By Tisaranee Gunasekara
The welfare of the people in particular, has always been the alibi of tyrants…”
— Camus (Resistance, Rebellion And Death)
After a lull, the onslaught on the media has resumed. “We need to maintain emergency laws to ensure the safety and security of the nation,” the Prime Minister informed parliament, days after the slash and burn attack on the Siyatha office, located in a downtown Colombo high security zone. The PM also announced that more than 1,500 Tiger suspects were arrested, post-war, even as the police claimed to be ‘clueless’ about the identity of the Siyatha attackers.
When, in a country which accords absolute primacy to security and is spectacularly successful in apprehending Tigers, a media office in close proximity to the presidential abode is attacked, only one of two explanations are possible: either the authorities are criminally incompetent or they are criminally complicit.
Post-war, Sri Lanka’s defence expenditure remains stratospherical; a host of repressive legislations are still in place and the humiliatingly discriminatory practice of registering Tamils has resumed – in the name of security. And yet, deputy ministers tie public officials to trees in the West; mysterious attackers bulldoze temples and dispossess Sinhala villagers in the East, to make way for tourist hotels and displaced Northern Tamils returning to their ancestral lands are expelled, to build cantonments. Behind a façade of democracy, impunity is ravaging post-war Sri Lanka.
Impunity is a cancer which cannot be localised to one group or region. Impunity is invasive and pervasive and victimises even its one-time practitioner-beneficiaries, as the fate of Gen. Fonseka demonstrates. The Rajapaksas became habitués of impunity during the war and their appetite for it remains undiminished, post-war. Only the congenitally purblind can believe that 15 armed men can wreak mayhem in an office located cheek by jowl with check points and vanish, without official sanction.
Moreover, the Siyatha attack bears a striking resemblance to other outbursts of lawlessness targeting Rajapaksa critics, such as the armed assault on Sirasa office and the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge. In each instance, ubiquitous and stringent security measures did not hinder the perpetrators from fulfilling their gory mission and leaving unscathed.
Impunity, which took root during the Eelam war behind the twin myths of humanitarian offensive and zero-civilian casualties, is spreading nation-wide. It is evident in the obnoxiously jejune conduct of Mervyn Silva (who summoned the media to witness him tying a public official to a tree), the Siyatha attack, the bulldozing of the Sambodhi Viharaya in Arugam Bay and the dispossessing of Ragamwela villagers. The insolently nonchalant comportment of the perpetrators could not but result from an absolute belief in impunity, sourced in the certitude that law-enforcers will not impede their lawless conduct.
In a society of onlookers, justice is a scarce commodity. Tamil society permitted the Tigers to perpetrate outrage after outrage in the name of national liberation, until aberrations became the new norm, turning such civilisational crimes as child conscription into accepted practices. A similar process of self-debasement is underway in Sri Lanka.
Mervyn Silva tied a public official to a tree in full public view. But, apart from a couple of courageous officials (who were promptly threatened by the rampaging politico), no one protested. If a public official is in dereliction of duty, he should be dealt with legally; with Silva’s act, another dangerous precedent has been set and one more notch in the downward spiral towards a state of lawlessness passed.
Hell hath no fury like a Rajapaksa scorned, as the witch hunt against Gen. Fonseka and his intimates demonstrates. Siyatha belongs to erstwhile Rajapaksa allies, who fell foul of the ruling family when, in the limited realignment of the Lankan polity consequent to the Rajapaksa-Fonseka split, they opted for candidate Fonseka. The timing of the attack is as significant as its target. Post-elections, the regime focused on getting the IMF loan reactivated, blocking the UN panel and regaining the GSP+ facility.
The first object was achieved through a budget a la economic neo-liberalism prepared under IMF tutelage.
The second and third objects failed, despite isolated acts of political liberalisation (repealing some emergency measures) and a degree of self-restraint (no major attacks on the media since the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda). Now that the Advisory Council is on and the GSP+ facility is lost, external compulsions towards moderation have evaporated and the Siyatha attack may be followed by other acts of violent intolerance.
Had a clear line of demarcation been drawn between Tiger interests and Tamil interests, early on, the subsequent debasement of the Tamil struggle could have been prevented. Post-war, we need to prevent national sovereignty from becoming a cover for Rajapaksa impunity. The process of international de-legitimisation that Sri Lanka is experiencing currently is caused not by a necessary fidelity to national interests, but by a damaging insistence on Rajapaksa interests.
International pressure which advocates the implementation of the 17th Amendment and citizens’ rights are not inimical to Sri Lanka, however much they may obstruct the dynastic project of the Rajapaksas. In any case, the Rajapaksas are not opposed to international intervention per se, as their compliance with IMF conditionalities demonstrates. Their allergy is to international interventions which promote democratic and human rights. The fates of Ragamwela villagers and the Sambodi Viharaya demonstrate that the wellbeing of the Sinhalese and the protection of Buddhism stops when they impede Rajapaksa interests.
Given the Rajapaksa adherence to their brand of trickle-down economics (development via mammoth infrastructure and construction projects), ordinary citizens will increasingly find themselves ignored, incommoded or dispossessed. The Rajapaksa model’s disregard for job creation and poverty alleviation is evident in the importation of Chinese labourers and the absence of a contingency plan to address the adverse effects of GSP+ withdrawal.
According to World Bank report, The Towers Of Learning, “Sri Lanka under-invests in education compared to other middle-income and developing countries”; we spend 2.8% of GDP on public education, below the 4.3% lower-middle income average. Our rank in the Knowledge Economy Index is 82, again below the lower-middle income average. Hardly a performance worthy of an aspiring Miracle of Asia!
The chairman of the NHDA opines that 1.2 million people will be homeless in Colombo by 2012. The official panacea is to double the housing loan to Rs. 200,000, when most of the homeless will be poor and lack even the land to build on! The only realistic solution is to restart the Premadasa housing programme island-wide and not to demolish houses of ordinary people, from Mews Street in Colombo to Ragamwela in the East or to spend scarce resources on building cantonments in the North (the inalienable right of a Lankan to live anywhere in Sri Lanka is not akin to state-engineered colonisation schemes with political agendas).
This is a government of the Rajapaksas, by the Rajapaksas, for the Rajapaksas. And the Rajapaksas are subverting democracy, violating fundamental rights, attacking media freedom, sabotaging the APC consensus and implementing an anti-poor economic model, under the guise of patriotism and national sovereignty. That is why the necessary defence of national sovereignty should not be allowed to degenerate into a defence of Rajapaksa sovereignty to act with impunity.