SL’s crisis of leadership opens space for Rajapaksas

COLOMBO, Apr 25 (Agencies) | Publish Date: 4/25/2019 12:17:36 PM IST

Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, then the defence secretary, crushed Tamil Tiger separatists with such ferocity ten years ago that Western powers sought war crime trials against them and greeted their defeat in elections later with barely concealed glee.

According to Reuters, but now the tiny Indian Ocean island is faced with South Asia’s deadliest militant attack - claimed by Islamic State - and may well again turn to the Rajapaksas for a strong-willed response to the new threat, politicians and diplomats say.

Elections to pick a new president are due between October and December and Mahinda Rajapaksa is already targeting President Maithripala Sirisena and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for failing to preserve the hard fought peace. Rajapaksa cannot contest for president again, but his brother Gotabaya is ready to make a bid, his aide has said.

“Rajapaksas’ will take the easy benefit and be able to claim with some credibility that if they come back to power, they will adopt the same strong security policy that allowed them to free the country from terrorism,” said a Western diplomat.

Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million, has been a tinder box of sectarian and ethnic tensions, first between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and minority Tamil groups and in recent years between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. At the same time, the island nation better known for its beaches, jungles and tea plantations, has gained in geopolitical importance, becoming an arena for influence peddling between India, its traditional partner, and China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure.

With Islamic State claiming responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks in which more than 350 people were killed, Sri Lanka has been thrust further into the global limelight.

Rajapaksa and his supporters say that the government - under foreign pressure - has been weakening the military and intelligence arms he had built up to ensure there was no revival of the Tamil movement, but also keep an eye on disaffected minorities.

Instead, the government has spent its energy investigating old allegations of abuse against soldiers stemming from the 26-year civil war against the Tamil separatists. The government said it had received prior warnings about impending attacks on churches but these were not shared across the government and admitted that was a lapse.

Disbanding intelligence cells

A source in the Indian government, which provided three warnings ahead of the Sunday bombings, said Sri Lanka no longer had the sophisticated national security apparatus that the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran.

Out in the east, home to the suspected mastermind of the attacks, there was a 45-member cell of intelligence operatives that had been wound up, said Kehelia Rambukwella, a spokesman for Rajapaksa’s party.

“Some of its people had been sent to the welfare department. If you had them still functioning, we might have picked this plot up,” he said.

But government officials said many of these secret intelligence cells were disbanded because they faced allegations of abuse, including torture and extra judicial killings, during the war and in the months afterwards, officials said.

Rajitha Senaratne, a government spokesman said: “We can’t allow the military to kill innocent people, children, and journalists. Murderers can’t be war heroes.”

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