Photo courtesy of UCA News

The latest drama in the long running saga of the Easter Sunday bombings was the sudden arrest by the CID and subsequent release by the Magistrate’s Court of social activist and Easter Sunday attack justice advocacy activist, Shehan Malaka. This was even as the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, backed fully by the Vatican in Rome, has been relentless in pressing the state to seek out the truth regarding the horrific coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in 2019.

At a media conference Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, said “A course of action is being organized by the Sri Lankan Catholic Church together with the Vatican but we will not divulge anything about it now. It is the government which has to be responsible for the consequences which Sri Lanka has to undergo, if the church seeks international assistance to mete out justice for those who were affected by the Easter Sunday mayhem”.

That the attacks had political ramifications is obvious. As Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has stated plainly, the current SLPP administration and its then presidential candidate chose the immediate aftermath of the bomb attack to announce his presidential candidacy, an unusual occasion to say the least, for a political announcement. The rationale however for the announcement was very clear once the campaign for the presidency commenced shortly thereafter. The issues were national security, preventing terrorism and generally saving the country’s majority community from real and perceived enemies within. Once the election results rolled in though, both in November 2019 and again in August 2020, it wasn’t entirely clear as to what carried the day. Was it the nationalistic security rhetoric or the political hara-kiri or self-destruction in which the Yahapalanaya administration engaged in through constant infighting between its two chief constituent parts, the President and Prime Minister and their respective parties, ostensibly in a governing alliance?

Seeking answers

The Catholic vote in the Western Province, mostly Sinhala, in the Colombo and especially the Gampaha districts are important in national elections though it is not really a fixed block vote; it moves with the political winds of the day. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was able to capture that vote on a pro-peace platform, Mahinda was able to capture it for a more nationalist agenda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to capture it on national security rhetoric or less charitably termed as fear mongering. The issue that now comes to haunt him is that there is a widespread perception that has not been delivery on that or any other score. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith has some very salient points that cause him to take issue with the administration, chief among them has been the failure of the state to identify the conspirators or chief mastermind(s) behind the attack and not just the trigger pullers who were pulverized in their own blasts. There is widespread interest regarding the alleged role, if any, played by sections of the state intelligence. The code name Sonic is today a household name in Sri Lanka. Harassment by law enforcement of activists ranging from Father Cyril Gamini to Shehan Malaka and other civil society actors demanding and working for justice for the victims doesn’t do the state any good in making the argument that there is nothing to cover up.

US President Richard Nixon resigned on the eve of an impeachment vote in Congress when it became clear he would lose the vote and be impeached after the Watergate saga and attempts to cover it up led directly to the White House. There is a particular loss of popular and political legitimacy that comes from being associated with something considered a national atrocity. The Easter Sunday attacks were just such an atrocity. The Catholic church on behalf of the victims is demanding justice. The association of any political actors with that atrocity would be politically fatal for them. It is unwise for powerful state actors to lend credence to that belief.

UNHRC and an international probe

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution and process on Sri Lanka has internationalized our human rights weaknesses and issues. Seeking to wrest back the initiative and argue for purely domestic remedies has been a bi-partisan consensus on Sri Lanka; even the previous government’s co-sponsored UNHRC resolution clearly stating that the remedial measures would be a domestic process, albeit with the participation of non-nationals. On an aside, a significant feature of the 20th Amendment was to allow dual citizens to be members of parliament and ministers of the government. A key feature of the domestic process consensus is that our justice system delivers justice. That argument, while accepted in Sri Lanka where the judiciary is mercifully held in high esteem – merciful because trust in the efficacy of the judiciary is essential for social order, is challenged internationally where well documented research exists on the culture of impunity and the paucity of legal remedies that exists with regard to the violation of human rights, especially by actors associated with the state.

The Catholic church hierarchy has been vocal and public that it has not received justice and does not believe that victims will receive justice in Sri Lanka, at least at the investigation stage, and is calling for an international investigation that can provide the evidence for local judicial remedies. Cooperation among law enforcement, whether through the structure of Interpol or other bi lateral arrangements exists, so this is not impossible. But what it does do is create for the first time a strong domestic lobby and constituency in the Sinhala south demanding an international investigation.

To add insult to injury for the Catholic church was the tragi-comedy of the grenade at the All-Saints Church Borella and the rather public exchange of words between the Inspector General of Police and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Politicians calling the police biased and a political tool of the government of the day is common but what is new is when religious leaders with significant sway over their faithful and with a worldwide network of sympathetic fellow faithful basically call out the state law enforcement and security structures on their actions and inactions – something we have not seen before is happening and the genie is not going back inside the bottle.