‘We know how monsoons
(south-west and north-east)
would govern behaviour
and when to discover
the knowledge of the dead
hidden in clouds
in rivers, in unbroken rock
All this was burnt
or traded for power and wealth
from the eight compass points of vengeance
from the two levels of envy.’
(August 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is a part of a longer poem by Michael Ondaatje written over a decade ago. In it, Ondaatje laments the loss of traditional values and courtesies, a sense of justice and a belief on age-old customs and principles. These have been abandoned or betrayed by a society that is increasingly lured by power and wealth. We know that what Ondaatje wrote about so long ago has been an ongoing process and has today reached levels unthinkable when we regained our independence from western colonial rule, the same west that is today blamed for all our self-inflicted troubles.
A military tribunal has found Sarath Fonseka guilty in the first of several cases that are pending against him. The guilty verdict was pronounced in the absence of any defence team in the case. Was it an accident that the tribunal chose to hear the case during the week when the courts and the defence lawyers were on vacation? Was it an accident that the case was heard and closed within the same week and the judgment given unanimously, no less, as soon as the prosecution closed its case? And was it an accident that the President also gave his imprimatur to the tribunal’s verdict in that same week?
This is not a question of whether we support Sarath Fonseka or not. It is a question of our upholding the rule of law and the principles of natural justice. The plea that the case not be heard during court vacation was rejected off hand. Questions were also raised on a number of other legal issues – whether Sarath Fonseka, as former Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff, was subject to military law and whether officers below his rank had a right to sit on the tribunal. Must we ensure that that the rule of law prevails or do we, like Ondaatje, have to put up and merely lament the diminishing values of justice in our society.
It was on the same day that the tribunal found Sarath Fonseka guilty that a demonstration was held in Galle to protest his arrest and continued detention. The Police who arrived on the scene broke up the demonstration and arrested two members of parliament. Arjuna Ranatunge who was also part of the demonstration along with the two arrested members of Parliament says he asked the arresting police officer why he was not being arrested, and received the reply that he was asked only to arrest the concerned persons. We have no reason to doubt Ranatunge’s version of the incident. So it appears that the two arrests were pre-determined. Like in Fonseka’s case, no doubt the two JVP parliamentarians will have cases filed against them.
One of the three prosecution witnesses who gave evidence against Fonseka is now a cabinet minister. Earlier he was a UNP parliamentarian and Fonseka was found guilty on his evidence that Fonseka discussed party politics with him when he was Chief of Defence Staff. This same UNP parliamentarian was being investigated by the CID during the time when he was in the opposition for plotting to assassinate the President. But days after the verdict against Fonseka, the CID state that they are dropping the charges against this opposition parliamentarian turned cabinet minister because the Attorney General, yes, the Attorney General, has tendered that advice.
Contrast the arrest of the two JVP parliamentarians with the way the Police handled the case of another demonstration held outside the UN office in Colombo not long ago. The entrance to the office was blocked and the staff was, for a time, prevented from leaving the office. The TV screens even showed a Police Officer losing his cap in a melee. The demonstration was led by no less than a cabinet minister. But, no arrests were made in this case.
Revolution and Counter-Revolution
It is appropriate that at this stage of the political life in our country to once again refer to the Civil Rights Movement’s excellent series of booklets on The Value of Dissent. One in that series refers to the case of Wei Jing Sheng, an electrician in the Beijing Zoo, who became a leading campaigner in the democracy movement in China in 1978. The government’s official policy spoke of four modernization concepts being promoted as being necessary for economic changes. Wei argued that Democracy should be the fifth modernization concept and the government’s four modernizations were bound to fail unless the fifth component – democracy – was upheld. In 1979 Wei was charged with counter-revolutionary activities and sentenced to 15 years in prison. At his trial, he made a stirring speech in which he stated:
‘As a result of the influence of all those years of cultural autocracy, and the obscurantist policy of keeping the people in a state of blind ignorance in the ‘Gang of Four’ era, there are even now people whose outlook is that if one does things exactly in accordance with the will of the leadership currently in power, this is what is meant by being ‘revolutionary’, whereas to run counter to the will of those currently in power is ‘counter-revolutionary’. I cannot agree with such a vulgar debasement of the concept of revolution….To attach the label of perpetual revolution to the will and ambition of those currently in power is tantamount to stifling all diversity of thought.…..
‘There is no need for me to refute item by item in the list of charges in the indictment those places where the prosecution quotes me out of context. I would only point out two things. First, the constitution grants citizens the right to criticize their leaders, because these leaders are not gods. It is only through the people’s criticism and supervision that those leaders will make fewer mistakes, and only in this way that the people will avoid the misfortune of having their lords and masters ride roughshod over them. Then, and only then, will the people be able to breathe freely. Secondly, if we wish to carry out the reform of our nation’s socialist system we must base this on the entire population using the methods of criticism and discussion to find out the defects in the present system, otherwise reforms cannot be successfully carried out.’
As we began with Ondaatje’ poem, we can end with a poem by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and dissident who was hanged by the Abacha dictatorship after a show trial.
The poem is titled The True Prison:
It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell
It is not the clank of the key
As the warder locks you in
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for man or beast
Nor yet the emptiness of day
Dipping into the blankness of night
It is not
It is not
It is not.
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for one generation
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing into her book
Punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral decrepitude
The meat of dictators
Cowardice masking as obedience
Lurking in our denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
We dare not wash of our urine
It is this
It is this
It is this
Dear friends, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison.