By Ben Joseph
(UCA News) – With the mastermind still at large, the motive not established and high-level government officials walking away unscathed, the Easter bombing in Sri Lanka has reached a dead end after three years of investigations.
As the 2019 investigation into terrorist atrocities drags its feet, the least influential Christian community has been let down by the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which came to power the same year promising to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The 279 people who died in the attacks on three churches and three hotels included worshipers from two Catholic churches and one Protestant church attending Easter Sunday services. No wonder the Catholic Church views the current regime with suspicion as the investigation enters its third year.
From day one, it was clear that the government’s hands were tied as Rajapaksa’s immediate predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, and then-Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, were among the key government figures accused of inaction despite warnings. repeated reports from the intelligence services regarding the attacks of April 21, 2019, according to which more than 500 were injured.
A group of nine suicide bombers affiliated with the local Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) were implicated in the attacks. Two days after the atrocity, the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Among those who perished were 45 foreigners who were having breakfast.
One sort of official version is that the then-president and prime minister were at loggerheads at the time of the incident, which prevented the executive from restoring its well-oiled war infrastructure that had proven so effective. to suppress the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. (LTTE) claim a separate homeland.
The inclusion of the former president and prime minister, who come from influential families, as part of the investigation left plenty of room for political maneuvering and the blame game. Since its independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has been ruled by powerful elite families who have a habit of burying the hatchet to pursue common interests.
In fact, passing the buck is exactly what happened during the investigation. Hemasiri Fernando, then Secretary of the Defense Ministry, and then Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara, who were arrested in 2019 and held for four months before being granted bail, testified at a a parliamentary inquiry that Sirisena had not followed established protocols in assessing security threats prior to the deadly attacks.
They found Sirisena an easy target, passed the buck, and saved their lives. The duo told the committee that the ex-president as minister of defense and law and order simply did not take the threats seriously. Jayasundara and Fernando were both cleared of 855 charges, including negligence and murder.
While they became free birds, efforts to uncover the role of government and the executive in complicity in the bombing or their failure to prevent it were futile.
The failure of the government was simply blamed on political wrangling which led to a breakdown in communication between the president and the prime minister.
Unlike other South Asian countries, Islam in Sri Lanka is known for its tolerance and secularism. Although it is a fact that many anti-Muslim attacks took place before the Easter bombings, they were not far reaching for the community to take revenge. In fact, most of the atrocities were perpetrated by the majority Sinhalese community, not by Christians and foreigners.
Unlike jihadist networks in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Sri Lankan terrorist groups are less exposed to the outside world. This leaves them with less experience, means, and resources to execute a major operation such as meticulously detonating bombs in six locations at roughly the same time in a well-coordinated attack. By linking a few suspects, who were arrested at the start of the probe attack, with the international terrorist network of the Islamic State, the justification for the bombings was imported from abroad and the aim was lost.
At the height of the civil war, the LTTE never attacked tourists and foreigners, and the country’s status as a tourist-friendly nation was never undermined. What message were the killers trying to send by targeting wealthy foreigners and mingling their blood with local conflict dynamics? Does that make sense? Why should Christians, who are known as a peace-loving community in the Buddhist-majority nation, be targeted? Was the bombing staged for an international audience by a few perpetrators with international connections?
Initially, the Sri Lankan Church and its leader, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, pinned all their hopes on the Rajapaksa government’s electoral strategy to target all culprits and architects of the atrocity.
As the investigation belatedly progressed, Cardinal Ranjith sensed a rat that President Rajapaksa’s objective was simply to capitalize on the Easter bombings to seize power. He took the Church away from the government.
“The first impression of this massacre was that it was purely the work of a few Islamic extremists,” Cardinal Ranjith later said. “However, subsequent investigations indicate that this massacre was part of a larger political plot.”
Since then, the cardinal and the president have been on a collision course over the outcome of the investigation. Catholic priests were summoned and questioned by the police over statements criticizing the slowness of investigations.
Police have arrested more than 200 suspects in the past three years, but according to the 75-year-old prelate, those persecuted so far are ‘small fish’, pointing to ‘a bigger conspiracy beyond extremism religious”.
Cardinal Ranjith has now decided to seek the intervention of the international community to help track down and punish the perpetrators and obtain justice for the victims and their families. He met Pope Francis in Rome and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in Geneva.
Why is the brain always at large and the motive discovered? The cardinal has the answer, which he broadcast during a virtual meeting recently organized by the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need. Because “they cover each other’s buddies”.
Yet another Easter is approaching, but Sri Lankan Christians still have to live with the memories of a bitter Easter three years ago.
* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.