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Sri Lanka: Roads not taken and their destinations

Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government could have explained the reality to the people – more money for guns means less money for everything else
by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Not only our actions, but also our inactions, become our destiny.”
Heinrich Zimmer (The King and the Corpse)

On the night of January 2nd, 2006, five students were killed in Trincomalee. Shanmugarajah Gajendran, Lohitharaja Rohan, Thangathurai Sivanantha, Yogarajah Hemachandran and Manoharan Rajihar, all of them either engaged in or about to engage in higher studies, had gathered near the sea front to celebrate the New Year. A bomb was thrown at them from a passing three-wheeler, and the injured youth were gunned down, allegedly execution style, about 20 minutes later.

The authorities claimed that the young men were LTTE operatives, and died when the bomb they were carrying exploded. The truth came out to thanks to the courage of the District Medical Officer, Dr. Gamini Gunatunga. Dr. Gunatunga, a Sinhalese, did the post-mortem and testified that the victims had been shot to death.

At that point, the Rajapaksa administration had a choice – ensure an impartial investigation, protect the witnesses, allow the courts to do their job. It wasn’t as if the political authorities were unaware of the truth. According to a Wikileaks cable, in a conversation with the then American Ambassador, Basil Rajapaksa said, “We know the STF did it, but the bullet and gun evidence show that they did not. They must have separate guns when they want to kill someone.”

The government had nothing to do with the murder. But it had everything to do with the subversion of justice. The political authorities took a political decision to banish law and install impunity in its stead. As a result, the suspected killers, after a brief stint in remand, roamed free while the families of the victims faced harassment and threats.

Trinco-5 case was an early warning of what was to come, the myth of a humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties. That myth was enabled by a consistent policy of banding every dead or injured Tamil a Tiger-victim or a Tiger. That policy began in earnest with Trinco-5. From then on, impunity would be not partial (as it was previously) but absolute. The result was a permissive environment in which even preventable crimes and avoidable mistakes became inevitable. When the aid workers massacre in Muttur happened in a few months later, the UTHR pointed out the connection. “One thing is certain about the ACF killings. They would not have happened if minimally, timely disciplinary action had been taken against SP Kapila Jayasekere once his role in the Five Students outrage became widely known. Instead he was promoted to SSP in July 2006.”

Ending impunity and bringing about justice was a key promise of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. But the steps taken in this regard were small and hesitant. Instead of prosecuting at least some of the crimes vigorously, the government dragged its feet, sent mixed signals, and allowed a section of the defence establishment to blatantly ignore court orders. As a result, justice remains undone, killers roam free, and the foundation of future crimes are laid.

One of the most pernicious myths peddled by populist leaders is that justice can be compartmentalised, that injustice can be rendered non-contiguous. The Sinhala majority believed that the carte blanche given to ‘war heroes’ would pose no threat to their own safety. Under Rajapaksa rule, indifference to injustice in the North and the East was turned into a patriotic duty. But impunity cannot be dammed or guided, as the abduction-murder of two businessmen in Ratgama demonstrates yet again. Had the victims been Tamil, they could have been called Tigers; had they been Muslim, they could have been called Islamic fundamentalists. Since they were Sinhala, there are attempts to claim that they were members of the underworld, a euphemism used during the Rajapaksa years to justify extra-judicial killing of Sinhalese.

Had the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration acted decisively to bring justice to at least some victims of uniformed killers – such as the 12 young men suspected to have been abducted and murdered by a for-profit Navy gang – the Ratgama crime might not have happened. The lesson is clear; so long as members of the armed forces and the police are placed above the law, and attempts to prosecute them for crimes committed is depicted as acts of anti-patriotism, impunity will survive, and claim its victims from anywhere in Sri Lanka, from any ethnic or religious group, any walk of life, any profession, including the military and the police.

The indivisibility of Injustice

During the Fourth Eelam War, General Parakrama Pannipitiya headed the victorious Eastern offensive against the LTTE. In early 2009, he was arrested by the police on a charge of treasure-hunting. The real reason for the arrest was his ongoing conflict with Gen. Sarath Fonseka. In 2008, Gen. Pannipitiya’s security was withdrawn suddenly, and he was forced to seek judicial intervention. The Supreme Court, overruling the objections of the AG, issued an interim order allowing General Pannipitiya to use his staff quarters and retain vehicles and escorts he was entitled to as Commander of the Security Forces (East). In delivering the order, Justice Nimal Gamini Amaratunga said, “Over the media, Api Wenuwen Api is aired every half an hour but people like the petitioner don’t even have themselves.”

That was 2008, when the Mahinda-Gotabhaya-Fonseka triumvirate ruled the roost. Post-war, the triumvirate fell apart, reportedly for the same reasons Gen. Fonseka developed an enmity towards Gen. Pannipitya, the division of spoils. Gen. Fonskea wanted his share of the glory, and the Rajapaksas were not in a sharing mood. With himself out of favour, Gen. Fonskea was unable to keep Gen. Pannipitiya incarcerated. After all, it was not he but the Rajapaksa brothers who controlled the police and the AG’s Department. In mid-2008, charges against Gen. Pannipitiya were dropped, and he was freed. In a few months, Gen. Fonseka himself was jailed on spurious charges.
In February 2010, Gen. Pannipitiya’s wife, in an interview with the state owned Daily News, revealed how her husband was persecuted by Gen. Fonseka, and called Gen. Fonseka’s own incarceration a “retribution of Kamma.” The real reason for both miscarriages of justice was impunity. If the rule of law prevailed, neither general would have been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Sarath Fonseka could persecute Parakrama Pannipity because the rule of law had been replaced by the law of the rulers; the Rajapaksa brothers could persecute Sarath Fonseka for the same reason.

Lord Acton’s in his famous letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton argued against bestowing immunity on men in power: “You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed or sneezed at…. I cannot accept your cannon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong.” The argument remains more valid than ever today, especially in places in Sri Lanka beset by all too many sacred cows.

Impunity corrodes morality and encourages crime. Eventually, impunity saves none and can endanger all, including those who once enjoyed its protection. In 2012, Minister Mervyn Silva’s son, Malaka Silva and his friend Rehan Wijeratne assaulted Major Chandana Pradeep of the Military Intelligence. Eventually the major was forced to take the blame on himself, because the Rajapaksa brothers, those crusaders for the safety and honour of war-heroes, opted not to back this particular war-hero. Malaka Silva’s father was a favoured stooge; and Rehan Wijeratne’s mother was the chairperson of the Ranjan Wijeratne Foundation which funded the book, Gota’s War.

A similar outcome might be in the making today, concerning the killing of a police inspector in Borealla. The suspects are all politically-connected brats, driving at breakneck speed. When the case was taken up, journalists were not allowed to enter the court, an indication of political interference. The President, who has appointed himself as the guardian of the military and the police, is yet to condemn this incident, or to visit the bereaved family. A similar silence prevails in the UNP and the SLPP. In the end, the family members of the inspector might find themselves in the same company as the family members of Trinco-5 and innumerable other victims of impunity and injustice.

Economic injustice lives on

Almost a decade after the war, defence continues to claim the largest chunk of government expenditure. For the year of 2019, defence has been allocated Rs. 393 billion, while health gets 187.4 billion and primary and secondary education 105 billion.

To prevent a new Southern insurgency, Sri Lanka needs lower living costs and higher living standards, better paying jobs and greater hope, not more warships. To prevent a new outburst of separatism, Sri Lanka needs reconciliation and reconstruction and a workable political solution, not more military helicopters. Spending more on defence when the priorities are clearly otherwise, will not make us safer; it will make us more unsafe.

Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government could have explained the reality to the people – more money for guns means less money for everything else - education, health, a decent system of public transportation, better roads and other basic infrastructure, more research and development.... In a war situation, such a trade-off makes sense; it is necessary. In a time of peace it is criminally stupid.

In Sri Lanka, there’s no military-industrial complex. What is there is a military-commercial complex. That military-commercial complex is as much of a bar to reducing military expenditure as the military industrial complex is in a country like the US. When expensive military hardware is imported, local agents and their political backers benefit, and benefit enormously. No wonder that we are buying helicopters instead of building houses in the North, buying warships instead of upgrading education in the Deep South.

Economic justice was a top promise of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe admiistraiton. The leaders spoke about the iniquitous system of taxation prevalent in Sri Lanka, blamed the Rajapaksas for imposing a proportionately greater tax burden on the poor and the middle classes than on the rich, and promised to correct the imbalance. Under Rajapaksa rule, the ratio between indirect to direct taxes was a morally unacceptable and economically damaging 80:20. By reducing the purchasing power of a majority/plurality of people, such extreme levels of taxation undermines the prospects of small and medium scale enterprises, and thereby economic growth, and income and employment generation.

Budget 2019 provided the government with a last chance to deliver a measure of fairness, of justice in the all important realm of economics. It failed. And so long as that fundamental inequity remains unchanged, the government will have no option but to impose more and more indirect taxes on people who are less and less able to absorb the resultant economic shocks. In the fortnight since the budget was presented, the prices of fuel and bread has gone up, and the price of milk powder is slated to follow suit. This is a path to greater inequality, a path which will eventually veer away from democracy and carry Sri Lanka back to the autocratic past, with the freely given consent of a majority of her people.

Inequality is a choice, as Joseph Stiglitz pointed out. When open democracies fail to address – or even acknowledge the gravity of – inequality, an antithetical narrative gains ground, like now. According to this narrative, the rampant and persistent inequality many countries are afflicted by doesn’t stem from Hayek’s triumph over Keynes, the codification of the Washington Consensus and the transformation of trickle-down economics into an article of faith. Inequality, this narrative claims, is a result of policies which favour the ‘Other,’ over ‘Us,’ The solution is the enthronement of a tough leader who can pack off immigrants, keep minorities in place and return the country to its ‘real owners.’

In Sri Lanka, this trend is evident in the putative presidential campaign of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. His political platform is built on a carefully constructed narrative against liberal democracy. Rights are dismissed as counterproductive, freedoms excoriated as dangerous and democracy ridiculed as soft, flabby and ineffective. Complex problems are simplified, depicted as solvable through the ruthless exercise of Will by a powerful leader. In this narrative, warfare state is what a country needs to stay safe and get ahead. If the war on terror is over, there is always the war on crime, on drugs, on alien influences... And Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, reportedly chosen by Brother Mahinda as the SLPP presidential candidate, is definitely the man to drive us to that future of unending wars against eternal enemies.

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