Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • May 2019
    M T W T F S S

Moving Beyond the Easter Carnage

Posted by harimpeiris on May 11, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 09th May 2019)

As this article is being penned, the Parliament of Sri Lanka is engaging in a two-day adjournment debate on the devastating massacres launched against innocents on Easter Sunday in Colombo, Negombo and Batticala. In the course of the debate, President Sirisena, as Minister of Defense and Minister of Law and Order expressed confidence, that the security forces have got on top of the situation, arresting not only the conspirators but also negating the capacity for terrorism of the remaining culprits. The Commander of the Army echoed similar sentiments calling on the civil population to resume their normal day to day activities and that security has been reestablished. A relatively quick return to normalcy after the devastating terrorist massacres.

A legal framework and oversight of intelligence operations

We could only hope that parliamentary debate would reveal why intelligence information from India, was not acted upon, why as alleged by no less than government ministers our own intelligence services was allegedly paying off, the accused leaders and some members of the National Thowheed Jamath besides other unsavory organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena. Making the accused persons, actually assets of our intelligence agencies. It is clear that unlike the uniformed security services, there is insufficient oversight of the intelligence services and an inadequate legal framework for their work. The United States for instance as a global superpower has serious congressional oversight of intelligence operations, besides the executive, ensuring that intelligence services, whose work is secretive and covert by nature, is not unaccountable to civilian authority in a structured and legal manner. In a highly politicized society like ours, good oversight and accountability prevents or manages politicization of the intelligence services.

Deradicalization of extremists

In the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday massacres, Muslim leaders themselves have been complaining that they have for over a decade been informing and seeking to get remedial action by the relevant authorities regarding the extremist elements in their midst and their potential for violence. Particularly the most recent call to arms and violence by National Thowheed Jamath leader Zaharan, now freely available on social media, had previously been brought to the notice of the authorities, but to no avail. The reason one suspects, is political. The extremist elements were seen as political opponents of their more moderate political leaders and therefore nurtured, including through intelligence service payoffs, as alternate leaders and given the space to grow and operate. Sri Lanka’s unfinished nation building exercise means, that the focus of the state establishment, is to weaken and keep at bay, the political leadership of minority communities, where Tamil or Muslim and this has meant that potential alternative leaders, though more extreme, are nurtured. For instance, In the case of the Tamil community, the LTTE remnants in Sri Lanka, KP, Karuna and Piliyan are not with the moderate ITAK dominated TNA, who will have nothing to do with them, but with the so called national parties, dominated by the majority community, particularly its more nationalist ones, who are the most keen to keep the minorities divided. A dubious policy with potentially disastrous consequences.

But the deradicalizing of those Sri Lankans who claim to kill in the name of Islam, whether identified with ISIS, another foreign terrorist group or not, is something that has to come from within the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself and their leadership, especially their religious leadership. Within any faith community the interpretation of scripture will always have a degree of diversity, otherwise there would be no need for institutions of religious study and scholarship. However, what cannot and is not allowed in any civilized society, is the law of the jungle with murderous random violence against innocents. Preventing the violence, is a state security responsibility. Challenging any understanding or articulation of theology which provides a cover for that violence, is the responsibility of that religion’s scholars and religious leaders. A challenge with considerable work to do in the future.

The debate on the Counter Terrorism Bill (CTA) vs the PT

Dragged into the debate following the Easter Sunday attacks has been the proposal to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), with the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA). The government is rather keen to see the enactment of the CTA, committed as it is to fight terrorism within international best practice and in cooperation with the international community of nations. This undertaking has also been given in terms of the UNHRC process. There are however valid concerns regarding the proposed CTA, including the definition of terrorism which is so broad as to make any political dissent, a terrorist offence and these need to be amended. But it is a big improvement on the existing PTA.

The SLPP and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse has been attacking the proposed CTA, which rather like many of their other attacks on policy matters, seems high on rhetoric, low on specifics and designed to inflame passions, especially in an election year. Fishing in troubled waters, may be the rather uncharitable way to describe it. The rather obvious objective of seeking to prevent the enactment of the CTA, is to retain the PTA, which in the past has been a tool of political repression, like in the imprisonment of journalist Tissanayagam. The PTA when introduced was meant to be temporary. Sri Lanka requires a new legal framework for anti-terror security and the Easter Sunday massacres should not be allowed to derail much needed and long overdue legal reforms.

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