Crime And Punishment, In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Terror does not evolve except towards a worse terror… Nowhere in the world has there been a party or a man with absolute power who did not use it absolutely”.
Camus (Resistance, Rebellion and Death)

( April 22, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) For the Tamil families of Dilithura, a small village of mostly estate workers in Elpitiya, Galle, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year was not to be an auspicious one.
The issue before us today is not regime change but preventing the further erosion of Lankan democracy. This means opposing the excesses of the Ruling Siblings and their military and civilian underlings, wherever they happen.

Their tragedy, which ended in burnt homes and looted possessions, began with a simple, everyday inconsequence: a young villager not calling a soldier on holiday, ‘sir’. The enraged soldier reportedly responded to this non-crime with disproportionate and extra-judicial punitive action. According to the ‘Ada Derana’ Tamil website, he assaulted the young man, as well as another Tamil youth who tried to mediate. Subsequently, “around 30 youths had gathered at the location, beaten up the two Tamil youths and set fire to seven houses, push cycles, motorcycles and three wheelers. They had also got away with money and jewellery…” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 16.4.2012). The villagers informed the police. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, the police detained two Tamil youths!

When seven Tamil families loose their homes and all their possessions because one Tamil boy did not call a soldier ‘sir’, does it not smack of collective punishment?
If an outrage of this order can happen in the South, in 2012, what could not have happened in the North, in the midst of a total war without witnesses?
If a soldier on leave can take the law into his own hands with such alacrity and impunity, in Galle, what cannot the tens of thousands of soldiers on duty do, in those villages beyond Omanthai, and beyond the reach of law?
The soldier’s actions would have been explicable if he believed, however mistakenly, that the Tamil youth was a Tiger. He did not. Military personnel suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) commit crimes, including homicide and suicide. The soldier’s assault on the Tamil youth could have been explained away as a result of (unacknowledged and untreated) PTSD, but not the subsequent orgy of looting and arson. The composite picture points to a crime of an entirely different order, a crime premised on and informed by the primordial identities of the perpetrators and the victims and the total imbalance of power between the two.
In the North, Sinhala soldiers rule; Tamils have only one right – the right to obey. Such a state of affairs is bound to habituate even the most junior soldier into being treated with grovelling obsequiousness by every Tamil. That mindset, born in the North, is permeating the South, affecting the manner in which the armed forces, as an institution, perceive and deal with Tamils, as a community. This does not mean that every serviceman will act as criminally as the soldier in Dilithura did; some will; many, due to an innate sense of decency or kindness or an inborn aversion to excess, will not. But all will have the capacity to do so, because the prevailing climate of permissiveness enables every soldier to become a mini-warlord towards any Tamil, if and when he wants.
The soldier’s beyond-the-pale acts make sense seen from this prism: he was a ‘Sinhala hero’, insulted by an ‘uppity Tamil’. And being a law-unto-themselves is a mindset most soldiers succumb to in a context of de facto or de jure occupation, anywhere in the world.
In the South the initial victims will be poor Tamils, such as the villagers of Dilithura, but eventually class/social barriers will be overcome, since even the richest Tamil is ultimately powerless in a Sinhala supremacist Sri Lanka. The only ones immune will be the Tamil acolytes of the Rajapaksas, so long as they are in favour.
The Dilithura incident opens a window for us to see the life without dignity, the life of subjection which is the (actual or potential) lot of Tamils, post-war. Many of us in the South are familiar with the major and minor irritants caused by politicians who insist on being treated as a group of super beings with rights denied to the rest of us. Imagine the plight of Tamils in the North, and increasingly elsewhere, compelled to bow and scrape before every uniform – even in absentia – because such demeaning subservience is a necessary precondition for a modicum of safety (albeit of the most precarious sort, since it is not based on rights) for themselves and their families. For most Tamils such treatment is obviously a fact of life, the bitter reality they have to live day by day, with no end in sight.
Abuse and impunity are the antitheses of peace and reconciliation. Outrages such as the Dilithura incident demonstrate to Lankan Tamils that they are devoid of rights and unprotected by law; and that every Tamil can be punished for the deeds of any Tamil. This is not a path to peace but to renewed conflict.
Fighting the Myth of Rajapaksa Right to Rule
In a normal lawful democracy, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would be nothing more than a senior bureaucrat. As the President’s brother he may enjoy some privileges but that biological fact would not entitle him to any extra rights. But in the Rajapaksa security state, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the de jure bureaucrat is the de facto deputy king (yuva-raja)
Parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella has taken the long overdue step of challenging this extra-legal status quo: “The Secretary of Defence is a public servant and therefore is much lower in the protocol ladder. He has no right to question or challenge a member of parliament… It’s a violation of the establishment code and a breach of privilege of an MP and I will raise this issue in parliament” (Daily Mirror – 16.4.2012).
The Rajapaksa right to rule is a foundational myth of the current political, socio-economic and moral order. According to this narrative, the Rajapaksas should rule Sri Lanka because they are the only ones capable of defending Sri Lanka. Fear is an essential condition in compelling an entire society to accede to this anti-democratic abomination and accept that not only the President but also his brothers should have the inalienable right to wield absolute power and be above the law. But to fortify and perpetuate that servile mindset, a belief must be created which regards such unjust and illegal excesses as national security-necessities.
That is the purpose of the Rajapaksa Fairy Tales, featuring the ‘Undead Tiger’, the ‘Untrustworthy Tamil’, the ‘Unpatriotic Opposition’ and the ‘Hostile World’. So Tamils are being forced into submission, as a condition of survival. Sinhalese are being brainwashed and terrified into abnegating their democratic rights as free citizens in return for Rajapaksa protection from imaginary evils.
The issue before us today is not regime change but preventing the further erosion of Lankan democracy. This means opposing the excesses of the Ruling Siblings and their military and civilian underlings, wherever they happen. Parliamentarian Kiriella’s challenge to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and the opposition’s demand for a debate on abductions are welcome ripples in a sea of submissive silence. Hopefully during that debate someone will ask how the Rajapaksa brothers obtained the release of Sagara Senaratne; and why the ‘white-vanners’ obeyed them, pronto.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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