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Tisaranee and the Future

By Nalin Swaris

(February 17, Colombo. Sri Lnaka Guardian) During the period of the notorious Norway Brokered Ceasefire Agreement between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Velupillai Prabhakaran, Dayan Jayetileke Tisaranee Gunasekere and I were among the few left intellectuals (I am not sure if TG regards herself as such) who in our writings took a principled stand against the substance of the Ceasefire Agreement, Agreement, Wickremesinge’s policy of appeasement and Norwegian manipulation of the so called peace process..

Given my personal temperament, (with Oscar Wilde I think one should give adoration to no one but oneself) I find the personality cult that Rajapakse is promoting utterly nauseating. Huge billboards of Rajapakse grinning from ear to ear, always with an inset portrait of the local pandang karaya that put it up, offend the eye. Larger than life cut outs depict the President hailing passers by like a conquering hero. During a recent visit to Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee I was appalled to see the same type of billboards and cut outs pocking the landscape and junctions, inflicting visual pollution on every road user. The Presidents flatterers do not realize how counterproductive this is. Increasingly the popular mood is turning against this imposition. One cannot expect the President’s poorly informed sycophants to have heard of The Law of Diminshing Returns, but they surely know the Sinhala proverb that “The comb of a cock one sees every day looks white.”

A personality cult is the surest sign of authoritarianism and of creeping dictatorship. Consider Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under the Kim’s. The cult of Stalin is a thing of the past. In China the only publicly display of a portrait of Mao ze Dong is on Tien a Men Square, but, a Dutch friend quipped “So is MacDonald’s!”. Rajapakse needs reminding of the basis Buddhist principle of anichcha.

It is ironic that the so called killers of Lasantha Wickramatunga and perpetrators of other killings and abductions are being unearthed only now. Equally ironic is that Ranil Wickremesinghe who charged in Parliament that a hit squad run by Sarath Fonseka was responsible for killing Lasantha, is now Fonseka’s close ally to restore democracy and the rule of law! One cannot fool the people all the time. And there are signs every that they are no longer willing to be fooled.

Tisaranee and the Future

This preamble was necessary to set the record straight about my political stand and to deal with Tisaranee’s recent writing synthetically expressed in Our Rajapakse Future in the Sri Lanka Guardian (15/02/2010)

I will quote Tisaranee directly before commenting on what she writes.

“On the night of February 8th, the military police and the army launched a commando type raid on the office of retired General and former Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka and arrested him.”

NS: True, there is no gainsaying this

“Such a development cannot but cause the gravest misgivings about the future of Lankan democracy, particularly given its timing - in the run up to a crucial parliamentary election, in which Gen. Fonseka was expected to play a key role.

NS. This is not entirely correct. I must first question the appropriateness of referring to Citizen Sarath Fonseka as ‘General’ after he presented himself as a presidential candidate. One TV Ad showed him marching forward through a wall of fire in the uniform of a decorated general, and morphing himself to person in civilian dress. However across the Island the walls were plastered with posters with a bust of Fonseka in the full regalia of a saluting General. How politically correct was that? Neither Dwight Eisenhouwer nor Charles de Gaulle continued to use the title of General when they contested presidential elections. Both did so after establishing their civilian credentials as suitable candidates after living as ordinary citizens. When Dwight Eisenhouwer was asked by Republicans and Democrats to contest the first presidential elections at the end of World War II he refused to contest his former Commander-in -Chief Harry Truman. Eisenhouwer went through the Republican preliminaries to seek his party’s nomination only in 1952 after Truman’s term of office had expired. There are recognized political decencies and one cannot disregard these or Fonseka’s subjective motive, It was a will for vengeance – to oust Mahinda Rajapkse and remove the Defence Secretary. Simply because one has a visceral antipathy to Mahinda Rajapakse does not mean that one should throw basis decencies to the wind to support anyone no matter what. “Restore democracy by placing the dreadful JR Executive Presidency in the hands of an army chief who was threatening his enemies with fire and brimstone?” He made no reference to the rule of law or due process then. Something Tisaranee’s delicate democratic sensibilities seem to have missed.

TG. “The retired general was arrested under the Military Act, possibly because getting a warrant from a civil court would not be easy, given the fantastic nature of the charges against him.”

NS. One must exercise caution here because the legality of Fonseka’s arrest is the subject of an appeal and is now sub judice. However, Fonseka has not been particularly blessed in his choice of friends. JVP-er Tilvin Silva revealed that Fonseka sought his advice about him being called for an interview by the Dept of Homeland Security. Silva boasted that he advised Fonseka to return to the Island without acceding to that request; that he his advice was more crucial for Fonseka’s return than the Foreign Minister’s strongly worded protest. Ranil Wickremesinghe also revealed that he had a two hour long conversation with Fonseka in the US from Singapore. Most damaging perhaps was Mangala Samaraweera’s revelation that Ranil Wickremesinghe and he, in order to dodge possible trailing by intelligence officers had to switch cars several times to meet Fonseka in secret places while he was still a serving General. Whether contacts with opposition leaders constitutes a breach of army disciplne is for the court to decide.

Tisaranee is not a lawyer but I did a two year course in Roman Catholic canon law as part of my theological studies. It is based on Roman law on which our Roman-Dutch law is based. One cannot convict anyone on intention alone but the gravity of earlier intent could be lawfully deduced by subsequent public action. Thus whether the nature of the charges are”fantastic” or not is not for Tisaranee to judge but for the court to determine.

He may be tried by a military tribunal, a stratagem which would enable his prosecutors to avoid media scrutiny and depict abusive allegations and conspiracy theories as hard evidence

NS. Here Tisaranee is indulging in speculation. Whatever the subjective-personal reason for arraigning Fonseka might be, the objective legal-reasons for doing so have to be proved in a court of law. The appropriate tribunal for a trial will also be determined by the court. Tisaranne is suggesting that the legal process will be manipulated, fits in with her conspiracy theory. Conspiracy or not, with the arrest of Fonseka our legal process more than ever, is in a goldfish bowl.

What is important therefore is ensuring just process. Not media scrutiny, but the imperative is to have independent and legally competent international observers, proposed for example by the International Committee of Jurists (ICJ). Since it is in the interest of equity and fair play, the government will find it difficult to refuse it. This is also what public opinion and people like Tisaranee should demand. Watch the process with hawk eyes. Demand transparency. The strongly worded statement by seniour Buddhist and Christian clergymen is a good start..

Just two weeks after the conclusion of the Presidential election, the man who challenged Candidate Rajapakse (and is the bete noire of his omnipotent brother) was assaulted, handcuffed and dragged away like a common criminal to an undisclosed location.

NS. Tisaranee is getting things in wrong order. It is the piqued Fonseka who turned the Defence Secretary in to his bete noire. He is reported to have said at an election rally that he would have the latter publicly executed by a firing squad on Galle Face Green! Tisaranee is also getting carried away and adding a bit of spice to her narration.

The law makes no distinction between a ‘common’ criminal and an ‘uncommon’ or ‘gentleman’ criminal. All are equal before the law. . A person becomes a ‘criminal’ not during arrest but after being found guilty after due process in a court of law. The term ‘common criminal’ betrays a class prejudice and is manifest in the way the police treat poor people without social or political influence and ‘gentleman’ arrestees. Individuals with financial and political clout can always hire an unscrupulous doctor who for the right price will discover some ailment which enables the’ gentleman’ to be admitted to a five star hospital and avoid being held in remand prison.

To the best of my knowledge none of the opposition politicians who were in conference with Fonseka at the time of arrest stated that he was assaulted. If he was, his lawyer could have demanded that he be examined by a Judicial Medical Officer. This is right which all arrestees have when there is an allegation of assault. To the best of my knowledge no such demand was made.

Even from the testimony of the opposition politicians present we know that Fonseka resisted arrest by the military police saying since he is a civilian he should be arrested by the ordinary police. The military cops had hesitated, awed perhaps by the resistance of their former top Chief. A seniour officer had intervened ordered them to take him by force if necessary. The soldiers merely carried out what they believed was a legal order of a superior officer. If the court determines that the arrest was on legal grounds then resisting arrest is also a delict. The ordinary law requires that in case of resistance, minimum force – avama balaya - may be used.

Having been associated with fundamental rights violation petitions against illegal arrest and torture by the police, Fonseka might consider himself fortunate that he was not arrested by the police who have their own interpretation of ‘avama balaya’.

What Tisaranee and her likes should find out is whether the arresting authorities were required by law or good custom, to inform Fonsekas immediate relatives of his arrest and where he would be incarcerated. Or whether after his incarceration, he was allowed a phone call to inform his family and his lawyers.. If not there has been a grave breach of Fonseka’s family’s rights or of basic principles of fair treatment.

TG “Such a development cannot but cause the gravest misgivings about the future of Lankan democracy, particularly given its timing - in the run up to a crucial parliamentary election, in which Gen. Fonseka was expected to play a key role.

NS. This looks like a Catch 22 situation. If Fonseka was arrested after he declared his intention of wanting to contest the presidential election. The government would have been accused of being afraid of Fonseka’s candidacy. Now Tisaranee is suggesting possible fear of Fonseka contesting at the general elections. But, at the time of arrest Fonseka had not yet formed a party to contest the general elections. And when he did he would still have to decide with which political parties he would sign an electoral pact. The arrest was made during a period of parliamentary inter regnum. Whether the timing was inexpedient or not is also for the Court to decide and not for Tisaranee to speculate.

TG “Vellupillai Pirapaharan offered Tamils an implicit Mephistophelian bargain – their basic democratic and human rights in return for ‘liberation’ from Sinhala dominance via a separate state. A majority of Tamils accepted, however unhappily, because of the Tigers’ proven capacity to take on the Sinhala state. The journey that was premised on that bargain ended on the shores of the Nandikadal lagoon and in the Northern internment camps.”

NS. This must be a born again Tisaranee seeking a triple refuge. That Velupillai offered the Tamil people “their basic democratic and human rights in return for ‘liberation’ from Sinhala dominance via a separate state.” That is a hoot. Does Tisaranee really believe what she writes? What basic human and democratic rights did Prabhakaarn deliver in practice? What are Tamil people to do now? Wait for more such bargains that might end in more Nandikadals and internent camps?. Calling the bargain “Mephistophelian” was essential for Tisaranee to switch gear and indulge in a non sequitur to argue that the Sinhalese (read, Buddhists) have made a similar pact with devil by voting for Rajapakse.

TG “By voting for Mahinda Rajapakse in overwhelming numbers, a majority of the Sinhalese too renewed their consent to a similar deal, trading democratic and human rights for a Sinhala supremacist state, a state which keeps the minorities in their place and tells the Western world to mind its own business. By the time the South realises the consequences of the choice they made on January 26th, irreparable damage would have been done not only to Lankan democracy but also to Lankan national interests (the loss of the GSP+ is just the beginning).

NS Tisaranee is digging her spurs deep and galloping on her hobby horse - Sinhala supremacism.. Its always the politically bankrupt and desperate who turn to a strong man to come as a redeemer. It shows a basic trust in the common folk whom Tisaranee with elitist disdain dismisses as country yokels who have traded their rights for a Sinhalese supremacist state.

The Turning Tide

Given her first name Gunasekere must surely know where the Sinhalese Buddhist find their eventual refuge. Unlike Christians who have submission in blind faith drilled into them. (This was adduced as main cultural reason for the Befehl ist Befehl – “Orders are Orders”, mechanical obedience of German military officers),

A radically secular, nominally Buddhist, Sinhala friend who scoffs at Lankan Buddhism called me after a suicide killer attack and said,” I am glad machang I was born a Buddhist, because none of our boys and girls could have been brainwashed, not even by the JVP, to self destruct like this. They might commit suicide out of personal despair, which is a negative form of self assertion, but not at the behest of a distant solar deity.”

For all the shortcomings of Sinhala Buddhism, the Buddha’s Teaching has built into our Buddhists a strong anti-authoritarian streak, which erupts episodically through seemingly feudal subservience. In the Vinaya Pitaka the Buddha canonized the supreme right to dissent. Unlike the Christian (esp Catholic hierarchy), the Mahanayeke’s may not take unilateral decisions without democratic consultation of the executive committees of their respective sects. It’s a tradition written into Vinaya Pitaka by the non authoritarian Buddha himself. Even as prophets and prophetesses of doom are saying “Damn the bloody Sinhalese supremacists. All is lost”: resistance is coming from the least expected of quarters, the much maligned Sangha.

Popular resistance to Rajapakse despotism is growing. He can, as the devout Buddhist he claims he is, take heed and reform or resort to further repression. The answer will come not in the form of LTTE or JVP type mindless violence, but hopefully, consistent with best in the Buddhist tradition, through mass non violent resistance and civil disobedience.

In Part II, I will examine why many felt that electing Fonseka and ousting Rajapakse would have been, as Sinhala folk wisdom has it, like exchanging chillies for ginger. In this case, it is not exchanging one colonial power for a another, but surrendering our sovereignty to neo-colonialists by a handpicked puppet, who arrogantly danced on a string of assured immunity from prosecution for war crimes is he turned star prosecution witness. If not his threat “to tell all”, would have been a self incriminating boast.

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