By S. Binodkumar Singh*
In the worst terrorist incident in the country, on April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, three churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa; and three hotels and a banquet hall in Colombo, were targeted in a series of coordinated suicide bombings. 259 people were killed and 500 were injured in the attacks. The responsibility for the coordinated bombings was claimed by the Islamic State (IS or Daesh) on April 23, 2019, by its official news outlet Amaq News Agency, which released a video showing the Sri Lanka attackers pledging allegiance to the (now deceased) Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
On May 1, 2019, 10 days after the attacks, Sri Lanka Police named all nine Easter Sunday suicide bombers as local residents – Zahran Hashim, Ilham Ahmed Mohamed Ibrahim, Inshaf Ahmed, Mohamed Azzam Mubarak Mohamed, Ahmed Muaz, Mohamed Hasthun, Mohamed Nasser Mohamed Asad, Abdul Latheef and Fathima Ilham – tracing all of them to two domestic Islamist organisations, National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI).
In order to maintain public security and essential services, President Maithripala Sirisena, in a gazette notification, on April 22, 2019, declared a State of Emergency across the country. Under the Emergency Regulations, the Government on May 14, 2019, banned three radical Islamist organizations: NTJ, JMI and Willayat as-Seylani (WAS). Finally, the four-month state of emergency declared after Easter Sunday suicide bombings was ended on August 23, 2019. Through this period, there was a nationwide crackdown on Islamist groups. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 12 NTJ cadres were killed and 294 cadres of NTJ and JMI were arrested across the country. Prior to the Easter Sunday attacks, there was no terrorist incident linked to NTJ or JMI.
On September 18, 2019, in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, the Cabinet approved a new Counter Terrorism Bill to deal with the latest threat. The Bill gave a broad definition to terrorism and covered areas not found in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), 1979. The PTA was only limited to terrorist acts committed by any citizen of Sri Lanka within the country, whereas the Counter Terrorism Bill will apply to any citizen of Sri Lanka in the country within or outside the territory of Sri Lanka. The new Bill, modelled on laws in Britain and India to deal with IS terrorism, also contains provisions for dealing with the use of cyberspace for terrorist operations and coordination of terrorist activities. The PTA lacked adequate teeth to act against such cyberspace operations.
Meanwhile, on October 23, 2019, the final report of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the Easter Sunday Attack was presented in the Parliament. The report made eight recommendations that includes taking action to ban Wahabism in Sri Lanka, reorganising the defence sectors including the intelligence services, setting up of a financial investigation unit, reorganising the Attorney General’s Department and the Judiciary, monitoring media in order to stop publishing of false reports, and changing the education system to exclude teaching of extremism. The PSC had been appointed on May 22, 2019. Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri was the Chairman of the nine-member PSC. The other members of the PSC were Rajitha Senaratne, the Minister of Health and Indigenous Medicine; Rauf Hakeem, the Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage; and Ravi Karunanayake Minister of Power, Energy and Business Development; as well as parliamentarians Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Ashu Marasinghe and Jayampathy Wickramaratne from the Government side; and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parliamentarian Nalinda Jayathissa representing the Opposition.
The Government also cracked down on the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2019, with 27 former LTTE cadres and sympathisers arrested across the country. There were six such arrests in 2018 and seven in 2017. No LTTE-linked fatalities were recorded in 2019, 2018 and 2017. The last LTTE-related fatality was reported on April 10, 2014, when four people, including an Army Lance Corporal and three LTTE cadres, were killed in a clash between Security Forces (SFs) and LTTE cadres in the Nadunkarni area of Vavuniya District. Disturbingly, Defence Secretary Major General (Retd.) Kamal Gunaratne on December 9, 2019, stated that the ideology of LTTE continues to persist despite Sri Lanka’s freedom from terrorism.
There were also reports of arrests outside Sri Lanka in connection with LTTE. On April 11, 2019, four Sri Lankans were arrested at the Luton Airport in the United Kingdom over ‘connections’ to the LTTE. On October 10, 2019, seven persons were arrested for promoting and supporting LTTE from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Again, on October 13, 2019, Malaysia Police arrested five citizens of Malaysia over involvement in huge financial transactions to revive the LTTE. In fact, on March 26, 2019, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry revived its Counter Terrorism Unit in the Ministry to coordinate more closely between the defence, law enforcement authorities, other relevant agencies and Sri Lankan missions abroad on counter terrorism and counter crime initiatives. The Counter Terrorism Unit most importantly coordinated efforts to continue the proscription of the LTTE as a terrorist organization by foreign Governments.
Separately, in order to promote reconciliation, the Government on August 24, 2019, opened the third regional Office on Missing Persons (OMP) in Jaffna District of the Northern Province. OMP Chairman, Saliya Pieris inaugurated the office at Jaffna, adding to the existing regional offices in Matara and Mannar Districts. OMP was operationalized on March 13, 2018, with the mandate to search for and trace the fate and whereabouts of missing and disappeared persons during the war between the Government forces and the LTTE, which was concluded on May 17, 2009. Further, President Maithripala Sirisena, during a discussion with security officials on August 28, 2019, issued instructions to expedite the process of releasing lands acquired by the military in the North and East to the rightful owners. During the discussion, security officials informed the President that 80.98 per cent of state lands and 90.73 per cent of private lands which had been acquired during the war, had already been released.
Significantly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was sworn in as President after the polarized Presidential Election of November 16, 2019. Gotabaya Rajapaksa swept the poll in the Sinhala majority Districts of the South, while New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa garnered most of the votes from the Tamil dominated North and East, and from the Muslim community as well as the tea plantation workers of Indian origin. Repeating history, on November 21, 2019, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Further, on November 22, 2019, the President appointed a 16-member interim Cabinet headed by his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa and allotted major portfolios to his brothers. Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, as well as Defence and Finance Minister. Chamal Rajapaksa as Trade and Food Security Minister. 16 law makers will serve as Ministers in a Caretaker Government until the next General Election in March 2020. Gotabaya also vowed to call a snap general election “at the earliest opportunity” hoping to ride a wave of popularity and secure a majority for his SLPP party in the 225-member Parliament. Currently, the Rajapaksas and their allies have just 96 legislators, making it hard for them to pass any legislation.
In a departure from the previous Government, on January 7, 2020, an official attached to the Justice Ministry disclosed that the Government had decided to review the OMP Act enacted by Parliament under the preceding regime. The official further stated that a preliminary discussion had been held on the Act and that the Government would review it and decide what needs to be done. In another departure from the previous Government, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government declined to sing the national anthem in Tamil, the country’s second national language, during the island’s Independence Day celebrations on February 4, 2020. Earlier, the anthem was sung in the country’s two primary languages – Sinhala and Tamil – to promote ethnic harmony in the aftermath of a decades-long civil war. Tamil politicians had requested Gotabaya to continue the practice of singing the Tamil translation of the national anthem, recognized by the Constitution, in order to give the Tamil community a sense of belonging to the country after decades of estrangement with the state.
The new Government also withdrew the Counter Terrorism Bill drafted by the previous Government to replace PTA. Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena on January 3, 2020, noted,
The previous Cabinet of Ministers approved the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979 and the introduction of the draft Counter Terrorism Bill in Parliament with the intent of enacting new laws to combat terrorism. The controversial Bill is being considered by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on International Relations in Parliament. However, considering the views expressed by various parties regarding certain provisions contained in the Bill, Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena has proposed the withdrawal of the Bill.
Minister Gunawardena, in his statement, highlighting the opposition to the Bill within the country stated,
There was opposition to the Bill from the start, and we have repeatedly opposed it at Oversight Committee meetings. If the CTA was enacted, it would have stopped the Armed Forces and Police from dealing effectively with the threat of terrorism, and instead curbed the rights guaranteed to the people by the Constitution, such as political trade union rights, and their freedom of expression.
Gunawardena asserted that the PTA would remain in place.
Moreover, expressing serious concern over the Counter Terrorism Bill, the then opposition leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now the Prime Minister) had stated on April 2, 2019, “We will be talking to other like-minded parties to prevent the passage of the CT Bill in Parliament. The proposed new legislation is because of undue international pressure and the failure of the Government.” Similarly, another opposition party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Member of Parliament (MP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake on May 8, 2019, had asserted that the Bill included articles that suppress the people. He had further said that it was very clear the Counter Terrorism Bill was attempting to suppress protests and people’s rights.
Highlighting that the respect for fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka is in serious jeopardy following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as President in November 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its World Report 2020 released on January 14, 2020, claimed,
There is every reason to fear that any progress Sri Lanka has made in recent years in restoring basic rights and rebuilding democratic institutions will be overturned with a vengeance. The new president seems intent not only to wipe away the Rajapaksas’ past abuses but clear the path for future ones. Concerned governments should make it clear that international crimes cannot simply be brushed under the carpet.
Through 2019, the National Unity Government, formed on August 20, 2015, made remarkable efforts to press forward the reconciliation process by establishing regional OMP centres to help find the missing persons of the war era. However, after the eighth Presidential Election of November 2019, there are already concerns in the country among the minority communities about the possibility of a return to iron-fisted rule under the Rajapaksa-duo’s regime. Moreover, with a discernibly polarized mandate, Gotabaya’s commitment to be a leader for all will be severely tested.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management