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Channel 4 Revelations Raise a Hornets Nest

The Channel 4 documentary on the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings did not reveal much information that was not already known, but it has certainly caused a stir amongst all and sundry.

Politicians of all hues; activists, journalists, Buddhist clergy and of course the Catholic church are all weighing in on the issue. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man who benefitted most from the bombings, broke his long silence to defend himself and Major General Suresh Sallay, the current Director of State Intelligence, who has been identified by several others too, as being involved in the Easter bombings.

Sallay has long sought to disassociate himself from the allegations and has even claimed damages of Rs 50 million from Fr Cyril Gamini Fernando for connecting him to the Easter bombings during an online discussion two years ago.

Despite that, Azaad Moulana the whistleblower featured in the documentary claims that the plot was hatched with the assistance of former LTTE member Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pilliayan, who instructed him to facilitate a meeting between Sallay and the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) group led by Zaharan Hashim, the Easter Sunday bombers.

Moulana claims Pillayan who was at the time in prison in connection with the assassination of Joseph Pararajasingham, introduced him to Zaharan’s brother who was also in jail at the time, telling him the latter was a religious extremist. The brother was released from jail soon after, and Moulana states he then arranged the meeting between Sallay and the NTJ.

In the run-up to the 2019 Presidential election, which brought Gotabaya to power, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Pillayan in prison. In early 2021 the Attorney Generals Department withdrew charges and Pillayan was released from jail. For long, Pillayan has enjoyed a close relationship with the Rajapaksa’s and is currently State Minister for Rural Road Development.

The 2019 bombings which targeted two Catholic churches in Colombo and Katuwapitiya respectively, the Zion Church in Batticaloa and three well-known hotels in Colombo, took the lives of 269 and maimed at least 500 others. In some cases, entire families were wiped out.

While Sallay seeks to extricate himself stating he was not in Sri Lanka between 2016 and 2019, activist Shehan Malaka points out that technological advances do not require anyone to be physically present to direct operations.

Interestingly the Ministry of Defence, too, released a statement in support of General Sallay.

Even as the Rajapaksa camp vigorously denies a connection to the bombings, a former LTTE intelligence operative interviewed by Nuwan Mahamarakkalage of Apple Kade Nuwana, while tracing a connection between Pillayan and Douglas Devananda, gives a similar narrative to that of Moulana. He points out that while the Zaharan group was hungry to become martyrs for their beliefs, the Rajapaksa camp, impatient to grab back power, sought to destabilise the country.

The end of the ethnic conflict in 2009, rather than ushering in peace saw anti-Muslim rhetoric taking centre stage. That reached a crescendo in 2019 with the Easter bombings and accusations against Dr Shafi of forcibly sterilising Sinhala women.

Unsurprisingly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was touted as the only saviour of the troubled Sinhala nation!

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith jumped into the fray in the aftermath of the bombings, to call for a government that had the guts to bring the perpetrators to justice. He even used the Pulpit to condemn the then government. But even before the bombings, he denounced human rights as a Western concept. Sri Lanka, he told the congregation of St Matthew’s parish near Colombo, could look after herself, without the aid of human rights, the West’s “new religion.”

Unfortunately for him, though the Rajapaksa’s returned to power in 2019 no action was taken to bring the Easter plotters to justice, even though Catholics voted for them in droves in the 2019 and 2020 elections. Crestfallen, the Cardinal took his case to the UN in 2022, stating that three years later, it was apparent that the massacre was part of a “grand political plot.” In the aftermath of the Channel 4 documentary, he has renewed the call, asking that a team of foreign sleuths led by local investigators take on the probe. The Cardinal’s 2018-2020 remarks have left Church spokespersons now fielding uncomfortable questions from the media.

In response to the documentary, current President Ranil Wickremesinghe plans to have yet another parliamentary committee investigate the matter. And what good would that be, when previous reports of a Presidential and Parliamentary investigation have not been acted upon?

Sri Lankan governments must, by now, be in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of presidential and parliamentary commissions set up to investigate the many murders, abductions and assaults; the reports gather dust, while taxpayers' monies are spent on endeavours that even a weary public know would yield no results.

And why did Wickremesinghe wait for the documentary to even attempt an investigation? If he genuinely sought closure, he should have initiated the probe no sooner he became President.

One of the first actions of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President was to remove SSP Shani Abeysekera from the Easter investigations. Abeysekera who headed the Criminal Investigation Department at the time was demoted and appointed Personal Assistant to the Southern Range DIG and later remanded. Why was it necessary to silence him? Was he getting too close to the truth?

Such actions, along with baffling DNA results of a key witness Sarah Jesmin, and alleged blocking of investigations by the military, only raise suspicion that critical evidence is being withheld by interested parties. When those revealing key information are interrogated by investigators while the evidence itself seems to be ignored, one can’t but wonder whether the whole affair is being swept under the carpet.

Sallay, Nilantha Jayawardena, Deshbandu Tennekone and others whose names have cropped up in connection with the investigations should have the grace to step down from their posts until an investigation is over. That’s what Officers and Gentlemen do!

Moulana also claimed that Gotabaya ordered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge’s killing, an allegation Gotabaya is yet to deny.

Ever since the Rajapaksa’s were turfed out of government in 2015, they’ were straining at the leash to return to power; a no-confidence motion against Wickremesinghe who was Prime Minister, the 2018 parliamentary coup led by then President Sirisena and of course the anti-Muslim rhetoric which the Sri Lanka Podujana Party members made capital of are just a few of their antics.

The many attempts to hide or ignore evidence raise concerns whether the truth would ever be told. And more importantly, who is being shielded?

The Rajapaksa camp of course has unapologetically used racist tactics to portray themselves as the custodians of the Sinhala Buddhist community. The irony is that they got help from the LTTE to block voters in the North in the 2005 election, and if these allegations prove true, they’ve used both Muslims and a Tamil to win back power in 2019!

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