A file photo of a demonstration urging the government to arrest the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and a group of senior Buddhist monks holding placards near St. Anthony’s Church, Colombo. (Picture courtesy Associated Press)

Many are the problems that the incumbent SLPP government is trying to wish away. One of them is the ultimatum given by the Catholic Church, which is demanding justice for those who perished in the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, and their families. In a recent letter (dated 13 July 2021) addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, six auxiliary Bishops and 27 priests have called for the full implementation of the recommendations by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday bombings. Among the persons the prelates have specifically asked for legal action against are former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Church has also called for further investigations into the terror attacks, and warned that it will be compelled to launch a protest campaign unless its demands are met within one month.

Ironically, criminal proceedings against former President Sirisena have been recommended by the very PCoI he himself appointed. The commission survived the change of government in 2019. There is no way Sirisena can reject the commission report and recommendations as the outcome of a conspiracy against him.

The PCoI recommendation that calls for criminal proceedings against Sirisena is unambiguous. It says: “Based on the evidence, the COI is of the view that there is criminal liability on his [Sirisena’s] part for the acts or omission explained above. The COI recommends that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code.” No such recommendation, however, has been made as regards former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The PCoI has only said: “It is the view of the COI that the lax approach of Mr. Wickremesinghe towards Islam extremism as the Prime Minister was one of the primary reasons for the failure on the part of the then Government to take proactive steps towards Islam extremism. This facilitated the build-up of Islamic extremism to the point of the Easter Sunday attacks.” But the Catholic Church is convinced otherwise; it wants legal action against Wickremesinghe as well.

Govt.’s dilemma

Wickremesinghe is not the government’s problem although the SLPP leaders have a soft corner for him; it may even be a quid pro quo because Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister did not go all out to destroy the Rajapaksa family politically. In fact, he was seen to be protecting them. But the present government does not have to worry about any political consequences in case of legal action being taken against Wickremesinghe over his failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite warnings. Its problem is Sirisena.

The SLPP would have been more than happy to have Sirisena prosecuted, as recommended by the PCoI, if he and the Rajapaksa family had not buried the hatchet in 2018, when they joined forces to defeat the UNP government. Today, Sirisena heads the SLFP, which is a constituent of the SLPP coalition, and has 14 members in the government parliamentary group. So, the SLPP leadership cannot throw Sirisena to the wolves, and at the same time, it cannot antagonize the Catholic Church by refusing to meet its demand in question. On the other hand, one of the key election promises of the SLPP was to ensure that justice would be done for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks.

If the government continues to shield Sirisena, it will have the Church intensifying its protests, whose ramifications will be both domestic and international. This is a worrisome proposition for the government, which is struggling to burnish its reputation overseas. Sirisena is not likely to resign himself to criminal proceedings, as he knows the gravity of the situation; odds will be against him in a legal battle. He will find himself in the company of former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando in the event of criminal proceedings being instituted against him. The SLFP will therefore fight for its leader, and the ruling coalition will experience a huge internal problem unless the government manages to turn a section of the SLFP stalwarts against Sirisena and make him out to be a liability for them. One way of achieving this end may be to entice some SLFP members elected to Parliament on the SLPP ticket into crossing over to the SLPP. This is more or less what Sirisena did to the Rajapaksa family after the 2015 regime change; he caused the isolation of the Rajapaksas in the SLFP by winning over a large number of party stalwarts.

The government does not run any risk of falling in the event of Sirisena being let down, but such a course of action is sure to bring about some internal problems that will weaken the ruling coalition, whose popularity is already on the wane.

SLFP’s reaction

The SLFP is aware that the SLPP—the political party as opposed to the coalition by the same name—is aiming to form a government on its own in the future. The SLPP already has more than 130 members in the government parliamentary group, and can control parliament even in case of an SLFP pullout. Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivituru Hela Urumaya and Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front are also facing the same treatment as the SLFP at the hands of the SLPP.

A meeting which was to be held, on Tuesday (20 July) between President Rajapaksa and an SLFP delegation led by former President Sirisena was postponed until 27 July. No reason was officially given for the postponement. The SLFP was expected to bring to the President notice what it calls the stepmotherly treatment it receives from some SLPP leaders.

The SLFP has been striking discordant notes on vital issues. It has even declared that it intends to form a government on its own. Nobody will take such statements seriously, for the SLFP is riding on the SLPP’s coattails, and therefore does not want to leave the government. But its rhetoric is indicative of a deepening crisis in the SLPP and may be intended to serve as a warning that it will not hesitate to break ranks with the government in case of the prosecution of its leader.

Some SLPP MPs have asked the SLFP to do as the SLPP says, or leave the government. Prominent among them are SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam and SLPP MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi; both are loyalists of Basil Rajapaksa. But the SLPP does not want such a split at this juncture. Hence its hesitation to meet the Catholic Church’s demand that Sirisena be made to face criminal proceedings forthwith.

Procrastination and church bells

The government does not have all the time in the world to decide what to do with the PCoI recommendations against Sirisena. It has less than three weeks to make up its mind. Procrastination is not going to be of any help; it will only cause the Church bells to ring out in protest, come mid-August.

The Catholic Church has waited long enough, and is left with no more excuses to offer to its flock for the delay in having justice served. It undertook to ensure justice for the victims and their families and even promised to take to the streets to achieve that end. Its leaders have to make good on that pledge.

Besides, the Church leaders are not happy with the manner in which the Easter Sunday bombings have been investigated so far. They are of the view that the persons who masterminded the terrorist attacks are still at large, and neither Churches nor the country will be safe until they are identified and brought to justice. This call resonates with many Sri Lankans including non-Catholics, and cannot be ignored by the government, which claims that the mastermind is already in custody. But its claim is not convincing. The Cardinal has reminded the government that some time ago, the then Attorney General Dappula de Livera publicly stated that there had been a grand conspiracy behind the Easter Sunday attacks.

Unless the government plucks up the courage to carry out the PCoI recommendations without shielding Sirisena, it will have another serious problem to contend with. There will be a spate of protests, and the government will not be able to have the police round up the protesting priests and bus them to distant quarantine centres, for two reasons. It will not dare resort to such action against members of the clergy, and it has already learnt a bitter lesson from the teachers who received that kind of treatment during a recent protest, but fought their way out of the quarantine centres where they were held.


Both the government and Sirisena must be smelling the fat that is in the fire.



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