Preventative Measures Needed To Curb Terrorism
Earlier this month, Justice Minister Dr. Wijayadasa Rajapaksha, PC on behalf of the Government postponed the Parliamentary debate on the controversial Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill scheduled for January 5, 2023 to January 19, 2023. This Bill is for the establishment of a bureau, The Bureau of Rehabilitation, to regulate its powers, duties and functions and to provide for related matters. The Justice Minister assured the House that the Bill was not withdrawn, only postponed.
The Bill sparked controversy over several provisions as Section 28 (2) where Centres for Rehabilitation personnel ‘to preserve order and discipline’ may use all means “including minimum force as may reasonably be necessary to compel obedience to any lawful directions.”
Opposition MPs, human rights activists and civil society organisations are concerned the Bill can be used to suppress anti-Government protesters. Last year, former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Ambika Satkunanathan filed a Fundamental Rights Petition against the Bill in October as well.
The Supreme Court has determined that the Bill is, as a whole, inconsistent with Article 12 (1) of the Constitution, which reads “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.”
Therefore this can be enacted only by special majority as required by Article 84 (2) of the Constitution, which Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena informed Parliament on October 20, 2022.
Furthermore, Supreme Court determined that to remove the inconsistency with Article 12 (1),
* All references to ‘ex-combatants,’ ‘violent extremist groups,’ and ‘any other group of persons’ must be deleted from the bill,
* Limited to rehabilitation of drug dependent persons and such other persons as may be identified by law.
However, since the late 1960s, the youth in this country has been falling prey to various agendas that use terrorism and extremism as its macabre strategy. Therefore, not only are we in urgent need of a preventative measure but also facilities to rehabilitate those who were engaged in acts against the State.
Clearly, the Supreme Court bound by the Constitution can only interpret according to the provisions of the apex law, which came into being in 1977. At the time, we had already experienced one insurgency and the other was brewing with numerous terrorist groups mushrooming to fight for a ‘Tamil exclusive homeland’.
Shortly after ushering in the new Constitution, that was promoted as powerful, the North was infested with about 80 different terrorist groups, fighting for one cause but also engaged in a deadly rivalry against each other. Yet, our understanding then of terrorism was at best rudimentary.
It has been 14 years since we eradicated a three decade terrorist menace. Four years ago, a series of bombs exploded on both the East and West coasts on Easter Sunday. The first half of 2022 was broiled in anti-Government protests with the agenda to push the country into anarchy.
Metamorphosis of Terrorism
Our understanding of terrorism thus continues to be challenged. The Easter Attack changed the understanding we had of terrorism garnered from the JVP/LTTE experiences. The anti-Government protests that plagued the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration yet again redefined terrorism.
Taking Sri Lanka’s experiences into account, as noted above, three metamorphic stages of terrorism can be identified.
* Armed youth, educated and uneducated, typically from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds;
* Conscripted forcefully or otherwise to an organisation with a clear hierarchy that train cadres and fund subversive acts;
* Engaged in subversive and terror activities on command from the hierarchy where independent acts are not tolerated;
* Seen as freedom fighters, gain sympathy and even support from foreign Governments, international bodies and civil societies;
* Maniacally focussed on a set of clearly defined goals that cannot be attained democratically.
2. Easter attack:
* Educated and affluent men and women with established families, incomes and social status;
* Identified by the IS ideology by executing terror acts that attracts world attention and thereby that of the IS than conscripted directly by the Organisation;
* Works independently and arms, trains and funds their own atrocities;
* While neither the acts nor cause gains these terrorists any sympathy, Governments under severe pressure from enforcing strong anti-terrorist laws by other Governments, international organisations and civil societies;
* Fanatically driven but the end objective is either not communicated clearly or too fantastic to be credible, definitely unattainable democratically.
3. Anti-Government protests:
* On the surface, this was an apolitical, people’s movement – mostly by middle income earners inconvenienced by the shortages and power outages;
* Supposedly impromptu but managed via social media by vested interest entities including political bodies;
* Marketed as ‘peaceful’, this won the support of Western Governments, international organisations and civil societies making it politically incorrect for the Government to take action against a movement that was pushing the country into anarchy;
* Increasingly displayed violent tendencies with islandwide presence;
* Financed by both invisible funders with a hidden agenda as well as various entities in the business community, mostly who thought this was just a people’s movement against a Government’s mismanagement.
Different faces, same damage
Nevertheless, the effect from each episode has been the same diabolical damage to the economy. While many blame the JR Jayewardene Government for opening the economy, submerging the State Owned Enterprises initiated by the predecessor, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, there are other factors for our economic contraction.
The deliberate acts of sabotage and destruction brought on by these four movements, JVP insurgency, LTTE terrorism, Easter Attack and anarchy must also be taken into account. The current dilemma faced by the hoteliers is a case in point.
This year began with The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) President M. Shanthikumar making his case with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, Tourism Minister Harin Fernando and multilateral donor agencies as Asian Development Bank and others for a continuation of debt moratorium for another year. He asks for this breathing space to keep hotels operational in 2023 as it is critical to continue to cater to the inflow of tourists that is just picking up.
Despite being a fully recovered post-COVID destination, the negative perception created by the political and economic crisis in 2022 followed by the mammoth protests have given travellers the impression that the country is unsafe, observes Shanthikumar.
Hence, until April 2023 the hotels on average are not expected to exceed 25 to 30 percent occupancy. This coupled with the increase in operational costs that cannot be brought down puts hotels at greater risk of having to shut down if timely and adequate support is not given. If hotels are not protected, warns Shanthikumar, the whole tourism industry that provides livelihoods to 12 percent of the population will collapse.
Even though arrivals had grown from its dismal numbers in 2021 by 207 percent, this is still 69 percent lower in comparison to the record achievement of 2.3 million in 2018. Likewise, despite 313 percent increase in earnings from tourism during the first 11 months of 2022 compared to 2021, this is still less than even one fourth of the USD 4.4 billion earned in 2018.
This is just one instance of the economic disasters we have faced because of these anti-Government acts. Over the decades, we have lost much of our infrastructure and opportunities. As Shanthikumar points out, recovery is a long and painful process even long after the saboteurs are gone.
Stemming from the thus weakened economy, we face threats to our sovereignty, freedom and independence. Furthermore, we as a nation are forced to endure being insulted, degraded, discredited, infantilized and worse – pitied.
Lessons from past Conspiracy Theories
This underscores the importance of understanding the motive of terrorism, irrespective of the manner it manifests. Yet, this is not an easy feat as various conspiracy theories that precipitate from nowhere misdirect our focus.
For instance, the youth who joined the JVP insurgencies in 1971 and 1987 believed that theirs was a fight against the oppression of the economically challenged by the high-income earners. Alarmed at been a target as well as demoralized by the contracting economy and loss of opportunities, many proprietors and entrepreneurs left the country. Consequently, currently there is a dearth of entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka.
Yet the education system is yet to take note of these lacunae. Instead of inculcating creativity or leadership, we pursue a certificate-based education even though we do not have the capacity to accommodate all those who qualify for tertiary education. This increases the pressure on the youth and makes them easier prey to nefarious elements.
The youth who joined or were forcibly conscripted to the LTTE were indoctrinated that the Tamil language and culture were threatened by the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism. Yet, the attack was not merely against the majority community. Even the Muslims, a community smaller than even the Tamils in Sri Lanka, were attacked as well as certain groups in the Tamil Community allegedly kept other Tamil groups suppressed on caste basis. Ultimately, the most who were terrorized by the LTTE were the Tamil civilians, including those who left the country.
Legally, all Sri Lankan citizens enjoy the same privileges and are treated equally. Factually, the Tamil population living amongst the Sinhalese is greater than in the Northern or Eastern Provinces. In fact, during the height of terrorism, many Tamils living in these two provinces moved to live outside these two provinces.
Yet the effort is to resolve the ‘National Question’, which remains ambiguous and undefined to date. Last December, in a bid to formulate a road-map for the Party leaders’ talks on ethnic reconciliation, President Ranil Wickremesinghe convened an All Party Leaders’ Conference at the Presidential Secretariat to discuss the ‘national question and other related minority issues’ with Tamil and Muslim parties. The President stated that all political parties should agree to a solution to the ‘ethnic problem’ before the 75th Independence celebration.
Subsequently, the President’s Office stated that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will brief the Cabinet in February 2023 on the progress of the decisions taken at the All-Party Conference to resolve the major issues in the reconciliation process.
In the meantime, the Upcountry Tamil Party has approached Norwegian national Eric Solheim to play a role in ‘achieving a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka’. Solheim was the peace facilitator of the failed Norway brokered Ceasefire Agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE from 2005-2006. Currently, he is acting as President’s ‘International Climate Advisor’.
As mentioned afore, it is unclear what constitutes the ‘ethnic conflict’. Without clarity on the matter it would be impossible to move forward, especially when the dominant political party of TNA refuses to form a broad political alliance by accommodating any other Tamil party except its traditional allies. Clearly, we are running in circles without a clue to the causes that contributed to LTTE’s strength.
Using Religious Extremism
Up to date, no one really understands the motive of the Easter Attack. Hence there are many theories that have floated around since the Attack. This range from,
* Misinterpretation of the Quran,
* Revenge for the attack on mosques in New Zealand,
* Suspicions of a foreign plot because,
Foreign law enforcement agencies appeared within 24-hours of the Attack (unprecedented despite enduring 30 years of terrorism);
Two bombers exploded themselves in the Chinese owned hotel, Shangri La, whereas other places had only one bomber;
The immediate announcement of the MCCC by the then Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera spun its own theories.
However, protests over shortages are not the beginning but the middle of the chronology. The beginning was with the graduates seeking employment in the State sector as well as those who were promised employment by the Yahapalana Government almost from the day President Gotabaya took Office.
The sequence of protests followed thereafter include protests,
* Over the agrochemical ban;
* From nurses and other healthcare personnel;
* From teachers and principals over a pending issue of salary anomalies.
Whether these different protests over issues independent from one another were unrelated is a serious question before us. Either way, it put a spanner in the works as the Gotabaya Administration tried to outrun the huge debt burden the country was straining under with economic growth. However, these never ending protests simply acted as a spanner in the works. The anti-Government protests that almost pushed our country into anarchy have exposed itself as an economic saboteur. Time will reveal whether this destructor was none other than ourselves as a nation who committed hara kiri or geopolitical assassins.
Cost of Conspiracy Theories
Obviously, despite defeating the violent arm of these movements, we have not been able to adequately address the various conspiracies revolving at the time, justifying or excusing terrorism or deflecting blame from the culprits.
This failure had stopped us from identifying and resolving the root causes.
Consequently, terrorism continues to rear itself repeatedly. Interestingly, none of these terrorist movements are after the same objectives. This begs the question whether terrorism is simply a front for a more devious agenda.
By allowing these conspiracy theories, and acting in it, we have damaged Sri Lanka by disrupting the rehabilitation of those who have been detained by the law enforcement authorities. As was the case with Rajiv Gandhi’s case, even those convicted of heinous crimes can get released from prison, even decades after the crime. However, if they are not rehabilitated when they are released, they will continue to pose a threat to the society by:
* Continuing with terror acts
* Spreading the ideology
* Influencing other like-minded
* Emergence of other terrorist/paramilitary to counter this threat
If this threat is not uprooted completely, those in custody/killed by counter terrorism will be hailed as heroes/martyrs. Today, LTTE cadres still in prison are those who committed grave crimes against humanity but refuse to be rehabilitated. However, they are now often referred to as ‘political prisoners’.
They are not political prisoners. If a Member of the Parliament may not kill his political opponent, then neither can any other. Yet, this kind of perversion disrupts community engagement programmes.
For instance, after the Easter Attack, the Government banned groups such as NTJ, SLTJ and ACTJ. However, this is still only on paper and hence is still active. Muslim Community or religious leaders have not yet come forward to stop the ongoing radicalization, extremism or exclusivity – combination of which produces terrorism. This is not necessarily because of sympathy towards these extremists but due to lack of political will.
Therefore, it behoves on the Government and the Opposition to,
* Differentiate between a protester and a terrorist,
* Bring in the necessary laws for the Constitution to accommodate to deal with terrorism, terrorists and rehabilitation of terrorists.