Photo courtesy of Gossip Lanka News

“The world will not get better on its own.” Eric Hobsbawm (Interesting Times – A Twentieth Century Life)

The 93 year old woman had died of Covid-19. Her body was brought to the Mathugama cemetery in a hospital ambulance, placed inside the crematorium, then hastily removed and returned to the ambulance. For a VIP hearse has arrived bearing another Covid-19 body and armed with an ‘order from above’. Against that dictat the PHIs were powerless. The ambulance, a life-saving vehicle, especially in pandemic times, was forced to waste two precious hours while the last rites of the connected dead were completed.

It was not of that land President Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke on Friday. He made his #Me Best one hour nine minute address to the nation from a sunny place, adorned with green trees and ancient history. But the night had fallen on the nation as it listened to his words.

Even while the president’s verbal marathon droning, a group of men barged into civil society activist Asela Sampath’s house and bundled him away. According to media reports, they claimed to be from the CID but offered no identification and produced neither warrant nor explanation. Mr. Sampath’s family took to the social media. The story of the ‘abduction’ gained traction quickly. Soon the police issued a statement claiming it was no abduction; Mr. Sampath was arrested by the CID.

Turning up in a suspect’s home on a Friday night, sans identification or explanation, taking him away in the clothes he was wearing – that is a strange way to make an arrest. Asela Sampath has no history of evading the police. Nor is he an underworld leader or a terrorist suspect. Why not ask him to come to the CID? Was this an abduction gone awry due to his family’s and the media’s quick reaction? Are we returning to the first Rajapaksa era, when white vans plied their grisly profession with total impunity?

Lankans became accustomed to criticising power-wielders during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. So far, the Rajapaksas have failed to break that democratic habit. The fear is there. A citizen could still be arrested and remanded for little reason or none. The danger is especially potent for members of minority communities. Still, many Lankans are refusing to be silenced. Instead of looking the other way, they criticise and deride. By choosing to react as audiences, with anger and mockery, they refuse to be bystanders. The ubiquity of social media provides these citizen-dissenters with a platform and amplifies their voice.

This month, the police were dispatched to liberate the president’s effigy from an IUSF protest. But instead of striking terror into every heart, this intervention produced a stream of irreverent memes. The internet memes are the modern day equivalents of the anonymous pamphlets which taught Parisian sans-coulettes the art and the craft of resisting another ancien regime. Laughter has been a weapon in the hands of the powerless throughout history. There is probably no better antidote to the lessons in fear and obedience the Rajapaksas are trying to teach us, again.

Tyrants, to be tyrants, need a kind of consent.

A Measure of Justice

June was the unfairest month, and the fairest.

On Poson full moon day, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa conferred a full pardon on a convicted murderer, his second in rather less than two years. Like Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, Duminda Silva had been convicted of murder in a court of law and his conviction affirmed by the highest court of land. While men and women too poor to pay a fine languish in jail, another convicted killer is roaming free – and might even become the SLPP’s chief ministerial candidate for the western province, according to media reports.

The Bar Association, in its letter to the president, pointed out that previously too “selected pardons have been granted without any material to justify the basis on which the respective pardoners were selected.” This was the case with Sunil Ratnayake; and with the Royal Park killer, Jude Anthony Jayamaha. President Sirisena pardoned the latter, even as he was rearing to bring back the hangman and hang a few convicts.

The manner in which Duminda Silva’s pardon was handled is instructive of the Rajapaksa modus operandi. First came Minister Namal Rajapaksa’s plea on behalf of LTTE suspects held under the PTA for a long time sans charges. That created an effective diversion. The president then pardoned 16 LTTE suspects, 77 prisoners convicted of minor charges, and one convicted killer blessed with the right patrons.

If that pardon was emblematic of injustice, the Appeal Court order granting bail to former CID director Shani Abeysekara indicated that despite the worst efforts of the Rajapaksas, neither judicial independence nor justice is dead. The 14 page judgement is an indictment of the how the case against Mr. Abeysekara was conducted. “The allegations against the suspect Shani Abeysekara,” the order, for instance, states, “are a result of falsification and embellishment and a creature of afterthought.” This dovetails with a previous statement by sub-Inspector Sugath Mohan Mendis that he was arrested because he refused to give false evidence against Mr. Abeysekara. It also fits in with the revelation made by the then magistrate Ranga Dissanayake of how the CID tried to influence witnesses in the magistrate’s chamber and in his presence.

The opposition ignored the previous revelations. Will they at least now ask police and justice ministers a few pertinent questions. Who falsified and embellished the allegations against Shani Abeysekara? Why? Who gave the orders? Would disciplinary action be taken against those responsible? When? After all, this subversion of justice is not a concern limited to Shani Abeysekara or Hejaaz Hisbulah. A prosecuting authority that persecutes via falsification and embellishment is a danger to every Lankan including parliamentarians.

(Incidentally, if this is how prosecuting authorities treat a suspect under the normal law, imagine the fate of those who would be incarcerated under the De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology Regulations.)

The Appeal Court order also drew attention to a problem increasingly affecting the poor and the powerless. “…At present, the power to grant bail is exercised sparingly. Sometimes courts even routinely reject bail for minor offenses. It is pertinent to note that a majority of those belong to marginalised communities.” A possible example is the case of 10 Tamils arrested in Batticaloa for peacefully commemorating war-dead in May. They have been in custody for more than a month and were denied bail at the last hearing due to police objections. The police had wanted two more weeks to finish investigations, just as the CID had wanted another month to complete the case against Shani Abeysekara.

The manner in which the guardians of law object – or not – to bail is revealing. Take the case of X-Press Pearl. The local agent was arrested by the CID and bailed out within a day. This was despite information that the agent company might have tampered with e mails by the ship’s captain revealing the acid leak.

But the CID was not so magnanimous towards the 28 year old man from Akmeemana, arrested for posting ‘fake news’ about X-Press Pearl on social media. The CID wanted the suspect to be remanded until the completion of inquiry. The Galle chief magistrate asked if the statement made by the suspect was a threat to national security and ordered bail when the CID was forced to admit it posed no such threat.

The agent of X-Press Pearl is a suspect in the worst marine environment disaster in the history of Sri Lanka. The man from Akmeemana was only commenting on that disaster. Yet in Rajapaksa eyes, the second act was the greater crime. Naturally. The first suspect only caused uncountable damage to our country. The second suspect poses a threat to Rajapaksa dynasty.

Replacing the rule of law with the law of the rulers was a key characteristic of the first Rajapaksa era. When the chief justice baulked at violating the constitution she was subjected to an illegal impeachment, hounded out of office and replaced by a yes man. The courts were cowed into compliance with a cudgel.

Restoring judicial independence was a promise the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration honoured in large measure.

While the rulers are trying to abuse the law to protect friends and punish opponents, the courts have provided a modicum of relief to the persecuted again and again. ITSSL chairman, Rajeev Mathews was given bail, though the police wanted him to be remanded. The judiciary also ordered that the detained poet Ahnaf Jazeem be provided with all facilities accorded to remand prisoners. This week the courts ordered the exhumation of the body of Chandran Vidushan of Batticaloa who had died in police custody. A new PM is to be conducted in the presence of a leading authority, a professor in Peradeniya University. This is a particularly welcome development given the hike in such deaths.

Minister Namal Rajapaksa heaped praise on his family’s government for complying with the Supreme Court judgement on the Port City Bill. The young lawyer seems to think such compliance is optional and thus a virtue, rather than a legal necessity. “Though we have two-thirds, we didn’t go against the judiciary. That means even having two-thirds we acted according to the recommendations of the judiciary. Therefore that is democracy” (Lanka News Web – 23.5.2021). If this is a hint of what a Rajapaksa future holds for Sri Lanka, the sooner all brothers, sons, uncles and nephews are consigned to the dust heap of history, electorally, the better, not just for democracy and rule of law, but for our collective sanity.

Taking back Sri Lanka

On June 18, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Myanmar coup and demanding an arms embargo against the country. 119 voted yes, one voted no, and 36 countries abstained.

Sri Lanka was one of the 36. Why did the Rajapaksas opt not to condemn a military coup against an elected government? Was it because Beijing also opted to abstain?

Aung San Suu Kyi sided with hardline Buddhist monks and the military during her years in power, and justified the brutal repression of the Rohingya minority.

The coup has caused a rethink. The parallel National Unity Government has asked the Rohingya people to join in the struggle for democracy promising to abolish the 1982 citizenship law that rendered Rohingya stateless. “The entire people of Burma is sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya as all now experience atrocities and violence perpetrated by the military,” the NUG statement said. Therein lies an undeniable truth. Repression may begin with a persecuted minority. But sooner or later it will come for the majority as well. Majoritarian supremacism is not just wrong morally. It is bad politics.

“We who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness, Could not be kind ourselves,” wrote Brecht. History has taught us that ground for kindness cannot be prepared through unkindness. The absence of the Rajapaksas in government should not be the only difference in a post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

This is also why the charges of newsroom sexual harassment by some former and current women journalists need to be taken seriously. The anti-Rajapaksa credentials of several of the alleged perpetrators are no reason to brush these charges aside, not if we oppose injustice per se, and not merely Rajapaksa injustice. There is no difference between this reasoning and the Sinhala justification of military atrocities/the Tamil justification of Tiger atrocities. (During the apogee of the Arab Spring, an American journalist was sexually brutalised by some anti-Mubarak protestors in the Tahrir Square. In the euphoria of the moment, the incident was allowed to be forgotten. Perhaps it was an omen of the toxicities within the broad opposition which would eventually destroy the dream of democracy.)

Lankan opposition shouldn’t opt for a softer version of racism under cover of patriotism. Nor should it try to retool the religion-politics nexus for its own advantage. The religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks and the Catholic Cardinal, led Sri Lanka into this false dawn. They worked tirelessly not only to ensure a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency but also to obtain for the Rajapaksas a near two-third majority. Now they stand discredited in the eyes of many of their own followers. The opposition’s attempts to woo the worst of them indicate an absence of not just principles but also intelligence. These politicised religious figures have no authority left in society.

Now is an excellent time to secularise Lankan politics. Give monks, priests and mullahs all the honour they want in their temples, churches, kovils and mosques. But don’t allow them in the political arena. Just let them focus on the politics of afterlife, and leave the politics of this one to the rest of us.

A committed effort by Sirasa, some websites and You Tubers succeeded in exposing the questionable Chinese involvement in the dredging of the ancient Tissamaharama tank. Now the project has been suspended because it was undertaken without permission from the Archaeology Department. A partial victory, but an important one, won without the involvement of religion or race, and by secular forces alone, a combo of media and citizenry. That should be a good enough blueprint for the opposition, when it decides to take on the Rajapaksas.