By Emil van der Poorten –
Being afforded the luxury of indulging an ambition dating back to my teen years to enter journalism, I began to write for publication in a variety of Sri Lankan journals a couple of years after my return to the land of my birth in 2006.
The first newspaper to indulge my ambitions as a journalist was the Sunday English Lakbimanews. That exercise ceased after about three or four columns were published when it was obvious that I was not about to be paid for my efforts, something guaranteed when the relationship began!
Then it was material being published, sometimes pseudonymously, in the Sunday Times, the Sunday Island, Montage magazine and, finally, the Sunday Leader. The Sunday Times, I now believe, because of a relationship with the Rajapakse Regime similar to that between that Regime and Ranil Wickremesinghe, gradually tapered off my “Haris Tumpane” column. Where, initially at least, I accepted the non-publication of my weekly writing as being due to the exigencies of advertising demands etc., I was ultimately forced into the recognition that this was driven by a need to ensure a particular editorial “line” vis-à-vis the government which my writing was not in consonance with. This was confirmed when, after it seemed that “advertising pressures” had eased and there was room for a return of my “Tales from the Backwoods,” I was told (via the “grapevine”) that “We can’t touch you with a barge-pole!” By then this hardly surprised me, coming from a newspaper which would not publish anything contradictory to what their company lawyer had to say in his journalistic contributions to its pages!
For the past three and a half years, on the invitation of the woman who had taken Lasantha Wickrematunga’s place on his assassination, I have been a columnist, with the “Renaissance Man” by-line, in The Sunday Leader and, during that time, despite a few hiccups have enjoyed the exercise! Recently, subsequent to Asanga Seneviratne buying a 70%+ controlling interest in the paper, Frederica Jansz was fired for allegedly refusing to toe a new editorial line at the newspaper that, until then, proclaimed on its front page that it was “Unbowed and Unafraid.” By a strange coincidence, my column disappeared from the paper on Sunday the 23rd of September, as well! I have since been assured that this was due to some kind of mix-up and that my column would continue to appear. That I am taking this assurance “under advisement” should not surprise anyone given the circumstances. Suffice it to say that, in spite of significant arrears of payment going back several months, I shall continue to supply copy to The Sunday Leader until and unless there is ever an attempt to gag me or censor my material to fulfill someone else’s political agenda.
Incidentally, for the benefit of the current Editor-in-chief of a newspaper owned by the Rajapaksa Family who took very serious exception to the use of the post-mediaeval title, “Renaissance Man,” and subjected me to several columns worth of attack in yet another paper edited by one of his buddies and fellow Rajapaksa acolytes, the choice of that byline was not mine. Frederica Jansz made that choice of title unilaterally! However, looking back on my three-score-and-ten-plus years on God’s green earth, I probably qualify for at least “mini-Renaissance Man” status by virtue of what I’ve done for employment and enjoyment in one lifetime. After all, driving a sports car in competition and captaining a rugby team in national competition in Sri Lanka; managing Federal, Provincial and Territorial election campaigns in the second largest country in the world; working hands-on in community development with aboriginal people in the far north of Canada with responsibility for an area about the size of Sri Lanka; setting up business enterprises on Indian reserves for Indian Bands; having responsibility for recreational facilities for those with physical and mental challenges; performing a wide variety of tasks in the formulation, manufacture and distribution of feed for livestock of many descriptions; working “hands-on” with refugee and immigrant populations in urban circumstances; pioneering a livestock enterprise in Sri Lanka based on the use of sheep from Finland; being published in scientific journals in Sri Lanka and India without the benefit of anything resembling an education in science; establishing two ‘holiday homes’ on the East Coast of Sri Lanka in the nineteen-sixties, including the first A-Frame built in the country; and a few other little ‘adventures’ must amount to something in the matter of being at least a “jack of all trades,” if not a “Renaissance Man” don’t you think!?
Anyway, having my status as a columnist to The Sunday Leader put in doubt has certainly prompted me to look back on the years since my return to Sri Lanka after better than three decades away from the country of my birth.
What do I see?
I see a country that had begun the descent into dictatorship at the beginning of the seventh decade of the last century with a regime led by Sirimavo Dias Bandaranaike, ably assisted by Hector Kobbekaduwa, T. B. Ilangaratne and Felix Dias Bandaranaike and propped up by quasi-revolutionaries of Stalinist and Trotskyist persuasion in the persons of N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Pieter Keuneman. The process initiated by them and the example of instituting a new constitution as a means of legitimizing a dictatorial state was seized upon by J. R. Jayewardene in the late seventies to establish a full-blown constitutional dictatorship with a President wielding absolute authority up to but fortunately not including the ability to change the sex of his subjects, as he proudly boasted!
Mahinda Rajapaksa, in what has basically been gross overkill, has removed anything resembling a fig leaf of respectability in the matter of democratic practice and the separation of powers among the judiciary, the executive and the legislative elements of government that JRJ left to him. The current reality is a bare-knuckled version of dictatorship with those favoured by The Regime able to do anything including committing capital crimes without the usual legal consequences that prevail in orthodox democracies. A measure of this slide into anarchy is the emergence of something that even Prabakharan’s fascist hordes didn’t do in this country: the rape and murder of tourists.
Anything resembling the Rule of Law has ceased to exist in the land from which the word “Serendipity” was derived. Thanks to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the Judiciary is now subservient to the Executive whenever the latter chooses to exert the heel of its jackboot.
The travesty of justice that now prevails in Sri Lanka is without precedent in the history of this land, with the gloves being off even in the matter of blatant threats to the judiciary. The Judicial Services Commission in a recent desperate defensive move refused to accede to an order to meet with the President who desired to review its conduct. Let there be no mistake, the status quo in this regard more than holds a candle to an era in which rocks were thrown at the residences of the most senior judges in the country!
As far as graft and corruption is concerned we appear to have reached even lower depths than some of the Asian, Central American and African third world countries with the proverbial wisdom being that about forty cents of every rupee is not applied to the purpose for which it was intended. The implications of this state of affairs when something like 80% of the budget is controlled by three siblings of one family are only too obvious.
In the time-honoured tradition of not only controlling but being seen to control the more inconsequential activities in the country, even the national rugby team has as its captain one of the Presidential progeny. I have, in the past quoted the late contrarian, Christopher Hitchens, in this regard and will repeat myself:
“The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not its regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not …”
This is an example of a carefully-crafted strategy to ensure that the exercise of unbridled power is seen to extend into even the most inconsequential nooks and crannies of a nation’s operation. As that old saying has it, “Nothing is sacred.” The message is being clearly broadcast to a population devastated by thirty years of unrelenting civil war that has brutalized virtually all of it with many of its citizens not having known any other reality.
A senior member of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Cabinet with whom I once shared membership on our school’s debating team said I came across as an “angry man” in the material that I was writing. He appeared surprised by my choler! Suffice it to say that if he had harked back to our youth and the ethical and moral standards we were brought up to respect and try to follow, he would not have been surprised one whit by my anger. In fact, he might well have shared my sense of outrage! However, politicians tend to have short memories in the matter of principle and ethical behavior when it comes to a choice of adhering to those precepts or “advancing” themselves in one way or another, so I should not be surprised by his “surprise” I suppose!
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