By Emil van der Poorten –
I have, for a fairly long time, been aware that there seems an almost peculiarly Sri Lankan predilection to identify symptoms as problems and vice versa, with those doing so often claiming that one is indistinguishable from the other in a manner similar to the hoary old “chicken and egg” business.
However, that sleight of hand or, more accurately, sloth needs to be punctured and reality faced because not to do so is to skew any attempt to identify, understand and deal with our current Sri Lankan predicament, a predicament that EVERYONE residing in this country must face, as much as some might want to turn a Nelsonian eye on it, because not to do so, is to ask for trouble with a capital “T.”
Let me begin at the end, so to speak, with a few incidents that have been front and centre recently.
The stoning of the court(s) in Mannar has, at long last, provoked a response from our legal eagles who have “downed tools” in protest at thugs and bullies seeking to serve notice on the law courts that they are expected to do their (the thugs’ and bullies’) bidding rather than fulfill the requirements of the statute book. The behaviour of the goondas has been described as the problem with the Minister who gave them specific direction being identified as primus inter pares in the matter of guilt. What is missing from this evaluation is the fact that this behaviour, dramatic as it might be, is NOT the problem but rather a symptom of a much larger problem: a government that has displayed an arrogance in the matter of violent and unlawful behaviour that has, in fact, set the tone and pattern for specific incidents such as this. I would put the killing of the protester in the Katunayake Industrial Estate and the subsequent shooting of a fisherman protesting the huge increase in the price of kerosene, the primary input in his attempts to reach the fish which constitute his livelihood, as incidents which set the tone of acceptability for the “mere” stoning of a law-courts building! The difference in response to state-generated violence in the three incidents was the fact that lawyers and judges belong to the professional middle class whereas fishermen and industrial workers are part of a proletariat – perhaps considered “lumpen” – and which, with the manifest blessings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, our current monarchy feels free to treat as disposable. Let me be very clear however that I am not, in any way, critical of the actions of our legal fraternity. In fact, I cannot heap great enough praise on them for their principled and courageous action, particularly given the threatening and violent response of this government to anything resembling disagreement and dissent. If my theory needs confirmation of any kind, it comes from the head of state responding to this monumental disgrace, not by condemning an attack, literally, on the courts of law but by invoking what J.R. Jayewardene countenanced when judges’ homes were stoned because they made determinations not to his liking. I have before referred to the “they did it first” defence and excuse that this government consistently trots out when found with its pants down and this constitutes yet another prime example of its recourse to that very tired “justification” of totally unacceptable behavior.
Before this were two murders where the state chose to “begin at the end,” so to speak. In the Tangalle killing of a totally inoffensive tourist and the alleged rape of his girlfriend, after a great deal of foot-dragging and obvious attempts to conceal the connections of the alleged killer(s) to people of power and influence, an accused was apprehended and is, by all accounts, in rather loose “custody” pending what will be the charade of a criminal trial. Here again, the fact that the brazen – to put it very mildly, indeed – conduct of a gang of armed and drunken lower-level politicians appears to have been the centre of the media’s attention, neglecting to place any real emphasis on the fact that the murderous rampage of this bunch was only made possible by an impunity actively encouraged by – surprise of surprises! – those with ultimate responsibility for the public’s safety and well-being. The problem was the impunity that reigns over Sri Lanka and those who are patrons of it, not, as reprehensible as they might be, some street level murderers.
The shooting of the JVP supporters who had done nothing to provoke any kind of violence, the facts of which government functionaries such as the now-notorious Mr. Hulugalle sought to cover up with blatantly untrue accusations of internecine conflict in the ranks of that political formation provided proof, if proof were ever needed, of yet another instance of the deliberate falsification of fact by the Media Centre for National Security. The problem is not – as totally unacceptable as that reality is – of some Julampitiya Amare going around shooting the governing party’s opponents, it is that behaviour of that kind is actively encouraged by an arm of the government through its attempts to conceal violent and criminal behaviour with blatantly false media releases carrying the government’s seal of approval.
We have, on a far less grievous level, had the abomination of “fixed” rugby games where the governing body has been reduced to suspending a national referee for the rest of the season. It is common knowledge in rugby circles who ordered the manner in which that particular game was to be “called” and the ultimate purpose of that whole pattern of behavior throughout the rugby season – dislodging the Kandy Sports Club from its decade-long dominance of Sri Lankan rugby and replacing it with an armed services team whose identity every rugby fan is aware of! But the writ of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union did not extend into that rarefied level of the game’s operation. After all, one does not bite the hand that feeds one! However, even the Nawalapitya fiasco only emerged in the light of day because the aggrieved team was the Army. In years past, when the Kandy spectators were assaulted by uniformed goons brought in by the bus load by participating services teams, an assault rifle discharged by a services player during a game and on the field of play, and blatant cheating at the 2011 Clifford Cup final, no punitive action whatsoever was taken, not even when Navy goons invaded the Kandy Sports Club dressing room after the Final, roughed up Kandy supporters, including ladies, and beat up a player. And let’s add the footnote that this match was refereed by the President of the Referees Association, the President of Sri Lanka was present to observe his sons playing for the Navy and the President of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union was not only present but ensured that anybody who would care to observe the fact saw him supporting the President’s sons’ rugger team most vociferously! One heard nary a “peep” from either the media or the “governing” body for that sport headed by an Air Force Commander seemingly based in the Knuckles but actively supporting the “right” team throughout the year! If nothing else, that constituted a new definition of “an officer and a gentleman!”
Let’s not beat about the bush. The over-arching fact is that every one of these problems begins from a status quo that gives legality to “governance” where EVERYTHING from a rugby game to a Presidential election is determined, not by the application of constitutionally adopted statutes but by the whims and fancies of those whom I hardly need name. This reality makes it even more important that one differentiates between problem and symptom, even though that exercise could well be one fraught with frustration, not to mention danger!