New Delhi: On April 21, Sri Lanka was struck by the deadliest attack it had seen in a decade, with the Islamic State claiming responsibility for multiple attacks on churches and hotels across the country, killing 253 people. Since then, Sri Lanka has been on edge, with mass funerals and large-scale inspections across the length and breadth of the country.
In an exclusive interview with News18, President Maithripala Sirisena talks about the lapse of intelligence authorities and officials, the need for declaring an Emergency, and why he is certain his country will bounce back from this tragedy in no time. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and the Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara have both stepped down in the aftermath of the attacks on April 21, in which powerful explosions struck three hotels in capital city Colombo in quick succession. The Cinnamon Grand was hit around 8:30 am, followed by Shangri-La half an hour later. Three churches were also targeted: Colombo's historic St Anthony's shrine, the St Sebastian's church in the town of Negombo — north of the capital — and the Zion Church in the east-coast town of Batticaloa. Later in the day, there were two more blasts, out of which one hit another hotel in Colombo.
While the government had initially stated that more than 300 people were killed and over 500 wounded, the government on Thursday revised the number of victims to around 253.
You have mentioned that valuable input was not shared with you or your office. Who exactly do you believe is responsible for the lapse? Do you believe there was a deliberate attempt at hiding valuable input?
There was a serious lapse on the part of Defence Secretary and the Inspector General of Police who failed to inform me about the intelligence agency letter from a friendly foreign country, sent on April 4, warning about a possible attack. The letter warned of possible attacks on churches, places of public gatherings and VIPs.
The IGP has sent that letter to Staff DIG (deputy inspector general) and it was sent from table to table and finally it was forwarded to DIG Dissanayake of VIP Security who, in turn, forwarded it to the officers in charge of security of VIPs protection. I was not informed. Neither my security head nor the head of Prime Minister’s security was informed. Both the Defence Secretary and the IGP came to wish me on New Year Day (April 14) and they did not say a word about this warning letter. It was a serious lapse on their part and shirking of responsibility.
Where does the investigation into the attacks stand as of now? Is the threat to Sri Lanka over?
The government has already been able to crack down on many criminals, suspects and those responsible for the recent attacks and many arrests have taken place. Therefore, I truly believe that we can avoid a repetition of such gruesome acts of violence in the future. I have already planned necessary actions to build an environment where the people of this country can live freely and without fear in the future.
Sri Lanka has seen a decade of peace after a tumultuous 26-year-old civil war. Do you see the stability being threatened right now? Or do you think this is a one-off tragedy?
Modern-day terrorism poses challenges to nations around the world and no country is spared. It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka, too, had to face an episode of it. However, having overcome one of the deadliest terror groups after prolonged armed conflict, Sri Lanka has one of the finest and most experienced security forces. I trust we will bring about normalcy soon. Once the clearing operations are complete and possible threats eliminated, all the country will be safe for normal public life.
We had to declare an Emergency situation to suppress terrorists and ensure a peaceful environment in the country. What have been enacted by gazette are clauses pertaining to suppressing terrorism only. If these enactments were not made, the powers (that) prevailed were not sufficient for the police to take proactive measures and the Army, Navy and Air Force could not take part actively in the operations.
There have been talks about political infighting within your government. How do you see that panning out with regards to the current situation?
It is natural that many stories surface in turbulent times such as these. However, there is no issue about infighting in the government. The intelligence warning was neither brought to the notice of me nor the Prime Minister. As such, this is an unfortunate lapse in the defence mechanism than a political problem. We, as the nation, stand together in a collective response.