The latest Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings is claimed to be an exposure, but while there’s nothing dramatically new in it, it seems to have is set the cat among certain pigeons. Allegations that the military intelligence was involved with Islamic extremists involved in the Easter Sunday carnage is not new. In fact, three investigations have already linked the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and the State Intelligence Service (SIS) to the bombers.
What the new allegations in the Channel 4 documentary against the current SIS chief and former DMI officer, retired Major General Suresh Sallay, are aimed at is connecting the dots to the Rajapaksa family, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in particular. The video suggests there was a conspiracy to bring the Rajapaksas back to power in 2019. The bombing certainly helped Gotabaya to clinch the presidential candidacy at a time when the country clamoured for a strong leader who could fight terrorism. Within two days of the April 21, 2019 bombing, Gotabaya came out declaring that he was the national security candidate who could wipe out Islamic extremists.
It should be clear even to those not familiar with local political chicanery that Gotabaya Rajapaksa benefited from the attack, but there is no proving beyond reasonable doubt that he organized the carnage. So what is the new Channel 4 video about? On the face of it, it is an attempt by the British public broadcaster (Channel 4 is a British government-owned network) to find the “truth” behind the Easter attacks, a campaign spearheaded by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the Catholic Church. The Vatican too had weighed in with the Pope himself urging Sri Lankan leaders to establish who was behind the most audacious terror attack even for a country used to decades of senseless violence.
The SLPP has been quick to dismiss the documentary arguing that their party was on the ascendancy after the February 2018 local elections when they won a landslide and was anyway on the road to building on that success at the November 2019 presidential polls.
The SLPP stalwarts may have forgotten how unpopular they had become with their 52-day “coup” with the backing of President Maithripala Sirisena. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saw a surge in the support for him during the illegal power grab orchestrated by Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Insiders know that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was taken by surprise when he heard from a friend that elder brother Mahinda had been sworn in as prime minister. His prospects dimmed when public opinion turned against the SLPP with the power grab. Then comes the Easter bombings. There is no denying that Rajapaksa won, thanks to the public anger over the failure of the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena government to prevent the carnage. People were angry that intelligence warnings issued by an agency in neighbouring India had been ignored. Sri Lanka’s own DMI and SIS were oblivious to what was going to happen.
A vocal campaigner who had previously pointed fingers at the state intelligence apparatus, Manusha Nanayakkara, agrees that the allegations should be investigated afresh, but casts aspersions on Channel 4 intentions. He and other worthies of the SLPP have said that the video was timed for the UN Human Rights Council sessions opening tomorrow (Sept 11) in Geneva.
The British broadcaster had initially announced their documentary was going to be aired on August 15. Then it was pushed back by another week. Finally, it was released on Tuesday British time (Wednesday early morning Sri Lanka time) after Sri Lankan authorities raised issues that had to be legally resolved. The UNHRC has three regular sessions a year — February-March, June-July and September-October. Therefore, to argue that this release is to coincide with a UNHRC session is a stretch.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has responded to the documentary and denied that he influenced Suresh Sallay or had any dealings with the intelligence operative while he was out of power between 2015 and 2019 and had nothing to do with the intelligence and security apparatus. Looks like Gotabaya has also forgotten about the 52-day government his brother led and that he still had loyalists in the security establishment. In fact, Gotabaya admits in his statement that he promoted Sallay as the head of the SIS, no sooner he became president.
More strangely, Gotabaya remains silent on an equally devastating allegation that he wanted the editor of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge killed. The “insider” quoted in the Channel 4 video, whistleblower Azad Maulana, claims Gotabaya wanted Lasantha killed ASAP (As Soon As Possible). Maulana was the spokesman of the then Eastern province chief minister and current SLPP MP, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan. There are allegations that Pillayan was involved with the formation of the infamous “Tripoli” unit of the DMI which is accused of killing Lasantha and attacking several others when Gotabaya was the defence secretary under his brother Mahinda’s presidency.
Thus, the Channel 4 video does not offer any answers, but only raises more questions. As with the three previous investigations, the sum total of the documentary is the need for not only criminal investigation but a broader intelligence probe. MPs from both sides of the House have called for the suspension of SIS chief Suresh Sallay, who is implicated in the documentary. He has denied meeting the Easter Sunday bombers and argued that he was out of the country at the time. However, one of his former bosses, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has already cast doubt over those claims saying Sallay, like many other intelligence operatives, would have travelled under several passports.
As Cardinal Ranjith himself articulated on Wednesday, whatever the perceived bias is of Channel 4, it is time for an independent, transparent, internationally acceptable investigation into all aspects of the carnage. The government owes it to its people, not least the victims and survivors of the attacks, because it is the right thing to do.