Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Citizens unite to uphold the Law!

I was at a protest rally on the 15th of October in support of Attorney-at-Law Mr. Weliamuna, whose house was bombed/grenaded as he slept with his wife and two infant children. There were many of us at the rally to support ‘Weli,’ as he is affectionately known, but as one of the speakers pointed out, there weren’t enough of us. Here’s why you should have been there.

‘Weli’ has been in the news lately for reasons other than his near death experience. He is the lawyer that fought the case against former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and various influence-peddlers who illegally transferred 118 acres of public land in Battaramulla to a crony businessman. The land, which was supposed to be used for a public purpose, was filled using public funds and made into an exclusive golf course called Water’s Edge, open only to those who could afford the Rs. 250,000 membership. Mr. Weliamuna won the case, and in a landmark judgement the Supreme Court ordered that the land and all buildings on it be handed back to the public.

And ‘Weli’ is not done yet! He has another case in the Supreme Court, this time taking on the privatization of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, a profit-making government-owned company that was sold to yet another businessman at (it is alleged) a grossly undervalued price.

‘Weli’ is also appearing in fundamental rights violation cases on behalf of journalist J. S. Tissainayagam (who committed the ‘crime’ of criticizing the government), and on behalf of a man who was allegedly tortured by the police in Kandana (the grenade attack followed a few days after he appeared for this case).

Many of us have griped from the corners about the influential few who seem to float over the law, enriching themselves at public expense simply because they know ‘someone in power.’ Some of them even hold government office while running underworld trades in drugs, alcohol, and thuggery, while the law enforcers either look the other way or actively participate with them. They steal what they please, and assault or murder who they please and when they please. We know who they are, we know what they have done, and we can do nothing about it. That seemed to be a fact of life. But no more: ‘Weli’ has them in his sights and he is set on taking them down one by one. They fear him; they fear the law that he wields so skilfully, ensnaring them in it and tightening it into a noose with the help of an emboldened Supreme Court.

It is not an overstatement to say that ‘Weli’ is our local superhero. He wears no cape nor does he hide behind a mask-he’s more Clark Kent than Superman-but this is a man with steely resolve. Lesser mortals would have taken the first plane out after the attack, but he had no intention of leaving (unlike the influential few who have pre-planned exit strategies with green cards and houses abroad). It was barely two weeks since ‘Weli’ had escaped death, and here he was at the rally, speaking proudly from the humble stage. He was not surrounded by bodyguards; he was surrounded by us, who came to hear him speak and give him a well-deserved round of applause.

There were many speakers at the rally, ranging from civil rights groups to humble trade unions-too many to mention. But it is important to mention what they said. They reminded us of the JVP insurgency in 1989, when southern youth were abducted, tortured, and murdered by the thousands. We were told then that the law had to be suspended until we got rid of these unruly elements. We were told it was for our own good. But in hindsight we know that it was not just a war against terrorists; it was a war against everyone. Back then, if you had a personal grievance, a business disagreement, land dispute, or simply wanted somebody out of your way, your problem could be solved if you knew ‘someone in power.’ All you had to do was point the finger at your target and say three letters-‘J.V.P’-and they were history. Their mutilated bodies appeared on a roadside or floated down a river. It is much the same today, though now when you point the finger, you have to say four letters-‘L.T.T.E.’ The box-model Pajero of yesteryear has been replaced by the ubiquitous white van that the state seems blissfully unaware of despite thousands of public sightings and reports in the media.

They reminded us that it was the failure to uphold the law back in the late eighties that caused that period of terror, and has also caused the ethnic conflict that rages today. When peaceful protesters demanded equal rights for the Tamil community in the 1950s, thugs beat them up; when thugs looted, raped, and murdered in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, the police looked the other way. If the law had been upheld then, we would not be fighting this war today. They reminded us that when we say nothing as some of our citizens are registered like cattle, when we say nothing as they languish as refugees under trees, when we say nothing as journalists are beaten up and murdered for bringing us the truth, when we say nothing as a courageous lawyer is attacked, we leave the door open for the same boot of oppression to step on us.

They reminded us that an important part of the Constitution of Sri Lanka (the 17th amendment) is not being implemented. The amendment sets up independent commissions that will be in charge of elections, the public service, the police, human rights, and bribery investigation. The implementation of these independent commissions will prevent the influential few from appointing cronies to these powerful posts. According to the law, to which every citizen is answerable, the Constitution of Sri Lanka is supreme, and therefore it must be honoured. And yet, the influential few refuse to do so. In other words, they are breaking the supreme law of the land. So what do we do?

The speakers at the rally had an answer. They suggested that for the police, the courts, and the government to uphold the law, we must uphold it first. We must respect the law, and we must care about people like ‘Weli,’ who at grave personal risk are still out there fighting the good fight. Your indifference does far more damage than any bomb, grenade, or bullet ever could. So talk about him, talk about the cases that he fights, and the cases that need fighting; talk to your family, your friends, your co-workers-make them care. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with people like ‘Weli’ and send a clear message that if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us. We need to unite, irrespective of whether we are Sinhala or Tamil, Muslim or Buddhist, Christian or Hindu; irrespective of whether we support a purely political solution to the ethnic problem or a combination of political and military force; we need to unite as citizens and as patriots, and demand in one voice: “uphold the law!”