By Vishvanath

Former President Maithripala Sirisena has created quite a stir by claiming that he possesses irrefutable evidence to prove who actually masterminded the Easter Sunday terror attacks in April 2019. Fielding questions from a horde of hectoring provincial reporters, in Kandy on Friday, he said that he was ready to share that information with the judiciary provided it would be kept strictly confidential, given what he called possible threats to him and his family members. He would not have said so without consulting his lawyers first.

Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles took swift action; he directed IGP Deshabandu Tennakoon to launch a probe into Sirisena’s claim forthwith. Sirisena has been summoned to the CID Headquarters to make a statement. On Sunday (24), he said he would go there on Monday. Pressure is mounting on the government and the police to arrest him, but it is highly unlikely that they will resort to such a course of action. Whether the investigation to be launched will be conducted to a conclusion remains to be seen. Usually such probes fizzle out with the passage of time when the public loses interest in them.

On Saturday, under pressure to explain why he had not revealed information about the terror mastermind when he testified before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday tragedy, Sirisena said he had received that particular piece of information only three weeks back.   

It is being argued in some quarters that Sirisena has sought to grab media attention by saying something controversial, as is his wont. But such a propaganda stunt cannot be considered possible because the Easter Sunday carnage is an issue that Sirisena will go to any length to have the country forget, especially in an election year, with the fifth anniversary of the carnage drawing near. A seasoned politician like Sirisena would not have resorted to anything with a potential to backfire in a bid to gain some publicity. There are other ways he can achieve that end without reminding the public of his lapses that paved the way for the tragedy.   

Why has Sirisena made such a claim all of a sudden? One reason may be that the Supreme Court (SC) judgement in a fundamental rights case over the Easter Sunday attacks continues to trouble him politically. He cannot be unaware that he will not be able to live it down. He is apparently trying to mitigate the political fallout of the judicial decision, which will be used against him on the political front ahead of future elections. Perhaps, he has taken up the issue himself before anyone else does so and have the public believe that action must be taken against the mastermind and not him.   

On 12 January 2023, the SC ordered Sirisena, four others and the State to pay compensation amounting to Rs. 311 million to the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings, which killed 269 people and left more than 500 others injured, some maimed for life. Sirisena was ordered to pay Rs. 100 million, former police chief Pujith Jayasundara and former State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director Nilantha Jayawardena Rs 75 million each, former Defence Ministry Secretary Hemasiri Fernando Rs 50 million and former Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis Rs 10 million, as compensation. The State was ordered to pay one million rupees as compensation to the victims. Sirisena has said he lacks the wherewithal to pay compensation and asked for time, but in vain.  

What is really hurtful to Sirisena must be the fact that his political rivals are making use of the SC order at issue and the PCoI findings and recommendations to project him as a failed leader.

Based on several lapses on the part of Sirisena, who was also the Minister of Defence, and senior officials, at the time of the Easter Sunday tragedy, the SC seven-judge Bench held that his failure in communication within the security establishment, and the sporadic conduct of National Security Council were tantamount to “a serious omission on the part of the then President”. The PCoI has recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against several persons including Sirisena. The SC judgement and the findings and recommendations have cooked Sirisena’s goose politically.  

Thus, the Easter Sunday tragedy has not only ruined Sirisena’s chances of making a re-election bid, which he was planning to do but also has stood in the way of his contesting a future presidential election. He has no way of repairing his image and projecting himself as a strong leader capable of ensuring public security.

Sirisena was preparing the grounds for his re-election campaign towards the end of his presidential term by taking on the drug Mafia and making himself out to be a leader on a campaign to protect the public against evil forces.   

Sirisena openly praised his Philippines counterpart Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which had already claimed thousands of lives. He chose to call that anti-drug operation an “example to the world”. Making a speech during a visit to the Philippines in January 2019, about three months before the Easter Sunday terror attacks, Sirisena declared his intention to replicate Duterte’s brutal approach to tackling illegal drug use. “The war against crime and drugs carried out by you is an example to the whole world, and personally to me,” he told Duterte. “Drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow your footsteps to control this hazard.” But the Easter Sunday carnage made his re-election plans go awry and became a source of endless trouble for him.

The Catholic Church and the families of the Easter Sunday terror victims are still clamouring for justice. They are likely to intensify their campaign in the run-up to the next election. This is a disconcerting proposition for Sirisena with some years of politics left in him. He managed to counter the political impact of the tragedy ahead of the 2020 general election to some extent by siding with the Rajapaksas, who projected themselves as the slayers of terrorists and turned the tables on the Yahapalana camp. On the other hand, the PCOI report had not been released by that time.

Dissidents in the SLFP are also likely to use the protests by the Church and others against Sirisena, and they might go so far as to demand someone else be appointed as the party leader. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike is said to have patched up differences with Sirisena, but she will not mind cashing in on a possible intraparty campaign against Sirisena. She does not want to play second fiddle to him or anyone else for that matter.

Sirisena knows that the issue of Easter Sunday carnage will not go away and is bound to resurface come the next election, presidential or general. He keeps making feeble attempts to absolve himself of the blame for failure to prevent the carnage, and repair his image. He has not been able to achieve that objective, and chances are that he may not be able to do so in the foreseeable future even in the event of the actual mastermind behind the Easter Sunday terror strikes being identified. The charge against him is that he failed to prevent the carnage, and he may have to live with it for the rest of his life, making statements like the one which has landed him in trouble again.