When Will Sri Lankans Teach this Arrogant Govt Sharp Lessons in Just Rule?

| by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

( August 4, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When will Sri Lankans take matters into their own hands and teach this arrogant if not foolhardy Government some sharp and telling lessons in just rule?

Incredibly shocking pattern of events

This week, one innocent teenager died and more than twenty five civilians were injured as a result of the army shooting at unarmed protestors at Weliweriya who were demanding that water contamination in their area, allegedly by a factory, be stopped. Proportionate and restrained civilian law enforcement is now firmly a thing of the past. Inhumane assaults by soldiers of protestors, journalists and even those who were merely caught up in the unholy melee have been recorded despite the army’s denials.

The Weliweriya protestors will probably agitate for justice for the murdered teenager along the lines of the Katunayaka free trade zone workers, one of whom was also killed by indiscriminate fire by the police a while ago. Both protests will be of little avail. A few officers or local level politicians may be taken to court but the overall spectre of criminal enterprises built on political and police support that haunts Sri Lanka will not be affected.
Usage of live ammunition against demonstrators by the police and the army is a peculiar feature of the Rajapaksa administration and is bolstered by the large numbers of anti-riot weaponry and ammunition which were acquired post-war. Weliweriya, which resembled a mini-war zone during this incident, is only the most recent casualty. We will see far more excesses in coming months. In fact, the ironies in comparisons with a war situation that the Sri Lankan people foolishly thought was over in 2009, crops up time and time again. Just a few days ago, the Chief Priest of Noori, Deraniyagala in the Kegalle District, in detailing the terrorizing of his villagers from as far back as 2008 at the hands of local politicians benefitting from high political patronage, referred to his area as being ‘un-cleared’.

Even with all the brutalities that this country had witnessed during two Southern insurrections and civil conflict in the North and East, there is something incredibly shocking about this peace-time terrorizing of entire villages by a Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman with political patronage and enjoying the support of the local police. Post war, Sri Lanka has become a vast criminal enterprise, run by thuggish politicians where courts of law have little voice and law enforcers have become worse than the law breakers. The murder of a respected senior planter in standing out against thug politicians of Deraniyagala was a distinct marker. Even at the height of the war, these were not normal occurrences.

Responsibility of government and opposition

The Deraniyagala atrocities took place over several years with terrible impunity and with the silence of Government as well as Opposition parliamentarians representing the Kegalle District. The Sabaragamuwa Chief Minister has rejected allegations that he provided protection for sponsoring and protecting former Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Anil Champika Wijesinghe at whose hands these atrocities occurred. Deputy Ministers from the District have also been quick, like Pontius Pilate of old, to wash their hands of responsibility. Yet, such bold violations of the law could not have been perpetrated by a mere Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman without active government protection.

The Kegalle District fields members of parliament who wax eloquent on matters concerning governance whenever it suits them. For instance, one such representative holding Deputy Ministerial rank was prominent among those who signed the impeachment motion against Sri Lanka’s 43rd Chief Justice. He was ill judged enough to publicly brag about this at an extraordinary meeting of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka called in December 2012 to discuss the issue. Predictably he was booed and hooted down in no uncertain terms by an enraged legal fraternity.

Yet his premise in explaining why he signed the impeachment was that he wanted justice and the Rule of Law upheld in Sri Lanka. True enough, these pledges were patently ridiculous and contradicted by the very process of the impeachment which was contrary to all rules of natural justice. And in line with the natural order of things in this regime, this government politician represents the District in which the Deraniyagala atrocities occurred but was presumably blind and deaf all the while.

Systematic and well planned reign of terror

The facts in Deraniyagala speak to a systematic and well planned reign of terror involving rape, gang rape, slavery and extortion of villagers. Police responsibility in aiding and abetting these incidents arise at high levels of seniority. At the time that DIG Vaas Gunewardene was arrested for his alleged involvement in the contract murder of a businessman, it was common knowledge that such terrorist behaviour was not limited to one DIG alone. The sequence of events at Noori, Deraniyagala bear this out very well.

So we revert to what has become the commonest theme in these column spaces. In whom lies executive responsibility for what the villagers of Weliweriya and Deraniyagala have had to undergo? President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance that the complaints of the people will be inquired into, rings thin in terms of actual action. Undoubtedly, responsibility for the incidents is at the highest executive levels, with direct command responsibility vested in the Ministry of Defence.

For some years, we have had voices extolling the virtues of the Ministry of Defence in curbing terrorism in the North and East. Yet the ‘war’ has now come to the rest of the country. And the fact that this is through the hand of this government which boasts that it ‘liberated’ its own citizens is richly poetic justice indeed. We all need now to be liberated from our ‘liberators’ no doubt.

Simmering pockets of frustration and rage

The villagers of Weliweriya and Deraniyagala were able to draw public attention to their plight as they are members of the majority Sinhalese community. Tamil communities, which are even more paralysed by the post war militarization of their provinces, cannot protest even this much when injustice occurs.

The Weliweriya protestors will probably agitate for justice for the murdered teenager along the lines of the Katunayaka free trade zone workers, one of whom was also killed by indiscriminate fire by the police a while ago. Both protests will be of little avail. A few officers or local level politicians may be taken to court but the overall spectre of criminal enterprises built on political and police support that haunts Sri Lanka will not be affected. And by natural inference, it appears that this government does not care a hang for its own voters, so sublimely confident are they of their hold on political power in the face of a spectacularly impotent Opposition.

All over the country, there are pockets of simmering tension akin to Weliweriya and Noori which if left to bubble in inarticulate rage and frustration like this, will burst into open revolt one day. This is the pitiable state that Sri Lanka has been reduced to, quite predictably.

( The writer is a columnist, writes for the Sunday Times, an independent weekly based in Colombo, where this peice was originally appeared.)

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