The government finds itself in what may be called ‘a holy mess’. Religious leaders who once supported it have turned against it, claiming that it has reneged on its promises to them.Prominent among the erstwhile friends turned critics of the government are Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda and Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. The former says he thinks the government has become a joke, and the latter is asking whether the government leaders have spines.

The SLFP under the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s stewardship mobilized what came to be known as the Five Great Forces’ or pancha maha balavegaya—Buddhist monks, native physicians, teachers, farmers and workersbetween 1952 and 1956 to capture state power. Bandaranaike succeeded in his endeavour; he formed a government but was felled by a Buddhist monk in 1959. Its off-shoot, the SLPP, went a step further and enlisted the support of the Catholic in addition to the ‘Five Great Forces’ for its successful presidential and parliamentary election campaigns in 2019 and 2020. What helped it endear itself to the Catholic Church, which had not been well-disposed towards either the SLFP or its allies was the UNP-led yahapalana government’s failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 and the fact that the probes into them were not to its satisfaction.

From black flags to international pressure

The Catholic Church does not seem satisfied with theeffectiveness of its black-flag protest, which was launched to pressure the government to have the probes into the Easter Sunday attacks expedited. Not happy with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s response to a 19-page letter, the Catholic Bishops sent to him on the Easter Sunday attacks, the Cardinal said at a press briefing on 13 August: “Raise a black flag on August 21 in front of your homes, institutions and market places as a strong symbol of the silent protest. I am not satisfied with the legal action currently being taken against those responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks.”

Black flags were hoisted at churches and the homes of Catholics, but that action has not yielded the desired impact. It only prompted IGP Chandana Wickramaratna to make a public statement, which basically sought to justify the delays in the investigation process, and highlight whatever progress the police had made in bringing those responsible for the terror attacks to justice. (We discussed the IGP’s speech in a previous column.)Thus, the Church leaders have been compelled to intensify their protests to crank up pressure on the government. They gave a press conference, the other day, following reports that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was scheduled to meet the Pope during his visit to Rome. The Cardinal did not mince his words when he said PM Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris were trying to mislead the Pope in respect of the Easter Sunday bombing probes. He said he went by a statement attributed to a government spokesman that the PM would have an audience with the Pope.

The Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry promptly issued a statement that a meeting with the Pope was not on the PM’s schedule, and the PM would be in Italy to address an international symposium as the keynote speaker at the Bologna University.

Spineless leaders

The Catholic priests, at the above-mentioned press briefing,repeated their call for action against those named by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks. The Cardinal went to the extent of implying the present-day rulers were spineless.

Nothing hurts a political leader more than to be called a wimp. It is said that President George W. H. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush were so troubled by the wimp factorthat they resorted to military action against other countries to prove their manliness. A Rolling Stone columnist had this to say about Bush Jr, after his father’s death in 2018: “When he [Bush Jr.] himself became president, W basically set fire to the Middle East in defiance of moderateslike Colin Powell in order to show everyone how not-flaccid the Bushes were.”

The Cardinal said any leader with a spine would have legal action instituted against the culprits in his camp. By ‘culprits’, the prelate was obviously referring to former President Maithripala Sirisena, who is an MP in the incumbent government. On previous occasions as well, the church leaders called for action against him as well as former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for their failure to prevent the 2019 terrorist strikes.

The SLPP leaders who take pride in having decimated the LTTE’s military arm may not have taken kindly to the Cardinal’s barb, which implies that they are spineless.

‘Grand Conspiracy’

The Cardinal also dismissed the claim that Zahran and his followers had carried out the bomb attacks on their own. Referring to a statement Dappula de Livera made as the Attorney General Livera in a television interview in May that there was a ‘grand conspiracy’ behind the Easter Sunday attacks, the Cardinal called for a probe into that controversial claim. The IGP’s recent statement also lent credence to the conspiracy theory. He said Zahran and his associates involved in the suicide attacks were only part of a big organisation. He said that previously-conducted investigations had been aimed at proving the claim that Zahran, the leader of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), who led the Easter Sunday attacks, was dead, hisgroup had perished, and other involved in those acts of terror had been arrested, the IGP said. Some officers handling investigations had acted irresponsibly, said the IGP, noting that certain ego-driven investigators had been in a hurry to conclude the probes quickly, and claim credit for that, and their approach had adversely impacted the criminal investigations.

The general consensus is that the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks has not been traced, and not even the present government is keen to probe this particular angle for some reason or the other. Livera has lent credence to the claims made by eleven key witnesses before the PCoI that they suspected a foreign hand in the attacks. The witnesses were Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Sirisena, former Minister Rauf Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Azath Salley, SJB MP Mujibur Rahman, former SIS Director SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena, former STF Commandant M. R. Lateef, former Chief of Defence Staff Ravindra Wijegunaratne, former SDIG CID Ravi Seneviratne and former CID Director Shani Abeysekera.

Govt. cracking?

The government has not been able to ignore the protests by the Catholic Church. Defence Secretary Gen. (retd) Kamal Gunaratne also referred to the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks at a media briefing on Thursday. Flanked by the IGP Wickramaratne and the Navy Commander Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne, he said the progress in the probes was satisfactory. Cases had been filed against a considerable number of suspects and a trial-at-bar had been appointed to hear them. He decried what he called a sinister attempt to use the Easter Sunday attacks to tarnish the image of President Rajapaksa.Various issues were taken up at the press conference, but it was obvious that the Defence Secretary’s focus was on the Easter Sunday attacks and the reaction of the Catholic church.

Asked by a journalist whether former AG de Livera could be summoned by the CID to record a statement from him on his claim of ‘Grand Conspiracy’, the Defence Secretary said the retired AG was not an ordinary citizen and he could be questioned by the CID. This is the direction in which the Catholic Church wants the probes to move.

Sirisena’s fate

There is no love lost between former President Sirisena and the Rajapaksas. They have wronged one another, and they subsequently came together out of expediency and not principle. The Rajapaksas, however, are not in a position to allow the PCoI recommendations against Sirisena to be carried out because they are concerned about the stability of their government. The SLFP, led by Sirisena, is a force to be reckoned with; it has 14 members in the SLFP parliamentary group, and some of its senior members declare from time to time would have the public believe that they are planning to pull out of the SLPP coalition.The SLFP leaders have not issued such threats, but the lesser ones cannot be making such statements without their knowledge. The SLFP seems to be leveraging its parliamentary strength to ensure that the government will shield its leader, Sirisena.

There is hardly anything that politicians do not do to further their interests. Hence the saying that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics, and there are only permanent interests. So, the Rajapaksas may not consider it prudent to go on defending Sirisena indefinitely at the expense of their interests. The government has not come under international pressure over the Easter Sunday attacks so far because the Catholic Church has acted with restraint. But if the issue gets internationalized and international pressure mounts on it, the government will not be able to go on protecting Sirisena. There is the possibility of the government being left with no alternative but to throw Sirisena to the wolves if push comes to shove.


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