By N Sathiya Moorthy
To say the least, by appointing a new probe panel into the ‘Easter Sunday blasts’ over and above the one that he had appointed soon after the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’, President Maithripala Sirisena might have played a crude and cruel joke on the victims, their families and of course the nation at large. Coming as it does after the Election Commission had announced the schedule for the presidential polls for 16 November accusations of politicising the blasts more than already are inescapable.
Already, there are multiple probes into the Easter blasts. As if to escape immediate media allegation that he did not act on ‘intelligence alerts’ from a neighbouring country, President Sirisena appointed a probe – which submitted the report, too, post-haste. As if the needle of suspicion would then point a finger at him, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a much-obliging Parliament Select Committee (PSC), that too after the Rajapaksa-led Opposition and all others then his current UNP-UNF partners had boycotted the same.
Then there was/is the Supreme Court cases, moved mainly by sacked Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and blasts-time police boss, Pujith Jayasundara, whom the Constitution does not permit both the President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet to sack, under t he very same 19-A protection that they all had offered only years ago. If the IG had refused to go on leave, as has since happened, then again, they could have done simply nothing about it – until after the Supreme Court had ruled on the pending cases, without Fernando and Jayasundara being petitioners.
All these are over and above the continuing police investigations, where no one seems to be showing any hurry to file charge-sheets(s) in the criminal courts concerned. Not very long ago, the local media quoted authorities to say that they had detained about 250 persons in connection with the blasts… If so, it is at least time, the police let their names out. Better still, they start filing charge-sheets, one after the other, or in batches. The investigations cannot go eternally. Nor can they afford to continue probing ‘foreign angles’ ahead of presidential polls, that too after PM Wickremesinghe had gone to down that it was a ‘local act’, and there was nothing international of IS about it.
The new probe has been asked to report back on the multiple, overseas ‘intelligence alerts’ on the blasts that were reportedly not acted upon. Those reports of failing to act upon the intelligence-alerts were available to the President when he appointed the first commission into the blasts. He did not ask that probe panel to dig deeper. Nor did they think it wise to do so. The result was that the President reportedly got a doctored report, suited to serve/sub-serve his political ends. Nothing more, and nothing less!
Why then, this uglier urgency for Sirisena to appoint a new probe into such specifics that should have been at the bottom of any inquiry commission’s work into the blasts. After all, no commission of the kind was/is equipped to probe the criminal investigations, to identify the perpetrators and bring them to book. That is police-job, as the phrase goes. No court in Sri Lanka can act on probe panel reports to fix legal culpability, convict and sentence accused in dastardly criminal matter of the kind.
By hindsight, President Sirisena did not feel the need for probing the ‘intelligence alerts’ part of the blasts, mainly because then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and IG Pujith Jayasundara did not point fingers at him. Once they said one thing purportedly in the first Presidential Commission and said exactly the opposite thing at the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the blasts, anyway, then Sirisena stood exposed – or, so it seemed.
It is anybody’s guess why the two bureaucratic worthies should have allegedly given different versions to different probes into the same incident. Grating that the new probe is to protect the credibility and honour, not just of Citizen Sirisena but the highest office of the President, the question now arises if there is any record anywhere to prove of disprove the claims or either side – say, a log of ‘secret alerts’ received and communicated to the higher-ups, especially if it was done orally in parts or all through?
It is another matter that the need for a new probe became necessary after Sirisena gave up his presidential privilege of not appearing before the PSC, which was a creature of Parliament, of which again he is the head. Thus, he may have submitted to the people’s will in an electoral democracy, but from now on, it may be a difficult journey, not only for Citizen Sirisena and President Sirisena, packaged into one, but also for the new probe team, which will then possibly end up launching the nation’s biggest and quickest fishing expedition of the non-fishing kind.
There cannot however be no two opinion if the PSC should have at all ‘summoned’ the Head of State to investigate an episode, in which he played no direct part. So should have been the case when it came to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Truth be told, Wickremesinghe appeared before the PSC also because President Sirisena then could not escape doing so without losing a political debating point or two int he process.
Scam of all scams
No doubt, politicians across the world, especially in electoral democracies, are known to appoint such probe panels to delay decision-making and accountability-fixing. Sirisena excelled in it because for everything that was wrong with the administration that he formally headed, he has had probe panels going into the same, reporting back only to him,
Be it the bonds scam probe or the earlier presidential commission report on Easter blasts, Sirisena was also known to have indulged in selective leaks, to embarrass/harass political opponent of the day. The latest target in the bonds scam is the Bribery Commission summoning Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for testifying on his role in the ‘bonds scam’.
Over weeks and months, the Bribery Commission too seems to have become the ‘scam of all scams’, the very purpose of its creation being harassment of the Rajapaksas. The fact is that nothing has flowed out of the commission reports, multiple police investigations and court cases. The collective scam would be exposed if the nation were to elect Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, President on 16 November.
Then, the Treasury can conveniently write-off all those expenses on all the on-going probes against the Rajapaksas. God be great if they were not to open a new page in their account books, or open a new book or books, to spend on new investigations against all those who had undertaken the current probes against the Rajapaksas. Possibly from the last police constable to President Sirisena, if not PM Wickremesinghe, who all had targeted the Rajapaksas for alleged acts of commissions and omissions through the ten long years of t heir regime may be hauled up on another set of charges, real or trumped up.
Pleasing the high priest?
The new probe can be dubbed the ‘mother of all probes’ into the Easter blasts. From all published accounts, it also now seems that the new presidential probe has been named also to address the concerns of Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who had expressed ‘Catholic dismay’ at all the ongoing investigations into the Easter blasts, without doing what exactly was needed. If so, did the Government (read: President Sirisena) discuss names that would sound credible for Cardinal Ranjith and his clan before appointing members to the new probe team?
If he did, then the President’s Office might have made a mockery of the governmental scheme, by yielding to the ‘whims’ of an individual or a section of the nation’s population. If not, why not? After all, the Catholic Church and their parishioners are upset and angry at the various investigations into the Easter blasts that had claimed 260 lives, mainly because none of them sounded credible, focussed and purposeful.
Such ‘Catholic dismay’ could also be interpreted (whether right or wrong) to imply that they were all upset about the politicisation of a human tragedy, in which the community happened to be at the receiving end of the serial terror-blasts. It is not unlikely that the catholicity of the Christian denomination may have inculcated a sense of security and internal passivity in the community, that too because they had never ever been targeted for being who they are, through the past decades of two JVP insurgencies and the LTTE terror-attacks. If some Christian died, it was either targeted for the person and for his political beliefs and not for his birth — or was ‘collateral damage’.
Yet, if the idea was to please the high-priest of Catholic Church in these parts, then the results may be mixed at best, and unmixed absurdity, otherwise. First and foremost, it may have been too late for President Sirisena, or even the Sri Lankan State/Government under him, to convince the community that they are honourable and their intentions and actions are equally so.
Two, and more important in context, the chances of the commission report hitting the headlines ahead of the presidential polls, which is less than two months from now, could mean that politics of the electoral kind would be at the top of competing campaigns. Truth-seeking, if it is one, will be last in the priorities of politicians, unless Sirisena is also a candidate, or at least his SLFP fields a ‘strong candidate’ to inspire poll rivals to use it as a top campaign material.
With such usage, the probe report, even if impartial and pointed, could get more politicised than all the findings of all the probe panels that President Sirisena had appointed through his five years in office. The fact that he has been selective in appointing probe panels, selects his own probe teams and also been selective in ‘leaking’ and/or acting on those reports – and also times it to his purported political advantage – could all have already robbed whatever credibility remains of his action. If anything, the new probe thus could become a credibility-burden on Sirisena if he or his party were to contest the presidential polls — and on the Sri Lankan Government and State structure for all time to come!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)