The Cardinal Versus a (former) President; justice be damned

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An (un)holy row has erupted between Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church and former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa regarding ‘who said what’ in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks on April 21st 2019 by ‘home grown’ jihadists.

Symbolic punishment is insufficient

Examining several aspects of this dispute is relevant against the wider backdrop of Sri Lanka’s painful struggles with political accountability. Marking the fifth anniversary of the attacks last week, the Church repeated its call for the perpetrators to be punished. That has not yet transpired apart from the Supreme Court holding former President Maithripala Sirisena together with his defence and intelligence officers responsible for failing to protect the security of the country.

But that decision is largely symbolic in value, hardly deserving of the degree of punishment that must follow if the scales of justice are to be balanced fairly. These attacks started a train of events that not only brought unbearable anguish for the victims but also, in true Greek tragic form, resulted in the decimation of Sri Lanka as a nation.

These are not uncommon happenings. On the contrary, they have been played out time and time again in ‘politically unstable’ nations of the global South as well as in developed democracies as some may like to style the global North. Yet to return to the fate of this unfortunate land, it was a fear cloud of the Easter killings coupled with the dangerously seductive promise of a ‘Sinhala Buddhist monarch’ that led to Gotabaya Rajapaksa sweeping into power a few months later in November 2019.

Karmic retribution of enabling evil

This election of a foolish, ignorant and arrogant President by cheering Sri Lankans was the karmic trigger point for consigning themselves and generations yet unborn to a catastrophic fate. The final consequence of that saga ended with Rajapaksa ignominiously fleeing for his life through the backdoor of his official residence in 2022 as the angry public broke down the gates in the wake of the Government declaring bankruptcy.

To this same point, if we are to look at examples of extreme political foolishness, we do not unfortunately seem to see the end of this. A few days ago, President Ranil Wickremesinghe smilingly boasted while declaring open the ITC Ratnadipa, that he is cutting the ribbon to Sri Lanka’s latest super luxury hotel at the same protest site where the public had once sent a President home.

He then called for another peoples’ protest (‘the aragalaya’) not to happen again. To be blunt, this patently insensitive statement, even as the disgraced former President sat in his audience, aptly speaks to the Wickremesinghe Presidency’s highly worrying state of democratically dissociative disorder. First, nothing could be further apart than luxury hotels in Colombo and a democratic peoples’ struggle that summarily ejected a leader who had destroyed himself, his family and the country for good measure.

Is this country only
for the rich? 

That juxtaposition of one with the other is obscene to say the least. Is the President not aware of the massive gulf that yawns between Sri Lanka’s uber-rich who fawn around him and the majority of the populace in the wake of the country’s punishing bankruptcy? Thousands of families have been decimated by poverty and malnutrition amidst the collapse of once optimally functional public health and education systems.

Indeed, the Government has been so inept in providing them relief that it cannot even ensure that stocks of rice distributed to the poor in yet another ridiculous state event recently, are fit to eat. Does the President expect people to rejoice in new luxury hotels even while their children do not have enough to eat? Does he not bother to listen to popular venom that accuses his Office of fashioning a Sri Lanka where only the rich can live while the others desperately scrabble for scraps?

Secondly, without the protests of 2022, a disastrous Presidency could not have been ended. And to add a tad unkindly, President Wickremesinghe would not have had a snowflake’s chance in hell of sitting in the Presidential chair either. But leaving that aside, let us  return to the political shenanigans that are being played out over the Easter Sunday blasts in 2019.

‘Political’ men of the cloth

The good Cardinal has confessed that he had been ‘misled’ into extending support for former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Rajapaksa had promised ‘justice’ for the victims. This claim raises a number of important points apart from belying vehement denials previously that he had supported the Rajapaksas. Primarily, this confession by and of itself does not sit well with the persona of a man of the cloth, to put the matter mildly.

The Cardinal himself does not quite appear to recognise that open ‘politicking’ of a religious leader does not augur well for his flock. Last week, the evil consequences of communalistic tensions that Buddhist monks have stoked at the bequest of their political masters were discussed in these column spaces. That has been the bane of post-independence Sri Lanka.

That indictment applies equally for all men of the cloth. Moreover, the Cardinal’s explanation that he ‘supported’ Rajapaksa’s election campaign on the premise that he ‘believed’ him to be sincere, needs to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Long before the Presidential election campaign went into full swing in 2019, received wisdom in Sri Lanka and overseas was firmly against that glib assurance.

Sinister findings and
obvious conclusions

It was commonly accepted that there was far more to the dastardly attacks than a few smiling boys who casually walked into churches and hotels with explosives in their backpacks, blowing up worshippers and revellers. Without labouring the point, the sequence of astounding intelligence lapses inferentially suggesting complicity by sections of the security apparatus with the Easter Sunday attackers, were obvious to the most naïve.

Whatever snippets of investigations available, including the report of the parliamentary select committee made public by October 2019, underscored that sinister finding. So for the head of the Catholic Church to claim blissful ignorance of all those warnings and to profess to child-like innocence in saying that he ‘supported’ Rajapaksa and had been ‘misled,’ is to insult our intelligence no less.

On his part, the former President has also come out with all guns blaring, to deny that he had spoken to the Cardinal after his election or that he could not ensure ‘justice’ according to the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry as that would mean the arrest of people and banning  of organisations ‘allied’ with him. Whatever is the ‘truth’ thereto, certain facts are undisputed.

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’

After all the water has flowed under these very several parliamentary committees and Commissions of Inquiry to probe the Easter Sunday barbarities, the end result has been ‘zero’ except for some prosecutions desultorily winding their way through the state system. As another election approaches, the main opposition parties vying for power have promised further Commissions of Inquiry. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) has gone a step further by committing to an Office of a Special Prosecutor and a dedicated court.

Meanwhile the families of more than two hundred and fifty victims and hundreds more critically wounded ‘still seek justice.’ Many victims were children celebrating Resurrection Sunday, one of the most revered events in the Christian calendar. All of them have become cold statistics of the terrible collateral damage caused by decades of ethnic, civil (and religious) conflict in the North, East and South.

That is our shame.