Sri Lanka: Power, Religion and Impunity

The former president’s response to the verdict demonstrates that defeat has taught him nothing; he is as wedded to impunity now as he ever was.


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There is nothing wrong in this. I admit I gave the order… Here, you don’t get me worked up.” ~ Mahinda Rajapaksa (responding to questions about the sil-redi verdict)[i]

( September 17, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I ordered, he says, as if those two words would suffice. Perhaps they do, in his eyes. ‘I’m the state,’ Louis XIV declared, according to Carlyle. Mahinda Rajapaksa sees himself as the nation, which also encompasses the state. So how can he misuse state-funds?

Mr. Rajapaksa’s anger at the sil-redi verdict is not contrived. He doesn’t understand the fuss; he certainly doesn’t understand the verdict. His bemusement reeks of authenticity, and of Trumpian-level ignorance. “If this is an election-case, they should have gone to the Elections Commissioner for punishment,” he says. “If this is an election case, they can’t punish here,”[ii] he adds, here meaning the courts. (The former president, who is also a lawyer, thinks that violation of election laws must be punished by the election commissioner and not the courts!).

The former president’s response to the verdict demonstrates that defeat has taught him nothing; he is as wedded to impunity now as he ever was.  Laws are a bagatelle is the subtext of what he says, especially election laws. In his unrepentant eyes, the law is there to punish the poor, the powerless and political enemies. He, his kith, kin and acolytes are above the law. Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita did what he told them to do. Ergo, they cannot be wrong.

Unlike the former president, Mr. Weeratunga and Mr. Palpita would have known that using state funds to distribute sil-redi four days before a presidential election amounted to a clear and colossal violation of election laws. They didn’t care, because they never thought they’d lose. In any case, their years at Mr. Rajapaksa’s side would have accustomed them to regard the law as something infinitely tensile. Mr. Weeratunga’s name, for instance, featured prominently in the Helping Hambantota case. (The police investigation into that case was stopped by the then Chief Justice Sarath N Silva. Mr. Silva lashed at the police for their presumption and berated the CID for questioning ‘a senior civil servant like PM’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga,’ for more than five hours[iii] – a stance which amounted to liberating power-wielders from the confines of the law.)

The timing was everything. If the distribution of sil-redi was the result of an old plan, why do it on the Duruthu poya day, just four days before a crucial presidential election? Why not wait another month? According to media reports, the presiding judge had wanted to know whether all those who observed sil were subject to some natural calamity which destroyed their sil-redi. Such a disaster might have gone some way in explaining the decision to distribute sil-redi in January, in the midst of a presidential election campaign. Of course there was no such mitigating disaster. The emergency was not natural; it was politico-electoral, the urgent need to offer one more bribe to Sinhala-Buddhist voters on behalf of Candidate Rajapaksa.

The sil-redi case is a classic example of how politicians use religion in the furtherance of their own ambitions. The distribution of sil-redi couldn’t be postponed until the Nawam poya day not because such a postponement would have harmed Buddhism, but because by Nawam poya the presidential election would be over. So the money was obtained in a hurry, without due approval from the TRC director board. A piece of paper, which reminded the recipients that the gift was made by President Rajapaksa, was inserted into every packet of white cloth. Mr. Weeratunga and Mr. Palpita facilitated that bribe, knowing it was a bribe. There’s no way they could be innocent of misappropriating state funds and of breaking election laws.

‘They have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing,’ Talleyrand is supposed to have said about the Bourbons. It is certainly true of Mr. Rajapaksa (and his family). If the Rajapaksas return to power, they will enthrone abuse and impunity, again. The law will become nothing other than the servant of an all powerful ruler and his immediate family.

Sil-redi and CB-bonds

Corruption is a multi-partisan thing, as the Central Bank bond-scam proves. That scam, like the sil-redi distribution, was grounded in a belief of impunity. The bond-scam’s authors and their underlings would have thought they’d be safe from discovery, let alone from eventual prosecution, given their exalted positions and powerful connections. The work of the Presidential Commission, Attorney General Department and various investigative organisations indicate that the era of impunity is over. Corruption has not been eradicated, but the corrupt can no longer be certain they’d get away with their crimes. That sends a powerful message to politicians, officials and business magnates – they cannot count on impunity all the time, as they once did.

If the bond-scam proves that power corrupts, its aftermath demonstrates that in a democracy, impunity is not destiny. Where dissent is possible, the people have the capacity to demand and obtain a modicum of accountability if not justice. The bond-scam investigation and the sil-redi verdict, in conjunction, constitute a beacon of hope in a dark time. They provide a kind of roadmap for a future which is better than the past or the present. They also demonstrate that Sri Lanka can be saved from utter ruin – not by ‘I’m the Saviour’ politicians, but by good laws and strong institutions capable of withstanding partisan pressure, a vibrant media and an engaged public. This positive potential would be completely destroyed if the Rajapaksas manage to return to power again. Sri Lanka would retrogress to a time when the president, his family and his underlings were above the law. Sri Lanka would also retrogress to a time when the BBS types could attack ethnic and religious minorities with complete impunity.

If there is one man more responsible than any other for the horror that is unfolding in Myanmar, that man is Ashin Wirathu, the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’. Three years ago, in September 2014, Wirathu arrived in Sri Lanka to attend the BBS-organised Sangha Convention (held at the Sugathadasa Stadium). By that time Wirathu’s 969 Movement had been effectively banned by Myanmar’s Sangha Council, “the government-appointed body of monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy.”[iv] The Rajapaksa administration could have refused him a visa, without discomposing the Myanmar government. But the regime not only gave him a visa; he entered Sri Lanka “via the VIP lounge and was whisked to a safe place,” as the BBS boasted on its facebook page. Such happenings were possible because the BBS was enjoying the patronage of the government in general and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in particular.

Wirathu, who has mastered the art of spewing incendiary words while maintaining a facade of serenity, (unlike most of his Lankan counterparts) promised that his 969 movement will work with the BBS to protect Buddhism in Asia from the ‘Jihadist threat’. The CEO of the BBS declared that the name of Sri Lanka should be changed to Sinhale, that Lankan-Tamils must be renamed Sinhala-Tamils and Lankan Muslims Sinhala-Muslims. Only Sinhala-Buddhist culture should be allowed. The BBS would soon present a new constitutional-blueprint which would include these and other changes. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara attacked Rev. Sobhita Thero for promoting the idea of a common candidate and spoke in defence of the presidential system.

The BBS Convention was an attempt to incite Sinhala-Buddhist fears and harness them to the Rajapaksa chariot, in time for an early presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa needed every single Sinhala-Buddhist vote possible and one of the tasks of the BBS was to deliver these votes by addling Sinhala-Buddhist minds with fear about a Muslim/Jihadist threat.

Had Mahinda Rajapaksa won in January 2015, he would not have implemented any of the more insane ideas advocated by the BBS. But during a Rajapaksa third-term the BBS would have continued to ride roughshod over minorities, thereby rendering other Aluthgamas not only possible, but also inevitable. A Rajapaksa victory would have hurtled Sri Lanka along the Burmese path, towards a religious civil-war.

The Way of Myanmar

Like for Mahinda Rajapaksa – or Donald Trump or innumerable other political leaders – for the Burmese generals too minority-phobia was, first and foremost, a political weapon. Divide and rule did not end with colonialism. The generals who controlled Myanmar during much of its post-independent history fanned the flames of religio-racial hatred against the Rohigniya minority as a way of gaining Buddhist-Burman support. The Rohigniyas served as ideal scapegoats – Muslims in a land of Buddhists, different and alien in many ways, from cultural practices to skin colour.

But the generals alone couldn’t have transformed quotidian suspicion and dislike on the part of ordinary Burmese into an all consuming phobia and hatred of Rohigniys Muslims. That radical change was made possible by a segment of Burmese Buddhist monks, especially those associated with Wirathu’s 969 Movement and its successor, MaBaTha. These extremist-monks rendered religio-racial hatred respectable and popular; they made it seem compatible with democracy, and depicted it as necessary to the protection of Burmese Buddhism.

“All fear punishment, all fear death, comparing oneself with others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.” That was Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.[v] That injunction against causing hurt, harm or death covers not just all humans but all living beings. That one stanza would have sufficed to prevent the unfolding tragedy of the Rohigniya people, had Buddhists of Myanmar paid even an iota of attention to what Buddha taught. But in Myanmar, as in Sri Lanka, the Buddha’s teachings, especially his unequivocal and total rejection of violence, are being observed only in the breach. According to UN statistics almost 400,000 Rohigniya men, women and children, had fled their homes to Bangladesh, triggering a massive humanitarian crisis. The fact that this ethnic-cleansing is being committed in the name of Buddha and Buddhism demonstrates that the contagion of violent-intolerance is not the legacy of any one religion.

The Rohigniya people suffered violence and discrimination for decades without resorting to counter-violence. When peaceful and democratic resistance fail, those who advocate counter-violence as the only possible-solution gain upper-hand. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was formed by Rohigniya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. ARSA, which is reportedly being funded by wealthy Saudis and Pakistanis, had mounted several attacks on Burmese security forces. The latest such attack served as the excuse for the current round of anti-Rohigniya bloodletting.

What is happening in Myanmar today is not dissimilar to what happened in Sri Lanka, post-Black July. Extremists on either side are serving each other’s interests. The mass-killings and expulsion of Rohigniyas would provide more fodder to the ARSA, both in terms of money and recruits. There is a real danger of unemployed IS fighters on the lookout for a new cause and a new battlefront making their way to Myanmar. This in turn will strengthen Buddhist extremists and their project of ethnic-cleansing. As the cycle of violence spins ever faster, the military will use it to regain what power they lost due to democracy’s advent. Aung San Suu Kyi failed to do the right thing because she wanted to hang on to power. But by failing to do the right thing, she had paved the way to her eventual ejection from power.

For all its faults – and the faults are many – the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government does not support blood-and-faith nationalism, yet. But it remains vulnerable to extremis-winds, especially if the economic conditions of ordinary people fail to improve fast. Opposition to a new constitution and anti-federalism seem to be the keystones of the Gotabhaya-led movement to restore Rajapaksa-power, for now. But come election time, the Rajapaksas are likely to bring out other slogans and other bogies, especially rehashed narratives about renewed Tiger threats and new Jihadist threats. If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration fails to improve its performance in the coming months, the incendiary rhetoric of blood-and-faith nationalism might find too many receptive ears in Sri Lanka, as it did in Myanmar.

[i]http://www.gossiplankanews.com/2017/09/mahinda-sil-redi.html#more

[ii] ibid

[iii] http://www.bbc.com/sinhala/news/story/2005/09/050928_helping_hambantota.shtml

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/141026/sunday-times-2/helping-hambantota-lawyers-acquiesced-when-ex-cj-perverted-justice-124425.html

[iv] https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/290-buddhism-and-state-power-myanmar

[v]Danda Vagga (The Rod of Punishment) – Dhamma Pada

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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