By Rajan Philips –
Channel 4 has resurrected Easter and divided the political waters. Like Moses leading the Israelites through the divided waters of the Red Sea, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is leading his faithful through the divided political waters of the country. Without taking a position on the Channe 4 documentary, the Cardinal has hit the nail on the head by calling for a “free, impartial, just, transparent and broad based investigation” into Channel 4 revelations by “an independent international investigation team”. At the same time, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has confirmed his willingness “to forgive the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks if they accept responsibility and repent,” emulating the Truth and Reconciliation experience in South Africa.
Forgiving is core to transitional justice, just as remembering and commemorating is an essential part of healing for the victims of injustice. Covering up crimes, on the other hand, is to perpetuate injustice and to reward those who wrong at the expense of those who have been wronged. In instances of political crimes, grievously wronged. While enough is being said about the veracity, or otherwise, of the Channel 4 Dispatches, the real consequence of Channel 4 goes beyond connecting the dots leading up to 2019 Easter Sunday.
What has been brought into sudden relief is the whole web of crimes from the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge to the massacres of Easter Sunday. You can extend the web before and after – to the murder of Kumar Ponnambalam literally at the turn of the millennium, to the killing of Dinesh Shaffter less than a year ago. On the former, a government lawyer actually said in court that the case file had gone missing. On the latter, the police are still trying to officially figure out how Mr. Shaffter died, even though everyone who knows about the case knows how he died. In between lies a whole web of unsolved crimes, scot-free criminals, and well-protected masterminds. Channel 4 has ripped open a whole can of squirming worms. Closing the can seems to be finally becoming an impossible task.
Put another way, Channel 4 has provided a broad wraparound encompassing all the political crimes of this century, their perpetrators, and the state’s unwillingness to solve any of them. The state may never officially identify, indict or convict any of the perpetrators, but it cannot censor the public identification of the perpetrators or eliminate them from public suspicion. None of the ‘inquiries’ that have been conducted so far have been conclusive. Channel 4 reinforces the need for one or more of them.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa jumped the gun in rushing to his own defense with a silly statement under a sillier signature as the Seventh Executive President (who on earth will sign like this except the organic man). His still faithful loyalists came out to join him thinking that the tide had begun to turn. It has, but the other way around. Channel 4 skeptics and establishment minnows are being drowned out by calls for an international inquiry in one form or another. Even Maithripala Sirisena and Namal Rajapaksa are for it. Erstwhile (Mahinda) Rajapaksa loyalists are letting themselves off the leash and are going on a tear for Gota. There is even a new political explanation for the Easter bombings. It was not so much to win the presidential election as it was to secure the family nomination as a presidential candidate. It is turning out to be Gota vs. the Rest – of the family, that is, not necessarily the country.
In Geneva, Ambassador Himalee Arunatilaka (a career diplomat, finally displacing the guest artist that Gotabaya sent to UNHRC) is doing the thankless job of insisting that extensive and comprehensive investigations have been carried out by the government with the assistance of the Australian Federal Police, the FBI of the United States and INTERPOL. But she knows what all informed Sri Lankans and those listening to her in Geneva know. They know that nothing by way of the whole truth has come out of these investigations to conclusively indicate who knew and did what and when.
The Supreme Court ruling has become a convenient red herring for Gota apologists. The Court ruling was on a Fundamental Rights application against those in power for their dereliction of duty. It is not the last word on who conspired with whom to cause what happened on Easter Sunday. Nor does what is reported as 79 indictments so far answers the question whether there was mastermind pulling strings behind the bombings.
President Wickremesinghe is reported to have told his cabinet that the Channel 4 documentary does not concern the government and it would be up to the individuals concerned by it to decide to respond or not. That position did not last long, so he announced another Parliamentary Committee hearing, and to top it up with yet a different committee headed by a former Supreme Court Judge.
The Catholic Church has rejected it. What is coming out loud and clear is that the Channel 4 revelations deserve to be investigated, with credible international presence or observation. No one is buying the establishment line, which is also the Gota line, that there has been enough investigation and inquiry already. No one believes that the Easter attacks were the result of some spontaneous eruption of Islamic Fundamentalism. The concern goes beyond Easter, and includes all the political crimes before and after.
Political Violence and Political Crimes
Sri Lanka’s web of political crimes should not be viewed in isolation from the fields of killing that Sri Lanka suffered during the JVP insurrection and the LTTE ‘war’. Both spates of violence included numerous and inexcusable individual killings. Yet there are differences between political violence of the past and the political crimes that have been multiplying even after political violence was ended. The last decades of the 20th century were engulfed in political violence. The early decades of this century are being marred by political crimes.
The JVP is now reborn and is now recognized as an agent of hope within the political system – quite a world apart from its earlier role as an agent of disruption against the system. The LTTE violence is now history, but its legacy continues in the politics over reconciliation and its absence might be felt by some in the harassments of Tamils and Muslims in the North and East under cover of pseudo Archaeology. Even though political violence has ended, the culture of violence it created and the resources of violence it amassed have facilitated the emergence of political crimes and their continuation.
A characteristic of political violence, whether it was JVP or LTTE, was that it was not conducted in the interests of political families or for electoral gains of political families or organizations. I am not suggesting this characteristic is a redeeming feature of violence, or a justification for it. Only to contrast with the web of political crimes that has now become a fact of life, and which involves the interests of one or more political families. Some are more prominent at the national level; others rule the roost at the local levels without national notoriety.
While contrasting political violence and political crimes, it is also possible to see the 2019 Easter Sunday tragedies as a coming together of the two. Quite literally, the web of allegations has brought together those who were active in the political violence of the LTTE and those who were spearheading the violence of the state against the LTTE. The specific intersection of the Rajapaksa family and LTTE renegades started long before 2019 Easter Sunday and has been continuing since. The linkage between them that is now alleged by Channel 4 was quite definitively exposed by Amnesty International over what it called the “the collapse of Joseph Pararajasingham murder case.”
That was when S. Chandrakanthan (aka Plillayan) was acquitted along with four others in the 2005 assassination of TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham, who was killed while attending Christmas Mass at the Batticaloa Cathedral. Following the controversial acquittal, the Attorney General announced that he would be dropping the charges against the suspects. Mr. Chandrakanthan has since become an MP and is now a State Minister. He is not the only one enabled by the Rajapaksas to overcome murder conviction and enter parliament. Premlal Jayasekara from the Ratnapura District is another such beneficiary. And the two men represent not the cover up of crimes but the celebration of them by parliament itself, which was once “the supreme instrument of state power.”
What Channel 4 has unintentionally done is to disrupt the process of normalization of crimes, and the acquiescence of Sri Lankan society to get on with life while turning a blind eye to the perpetration of political crimes and their cover up. Those who rush to question the veracity of Channel 4 revelations, should also pause to reflect on the unanswered questions surrounding so many individual killings, everyone of them involving the politically powerful. The debate over Channel 4 has brought to surface the moral contradictions of Sri Lankan society. And the debate has taken a new turn.