Will it be Hobson’s choice for the Cardinal?

Like God, Presidential Commissions of Inquiry also work in mysterious ways- and it certainly has, with regard to Commission probing the Easter Sunday terror attacks of April 2019 and former President Maithripala Sirisena and the government find themselves in a frightful dilemma as a result.

To begin with, there were quite a few committees and commissions looking into the deadly attacks that shattered Sri Lanka’s peace on Easter Sunday in April 2019.

The first ‘committee of inquiry’ was appointed by then President Maithripala Sirisena, a day after the attacks, shortly after he returned from Singapore. While that committee was sitting, the Parliament, which was at loggerheads with Sirisena, appointed its Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe the events of that Sunday.

The two committees ran in parallel. At one stage, there was the farcical spectacle of members of President Sirisena’s committee being asked to give evidence before the PSC.

Sirisena himself was summoned before the PSC. The next day, he hit back, appointing a five member Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The Commission comprised of four judges and a retired senior official. That was in September 2019.

Unfortunately for Sirisena, by the time the Commission conducted their inquiries and submitted an interim report, it was December 2019. By that time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had become President, having won the presidential election a month earlier. A second interim report was submitted in March 2020. The final report was submitted almost a year later, just a few weeks ago.  

The final report has now more or less been made public. It recommends criminal proceedings against former President Sirisena and several other senior officials including former Inspector General of Police PujithJayasundara and then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando.

Spare a thought for Maithripala Sirisena. The recommendation against him is sheer irony. It was Sirisena who appointed this Commission of inquiry. The same Commission has now recommended criminal proceedings against him. The good Buddhist that he is, Sirisena must believe in karma, but this is poetic justice at its harshest.

The Commission castigates the former President for not appointing an Acting Minister of Defence when he travelled overseas and for not allowing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesingheto attend meetings of the National Security Council after the constitutional crisis six months prior to the attack.

It is even more damning in its observations about Sirisena’s integrity when the ex-President has proclaimed his innocence throughout, insisting that he had no knowledge of intelligence warnings of an impending attack.

 

It notes that the Director of the State Intelligence Services Nilantha Jayawardena made several calls to the Presidential Secretariat in April 2019, prior to Sirisena leaving on his overseas visit.

Having observed the close connection between the two, the Commission, “on a balance of probability” concluded that Jayawardena did convey details of intelligence reports pertaining to a possible attack to the former President. In other words, it accuses Sirisena of lying.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghehas also been admonished for not publicisingthe issue of not being invited for meetings of the National Security Council noting that he should have raised the matter in Cabinet or Parliament. However, ever the escape artist who survives to fight another day, Wickremesinghe gets away with a slap on the wrists, with no recommendations against him.

Where does this leave Sirisena now and perhaps more importantly, where does this lead the government?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his Independence Day address to the nation pledged that he would be instructing the Attorney General to pursue action against those responsible for the Easter bombings and the Central Bank bond scam. Now, he could do just that because that is what the Commission has recommended but doing so would throw Sirisena to the wolves.

Sirisena, though not in the Cabinet, is still a key member of the government. He is still the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which contributes more than a dozen parliamentarians to the government. Without them, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led government will not command a two-thirds majority, which will come in handy if they are to enact a new Constitution.

Throw Sirisena at the mercy of the legal system and the government risks losing the support of the SLFP, lock stock and barrel. Even now, it is making noises to that effect. Their members are livid, even though Sirisena must take most of the blame because this is the Commission he himself appointed.

So, Rajapaksa does the next best thing. He appoints yet another committee of ministers led by elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa. Unsurprisingly, the other members are Johnston Fernando, Udaya Gammanpila, Ramesh Pathirana, Prasanna Ranatunga and Rohitha Abeygunawardena.

Barring the elder Rajapaksa and Pathirana, all of the others have been accused and charged with various offences in recent times. Obviously, virtue and honesty were not criteria in selecting this committee- which is now the fourth looking into the Easter attacks.

Already Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has slammed the committee, asking why the observations made by learned men and women after careful inquiry should be subject to scrutiny by “persons who haven’t passed their ‘O’ Levels”. A valid point indeed and one that has the opposition scurrying to check the academic attainments of the ministerial committee!!

There is no denying that it was the Easter attacks that propelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power. It rekindled the threat of terrorism in a nation that had become accustomed to peace. Rajapaksa seized the opportunity and, just a few days after the attacks, offered himself as the presidential candidate with the pledge that he would “secure the nation” once again as he had done ten years earlier against Tiger terrorists. Needless to say, swayed by some carefully crafted anti-Muslim propaganda, 6. 9 million voters believed him.

Now though, that pledge has come back to haunt Rajapaksa. He can keep his promises and punish Sirisena or get the ministerial committee to scuttle the process. If he opts for the former he risks instability within the government. If he chooses the latter, he will have to deal with the fallout from the Catholic community and its most vociferous representative, the Cardinal.

Which would Rajapaksa choose? The fact that a ministerial committee has been appointed should give you a clue as to what the answer to that question would be!      

 

 

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