-Party Parliamentary committee to investigate the Easter carnage, he said, ‘These have been set up to write a script to suit a particular political party. “I can’t accept them.” Notable absentees were both the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, both vociferous opponents of the Yahapalanaya government, who did not nominate anyone to the committee.
The power struggle, he said, between the former President and Prime Minister worked negatively on the security establishment of the country. At the Katuwapitiya, St. Sebastian Church, one of the sites that was bombed, he told the congregation gathered there in July 2019, ‘They weakened and demoralized the intelligence services to please their international partners and international NGOs’.
The Cardinal has also never hidden his contempt for the international community or for their push for human rights. In fact, in 2018, delivering the homily at yet another church, St. Mathew’s in Ekala, he said human rights was a western concept; it is, he said the new religion of the West, though such concepts had been embedded in religious teachings of this country, for decades.
His pronouncements made it clear he was partial to the Rajapksa way of thinking; his condemnation of the international community was in line with their oft repeated rhetoric that helped whip up sentiments amongst the populace that the international community was meddling with the country’s internal affairs. The country was quite capable of implementing local solutions, they said, for all the issues raised by the local rights activists and external sources.
To his credit, the Cardinal lost no time in rebuilding the churches and providing medical, psychological and financial assistance to all the victims of the Easter attack. Some will receive life-long assistance. Those measures are indeed laudable.
But there have been many other, perhaps less devastating incidents, such as the three killed and several others injured when the Rathupaswela residents were protesting water contamination in their area, or missing Christian clergy, men and women in the North and East etc. Such incidents have hardly elicited a protest or sympathetic word from the Colombo Archdiocese.
But the Easter tragedy was different. It has become the Cardinal’s life’s mission to look after the victim families, to ensure they get the justice they deserve, to bring culprits to book. And for that, he placed his hopes in a Rajapaksa administration. The Yahapalana government had facilitated the carnage, they must be booted out. The catholic congregation, at least a majority of them agreed. Justice would be served, only when the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration is shown the door.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his plans to run for the presidency on the heels of that massacre. Yahapalanya was seen as a government that had failed to keep the country safe, but, Gotabaya the former Defence Secretary, would give national security priority, the electorate was told. And certainly, those involved in the Easter Sunday massacre would be brought to book.
But more than a year into his presidency, there has been no justice for the Easter Sunday victims.
The Commission report recommends punishment for President Sirisena and several others. That was a given. After all, he, as the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed forces, had, according to evidence, ignored the warnings about the planned attack. What’s more he was abroad when the massacre took place, and displayed neither decency nor haste to return to the country, despite the national calamity Sri Lanka had been plunged into. He cannot be absolved of his failure to protect the country.
And so the electorate, the Catholic community included, was certain a Rajapaksa government would deliver that justice. And they voted, almost enbloc for the SLPP, because they, like the Cardinal, were convinced that justice would be served and the truth would come to light with a new administration in place.
But, the truth of what actually occurred dogs us.
Who was the mastermind? What did he/she or they stand to gain? That is what everyone wants to know, not about Sirisena’s failure to secure the country, which is common knowledge, but who set in motion, the events that led to that horrible tragedy? And why?
Who would benefit from the increased tensions between the communities and the resultant sense of insecurity?
With no credible response in sight, the Cardinal also took up another contentious issue, one that affects the catholic community in particular; the plans to build apartments and a golf-course on the Muthurajawela Wetlands, a source of income for those residing in its vicinity. They are mostly Catholics. Priests in charge of the surrounding parishes are protesting, and the Cardinal is supporting their call to prevent destruction of an important national resource, one that is taking place under the Rajapaksa administration. Leaflets about it were distributed after mass on February 28.
And now the Cardinal has called on the faithful to observe March 7 as ‘Black Sunday.’ Catholics have been asked to attend mass wearing black. The Cardinal is not alone in this crusade. He has the backing of many, including leading Buddhist clergy.
What’s more, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who has consistently maligned the international community plans to seek their assistance to obtain justice. Perhaps he now understands why those who do not receive justice through local mechanisms seek recourse from outside agencies.
Will the Cardinal be successful in his quest? Governing by distraction and throwing small life-lines at agitators is a hallmark of the Rajapaksa brothers. They may well try that same tactic in this instance too. Will the Cardinal fall for such antics or will he remain steadfast in his crusade to seek justice and unearth the truth?
If he acquiesces to anything short of the truth, and nothing but the truth, he will be letting down his congregation. If he rejects any overtures for a compromise by the government, he will be seen as their antagonist.
As it stands, neither of the scenarios are palatable options. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith is placed in a precarious position, indeed!