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Friction mounts

By Saliya Weerakoon

The date 21 April 2019 is etched in the memory of Sri Lanka as a day of unprecedented tragedy. Five years have passed, yet the wounds are as raw as ever, with the ghost of that day haunting the corridors of justice and the alleys of politics in Sri Lanka. 

On this day, almost 270 souls were lost and more than 500 were injured in a series of brutal bombings that targeted the innocent: men, women, and children gathered to celebrate Easter. Today, we revisit this day not just to mourn but to understand the relentless battle for justice that unfolds even now.

Amidst the solemn remembrances, a figure emerges, steadfast in his quest for truth – Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. The Cardinal, a shepherd to his flock, refuses to let the dark veil of negligence and conspiracy bury the truth of that day. His public appearances are not just acts of remembrance but a clarion call for justice. However, Cardinal Ranjith is not short of political controversy. He is in the news again. 

I wrote the following on 31 March: “Today is Easter Sunday. Five years ago on Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka was in flames, surrounded by uncertainty and fear of life and I feared for the lives of Muslim people on that day. Knowing the history of racism and violence in the country, the Easter Sunday attacks showcased that in Sri Lanka, the majority of the population is still tolerant and compassionate. It was heartwarming to see that the Catholics did not hurt the Muslims and that the majority of Buddhists behaved with utmost caution.

“Credit should be given where it is due: Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, with amazing courage and compassion, healed the country with acts of kindness and tolerance. The Cardinal should have been given the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in blocking a catastrophe. However, he is more often political, and over the last five years, the love he had from the public at large from 21 April 2019 onwards has been diminishing. 

“In the wake of Maithripala Sirisena creating a ruckus, the Cardinal is silent. If the Cardinal does not use today’s homily to create another ruckus, Sri Lanka will have hope. A few had the scoop on Sirisena’s statement to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Everyone who knew stayed away from amplifying it. Sanity is required. Will the Cardinal create a ruckus? He will. I want to be wrong.”

The Cardinal created a ruckus in marking the fifth anniversary. He took on former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

Duelling narratives

The aftermath of Cardinal Ranjith’s assertions saw a swift rebuttal from former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The public discourse became a volley of claims and counterclaims, aired promptly by a media ever eager for the next sensational story. It is now a duel of narratives, each seeking to find a foothold in the public’s heart. Cardinal Ranjith, standing firm in his convictions, is challenged to prove the veracity of his claims, to bring forth evidence that could tilt the scales of public opinion and justice.

It’s known that the Cardinal and Wickremesinghe do not see eye to eye. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa wrote in his book ‘The Conspiracy’ under ‘My relationship with the Cardinal’ (page nos. 94/95): “Within the first days of my assuming office as President in November 2019, I made a courtesy call on the Cardinal at his official residence in Colombo. He urged me to take legal action against those who are responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks regardless of their status, ethnic community, or religious beliefs. I asked the Cardinal whether he was satisfied with the composition of the Commission of Inquiry that had been appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena or whether any changes needed to be made. The Cardinal answered in the negative. I asked him whether he wanted one of his nominees appointed to the commission, which too he answered in the negative because it would result in the commission being accused of bias. His thinking was that the commission should be allowed to carry out their functions without any changes. 

“In September 2020, the Cardinal invited me to visit a large coconut estate owned by the Colombo Diocese in the Puttalam District where the Catholic Church had cultivated grapes and was producing wine for the use of the Church. We left Colombo together by helicopter. I was given a tour of the vineyard, the winery, and a poultry farm on the estate. We had lunch on the estate and later opened a new building for an agro-technical institute constructed with funds from the Government of Italy. The institute had been designed to provide residential practical training for 50 students. I also accompanied the Cardinal to a village nearby, where the people were cultivating what are usually thought of as upcountry vegetables like cabbages and leeks. I spent the entire day with the Cardinal, but we did not discuss the Easter Sunday investigation. At the time, the Cardinal appeared to be satisfied with the way the Presidential Commision of Inquiry was probing the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. 

“On 22 September 2020, speaking to the media at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress in Colombo, the Cardinal stated that he was confident that justice would be delivered through this process and that it was evident to him that the Presidential Commision was sincerely looking into the matter. The first incident that appears to have upset the Cardinal was the CID’s decision in early October 2020 to release Riyaj Bathiudeen, the brother of Rishad Bathiudeen, who had been arrested on 14 April 2020 over alleged links to the Easter Sunday terror attacks. In a special media briefing held at the Archbishop’s House in Colombo, the Cardinal expressed the suspicion that a ‘political deal’ could be behind the CID’s move.” 

Pointed fingers and whispered accusations

Rishad Bathiudeen is now an Opposition MP under the leadership of Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa. A few days ago, the Cardinal praised presidential candidate Premadasa’s written assurance for justice under his presidency if elected. 

This issue has become too political now and some of the media have given wings to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rebuttal. It will be interesting to see how His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith will respond to the rebuttal by the former President. 

Religion and politics are like heaven and hell; there is no middle ground. Training to be a Catholic priest at the Ampitiya seminary and training to be a politician are poles apart. It’s not an even ground. 

I have written this before. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera was the champion of the ‘Yahapalana’ movement in 2015, but the people who sided with the Rajapaksa camp never saw the Thera as a champion but as an enemy. Politics divides people even if you follow the same religion. This is a fact. 

The narrative of the Easter attacks is riddled with pointed fingers and whispered accusations. The tale has become one of tangled truths and suspected conspiracies involving international and domestic actors. 

Former President Sirisena and several officials faced censure for their lapses in duty, a small consolation to those still grieving. Yet, the slow grind of justice has not quenched the thirst for answers or accountability. The people of Sri Lanka, though weary, cling to hope – a hope that justice will prevail, that such a tragedy will never darken their doors again.

In the nation’s Parliament, the echoes of that fateful day reverberate with renewed vigour. Wimal Weerawansa, known for his fiery rhetoric, once again takes the stage, stirring the pot of controversy. With the privilege of parliamentary immunity, he casts shadows of doubt on political adversaries, linking them to the attacks. 

Weerawansa argued that the Easter attacks helped 2019 presidential candidate Premadasa – the opponent of Gotabaya Rajapaksa – to muster a majority of the vote in Catholic electorates such as Negombo and Wattala. Weerawansa was quick to attack the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as well, citing Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim’s (his two sons were suicide bombers and he was in the National List of the JVP) connection. 

Weerawansa did not stop there, entangling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a well-known Indian bureaucrat as well, even creating a story of the BJP’s election win in the Catholic-dominated Goa in the aftermath of the Easter attacks in SrI Lanka. 

In terms of spinning stories, Weerawansa can put spin wizard Muthiah Muralidaran to shame. His claims draw battle lines not just in the sand but in the very heart of Sri Lankan politics, where the struggle for truth is often overshadowed by the struggle for power. Political proxies calling out the Cardinal and taking the lead were Badulla MP and State Minister Chamara Sampath Dasanayake. When people like Dasanayake speak, they give little respect to anyone. 

The fight for justice

The Catholic Church is an uncharted territory of politics in my living memory. Perhaps seeking justice for the victims should not be the Cardinal’s fight alone but a movement for justice. Simply due to the fact that Cardinal Ranjith is always being looked at through a political lens, the fight for justice takes a back seat. By his own admission, the eminent Cardinal Ranjith has misread the promises of politicians in the past. 

Here is a country which, since 1994, has been awaiting the abolition of the executive presidency, a promise of many presidential aspirants. There were landmark judgments by the Judiciary in the last couple of years. Maybe the fight for justice should be done within institutions and the process, not with the people. The centre of the cause should be justice, not a person. Also, we must remember the law of the universe is way more powerful than the law of the land. No one escapes karma. 

Also, it’s time for reflection that there are thousands of unresolved killings in Sri Lanka, especially since 1983, whether from north or south, east or west. No religion was spared. No ethnicity was spared. The Easter attacks were the most recent. 

We must not forget all bloodshed; more importantly, we should not lay grounds for a repetition. There is a silver lining; Sri Lankans cannot be aroused easily now. There is more tolerance and restraint compared to 10 years ago. This terrain needs to be protected at all costs and be improved. 

As we stand on the brink of yet another commemoration, the lessons of that dark day remain potent. The bombings were not just an attack on a community or a religion but an assault on the very fabric of Sri Lankan society. It revealed vulnerabilities, exposed the underbelly of national security, and showed how easily terror could breach our defences. Yet, it also showed the resilience of a people united in grief, rising in solidarity against the forces of chaos and destruction.

We find ourselves asking: what more can be done? The answer lies not just in the meting out of justice but in ensuring that such a tragedy never recurs. It calls for vigilance, for an unwavering commitment to safeguarding every citizen regardless of creed or caste. It demands reforms, accountability, and a resolve to face uncomfortable truths about our society and its protectors.

As we reflect on the events that have unfolded since Easter Sunday, our narrative must be one of resilience and resolve. We owe it to those we lost and those left scarred by the events to continue this quest for justice, not just as a matter of legal retribution but as a commitment to the very soul of our nation. Let the dialogue continue, let the questions provoke action, and let us ensure that the echo of that day fosters not just remembrance but change.

In this quest, our collective spirit is tested, but our resolve must remain unshaken. The fight for justice is long and arduous, but it is a fight that we must not abandon. For in this fight lies the essence of our resilience as a nation and the hope for a future where peace is not just a fleeting shadow but a lasting light.

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