‘Received intelligence from India on attacks’: SL Minister Harsha de Silva interview

The political differences between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe are playing out sharply even as the country attempts to send out messages of unity at this hour.
‘Received intelligence from India on attacks’: SL Minister Harsha de Silva interview
‘Received intelligence from India on attacks’: SL Minister Harsha de Silva interview
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Sri Lanka remains on the tenterhooks since the dastardly serial terror strikes on Easter Sunday. Even as suspects are being rounded up, some prime suspects remain at large, reportedly with ammunition and explosives. Investigations are pointing to NTJ (National Thowheed Jamath) as the main organisation behind the attacks.

Speaking to Indian TV station TV9 Bharatvarsh, Sri Lankan Economic Affairs Minister Harsha De Silva said that ‘heads must roll’ for the attacks. The political differences between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe are also playing out sharply even as the country struggles to send out messages of unity at this hour.

De Silva also appreciated India’s gift of the ambulance services to the island nation and the security cooperation, confirming that intelligence inputs were received from India prior to the attacks.

Smita Sharma, Consulting Executive Editor of TV9 Bhartvarsh, spoke to Harsha De Silva in Colombo before the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks. Here’s the transcript of the interview:

What have been the last 48 hours like for you?

It has been like no other 48 hours. I am not used to it. We thought the dastardly terror attacks were gone but they’re back again. It is almost unbelievable, shocking and very difficult to gather oneself and face another 24 hours which will be very crucial for this country. It started with telephone calls to our ambulance unit which was,in fact, a collaboration between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments. It is called 1990 – the largest gift that the Modi government gave to Sri Lanka since the tsunami. It is a 24 million dollars project implemented here. When the calls started coming through, they called me and said there was something unusual and that’s when we realised what had happened. I was one of the first at the scene with the Secretary of Defence. It was unbelievable – the sights, sounds, the smell, emotions. It has been a sad Easter Sunday and Monday.

You are observing national mourning today. What should we expect next?  

We hope we will be able to agree across party lines and aisles as to what we need to do to face this national emergency. This is a terrorist attack not targeted just at Catholics of this country but is targeted at this country. We have got to leave all the political, racial, religious, ethnic differences aside and unite as a nation. We have been able to do that before and I do not see why we can’t do it now. We have to take this head on. We will suggest a couple of things to the PM to be done. Accountability must be established, first of all. Then we have to have a team that is capable of implementing those decisions.

Emergency has been imposed by the President. This law has had a chequered past with Sri Lanka. Was it necessary to impose?

In retrospect, we could say this was not needed or that was too much. I don’t know. We are dealing with an animal that has not been dealt with before. With LTTE, we knew what we were dealing with. We knew what their capabilities were. We knew it had a certain level of ground support in a particular area of the country. Here, we do not know who all these people are, the National Thowheed Jamath. There is certainly no ground support here. So they will act in a different way. We have to look at what kind of technology these people are using, what means of communication. So to start off with, at least it is good to give troops on the ground sufficient authority to hold and question people and deal with emergencies at sight. So I am for the limited enactment of the emergency powers that are available to us.

How do you ensure it will be limited?

We have gazetted only parts of the law. Our government has been very liberal, open, accommodating and we have stood for peace in this country. You can be assured that we are not going to abuse it or use it in places where we are not supposed to use it. That guarantee the government can give people of this nation.

Are the investigations heading in a concrete direction? Is the NTJ being considered as main perpetrator?

The investigations are certainly pointing towards some organised group that may have either connections or sympathies outside this nation. I am not able to tell you with absolute certainty that the NTJ is the group. But certainly, it is moving in that direction. We have intelligence that came from overseas, including India, and now we have FBI, Interpol and others who are thorough on the subject trying to piece together what happened and why and how it originated. While we deal with issues of today – the funerals, reconstruction, consoling of little children who have lost their parents and so on, we have to concentrate on investigation side so we can get to bottom of this and completely eliminate this before it goes any further.

Was there specific input sharing from India about these attacks?

India and Sri Lanka have been coordinating a lot of security measures over the years. There are strong relations between the intelligence units of both countries. We know that there has been not one but many reports that have been shared with our people locally and also by other countries. It is going to be an effort to be undertaken not just by our country and officials locally but people who are specialists in these investigations across the world. This is not limited to Sri Lanka. This is a terrorist attack on a peaceful nation. This is an attack on society, the world and not just a country or region. So the entire world is focusing on this. I was a little bit surprised on the attention that this is getting. A lot of people have died but tales that are connected seem to spread way beyond this country.

Does the NTJ have links with Islamic State? There have been people from Sri Lanka who travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS.

I cannot say that. But there seem to be some sort of congratulatory messages going around on social media by people closely connected to IS that the attackers doing a ‘commendable job’ in Sri Lanka. There seems to be some sort of common ideology or thinking but we don’t know whether these are established links or whether they are discreet elements situated in various places around the world.

Are the divisions between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe and respective camps playing out after these attacks in the kind of statements being made and blame game unfolding?

Unfortunately, there has been some level of mistrust, shall we say, because the President sacked PM Wickremesinghe when he had absolutely no authority to do so. And he appointed Rajapakse to office, which completely violated the Constitution. We took it to court and the court overruled the action of the President and Wickremesinghe was re-appointed as Prime Minister. So there is a lot of suspicion about why did the President do so and who is he aligned to and who is to benefit from this. I do not want to put allegations, but as minister of this government, these questions do pop into my head as well. This is something that people here are talking about.

About the incident where the information was available and not being acted upon, this is a colossal failure of the implementing agencies within the defence establishment. The intelligence people did their jobs. We had the intelligence. They had cooperation from foreign countries. They got the warnings out. What was the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, what was the Inspector General of Police doing with this information? Why on earth did they not bring this information to the attention of the Prime Minister, given the President was overseas? The PM was unaware about this, none of us were aware of this. Heads must roll. There has to be accountability. I see no business of the IG of Police coming into meetings today. I want him to be sent home. I want Secretary to the Ministry of Defence to be sent home. People who will not take a partisan position on these issues and be able to work together must be appointed. The alliance of the President cannot be with the leader of Opposition and some party that wants to get the government out of office. It cannot be. Whether he likes it or not, the President has to work with the Prime Minister. This is not about a personality, this is about a country. I am not pleased and I have no fear in saying these things. These are hard facts and bitter truths. We cannot be playing games with people’s lives. The defence establishment is clearly under the President. The President must act now.

Is there any specific assistance you expect from India at this hour?

On behalf of the whole country, I want to thank the government of India for this great gift of the ambulance service that they gave us and as the person running it, I know how many lives we have saved, not just today but also in the last year and a half. People really do appreciate it and it has been a huge help. India is our closest friend. And we have to collaborate our security, intelligence and other issues. It is happening and we need to continue to build on this great friendship that we have and we will be in greater contact with the government of India and its different agencies to figure out what happened and to help rebuild. India has always been there for Sri Lanka in our hour of need. We appreciate it very much.

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