Colombo Telegraph, 22 April 2019
On a day after tragedy of unprecedented proportions has hit one’s people, plunging one’s country into a state of tremendous vulnerability and chaos, it is not easy to pen a word. However, it is crucial to highlight a few key factors that surround the Easter Sunday terror attacks and their aftermath.
1. National security negligence?
In the admission of the Prime Minister himself, there have been prior Intelligence warnings about a terror incident in the brewing. No significant action was taken. The blame for this squarely lands on the individuals providing political leadership to the state defence apparatus, from the Commander-in-Chief downwards. Sri Lankan security forces and intelligence structures are highly sophisticated, having faced their share of challenges fighting against a secessionist foe in a 30-year civil war. Intelligence officials who flagged the threat must be commended for the diligent warnings issued.
The political leadership, for its part, resorted to inaction. Why so?
The logical conclusion one cannot but afford to reach is that the political class, the Executive in particular [as the security forces come under the direct purview of the Executive], did not take action in a ‘deliberate’ move.
Firstly, Sri Lanka is heading towards national elections, and the political class has a long tradition of seeking to sustain itself from ethnonational tensions, threats to national security, a climate of high insecurity and uncertainty, and of heavy distrust among the different ethnonational communities, in order to sustain their political agendas. It is as if the political class were simply unable to engage in a mature brand of democratic politics in the absence of a threat to national security, coupled with ethnonational tensions.
If indeed the political class were in dire need for an ‘enemy’ for political reasons, it has now found one, in no uncertain terms.
Secondly, to reiterate the obvious, no national-level political developments in Sri Lanka take place without direct behind-the-scenes interventions of certain external ‘powers that be’. It is very clear that this attack has been ‘allowed to happen’, in order to create a climate of unprecedented tensions, which would:
a) Benefit the external powers, as in, the instability of a country facilitates their inroads into that country and its systems, and to strengthen their strategic strongholds in a geo-strategically crucial location in the Indian Ocean.
b) Benefit the local power-wielders, as it would enable them to play the ‘terrorist threat’ card once again, and call for ‘strong leadership’ [read ‘Sinhala majoritarian-nationalist alpha-male-image-presenting leadership].
2. The “weak government” narrative
In the aftermath of this tragedy, there is absolutely no running away whatsoever from the reality that the UNP-led government is a weak government, in terms of national security. True, the defence portfolio comes under their ‘cohabiting political opponent’ the Commander-in-Chief, the President [as a mark of respect to the innocent victims these ruthless attacks, this writer refuses to write the name of Sri Lanka’s current head of state]. However, the UNP has a clear foothold, with a close relative of the Prime Minister holding office as state minister of defence. If the government had a more effective approach of managing the national security brief, these attacks could have been contained, if not averted.
Public pronouncements of senior government ministers in the aftermath of the attacks are brimming with nothing but hopelessness, a fine dose of cowardice, and the lack of a consistent vision for the country.
Not only the present government?
In admitting the above reality, however, we must never lose sight of the fact that threats to national security also occurred under the post-war Rajapaksa administration. Suffice to recall the 2014 Aluthgama incident, and the rise of Bodu Bala Sena. If there were a growing threat of Islamic radicalising, the security forces and Intelligence were well-placed to pursue a nip-in-the-bud approach.
Instead, the state looked on, as a Sinhala-Buddhist extremist discourse took shape freely, flouting casual islamophobia [the accusation, levelled by some, that Bodu Bala Sena, and other groups such as Ravana Balakaya, were fuelled under the auspices of the defence apparatus, is a factor that requires clarification at some stage]. What can be noted with full certainty is that under the post-war Rajapaksa regime, no outfit of that nature could have raised its head without the knowledge and [implicit or explicit] approbation of those in power.
The result was the growth of ethnoreligious, ethnonational and xenophobic hatred along a Sinhala-Buddhist vs. Muslim axis, leading to the unfortunate incidents of Aluthgama. In hindsight, Aluthgama 2014 can also be considered as an early sign of the eventual fall of the Rajapaksa administration. Aluthgama was an indication that the tremendous national security prowess achieved by ending the war, and the consequent consolidation of the Rajapaksa power base, were not sufficiently ‘re-oriented’ to suit, and be effective in, a post-war context within a small South Asian island state that is always volatile to external interferences.
This writer, however, does not blame the Rajapaksa administration.
Managing national security and external affairs of a small country with tremendous geo-strategic significance in the Indian Ocean region is no easy task. It becomes even more challenging when the strategies, structures, approaches, principles and objectives all require a fulsome overhaul, after three long decades of civil war and national security uncertainties. The Rajapaksa administration failed in this test, which is why it could be ousted, through a cautiously crafted regime change operation, in January 2015.
The post-2015 mirage
Post-2015, many in civil society celebrated a newfound sense of ‘freedom’. However, this was a pure smokescreen at best. The inclination of external powers was to ensure that Sri Lanka remained volatile in terms of governance, and open to interferences of any description. The joint government mechanism provided a great platform to sustain such an agenda. From one crisis to another [bond-scam to the October 2018 coup, and much more], the joint government has been an experiment of debilitated governance – with next to no public policy agenda. This is the reason behind the overall air of ineffectiveness that characterises the joint government. To make this point clearer, if one were to ask what the government’s policy line is in relation to any given matter, the answer, inevitably drifts to a blurry and inconsistent one.
The absence of a Sri Lankan Jacinda Ardern
When the Christchurch attacks struck in March 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood firmly against white supremacist terrorism, went to the victims’ families, and stood by them. Despite her party’s somewhat politically volatile position in coalition with NZ First and the Greens, Ardern gave leadership to essential policy changes, especially in relation to gun control. Most importantly, the Ardern leadership set a strong precedent of an inspiring leader, committed to a peaceful and pluralist Aotearoa. Sri Lanka, for her sins, does not have an inspiring, dynamic and cosmopolitan leadership that has the force and charisma to set such a precedent grounded on peace, intercommunal coexistence and national security. At the present time, this unfortunately carries the risk of further ethnonational tensions and chaos. The best of leadership in the face of this crisis has been provided by citizens themselves, who have been repeatedly calling for responsible social media use, co-existence and mutual support.
3. Geostrategic priorities
The biggest challenge facing any government in Colombo is that of managing Sri Lanka’s external affairs in the best interests of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. The daytime nightmare we witnessed on Easter Sunday 2019 is what happens when that challenge is mismanaged. We need to work and collaborate with India, but we HAVE to uphold Sri Lankan interests in issues such as the polemic over fisheries in Sri Lankan territorial waters. We need to be friends with the West, but we cannot let Sri Lanka become an easily manipulatable proxy in a Western power’s Indian Ocean strategy, over and above Sri Lankan interests. We need to be friends with China, but Chinese trade and strategic interests cannot be allowed to prime over Sri Lankan interests on Sri Lankan soil. This is where the crème de la crème of talent is required in high politics, in managing our external affairs, strategic priorities, state defence and national security.