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A Degraded Legislature; A Debased Judiciary

Sri Lanka's ruling party lawmakers, top scuffle with opposition law makers, bottom, during a budget speech by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo on Monday. (AP)

l by Tisaranee Gunasekara

Don’t the people have the right to speak of anything taking place illegally?”
Gen. Sarath Fonseka
(Post-verdict statement in the White Flag case)

(November 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapaksa takes umbrage at the strangest things. He once vented outrage at a Sinhala song, titled, ‘The people of that country are running crazy’. Such songs, the President remarked at his sanctimonious-best, would encourage separatism.

The same President remained unperturbed, as several SLFP parliamentarians, violating every conceivable parliamentary tradition, crossed the well of the House to attack opposition legislators. During last week’s budget speech, UNP parliamentarians began a peaceful, albeit noisy, protest. Outraged at this manifestation of lèse majesté and keen to display their loyalty, the blue-men attacked the protesting UNPers. Leading the pack was Lohan Ratwatte, whose claim to fame was his alleged involvement in a night club-brawl which caused the murder of Fijian, Joel Pera. Amongst the warriors was the Deputy Minister of Education, who “rushed up to the opposition benches and began to sweep everything on their tables to the floor. He also seized books and documents and threw them away” (Transcurrents – 23.11.2011).

As the melee progressed, the President remained sanguine. According to Daily Mirror’s live-blog, “…the President eggs on the opposition, repeating the term ‘I am embarrassed by you people’ to the opposition”. Obviously unembarrassed by the antics of his own men, Mahinda Rajapaksa continued with his reading, until a water bottle, thrown by a SLFP parliamentarian at the opposition, landed near him. That near-miss reportedly made the Head of State lose some of his cool and appeal for calm.

The lyricist underestimated the matter. Sri Lanka is like a lunatic asylum run by the inmates.

Lankan parliament has seen many protests by many legislators. If the opposition’s protest violated parliamentary procedure, it was up to the Speaker to restore order. But taking law into their hands is a popular pastime among Rajapaksa-acolytes. This deplorable habit has progressed from tying-up public officials to murdering political-rivals on the same side. Last week, this substitution of the Rule of Law by the law of the rulers made its grand-entry into the august halls of the supreme legislature.

Before the melee, the police had treated several oppositional members as if they were criminals or terrorists, checking documents and confiscating files; there was even an attempt to search the office of the Leader of Opposition. This conduct (reportedly sanctioned by the Speaker) was not motivated by a serious concern, such as a bomb-threat, but by a purely partisan determination to prevent an oppositional protest. Thus it set another dangerous precedent; the day may not be far when the police surround the parliament and detain opposition law-makers, en masse, for planning actions unpalatable to power-wielders.

The Speaker promised to conduct an inquiry into the melee, even as he blamed the opposition for the original-sin: “government MPs were incensed because UNP MPs were displaying posters in parliament during the budget speech” (Asian Mirror – 21.11.2011).

It certainly pays to have your brother as the Speaker…

Last week’s unsavoury saga brought with it the malodorous odour of a rancid political system. Worse scenes will happen as Sri Lanka’s transition from flawed democracy to family-autocracy gathers pace. The President has stated that he wants an opposition united in its support for the government! As their power and their megalomania increase, the Siblings’ capacity to tolerate any protest, including the purely symbolic, decreases. During a verbal exchange between government and oppositional parliamentarians, “President Rajapaksa lost his cool and told Dr. Jayalath Jayawardane that he would dissolve the parliament if necessary to teach opposition MPs a lesson. “Only God can save you all then’, he stated” (Transcurrents – 23.11.2011).

Gen. Fonseka and the Universality of Human Rights

The same authorities who mollycoddle Rajapaksa-acolyte Duminda Silva treat Rajapaksa-opponent Sarath Fonseka with vindictive severity. After the conclusion of the White Flag case, the man who won the Eelam War for the Rajapaksas was reportedly dragged away to the prison van like an animal. Gen. Fonseka also missed a treatment session because “prison authorities had neglected to take him to hospital” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 23.11.2011). Clearly the Siblings want the fate of Gen. Fonseka, imprisoned and maligned, harassed and humiliated, to become a beacon of warning to all Lankans.

Gen. Fonseka was found guilty of ‘propagating a false rumour’. How can the white flag story be deemed ‘false’, sans a thorough investigation? Would the evidence of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Gen. Shavendra Silva suffice to prove the story false? Is this not akin to returning a not-guilty verdict based solely on the evidence of the suspect and his underlings?

In his post-verdict statement, General Fonseka reiterated that the army under his command did not commit any war crimes, and said, “…I am of the view that if anyone ordered that terrorists surrendering should be shot, that person should be brought before the law. In the past there were serious crimes such as the Krishanthi Kumaraswami case, the massacre of Tamils in Bindunuweva and the killing of students in Embilipitiya. But was action filed against those who made statements or expressed views? No. Only action was filed against those who committed the crime.”

That is the crux of the matter. Making allegations against a government is not a crime in a democracy. The right to make such criticisms is fundamental to democracy. The verdict makes repeated references to Gen. Fonseka’s animosity towards the Rajapaksas. Such animosities between opposing politicians is another democratic staple in a democracy, especially in the throes of a keenly fought election.

There the ‘white flag’ story did not cause ‘fear’ or ‘unrest’ among the public. No such incident of disturbance was ever reported. It did enrage the power-wielders though, as evidenced by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s public threat to hang Gen. Fonseka. Since the ‘white flag’ story caused no public disturbance, wasn’t Gen. Fonseka’s conviction equal to convicting a man of planning to poison his much-alive and non-poisoned wife, simply because he bought arsenic and was known to bad-mouth his wife?

According to WikiLeaks, Basil Rajapaksa told US Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers, Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin and Fatema Suamr, “I’m not saying we are clean; we could not abide by international law…” (Colombo Telegraph). In his discussions with the same two staffers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa “noted that in defeating the LTTE terrorists, the war had ‘not been clean’ but was still a success” (ibid). These statements are contrary to the oft-repeated Rajapaksa claim of a ‘humanitarian offensive’ with ‘zero-civilian casualties’. Do they also contradict Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s testimony in the ‘white flag’ case? Shouldn’t the Siblings be asked whether they made these statements, and, if so, what exactly they meant by ‘not clean’?

During his years in power, Gen. Fonseka was as intolerant as the Rajapaksas. Today the tyranny he once supported is victimising him.

Human rights are not divisible. Those who violate the rights of others (or tolerate such violations) are paving the way for a future in which their rights too will be violated. If the fate of Gen. Fonseka and Premachandra are a warning to Rajapaksa-supporters, the horrendous end of Muammar Gaddafi is a warning to the puppet-masters themselves that injustice often begets worse-injustice.

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