24 Hours Of Terror; What Was The Prime Minister Doing?

By R.T. Samarasinghe –

Two months have passed since the deadly Easter Sunday attacks, and as life slowly returns to normal in Sri Lanka attention now turns to what exactly happened on that fateful day.

With President Maithripala Sirisena holidaying in Singapore, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was the acting head of state. On Easter Sunday, when the devastating terror attacks struck 3 Churches and 3 hotels, the Prime Minister who was out of Colombo, rushed back to take control of a situation that was threatening to boil over.

Upon his return to the capital, the Prime Minister immediately summoned the Cabinet Ministers while instructing his Secretary to summon the National Security Council (NSC).

It soon became apparent that the President, in his haste to begin his holiday the previous week, had overlooked appointing an acting Minister of Defence. The NSC reports solely to the Minister of Defence as an advisory body. As the council had no legal basis, the heads of the armed forces and the police refused to meet the Prime Minister, choosing instead to remain at the Ministry of Defence on the phone with the President.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the State Minister of Defence had been kept abreast of any prior terror threats as the security apparatus had been reporting directly to the President. Subsequent investigations have since shown that the President had refused to invite the Prime Minister and the State Minister of Defence to the NSC, or keep them informed of security matters. 

Despite the President having ended last year reluctantly re-appointing Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, following 52 days of a Constitutional Coup, he had continued to battle his deputy leaving the system of governance in a precarious position. The President’s personal vendetta against the Prime Minister had left the security of the country in a weakened state.

Since the heads of the armed forces were keeping the PM in the dark over the situation, he decided to travel to the Ministry of Defence to be briefed first hand.

Arriving at the Ministry of Defence, the PM with several Ministers in tow, was informed that the NSC could not meet him immediately and that he would have to wait. Using his past experience of tense situations the Prime Minister decided that the best course of action was not to exacerbate the situation by risking a confrontation by demanding an audience. 

After waiting 20 minutes in the office of the State Minister of Defence, Wickremesinghe was escorted into the meeting room where he chaired the meeting. Following a briefing of the current situation, the Prime Minister immediately suggested that curfew be imposed around the country until the security forces could assure them that there was no threat of further bombs going off. 

The Secretary to the President, Hemasiri Fernando, informed the meeting that the President was insistent that neither curfew be imposed nor social media be temporarily blocked. The Prime Minister immediately telephoned the President to clarify his stance. After a prolonged discussion, the President relented, agreeing that if the security forces recommended it then curfew would be imposed. 

Returning to Temple Trees the Prime Minister chaired a meeting with the Cabinet Ministers. After briefing them on the situation, he immediately instructed the Ministers to ensure their Ministries assisted the security forces and emergency services in any way possible. He also instructed the Cabinet to prepare a compensation plan for the victims which would be presented at the next official Cabinet meeting. 

With the continued absence of the President the dual positions of head of the Cabinet and Minister of Defence was absent. Wickremesinghe, who had been left out of the loop by the President, was now forced to assume the mantle at this time of crisis.

With fear running high among the public, the Prime Minister took the decision to visit the Kochchikade Church where rescue operations were continuing. Arriving at the site, the Prime Minister met the security forces and the Cardinal who were on site. He assured them that the government would provide all required resources. 

At 3pm news began to emerge of the security forces having tracked down one of the safe houses used by the suicide bombers. During the raid one of the suicide bombers detonated herself killing several members of the security forces. It was at this point that the Prime Minister’s insistence that curfew be imposed and social media be temporarily blocked was adhered to. As rumors continued to fuel fear amongst the public, Wickremesinghe believed that a temporary block on social media was necessary until a coordinated distribution of information was established. 

Returning to Temple Trees, the Prime Minister convened an all-party meeting to discuss the ongoing situation in the country. Recognising that politics would play a role, Wickremesinghe wished to unite the Parliament behind the government’s security operations. 

At 7pm that evening Leader of the Opposition, Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with representatives of the other political parties represented in Parliament arrived at Temple Trees. The PM once again briefed them on the latest developments in regards the security operations. Wickremesinghe informed them that the security forces had already successfully raided several safe houses around the country belonging to the bombers and arrested suspects linked to the attacks. He also informed the meeting that the identity of some of the bombers had been made known to the security forces, which was assisting them in their search operations. 

The Prime Minister went on to urge those present to have their parties refrain from launching any political attacks, highlighting that a united Parliament was essential for the security of the country. 

It was during this meeting that the President’s continued absence from the country was noted. The party leaders agreed to hold an emergency Parliament session where the House would be appraised of the situation. 

By 9 pm that night the Prime Minister was informed by the intelligence services that they were confident that the remnants of the attackers had fled the city and would be trying to go underground. The Prime Minister informed them that the security forces would be conducting island-wide search operations beginning the next day.

In the space of 12 hours, the Prime Minister, who had been left hamstrung by his President, was able to gain control of a situation that had been left leaderless. The President himself, who was only a 4 hour flight away from the country, returned to the island in the early hours of Monday morning. 

It was during his absence that leadership was provided and further loss of life was prevented. Security operations had already led to the raid of safe houses and arrests of several suspects. The Prime Minister was able to unite a Parliament that only 6 months ago was the scene of fist fights. 

At a time when the political leadership had been left with their hands tied by the President’s insecurities, the need for a leader arose. Faced with numerous obstacles including the heads of the security forces refusing to meet him, the Prime Minister grabbed control of the situation. The leadership in those 24 hours was one of a statesman.