This chilling Dispatches documentary reports on the aftermath of 2019’s apparently random terrorist attack, and alleges unpalatable truths
On Easter Sunday 2019, six suicide bombings hit Catholic churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing 269 people. Quickly, the perpetrators were identified as domestic religious extremists the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath), claimed by Islamic State as their own. The wider world, pausing to note that the perceived threat of Islamic fundamentalism helped the controversial Rajapaksa family regain the Sri Lankan presidency a few months after the bombings, chalked it up as yet another terrorist atrocity about which nothing much could be said or done and moved on.
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings, a new Dispatches investigation, makes serious new allegations about the attacks, based on whistleblower testimony. While the accusations are startling, they are straightforward: the charge is that allies of the Rajapaksas had associations with the NTJ, and that they made it hard for law enforcement to arrest its leaders prior to the bombings or to fully investigate the massacre afterwards.
Such information does not fill an hour of television; the programme is three-quarters done before the bombings take place. But, while the programme may feel like a 15-minute news report with a 45-minute preamble, that context is fascinating. The earlier section is a pithy summary of modern Sri Lankan politics, telling a tale of how authoritarians wield power, the lengths they will go to when that power is challenged, and how they lay dormant in the aftermath of apparent defeat, waiting to return.
We start in 1983, when an armed uprising by Tamil separatists sparked civil war, before spooling forward to the end of that conflict in 2009. Actions taken then by the Sri Lankan army, under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, have since been widely described as war crimes, not least by the 2011 Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields – a film furiously criticised by Sri Lankan authorities.
Rajapaksa and his younger brother Gotabaya, appointed by the president as defence secretary, had already built a reputation as leaders to be feared. Numerous political opponents were threatened or attacked. The film recalls the chilling murder in 2009 of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, the government’s most prominent critic, who predicted his own demise and left behind an editorial to be published after his death: “Murder,” he wrote, “has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty.” Such violent retribution was, the Dispatches contributors say, believed to be carried out by a clandestine death squad called the Tripoli Platoon.
In 2015, the Rajapaksas, who had flooded government posts with extended family and were beset by allegations of corruption, were voted out. Senior police officer Nishantha Silva then investigated the Wickrematunge murder, finding phone record evidence putting Tripoli Platoon members at the scene. Making his first public statements in this programme, Silva claims that, despite no longer running the country, the Rajapaksas still had enough friends in powerful positions to ensure the case stalled in the Sri Lankan courts.
Dispatches’ star whistleblower is an exile named Hanzeer Azad Maulana, who spent nearly 20 years working within the Rajapaksas’ inner circle as a translator and aide. And so we come finally to those headline allegations: Maulana says he was in the room when Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the founding of the Tripoli Platoon.
Even more seriously, he says that in 2018, the year before the bombings, he brokered a meeting between NTJ members and Suresh Sallay, who was the Rajapaksas’ head of military intelligence. (Sallay, who was demoted to an outpost in Malaysia after the end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in 2015, denies this, telling Dispatches he was in Malaysia at the time of the supposed 2018 meeting. Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not respond to requests to comment.)
We are told that information from Indian intelligence sources, warning of an attack by the NTJ on Catholic churches, was not acted upon. Efforts by the police to arrest NTJ followers were, according to documents obtained by Dispatches and testimony from a further, anonymous whistleblower, derailed by briefings from military intelligence filled with baseless accusations against other groups.
In this thicket of secrets and lies, the film takes time to hear from the victims, interviewing two survivors of the Easter 2019 attack on St Sebastian’s church in Negombo. Their memories of seeing loved ones die – 115 perished at St Sebastian’s, including 27 children – form a lurching contrast to the smiling face of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected as president in November 2019 on a wave of fierce, fearful nationalism. The new ruler appointed Suresh Sallay as his new intelligence boss – Dispatches’ anonymous whistleblower claims to have evidence of Sallay then obstructing the investigation into the bombings. Sallay, who denies everything and is now pursuing defamation claims in the Sri Lankan courts, is still the director-general of the State Intelligence Service today.
Citizens of many countries are accustomed, in the aftermath of apparently random and unstoppable terrorist horror, to learning that in fact the culprits had been “known to the intelligence services” and ought to have been intercepted. If the allegations here prove correct, the truth in Sri Lanka is even more disturbing.
The Guardian, UK
Dispatches: Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings is on Channel 4