When the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was appointed in 2010 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement “Sri Lanka has a long history of establishing ad hoc commissions to deflect international criticism over its poor human rights record and widespread impunity. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established at least 10 such commissions, none of which have produced any significant results.”
In 2009, Amnesty International published a book titled “Twenty Years of Make-Believe – Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry” which was highly critical of the incumbent and past governments of the country for their handling of human rights. And as the very title of the book suggests the Amnesty International decried the intention of past governments of Sri Lanka in appointing commissions.
The Law and Society Trust in September 2012 published a book titled “A Legacy to Remember: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry – 1963- 2002” and authored by Kishali Pinto Jayawardena with an overview on the circumstances and the recommendations of over ten commissions appointed by various governments since early sixties. Once you read the book the impression you get is that the commissions of inquiry have been a political exercise of successive governments rather than genuine attempts to deter human rights violations or recurrence of ethnic conflicts.
However, the Presidential Commission of inquiry into the terrorist attacks on three luxury hotels in Colombo and three churches belonging to two Christian denominations on April 21, 2019 seems to be somewhat different from these past commissions. Former President Maithripala Sirisena might have appointed the commission on the attack by a group of Muslim terrorists on an Easter Sunday due to the pressure by the Christian community in the country to find out the real culprits and to prove that he as the Defence Minister was not responsible for the carnage. Yet, one cannot say that he or his successor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not want to find out what really happened and who really was behind the barbaric attacks.
The commission would go down in history as the only commission that recommended criminal proceedings against the person who appointed it. It would have been more important had the recommendation was issued during the tenure of the President Sirisena itself. Yet, as happened in respect of many past commissions, it seems to have dashed hopes of many in the country who expected findings that would suggest the masterminds of the crime, including certain Muslim politicians in the country. Christian leaders, including head of the Catholic community in Sri Lanka, Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith have been demanding the authorities, for the past two years to expose the people or the institutions that masterminded and funded the attacks that killed 269 people and injured another over 500.
Their demand suggested a strong suspicion in them that there had been people behind the carnage other than the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks on hotels and churches. In fact, they seemed to suspect certain Muslim politicians.
Nonetheless, the Commission has concluded that Zahran Hashim was in fact the leader and stated that funding for the April 21, 2019 attacks was primarily from Ibrahim brothers, Inshaf and Ilham. It accused former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen of only contacting the then Army Commander to seek relief with regard to a suspect who was arrested in connection with the terror attacks.
The commission seems to have concluded Bathiudeen’s financial transactions with a person linked to the attacks had nothing to do with the crime and has recommended the issue be referred to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). The Commission has exonerated all three politicians Bathiudeen, Azath Sally and M.L.A.M. Hisbullah whose resignation was sought by Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera through a fast campaign at the Dalada Maligawa Premises in Kandy in May 2019, claiming that they were behind the attack.
In fact, these hopes were instilled in the minds of the people in general and the Christian leaders in particular by the highly unethical anti- Muslim media bombardment that continued for months following the attacks. The hopes were rejuvenated after the new government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power, again by the media and the ruling party politicians. Yet, the report has proved the baselessness of that media hype that led to the anti-Muslim violence in some areas in Gampaha District in May, 2019. It has also proved that the terrorists were a group detached from the ordinary Muslims in the country.
The main ideological factor behind the April 21, 2019 attack, according to the PCoI’s conclusions, is the Wahhabism. This has been the general perception among the Muslims in the country as well. Yet, the question remains as to what is Wahhabism. The General Secretary of Ceylon Thawheed Jama’ath, Abdul Razik during his testimony before the commission defended Wahhabism, claiming that the 18th century Muslim scholar, Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab who was the founder of a new line of thought did not preach terrorism. If the authorities are to take action to weed out Wahhabism from among Muslims in the country it would be an arduous task, without a definition and a clear-cut separating line between Islam and Wahhabism.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who appointed a commission to study the reports of the past commissions on human rights violations on January 21 has appointed on February 20 a six-member ministerial Committee headed by Minister Chamal Rajapaksa to study in depth the facts and recommendations contained in the final report of the Presidential Commission on the Easter Sunday attacks. “Identifying the overall process including the measures that need to be taken by various agencies and authorities such as Parliament, judiciary, Attorney General’s Department, security forces, State Intelligence services and implementing recommendations as stipulated by PCoI to avert recurrence of a national catastrophe of such magnitude is the prime responsibility of the Committee” according to the Presidential Secretariat.
The committee came under attack by the Opposition which said this was an attempt to take action selectively against certain persons, leaving out pro-government persons. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith expressed his displeasure over the committee saying that a report prepared by experts cannot be further studied by persons who have not passed GCE O/L. In an apparent response to his statement the Presidential Secretariat said that the Committee was selected considering factors such as the committee members’ political maturity, experience and high level of knowledge in various fields. However, “identifying measures that need to be taken Attorney General’s Department” by the committee reminds us the gazette notification that established the FCID which said “complaints are forwarded to the IGP for investigation by the Secretariat established by the Cabinet Sub Committee under the patronage of the Prime Minister.”
Whatever the commission report has said and whatever the response of others to it are, the Easter Sunday carnage again has emphasized the need to bring various communities together to avert recurrence of such disasters. On the other hand, the same disaster has ironically further distanced the Sinhalese and Muslims from each other. It is pertinent to note the conclusion of the LLRC Report in respect of reconciliation at this juncture.
It said “The process of reconciliation requires a full acknowledgement of the tragedy of the conflict and a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society of both communities…A collective act of contrition for what happened would not come easily to either party. It would come only if they are ready to make a profound moral self-appraisal in the light of the human tragedy that has occurred… Religious leaders and civil society should work towards it and emphasize the healing impact it would have on the entire process of reconciliation.” 10 years has passed since these observations have been made, without moving an inch towards those good ideals.
By MSM Ayub