Sri Lankan Govt Shouldn’t Have Taken Short-Lived Peace for Granted

A key reason for the avoidable serial blasts is the chasm between the president & PM, which led to intel failure.

5 min read

The last series of suicide attacks that occurred in Sri Lanka were by six Sea Tiger suicide boats across the Nandikadal lagoon on 17 May 2009. Two days later, the Sri Lankan Army’s 53 Infantry Division killed in the last single operation of the war, the LTTE’s dreaded and ‘invincible’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

With his end, Sri Lanka went delirious, celebrating through singing, dancing and feasting on traditional milk-rice (kiri bhath), the termination of three decades of terrorism. 

In his book, Road to Nandikadal: True Story of Defeating Tamil Tigers, Maj Gen Kamal Gunaratne, Commander, 53 Infantry Division writes, “it is now the duty of our leaders, countrymen and future generations to protect this freedom, and (hopefully) it will not be taken for granted and squandered away”.

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Most Formidable Terror Strike In Terms of Precision, Post 9/11

Last Sunday, 21 April, this is precisely what appears to have happened. Through the government’s own admission of an intelligence failure, at least 7 to 8 suicide bombers struck in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, targeting churches and luxury hotels, killing nearly 300 and wounding another 500 persons.

This is perhaps the most sophisticated and well-coordinated precision terrorist attack by well-trained and motivated – probably local Muslims – with elaborate support from an international organisation like the Islamic State. It could be rated as only next to 9/11 in scale, success and casualties.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the heinous attacks. The Sri Lankan government has pointed a finger at the recently formed National Tawhid Jama’at (NTJ), which has earlier been linked to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues.

Until Easter Sunday this year, Sri Lanka had not witnessed a single terrorist attack since the eradication of the LTTE a decade ago.

It had celebrated and showcased its conquest over the Tamil Tigers by setting a new paradigm in the use of kinetic force, for defeating terrorism – not just the complete annihilation of Tamil Tigers as an organised military force, but also the decapitation of its entire leadership and capacity to wage residual guerrilla war. The Khalistani terrorism in Punjab and Tamil Tiger terrorism in Sri Lanka, are two unique instances in the 21st century of a state prevailing over terrorists.

An Unstable Govt, With Rift Between President & PM

Overplaying military triumphalism as hyper-nationalism, delaying reconciliation and transitional justice with Tamils in the north and east as pledged at UNHRC Geneva, and picking new fights with the minority Muslims by Buddhist extremists like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – who were encouraged by the old Rajapaksa regime for political gain – have all created new internal security threats.

Compounding the insecurity of minorities is the totally dysfunctional cohabitation of what was once a national unity government of two national parties: SLFP and UNP led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Last year, the unity government was rent apart in a constitutional crisis, when Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe and appointed the man he defeated in the presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister. While the Supreme Court restored Wickremesinghe as PM, the divide between the two leaders is still palpable .

A key reason for the avoidable serial suicide bombings is the chasm between the president and prime minister, which seems to have led to the intelligence failure.

Sirisena has kept the defence ministry, intelligence and law and order (internal security) under his charge, and kept Wickremesinghe out of the loop. The senior-most military officer, Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, under the CDS Act of Parliament 2009, reports to the president through the defence secretary, which is an administrative appointment. In the past, CDS used to brief the PM as well, which evidently stopped after the constitutional row.


Massive Intel Failure Due to Complacency & Unstable Govt

The intelligence failure relates to a report on 11 April, based on an international intelligence tip off on 4 April by Sri Lanka’s DIG Police, that a Muslim organisation (presumably NTJ) was planning to carry out terrorist attacks using suicide bombers, was not shared with the PMO. At a media briefing on Monday, the government blamed the president (who was abroad on a private visit to India and Singapore), for not sharing the intelligence report and not appointing a caretaker in his absence.

The second public round of feuding between the president and prime minister may have begun, when the two should have been seen acting in unison in this grave crisis. The guard was also let down: ten years of not a single act of terrorism had induced complacency, in what Gunaratne has called “not taking the freedom for granted”.

As someone who travels frequently to Sri Lanka, visits Colombo at least twice year, and a former commander of the IPKF, one has detected laxity in security norms in hotels and public places – all this when Colombo and its airport were in complete lock down till 2009. After the war was won, the heart of Colombo, Galle Face Green, was freed and decked with a victory flag aflutter, courtesy the winds of the Indian Ocean.


Immediate Trigger For Sri Lanka Attacks?

The aggrieved minorities in Sri Lanka are the Tamils in the north and the east; and the Muslims, mainly in the south, including Colombo. The Muslims were at the receiving end at the hands of the Tamil Tigers in the east, having been expelled from the north. During IPKF’s (Indian Peace Keeping Force) time, the relatively prosperous Muslim groups had begun to raise clandestinely armed militias. But the birth of radicalised Muslims is a brand new post-2013 phenomenon.

The immediate triggers for the suicide attacks most likely are the unbridled BBS attacks in 2013 and 2018 against Muslim religious and economic interests.

In one of my conversations with a senior serving military officer in 2017, I asked what he considered as the main security threat to the country. He said, “we have no external threat… our main concern is internal security.” He named IS as the chief worry, adding, “we identified 33 Sri Lankans who joined IS, one of who was killed.”


Consequences of the Suicide Attacks

But in next door Maldives, are at least 300 hardcore IS supporters, and there are 30,000 Maldivians living in Sri Lanka. Visa-free movement is permitted between both countries.

So, it would seem that BBS depredations could have instigated the local radical groups belonging to NTJ to avenge their alleged state/politically supported attacks. The Sunday suicide attack bears the IS signature of causing the maximum casualties targeting foreigners in crowded places like hotels and churches. 

The consequences of the suicide attacks could be dire: enhanced political instability, communal polarisation, a setback for the economy and the Tamil reconciliation process, and political gains for nationalist forces, facilitating the return of the Rajapaksas. Sadly, Sri Lanka earning the distinction of the only country eliminating terrorism – root and branch – has been short-lived.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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