Conspiracy theories sprout as Lankans face prospect of another terror attack

Colombo Correspondent, May 4, 2019

Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith

Twelve days after the shocking terrorist attack on churches and hotels which killed and maimed hundreds, Sri Lankans are engulfed by conspiracy theories and haunted by fears of another round of attacks.

One of the conspiracy theories is the insinuation that the terror attack was the brainchild of the former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who has declared his intention to contest the Presidential election due in December this year, marketing himself as a “strongman” with experience of successfully fighting the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Speaking to the media in Jaffna on Thursday, a leading MP of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), wondered why Gotabaya had to publicly declare that he would be a Presidential candidate just days after the carnage in Colombo.

Earlier, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told newspersons that Gotabaya had funded some members of the National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ), the radical organization which had allegedly perpetrated the carnage. Senaratne alleged that the Lankan military intelligence under Defense Secretary Gotabaya had engaged some NTJ members as spies.

Another rumor doing the rounds is that the attacks were carried out at the behest of one or more “foreign powers” to destabilize Sri Lanka and impose their hegemony on Sri Lanka.

As these theories circulate through the mainstream and social media, Sri Lankans feel restless. The patience of the beleaguered Catholic minority, which had taken the brunt of the terrorist bombings, is wearing thin. The Catholic hierarchy has openly displayed no-confidence in the ruling United National Party (UNP) and President Maithripala Sirisena.

When the government said that all schools will open on Monday, May 6, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith declared that Catholic schools will not be re-opened on May 6 and that no Catholic masses would be held until further notice.

The church’s stand has to be seen in the backdrop of the Cardinal’s stating that he is unhappy with the security measures taken in the aftermath of the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks in which 253 persons, mostly Catholics, died.

Meanwhile, there are growing fears of attacks on Buddhist temples in South and Central Sri Lanka and Hindu kovils in the North, given warnings by local and international intelligence.

In fear of more attacks, Saudi Arabia has called upon all its citizens to leave the island. Many Western countries, which had issued travel advisories, have not withdrawn them.

Even as Sri Lanka is struggling to restore normalcy, the political atmosphere is vitiated by infighting and finger pointing.

The war-winning former army commander who is now a ruling party MP, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, said that it is time someone who knows security issues was appointed to direct post-blast security measures.

But he quashed the theory that former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instigated the bombings.

Fonseka, who is angling for the portfolio of Law and Order in the Sri Lankan cabinet, met the top Buddhist clergy in the country and told the media thereafter, that there is no basis to implicate Gotabaya. He pointed out that the issue of fundamentalism involving a small number of Sri Lankan Muslims has been a problem for some years and has remained unchecked, he pointed out.

Fonseka criticized the current regime for its apathy towards national security despite foreign intelligence warnings, and added that Gotabaya Rajapaksa also is not blameless because the problem of Islamic extremism existed even when he was Defense Secretary. The Rajapaksa administration had got warnings about the local terror outfits which had carried out the Easter Sunday attacks, but had done nothing to check them.

In the backdrop of the President, Prime Minister and key politicians passing the buck, there are unconfirmed reports that Fonseka, known for being the military commander who comprehensively defeated the LTTE in 2009, may be appointed Minister of Law and Order to better direct the tri-forces and the police to once and for all vanquish terrorism propagated in the name of Islam.

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have come in for widespread criticism for their apathy before and after the bombings. Their excuse that no security official informed them about the threat is not accepted by the public. Sources say that appointing a man like Fonseka to restore law and order may help absolve the President and the Prime Minister of the guilt of negligence.

However, the appointment of Fonseka as Law and Order minister could also bring in its train the fear that Sri Lanka may lapse into a military state.

Although Sri Lanka was at war with the LTTE for around 30 years, the scale and proportion of the Easter Sunday terror attack have made Sri Lankans wonder what kind of future awaits them.

The ISIS has claimed responsibility for the bombings and initial investigations show that around 200 Sri Lankan Muslim youth might have been radicalized and having links with the international terror group, IS.

In 2016, it was revealed in the Sri Lankan parliament that over 30 Lankan youth had left for Syria with their families to fight for the Islamic State. One of them, who had been an inconspicuous school teacher in a Sinhala majority district in Sri Lanka, had been killed fighting for the Islamic State.

Analysts fear that conspiracy theories may end up in the real culprits getting off the hook. And radical groups may continue to preach wrong interpretations of Islam. The leader of the terror group, NTJ and the Jamathei Mullaithu Ibraheemi, Zahran Hashim, was one such preacher. He was both a teacher in a madrasah and the Imam of a mosque.

“Instead of handling this situation properly it looks as if all that Sri Lanka is doing is to politicize the disaster and revel in conspiracy theories,” an analyst quipped. The fear that grips the ordinary citizen meanwhile is palpable.

On Friday, the Tamil-majority North of Sri Lanka was put on high alert after it was reported that at least 20 vehicles including motor bicycles, vans, cabs and three wheelers suspected to be laden with explosives were planning to enter the North from the South of the country.

The vehicles are believed to have been registered under the name of one of the nine suicide bombers involved in the Easter Sunday attacks.

The numbers of the suspected vehicles were put up in several areas for public vigilance. Many road blocks were also placed en route to the North.

Meanwhile, sources confirmed that Islamic burial rights had been denied to the bodies of the ten terrorists who had died in a house in the Muslim-majority enclave of Sainthamarudhu in the Eastern province. They had exploding themselves when the police and the tri forces closed in on their hideout last week following tip offs by local Muslims.

Scored of weapons and ammunition have been discovered in the past days around Sri Lanka with tip offs given by the Muslim community, police said.

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