Photograph: ISHARA S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

“Error is cowardice…”
Nietzsche (Ecce Homo)

The military is a microcosm of the society it comes from. Lankan society has been experiencing a ceaseless wave of violent crime at least from 2006. The fact that murder and rape proliferate does not mean every Lankan is a murderer or a rapist.

There have been several incidents of uniformed men committing crimes against ordinary citizens, including child rape, even outside of the North and the East. This doesn’t mean that all military men are criminals; it merely means that some are. And they should be brought to justice, irrespective of their war record or the ethnicity of their victim.

The uniform shouldn’t place its wearer above the law. It does in practice, especially in lands where the rule of law is weak. But it shouldn’t become policy or be enshrined as an inviolable maxim. That is the sort of impunity the Rajapaksa camp is demanding when they say that no one who took part in the victorious war effort should be prosecuted for any crime.

Sri Lanka’s international woes stem not from the war against the LTTE per se, but from Rajapaksa politico-propaganda antics. The Rajapaksas renamed the war a humanitarian operation and decreed that zero-civilian casualties be accepted not as a desirable goal but as living reality. Even mentioning the possibility of any harm coming to civilian Tamils became equated with treachery. Media was prevented from reporting about civilian Tamil casualties and those media personal who didn’t abide by that code were labelled Sinhala Tigers.

‘Collateral damage’ caused by human error is something no war, however clean, is free of. The Rajapaksa policy denied the existence of this war-staple. That grotesquely irrational denial was sustained by obfuscation and outright lying.

Had the Rajapaksas done what the Americans did after the air strike in Kunduz, Sri Lanka would be in a much better position today – investigate at least some of the charges, admit human errors where warranted, apologise and pay compensation.

There is another consideration. Unlike in the case of Kunduz, the civilian victims after all were our own people. Not all crimes committed during a war can be brought to justice. But some must, if hearts and minds are to heal. Thanks to the Rajapaksa policy, not a single crime committed during the war years could be brought to justice. The denial of justice was absolute and total. It even extended to crimes which were committed outside of war zone and even before the commencement of the Fourth Eelam War. The best case in point was the killing of five students in Trincomalee in 2006.

Once the attempt to label the victims bomb-wielding Tigers failed thanks to the courageous professionalism of the JMO (who happened to be Sinhala), the police commenced an investigation. But the regime interfered in the judicial proceedings while the military threatened witnesses and families of the victims. This case proved beyond reasonable doubt that Tamils could not expect any justice, so long as the Rajapaksas ruled.

It’s when governments fail to act justly by their own people, those people turn to outside entities and forces for justice. Egregious deeds such as these debased Lankan justice system and totally destroyed its credibility in the eyes of Lankan Tamils.

Now the Rajapaksas are trying to gain political mileage from the problem they themselves created.

War Heroes and Justice

The Rajapaksa camp has only one path to power – inciting Sinhala-Buddhist racism. Like Donald Trump in the US or Marine Le Pen in France, recreating a sense of victimhood in Sinhala-Buddhist masses was and continues to be a pivotal Rajapaksa tactic. That is why the attempt to deliver justice to some Tamil victims of the war is being juxtaposed with the government promises to release those PTA detainees against whom no charges have been and can be filed.

After a period of silence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa spoke up yesterday, accusing the government of releasing Tigers while prosecuting war-heroes. Obviously Mr. Rajapaksa has forgotten the curious case of Kumaran Pathmanathan, the LTTE’s main financier and arms procurer and Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s handpicked successor.

Many Tamil men and women were locked up without charges for years, while Mr. Pathmanathan became a privileged citizen. He remains free because the AG’s Department is reportedly unable to find any evidence against him.

The Rajapaksa way of protecting ‘war heroes’ and punishing Tigers was extremely discriminatory. The main criterion in deciding who should be protected and who should be prosecuted was the stance on the Rajapaksas. Those Tigers who became Rajapaksa pets went free while those ‘war heroes’ who opposed the Rajapaksas were persecuted. A ‘war hero’ didn’t have to be a political opponent of the Rajapaksas to suffer this fate. A senior military intelligence official who got into a fight with Minister Mervyn Silva’s reprobate son was hounded, made to incriminate himself and dishonoured.

Christopher Clapham identified “the lack of organic unity or shared values between state and society” as the “single most basic reason for the fragility of the third world state”[i]. Fidelity to Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism (masquerading as patriotism) and idealisation of the military were the ‘shared values’ the Rajapaksas exploited to create and maintain an ‘organic unity’ between the Lankan state (under their near absolute control) and Sinhala society. The military was the main thread connecting the Rajapaksas with their Sinhala-Buddhist base.

This strategy failed, as the voting patterns of the last two elections demonstrate. Whether the ongoing Rajapaksa attempts to revive it succeeds depends primarily on economics. If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration can improve living conditions of ordinary Lankans, the Rajapaksa machinations to incite fires of fear and hatred will fail. Since most ordinary service personnel did not commit war crimes, they would not be affected by any attempt to bring to justice those who did. But if the economy is not working, if the new government imposes burdens on ordinary people, the Rajapaksa cries of ‘Betrayal’ can resonate with ordinary Sinhalese – and ordinary servicemen who hail from those families.

Extremists usually make gains when an economy is in crisis and ordinary people fear for their future. What was true of the Nazis in Germany can be true of the Rajapaksas and their BBS type allies in Sri Lanka.

The Credibility Gap

In 2013, a former journalist paid a call on President Rajapaksa in the dawn hours and reportedly found him standing on his head.  Upon inquiry, the President replied, “We have done so many good things. The opposition cannot see any of them. So I stand on my head to see how I could see the country in that position.”[ii]

Perhaps President Rajapaksa failed to read the danger signs in late 2014 because his vision was topsy-turvy.

Is the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration becoming afflicted with topsy-turvy vision as well?

President Maithripala Sirisena is the Minister of Environment and no fault can be found with his many utterances on the subject. The problem is how the words are translated into action – or not. The best case in point is the issue of the pollution of the Kelani River, the source of drinking water for many people in the Western Province. In recent weeks, the authorities have taken legal action against several river-polluters. This is a commendable development. Unfortunately, action is being taken only against small scale polluters, mostly householders. Large scale polluters, such as the Coca Cola Company which released a pollutant into the river twice this year, continue to stay above the law.

The devastating effect of the Chinese growth model in China became evident last week, when Beijing went into shutdown mode, due to extreme air pollution. A foul smelling and tasting smog enveloped the city rendering the very act of breathing life-threatening. The Beijing Times very appropriately called it ‘Airpocalypse’.

This is a good enough reason to take a careful look at such Chinese inspired projects as the Colombo Port City. Environmental devastation was one of the arguments used against this project by the UNP, while in opposition. Mr. Wickremesinghe is on record promising to scrap it, once elected. Now the onetime critics are silent and there are indications the project will resume next year.

Why are the former critics of the Port City silent? Does it mean that they were wrong and the Rajapaksas were right about the desirability of the project? Or are they silent because they have been bought, with campaign funds and other goodies? Was no action taken against Coca Cola because of American pressure? Has Mahinda Chinthanaya taken over Maithri Palanayak?

The practice of catching a few sprats while allowing sharks to go free is not limited to environmental matters but common to many areas, starting with corruption. This discriminatory treatment is tarnishing the government’s reputation, turning its declarations of good governance into a mockery and providing aid and solace to its opponents.

Good governance was supposed to function as the binding agent between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and its base. The basic premises of good governance were to become the shared values between the new government and that segment of society which voted it in. Since good governance was depicted and seen as the dividing line between the Rajapaksa regime and the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, its basic premises included eschewing the main aspects of Rajapaksa governance such as corruption, nepotism, repression, anti-democracy, anti-people economics and ethno-religious racism.

Credibility is the lifeblood of any administration. No party can hold onto power (or win power) without credibility. The Rajapaksas lost power because they lost credibility with their base. If there is too much of a gap between words and deeds, no amount of spin-doctoring or media control can prevent the erosion of credibility. And without credibility, elections cannot be won, even with unprecedented levels of power-abuse and unlimited amounts of money.

Every time the new government violates the norms of good governance, every time it emulates the Rajapaksas, its credibility erodes. This happened with the Central Bank bond scam. This happens when nepotism rears its ugly head and is defended as just and necessary by its practitioners, from the president downwards. This happens when those individuals with tarnished reputations who are willing to abandon the Rajapaksas and back either the President or the PM become re-ensconced in state and government. This happens when the Minister of Justice (and Buddha Sasana) acts in a manner which is grotesquely wrong and continues to remain the Minister of Justice. This happens when an unpardonably blind eye is turned towards the ongoing devastation of the Wilpattu sanctuary and the Sinharaja rain forest.

When governments and nations fail to pursue their interests in an intelligent manner, their crimes and errors boomerang on them. Oil rich nations in the Gulf region, led by Saudi Arabia, have long opposed climate deals which would affect their petro-dollars. According to a new scientific study, if climate change continues at the current pace the Gulf region will ‘suffer heat waves beyond human endurance’ after 2070. The temperature hikes in the region might even interfere with some Hajj rituals, warns Prof. Elfatih Eltahir of MIT: “One of the rituals of Hajj…involves worshipping at the site outside Mecca from sunrise to sunset. In these kinds of conditions it would be very hard to have outside rituals.” [iii]

Cleaning the muck of Rajapaksa rule is no easy task. Adding to the muck can only make that task harder. The Augean Stables would never have been cleaned if Heracles kept on adding more cattle to the existing herd.

In the end, it’s a matter of political will. Does the government the will to correct past mistakes and refrain from committing new mistakes?

[i] Third World Politics: An Introduction

[ii]The Sunday Times – 10.2.2013