Picking up the pieces | Daily News

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Picking up the pieces

Sri Lanka continued to be under a cloud of fear and heightened vigilance as the fallout from the Easter Sunday bomb blasts that killed 253 persons continued last week, leading to many investigations and raids while taking a toll on senior officials of the defence establishment.

The death toll, previously thought to be 359, was revised by the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Anil Jasinghe. “When persons are killed as a result of bomb blasts, victims suffer mutilation and body-parts are scattered widely, making it difficult to identify bodies and it is difficult to accurately state the number of deaths”, Dr. Jasinghe explained, although there was some criticism of the authorities initially announcing a higher death toll.

It is now confirmed that the blasts were the work of locals affiliated to the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ), a radical Islamic organisation, acting in tandem with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In fact, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broke a five-year silence to release a video in which he praised the Sri Lankan attacks and claimed they were retaliation for the fall of ISIS stronghold of Baghouz in Syria. Previously, al-Baghdadi had been reported many times as having being killed.

Locally, it has also been established that the mastermind of the attacks was Zahran Hashim. Military intelligence has confirmed that Hashim was one of the suicide bombers and had been killed in the blast at the Shangri-La hotel. DNA testing is to be carried out to confirm this.

The most significant incident following the bomb blast occurred in Kalmunai where Police and soldiers fought a gun battle with occupants of a house for more than an hour last Friday night. Afterwards, an explosion thought to be triggered by suicide bombers in the house, ended the stand-off. A search operation on Saturday morning found the bodies of fifteen persons, including six children inside the house, Police said.

Easter Sunday blasts

It was later reported that a woman and child rescued from the house who are now being treated in hospital for their injuries were the wife and child of Zahran Hashim. The former had been identified as Abdul Cader Fathima Zadiya and the latter as Mohamed Zahran Ruzaina. Further investigations and interrogations are underway.

Police raids on suspected hideouts have continued since key persons thought to be involved in the Easter Sunday blasts were apprehended. Over one hundred individuals are in custody and are being questioned, leading to more arrests and raids. These have yielded substantial information which paints a grim picture of sustained extremist activity in the country for some time which had eluded authorities who were either unaware or did not recognise the scale of the threat.

In the wake of the incidents, President Maithripala Sirisena announced that he would be restructuring the defence establishment. He also publicly called for the resignations of Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera.

Fernando was under fire for telling the media that while a security threat was recognised and authorities were aware that attacks were imminent, they did not realise that the attacks would be of this magnitude and that it would also be impossible to provide security to every church. Jayasundera was faulted for not informing the President of the threat which had been outlined in a letter from a Deputy Inspector General to various security divisions within the Police.

Fernando did resign, acceding to the President’s request but IGP Jayasundera has stood his ground and refused to quit. This led the President to seek legal advice. Since then, Jayasundera has been sent on compulsory leave and Senior DIG C. D. Wickremerathne had been appointed as Acting IGP. Speaking in Parliament last week, former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka stated that he saw no reason why the IGP alone should take the blame for the blasts and resign.

Since the resignation of Fernando as Defence Secretary, several persons were suggested for the crucial position. It was reported that some high officials had been offered the post but had politely declined. Eventually, it was announced that Retired General Shantha Kottegoda, a former Army Commander had been appointed as Defence Secretary. Former IGP N. K. Illangakoon was also appointed as an advisor to the Ministry of Defence.

In entirely unrelated developments that may become significant in due course, Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya was sworn in as the new Chief Justice before President Sirisena. Jayasuriya’s appointment had been unanimously endorsed by the Constitutional Council. Solicitor General Dappula de Livera has been appointed as the Acting Attorney General while Additional Auditor General Chulantha Wickramaratne was also confirmed as the Auditor General.

New regulations

President Sirisena also took action to ban the NTJ, the organisation responsible for the Easter attacks. The ban followed the unanimous approval of a State of Emergency in Parliament. Also banned was the Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI), another extremist Islamist organisation.

The President also enacted regulations banning the burqa, the head dress used by many Muslim women. Although the ban at present arises from emergency regulations, it may be permanent. “The government is studying the legislations of countries such as France and Belgium that have banned the face veil, and are looking at bringing in regular legislation to ban it,” presidential media secretary Sugeeswara Senadhira has said.

Apart from these developments, there has been a significant political fallout from the attacks as well. It is inevitable that the Easter attacks are a blow to the prospects of President Sirisena as well as the governing United National party (UNP) at forthcoming elections. While the President has apportioned blame to officials who had not kept him informed of developments, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has apologised for the lapses of the government.

“As Prime Minister, I share in the collective responsibility for this. I express my sincere regret to the people of our country for the Government’s lapse. While I reiterate the fact that I did not receive this critical information prior to the attack, I do not run away from my responsibility. But, it is not enough to simply apologise. We have to make sure these mistakes are never repeated in the future,” the Prime Minister said in an address to the nation.

Opposition criticism

The opposition has been critical of the government since the attacks, pointing to the lapses in security despite the availability of intelligence information that an attack was imminent. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa also chose to criticise a proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), that has been mooted. Previously, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had stated that a CTA could have averted the attacks.

“A CTA will not only suppress the entire country including the trade unions and student unions it will also provide security to terrorists instead of apprehending them”, Rajapaksa said. Rajapaksa also said that foreign assistance to tackle Islamic extremism should be accepted “only when necessary”. Rajapaksa had met with former commanders of the three services, a move that was criticised for attempting to convey the impression that these officers were siding with him at a time of national crisis.

However, the most significant political development came in the form of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa announcing his candidature for the next presidential elections in the wake of attacks. In an interview with the news agency Reuters, Rajapaksa said that he would run for President in elections later this year and would stop the spread of Islamist extremism by rebuilding the intelligence service and having surveillance on suspects.

Rajapaksa was also highly critical of the government’s handling of the incidents. “Because the government was not prepared, that’s why you see a panic situation,” Rajapaksa said, adding that “various people are blaming various people, not giving exactly the details as to what happened, even people expect the names, what organisation did this, and how they came up to this level, that explanation was not given”.

Rajapaksa, who had previously not formally declared his intentions to run for President also dismissed the civil cases filed against him in the United States as a “little distraction”. However, his decision to announce his candidature at this critical juncture, when the country is still reeling from one of its worst ever calamities attracted criticism of political opportunism and being manipulative and downright insensitive to the mood prevailing in the country.

In another political development, the UNP has said that it will request President Sirisena again to appoint Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Minister of Law and Order. It was reported that another minister was even willing to step down to facilitate the move. However, the party’s request is yet to receive a favourable response.

More critical developments are likely in the coming weeks both on the security front and also in the political arena in relation to the Easter attacks. Meanwhile, the country is slowly limping back to normalcy with schools and universities poised to re-open next week. Nevertheless, there will be no May Day or Vesak celebrations this year, a drastic measure not resorted to even at the height of the Eelam war, indicating the terrible impact the Easter attacks have had on the Sri Lankan way of life.

 


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