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“A crisis of this magnitude can lead to renewal or destruction…”

Ariel Dorfman (The last September 11)


Perhaps England’s Henry II did not quite say, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Perhaps he was less explicit, as the sole contemporary chronicler maintains. His meaning nevertheless was clear to the hearers. Four loyal knights, eager to gain favour of their royal master, murdered the offending cleric, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

Just five days after his landslide electoral victory, Sri Lanka’s newly minted executive president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fired a broadside at the country’s most celebrated sleuth. “Shani Abeysekara investigates according to his thinking,” complained the president during a temple visit. “Non-governmental organisations don’t ask questions about that. To jail those who waged the war, officials and navy commander, to jail intelligence agents, to jail me. Not only that. There are officials who were forced to mention my name. Non-governmental organisations don’t question that.”

In lands where the law of the ruler prevails, incurring a ruler’s wrath is dangerous business. SSP Abeysekara was subjected to a humiliating transfer, interdicted and eventually arrested. He would spend eleven months in jail until granted bail by the Appeals Court. In its decision, the court shredded the CCD case, characterising the charges against Mr. Abeysekara as “a result of falsification and embellishment and a creature of afterthought”.

This week, Shani Abeysekara filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court seeking protection against an alleged plan to re-arrest him under the PTA for failing to prevent the Easter Sunday attack. An investigation has been commenced against him, he claimed, on the basis of an anonymous petition.

This week the Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar bench delivered a stinging rebuke to the police and the AG’s Department by dismissing a similar case against the former defence secretary and the former IGP. Delivering the unanimous verdict, Judge Aditya Patabendige stated that former head of the State Intelligence Service Nilantha Jayawardana “had neglected his responsibilities…and had tried to place the blame for the attack on someone else.” He also said, “It was unacceptable to file cases against government servants alone when politicians were above them”. 

Will the police now launch an investigation on the former SIS chief and on his political and systemic protectors? Or will they scurry in whatever the direction their current political masters point them, and to hell with facts? Not the most sensible course of action, given our judiciary’s manifest determination to uphold the rule of law, given that Sri Lanka is under the UN Human Rights Commission’s microscope, given that the GSP+ hangs in balance. But do the police have a choice but to emulate the example of Henry II’s knights and wield metaphorical swords against ‘traitors to (uncrowned) king and country?’

Who needs human rights?

“Human rights were found recently. If we can live in a correct manner there’s no need for human rights. Those who do not practice religion are the ones who hang on human rights.” This statement, worthy of Vendaruwe Upali thero of be-like-Hitler fame, was made by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith at St Mathews church in Ekala in September 2018.

While the rest of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration remained mum, Minister Mangala Samaraweera responded to the Cardinal. “The need for Human Rights was an outcome of the marauding religious zealots of the Inquisition and the Crusades where non-believers were massacred en-bloc,” he tweeted. “Pity the Cardinal always seems to get things wrong in trying to be a populist.”

Soon, the pro-Rajapaksa Joint Opposition leaped into the fray in defence of the Cardinal. Mahinda Rajapaksa lamented ‘the attacks on religions.’ In his weekly Lankadeepa column, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa railed against modernity’s disregard for religious traditions. The Cardinal’s remarks were in sync with the Rajapaksa project and the global populist wave which preached the mutual exclusivity between freedom and security, between basic rights and economic prosperity. 

As Pope Francis pointed out during his recent visit to Greece, “Democracy demands hard work and patience. It is complex whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, like many a Sinhala-Buddhist monk, succumbed to the lure of populism’s easy answers. What he forgot was that Lankan populism is of the blood and faith variety. Its most basic precept is the Mahawamsa myth of Lanka being the only home of pure and pristine Buddhism and Sinhalese being its sole protectors. In that nexus, Sinhala-Catholics are as alien as Tamils, Muslims or Burghers. They, like all other minorities, can live here so long as they accept their secondary status and stay within those confines, without making demands or waves. 

In his struggle to obtain justice and closure for the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre, the Cardinal exceeded those confines. He crossed the Rajapaksa red line when he questioned the regime’s handling of the issue. Now he and the community he represents are in the enemy territory. Two Catholics have been fingered as being the mastermind of three aborted bomb attacks, including on the famous Bellanwila temple. The Cardinal is being accused of conspiring with international enemies. According to media reports, Lankan Catholics have been banned from attending the Kachchativu religious feast on the orders of the president. Pandemic is the reason given. That would have seemed reasonable if the Siripada season has not been in full swing with official patronage and the ruling SLPP did not recently hold a mass meeting in Anuradhapura.

 “Hatred of one group can lead to hatred of others,” Amartya Sen points out in The Argumentative Indian. Ceylon’s first anti-minority outbreak was a Sinhala on Sinhala clash, between Buddhists and Catholics of Kotahena  in March 1883. Anti-Christianity was present in the Sinhala Only project. Gangodawila Soma thero ignited an anti-Christian wave in the first years of the new millennium. When he fell victim to Russian winter, the JHU, led by Champika Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpila used the anti-Christian wave to vault into parliament. True Russia’s Orthodox Church is as distinct from Catholicism as the Calvary Church, but in the eyes of Sinhala Buddhist extremists, they are all Christians. As Jorges Luis Borges said, populism “promote(d) idiocy,” and peddled fictions “which can’t be believed and were believed” (quoted in Federico Finchelstein’s From Fascism to Populism in History). 

So who needs human rights? The answer is humans, all humans, not just atheists and secularists. Especially those humans unfortunate enough to live in lands where democracy and the rule of law are in total or partial abeyance. When our own government persecutes us, it is not unpatriotic to turn to the world for help, any more than it is anti-family for a battered spouse or abused child to seek help from neighbours or police. National sovereignty does not mean the sovereign’s right to jail, torture, murder and otherwise illegally punish citizens, a truth Tamil Catholics had known for decades and Sinhala Catholics are discovering now.

In Thomas More’s Utopia, different religions coexist in peace and even atheists are tolerated. In his private life, More was a man of outstanding decency and goodness, a friend to whom the celebrated humanist Erasmus dedicated, In Praise of Folly. Yet as Henry VIII’s chancellor, More was notoriously intolerant and excelled at and exulted in burning religious dissenters. Politicians cannot be trusted to create utopias, including the ones they themselves imagined. That is why we need constitutions, laws, and courts, and, when all internal remedies fail, an international community willing to mitigate the worst of national excesses.

Politics of salvation is their only salvation

 According to the recent CPA survey, Confidence in Democratic Governance Index, the economy is the main concern of a majority of Sinhalese (29% prioritise controlling cost of living while 27% economic growth). 

How do a Sinhala majority regard the government’s past performance and future potential in matters economic? 71.6% of Sinhalese said that their income levels got worse in the last two years (little worse – 32.8%; lots worse – 38.8%). When it comes to government’s promises to ensure  the country’s recovery, 64.9% of Sinhalese felt they had no confidence (21/2% somewhat unconfident; 43.7% very unconfident). 

Pressed to the wall of bankruptcy by a crisis predominantly of their own making (from axing the tax-base to the fertiliser fiasco) the Rajapaksas are becoming increasingly dependent on India for day-to-day survival. A Provincial Council election this year might be part of the price India extracts for their emergency handouts. And to win such an election – or at least to emerge from the fray as the single largest political formation – the Rajapaksas need to build a bridge to their disaffected Sinhala-Buddhist base, with bricks of minority-phobia and cement of targeted repression.

Foreign Ministry’s recent rant against former Lankan human rights commissioner Ambika Satkunanathan is not an aberration but the new norm. At the recent SLPP rally in Anuradhapura, Minister Johnston Fernando, called TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran a Tiger agent, repeatedly, in the presence of both the president and the prime minister. Much of his ire was directed at Mr. Sumanthiran’s timely effort to encourage the opposition to forge a consensus on urgently needed economic remedial measures. As he explained in an article, the purpose of these gatherings was to form a set of economic proposals and present them to the government. A sane and sensible government would have welcomed the initiative. The Rajapaksa regime regards these efforts as Tiger conspiracies. To a hungry base they have nothing to offer but the ecstasy of ethno-religious racism.

But that alone is not enough to win elections. The Rajapaksas also need repression. People must be taught to fear again, as they did under Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. 

Why did the police arrest social activist Shehan Malaka Gamage less than a fortnight before Geneva and in a manner reminiscent of white van terror? The police could have arrested him at home or at work or ordered him to come to some police station. Instead, men in civilian attire riding a white van made a grab at him in broad daylight on a busy road with plenty of witnesses. Previously, whistleblower Thushan Gunawardane said that a white van had haunted the vicinity of his residence. This week, parliamentarian Shanikyan Rasamanikkam alleged that a white van tried to abduct a Tamil political activist. Are these stink bombs of terror aimed at silencing critics? Or are we witnessing the rebirth of white van phenomenon? Or a bit of both, some terror amplified hundredfold by induced fear?

Why were two social media critics summoned to the CID in this month alone? Has the CID being downgraded to (Social Media) Criticism Investigation Department because if social media is silenced, media freedom will die by default? 

On January 30 a JVP meeting was attacked with eggs. The two attackers captured by the participants turned out to be employees of Avant Garde, the security related business empire owned by rags-to-riches billionaire Nissanka Senadhipathi. This week journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrama’s house was subjected to a rock and faeces attack. From eggs to rocks and faeces in a fortnight; would live bullets be the next step? 

As the gap between Rajapaksa wellbeing and the wellbeing of not just Lankans or Sinhalese but the Rajapaksa’s own base widens, the family will intensify its efforts to divide and terrify. The violence of their words and deeds will increase in inverse proportion to their popularity. Sinhala anger and desperation will be weaponised against some minority community, leading to an outbreak of violence after a real or purported inciting incident. 

If the opposition can come together not around this or that aspiring president but a basic programme of national renewal (national defined as Lankan not Sinhala, let alone Sinhala-Buddhist) then the Rajapaksa attempts will fail, and the crisis will open a new path to a marginally better future. 

As historian John Lewis Gaddis said in his Pulitzer winning book On Grand Strategy, a winning grand strategy must ensure that potentially unlimited aspirations are aligned with necessarily limited capabilities. The Rajapaksas are in trouble because they believed their capacities to be as unlimited as their aspirations. Hopefully, the opposition will not make the same mistake. They must stop competing with each other for a presidential election that is two and a half years away, and prepare for a provincial election which may be round the corner.