By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, June 12: In most countries, terrorist attacks would have some economic impact, especially on the tourism sector, with little or no impact on society or polity. But in Sri Lanka, the impact of the April 21 multiple bombings has been unusually and extraordinarily wide in social, political , economic and constitutional terms.
Constitutional Impasse or Breakdown
The country appears to be in the cusp of a constitutional breakdown with President Maithripala Sirisena vowing not to hold cabinet meetings till parliament stops the proceedings of its Select Committee (PSC) on the Easter Sunday bombings. According to him the public hearings of the PSC are exposing the intelligence agencies and putting the nation in danger.
But Speaker Karu Jayasuriya asserts that the President has no constitutional right to ask for the suspension of a PSC, which is exclusively a preserve of parliament. He has warned that officials not answering the PSC’s summons (at the President’s behest) would be liable to privilege proceedings.
The ruling United National Front (UNF) proposes to move a resolution in parliament requesting the President to hold cabinet meetings. Though it is the President, as the head the cabinet, who calls for cabinet meetings, the constitution is not clear as to who else can, whether, for instance, the Prime Minister can.
The two centers of constitutional power, the President and the Speaker, have stuck to their guns. While President Sirisena did not hold a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the Speaker allowed the PSC to examine witnesses on the same day.
However, it remains to be seen if any military/security/intelligence official will come forward to testify defying the Executive President who had banned these categories from appearing before the PSC.
The President’s diktat puts the armed forces (especially the military intelligence personnel) in an embarrassing situation. While the President, who is also Defense Minister, appears to be attempting to protect them from over-exposure, the PSC, filled with ruling United National Front members, appears to the using their testimonies to expose the incompetence of the President cum Defense Minister. The proceedings are thus highly politicized to the detriment of the polity and the constitution.
Revival Of President-PM Conflict
So far, the proceedings in the PSC have been very damaging to President Sirisena. Former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, and former Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara, and the former Terrorism Intelligence Department head Nalaka Silva told the PSC that the President’s unprofessional and politically motivated handling of the National Security Council (NSC) was the reason why Zahran’s Jehadi group could not be discussed and action taken, and why available intelligence about it could not be acted upon.
Former Western Province Governor Azath Salley told the PSC on Tuesday that the police under Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been in touch with Tawheed extremists Zahran from 2005 onwards. Police were siding with Zahran in his disputes with moderates Muslims.
Moulvi Rifthi of the All Ceylon Jamayathul Ulema (ACJU) said that the ACJU had been warning the government about Zahran’s National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ) from 2013 onwards, and the last warning was submitted with evidence on January 9 this year. But no action was taken.
However, the immediate impact of the bombings was on tourism. For weeks, the heavily barricaded hotels were devoid of guests. Finance Minister Minister Mangala Samaraweera put the loss at US$ 1. 5 billion. Tourism industry spokesman said that normalcy would not be restored before the end of 2019.
This was a body blow to an industry which was hoping to get 2.5 million visitors this year. Government has had to give special recovery packages to the industries.
Widening Communal Rift
Despite the Lankan Muslims’ desperate bid to distance themselves in word and deed from the Jehadi ideology of Zahran and his pack of IS-inspired suicide bombers, the rift between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and the minority Muslims grew to be the widest in living memory.
It became a norm to boycott Muslim-owned businesses and proudly call for it by word of mouth and through the social media. Over 500-odd Muslim businesses were wrecked in the North Western Province in mid-May. Blissfully forgetting the many Tamil Tiger bombings in Colombo and other towns in the country which claimed hundreds of civilian lives, the average Sinhalese’s view was that the Tamil Tigers did not kill innocents so indiscriminately and heartlessly as the Jehadists did on Easter Sunday.
The anger of the Sinhalese, both political and apolitical, was particularly directed against Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, the Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hisbuallah and to a lesser extent, the Western Province Governor Azath Salley. They had allegedly abetted the growth of extremism among the Muslims.
The Pivithuru Jathika Hela Urumaya MP filed a Non-Confidence Motion (NCM) against Bathiudeen. Ven.Athuraliye Rathana Thero, an MP of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, went on a “fast unto death” to get the trio to resign. He was supported by the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the Leader of Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa and the head of the Catholic community Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna filed a No Confidence Motion against the entire UNF government, and force a parliamentary election on the country.
Eventually, due to Rathana Thero’s fast unto death, the three Muslim politicos resigned. But given the rampant anti-Muslim feelings in the country, all the nine Muslim ministers also tendered their resignations causing a political rift on communal lines.
Political Machinations And Muslim Politics
Opposition Leader Rajapaksa saw the en-masse resignations as a UNF-government inspired conspiracy with an eye on the Muslim vote.
In a hard-hitting statement issued on Tuesday, Rajapaksa said that it was the United National Party (UNP) which had asked the ministers to resign so that Muslims would get impressed with their sacrifice and vote for them in the coming elections. The UNF will eventually gain politically because these Muslim leaders will team up with the UNF to form a government.
The former President called upon the Muslim community to introspect and strengthen moderate Muslims, and cooperate with the other Lankan communities to protect the moderates.
Sticking to the current policy of supporting cultural exclusivism and looking at all issues from a communal instead of a Sri Lankan angle will only encourage extremist tendencies and impair communal reconciliation, he said. He ended by warning that when he comes to power, he will use all means to put down terrorism.
Meanwhile former Eastern Province Governor Hisbullah challenged the Sinhalese majority by saying that while the Muslims are a minority in Sri Lanka, they are a majority in the world. He threatened to internationalize the Muslim question. He was roundly condemned for further widening the Muslim-Sinhalese divide.
US Fishes For Strategic Gain
However, the Easter Sunday bombings have led to internationalization of a different kind. Using the Islamic security threat to Sri Lanka, the US is pressing Sri Lanka to sign the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). According to the JVP MP, Bimal Rathnayake, SOFA allegedly grants US military personnel, US military contractors and US military suppliers the same perks and privileges granted to technical and administrative officers of the US Embassy.
The agreement also allows the above-mentioned personnel to enter the country with only a US Government Issued ID card (without a passport). Rathnayake added that Sri Lanka will not be able to prosecute any of US personnel under Sri Lankan law for any offence. Sri Lanka won’t have the authority to inspect what the US personnel bring into the country or take out of it.
To pursue SOFA, which the US considers necessary to fight China in the Indo-Pacific region, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be coming to Sri Lanka later this month, though the ostensible reason will be different. Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper visited Sri Lanka from June 2 through 5 to discuss security cooperation.
India’s Stresses Its Relevance
India too is interested in making use of Sri Lanka’s need to protect itself from Jehadi terrorism. It has economic and strategic interests in the island vis-à-vis its rival, China.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-hour stop-over in Colombo on June 9, a joint approach to Jehadi terrorsm was discussed. This will necessarily involve greater Indo-Lankan military, security and intelligence cooperation.
India and Sri Lanka have signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to build and run the Eastern Container Terminal at the Colombo harbor, albeit as a minor stakeholder. India’s case for involvement in the port is that 75% of its business is with India through transshipment.
Indian also hopes that the Lankan government will help kick start a dozen other India aided projects which have been in the doldrums since April 2017 due to a lack of political will on the part of the Sri Lankan government.
(The featured image at the top shows President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe)