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Khuram Shaikh and Weliweriya: Lessons in Resistance

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Nothing is given: we must find our law.”
Auden (In Time of War)

( October 20, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Indictments were filed against Sampath Chandrapushpa and other alleged murderers/rapists of Tangalle, 22 months after Khuram Shaikh was hacked to death and his Russian girlfriend gang-raped.

Sampath Chandrapushpa was the Ruling Family’s choice as the Chairman of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha1. The Rajapaksas used every trick to prevent their henchman from being indicted. Time and again justice was promised – and denied. There was even a Defence Ministry-initiated crude attempt to efface the gang-rape charge2.

Sampath Chandrapushpa may eventually get away with murder/gang-rape, as Duminda Silva got away with child abuse and Chandana Kathriarachchi got away with murder (both indictments were withdrawn by the then AG Mohan Peiris). But the fact that he was charged in a court of law at all is a major victory against the Rajapaksa-juggernaut of impunity.

That victory was possible because the murder-victim was a British citizen; because his family and their local MP waged an untiring battle for justice; because a segment of the British media kept the issue alive; because the Rajapaksa obsession with the Commonwealth created a window of opportunity. The Canadian decision to boycott the Colombo Commonwealth reopened the discussion on the suitability of venue (Given the blood-soaked and oppressive genesis of the Commonwealth – the British Empire – and its current international irrelevancy, Colombo is a most apposite venue!). The British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee’s condemnation of the British approach as ‘timid’3 may have compelled the Cameron government to demand an indictment before the Commonwealth, as a face-saving measure (The Committee reportedly praised the Canadian boycott and recommended that Britain follows suit4; in a mark of displeasure at the Kamalesh Sharma-regimen, the UK has imposed a £3 million funding-cut on the Commonwealth Secretariat5).

While the international struggle for justice for Mr. Shaikh and Ms. Tkacheva achieved a partial success, the national struggle for clean water in Weliweriya is heading in the opposite direction. The people of Weliweriya do not have a powerful foreign government speaking on their behalf; there is no one out there globally arena, fighting for their cause6.

The people of Weliweriya – like ordinary people everywhere in Sri Lanka - are at the mercy of the Rajapaksas.

The owner of the controversial factory, like Sampath Chandrapushpa, is a favoured Rajapaksa-acolyte. Dhammika Perera not only sits atop a hydra-like business empire (his newest venture is building a $350million resort-cum-casino in Colombo7); curiously, he is also the Rajapaksa-appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Transport8.

How can the people of Weliweriya resist such a colossus of money and power – alone?

Last week, the police obtained a court order banning demonstrations in Weliweriya. The people’s struggle for their water-rights is thereby legally circumscribed. The Buddhist monk leading the campaign seemed to have experienced a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment and is now singing a Rajapaksa-aria. The ‘Siyenae Peoples Movement for Water Conservation’ is continuing the struggle, under difficult and dangerous circumstances. Had the Rajapaksas agreed to provide the people with free-water connections the issue could have been resolved peacefully; but the regime, which wastes billions on jobless-ports/airports, refuses to spend on providing ordinary people with a fundamental human need.

Instead the Rajapaksas seems determined to break the collective-will of the Weliweriya people through money, law and repression.

The fate of another grassroots-level leader of another popular struggle – for non-carcinogenic air – indicates that the future of the Sinhalese will be rather akin to the past and the present of Tamils.

In Dorape, Galle, a DSI-owned rubber factory has been accused of emitting carcinogenic fumes. The people of the area have been demonstrating peacefully against the factory for months. This week, the police anti-terrorist unit barged into the house of a leader of the protest movement, Norbert Silva, at 2 am and arrested him. The police claimed to have found hand grenades and bullets in his land. The people are convinced that the weapons had been planted9.

Juxtapose this with the news that the newly created Ministry of Law and Order plans to ‘reorganise’ the STF “as a precautionary step, in view of the possibility of outside terrorist groups tying up with local groups and causing disturbances in the country”10. According to Secretary (General) Nanda Mallawarachchi, “resurgence of terrorism with joint forces of outside terrorists could be more vicious and destructive than what the country had to endure for 30 years”. Therefore, “What is actually needed is to train the troops for accurate shooting, for hitting an enemy with each bullet fired. The STF will be given intensive training on the proper use of firearms”11.

Going by the Weliweriya shooting and the Dorape arrest, the ‘enemy’ the STF will be shooting at is likely to be ordinary Sinhalese protesting peacefully against injustices.

Last week, the Rajapaksa-CJ reportedly articulated a key tenet of Rajapaksa-law – terrorists do not have human rights. Dismissing the Ganeshan Niamalrauban case he proclaimed, “Terrorism must be dealt with strongest possible way just like in Chechnya. Nimalarauban is a terrorist and how else should he be treated?”12

Mr. Nimalarauban was never proven to be a terrorist/Tiger; he was studying during the war, and was arrested months later. The police alleged that he was transferring weapons in a three-wheeler13. Is an allegation by the police sufficient to prove that a man is a terrorist? Is that how a terrorist in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka is determined?

By the same token is Norbert Silva of Dorape a terrorist, undeserving of human rights including the right to life?

According to the Rajapaksa Army Commander, “If anyone stays within the democratic process we can all live happily. But if they go beyond that and become extremist, if they try to divide the country, it is not the country which will become divided but their heads from their bodies”14.

In Rajapaksa-land, the police decide the terrorist; he/she is rendered right-less by the law and murdered by the army.

Adopt a Campaign

The indictment of Sampath Chandrapushpa demonstrates the importance of the international factor in any effective resistance to Rajapaksa Rule.

The democratic and centrist elements in the Lankan Diaspora have a pivotal role to play in this stage of Lankan history. Across the country, there are pockets of resistance to the regime’s injustices. In the absence of an effective opposition, such struggles are left bereft.

The Lankan Diaspora can change that.

What these isolated struggles need is not money but international exposure/solidarity. Given their current helpless condition, nothing will be too small.

Consider the Weliweriya struggle; the controversial factory depends on foreign-orders. A pressure campaign on the international-buyers of Dipped Products is something even a few committed members of the Lankan Diaspora can undertake. If Dipped Products has Western buyers, they will be vulnerable to image issues. The potential loss of orders might pressurise Dhammika Perera and the Rajapaksas to adopt a conciliatory stand.

Ordinary Lankans do not have powerful countries fighting for them. But there are Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims domiciled in those powerful countries. It is time at least some of them lent a peaceful and a democratic hand to their suffering brethren in Sri Lanka.

1 Mahinda Rajapaksa’s private residence, ‘Carlton’ is in Tangalle

2 Minister Dinesh Gunawardane told the parliament that Victoria Tkacheva was neither raped nor sexually abused, and mentioned the Defence Ministry as his informant - http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-37444-news-detail-khuram-shaikhs-partner-was-not-raped.html

3 http://www.trust.org/item/20131017110359-yzhnl/

4 http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/panel-asks-cameron-to-boycott-chogm/article5251536.ece?homepage=true

5 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/10368301/Britain-cuts-funding-for-the-Commonwealth.html

6 The UNP is too busy rendering itself irrelevant. Neither Leader Ranil nor ‘Alternative Leader Sajith is lifting a finger to protest the ongoing eviction of Colombo’s poor. The UNP should have intervened to stop this horrendous injustice at least out of political considerations. The UNP’s Colombo base would vanish once Colombo’s poor are evicted. Sajith Premadasa’s total lack of interest in the plight of Colombo’s poor shows that, unlike his father, he is totally divorced from the ordinary problems of ordinary people. In this sense too he is more like Ranil Wickremesinghe than Ranasinghe Premadasa.

7 http://www.therepublicsquare.com/business/2013/09/17/dhammika-perera-350m-casino/

8 Dhammika Perera was appointed by President Rajapaksa in 2011, a few months after the Sunday Leader revealed that he owns the biggest chunk of the Colombo Stock Market – Rs.36 billion.

9 http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/sri_lanka/2013/10/131018_dsi_dorape_terrorism.shtml;


10 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-45245-news-detail-stf-to-undergo-firearm-training.html

11 ibid

12 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/de-facto-cj-exposed-himself-in-the-worst-possible-manner-in-courts/

13 http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/7855

14 http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/sri_lanka/2013/10/131015_armychief_audio.shtml - In any democratic country, an army commander who makes such a murderous pronouncement will be sent home in disgrace; the fact that his words did not cause a stir, even in the oppositional ranks, shows how far we have come down the slippery-slope of militarization, abuse and impunity.

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