Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Photographer: Sabine Albers/Bloomberg)

Sri Lanka’s Ex-Defense Secretary Rips ‘Pure Ignorance’ of Leaders After Bombs

(Bloomberg) -- The brother of Sri Lanka’s former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa slammed the government for neglecting national security issues ahead of Easter Sunday’s suicide bombings, and said it would lead to a power shift at the next election.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the country’s former defense secretary who helped end a brutal 26-year civil war in 2009, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg late Tuesday that voters are looking for a leader more like him in a presidential election that must be held this year. More than 300 people died in the attacks, which have been blamed on a local jihadist group and claimed by Islamic State.

“This government was never serious about the security aspects of things,” said Rajapaksa, adding that the events strengthened his resolve to run in the upcoming poll. “It’s the pure ignorance of these people. They’re more concerned about reconciliation, they were more concerned with taking action against the previous government on human rights issues."

The Rajapaksa family, which controlled Sri Lanka for a decade between 2005 and 2015, aligned themselves with a new political party that defeated the ruling coalition in local elections last year, and are now attempting a political comeback ahead of the presidential vote. Human Rights Watch and other activist groups have said the Rajapaksa administration should be held to account for war crimes, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during the conflict.

“The people everywhere are talking about me, because they knew how I worked -- my dedication, my commitment -- whether in security, or any other area," Rajapaksa said.

“In 2005, before that no prime minister or minister could go up to the north, or go to the east,” he said. “But in 2015, when we handed over the government, people could go anywhere.”

‘Failure to Act’

Rajapaksa, a former army officer appointed as Sri Lanka’s defense secretary after his brother triumphed in presidential elections, said a relentless focus on national security allowed their administration to end the civil war in 2009.

After their government was voted out in 2015, Rajapaksa said, the new administration of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lacked focus on national security. Finger-pointing over a failure to act on intelligence reports warning that an Islamic group was planning attacks on churches proved his point, he said.

A cabinet minister tweeted an internal police memo dated April 11 warning a group called National Thowheed Jamath planned to bomb Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission, while the prime minister said the government had received warnings but “not enough attention had been paid.”

Sri Lanka’s Ex-Defense Secretary Rips ‘Pure Ignorance’ of Leaders After Bombs

Wickremesinghe addressed the media in Colombo on Tuesday evening and acknowledged the government needed to make policy changes in to "avoid security lapses." He described a "breakdown of communication" that meant security information did not reach his office, and noted that "changes have to be made"

Rajapaksa said the government was more concerned about getting votes from Sri Lanka’s religious minorities, including Muslims, than properly monitoring Islamic groups.

"From the side of national security, they haven’t the foggiest idea what to do," he said. "The government from the very beginning wanted to keep the minority vote with them, so they didn’t take any action. So to keep the vote, you don’t take any action against these types of groups?"

‘Government Must React’

The deadly attacks on Easter, which struck three Catholic churches and three luxury hotels, have raised fears that ethnic and religious tensions could rise in a country with long-simmering tensions between the mostly Buddhist majority Sinhala community and Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities.

Rajapaksa, who stressed that he worked well with Muslim intelligence officers during the war, said his own party wouldn’t seek electoral gains by fueling tensions between majority Buddhists and Muslims.

"It’s not like that," he said. "It’s up to everybody to understand and not to create such a situation, and this has happened. It’s history. We have to move forward, as a country we have to move forward, and we should not allow any sort of reaction whatever against any community. And also for that to happen, the government must react properly, and arrest all these culprits and bring back normalcy."

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