11 August, 2022

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Impunity In Times Of Uncertainty

By Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingam Sritharan –

Can Currency be Protected where Life and Freedom are Savaged? Addressing Lanka’s Trust Deficit must go deeper than Economics

Summary

Sri Lanka’s current economic woes are of unprecedented severity and threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of Lankans. They are the root of the popular outrage that sent the President and his family scrambling for shelter from protesting citizenry. How surreal it must have felt, hunkered down at the Trincomalee Naval Base and looking for a way out of the country, as their ancestral home burned, and family statues toppled. This was a far cry from complete impunity and near royal treatment they enjoyed just months ago.

Economists lay the blame for the current crisis on a variety of poor decisions and irresponsible policies. The strengths of our institutions depend on whether our politics provides the social basis and harmony to sustain them. Our leaders paid lip service to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s legacy advancing universal suffrage, free education, and trade unions, social democracy, and education, while undermining his vision.

Speaking from the perspective of a resident of Sri Lanka’s North, the economic potential and intellectual life of the North has been stifled. Where are the erudite products of Jaffna’s educational system of the past, and where our vibrant culture? The dominance of Colombo in our lives is economically and intellectually stultifying. We need elbow room. Any settlement to the ethnic conflict will have to loosen the tight grip Colombo has on the entire country. We have a long way to go to gain social democracy. But reopening Jaffna to resume its natural traffic and commerce would be a great gain to life in this country. An arid North that produces largely emigrants is no boon to the country.

Financial mismanagement in our crisis is just the tipping point. It is what every Sri Lankan, regardless of ethnicity, background or previous experience of abuse can relate to. The principal purpose of government is to protect, foster and enhance human life. But we have a history of startling public crimes committed with impunity.

There is nothing so scandalous as the highest in our political life and defence services being complicit in uncontrolled greed and viciousness against their people. This is reflected in, for example, the prolonged cruelty in the 11 students’ case – which led to defenders of our seas becoming protected bandits who abducted for ransom and murdered young people from Colombo’s suburbs without consequences. In the face of this and other atrocities, such as the Bindunuwewa Massacre or the public killing of five students in Trincomalee, our law enforcement agencies and judiciary have shielded perpetrators, humming, hawing, and wringing their hands claiming that they could not find the evidence witnessed by hundreds. They have done the same for many thousands of other cases, some internationally notorious, others barely registering in the public consciousness.

An exploration of judicial history exposes Sri Lanka’s Impunity Club: Chief Justice Sarath Silva and Vice Admiral Sarath Weerasekera inaugurated Sri Lanka’s grim club of impunity in 2005 when they legitimised and then planted an illegal Buddha statue in Trincomalee, enraging communal tensions and spurring a series of atrocities with guaranteed impunity. The 2006 ACF massacre of 17 mostly Tamil aid workers in Muttur for which the same club was responsible, was covered up by Justice Udalagama and Counsel Yasantha Kodagoda assisting the Commission of Inquiry, working overtime to shred the good evidence, causing tremendous trauma to the victim families.

How did we get here? Starting with the Citizenship Acts, our law has ceased to be founded on principles, reason, and humanity. Article 29 (2) of our Independence Constitution made it unlawful for Parliament to pass legislation that discriminated against any community. But its protections were immediately ignored as Sri Lanka disenfranchised Tamil estate workers. It took until the 1964 judgment of O.L. de Kretser in the Colombo High Court to restore confidence in a common sense understanding of the law when he deemed the Sinhala Only Act passed in 1956 ultra vires because it gave advantage to one community which the other did not have, rendering it void. But the Supreme Court dodged de Kretser’s challenge and Sinhala Only was encrypted by a brute force majority into the 1972 Constitution.

The ascendancy of J.R. Jayewardene and his punitive communal violence of 1977 and his crushing of the 1980 General Strike left us with the beginnings of arbitrary law. And although aimed at suppressing the lowliest, the new trend that followed – disrespect for fundamental principles of justice – also affected the highest. Hardly any one of our assassinated leaders was accorded the minimal honour of a proper inquiry. Even their cases were indifferently disposed.

How much worse the situation has been when the victims were Tamil. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry’s July 2009 verdict exonerating the armed forces in the ACF case while criticizing the role of organizations in the inquiry, and its silence on the killing of the five students in Trincomalee were on the same lines as judicial remarks in the Bindunuwewa case implying that when Sinhalese kill perceived enemies of the race, however helpless and innocent, no one has any business to stand in judgment. That remains the reality among an influential section of the Judiciary.

Tamil Lives do not Matter; but worse for Sinhalese who let the side down: Not every Sinhalese joined the Impunity Club that was in evidence in the killing of five students in Trincomalee, but all were mindful that it could punish them. Witnesses vanished, experts changed their testimony, and those brave enough (or well-connected enough) to come forward did so at considerable risk.   At the same time members of the Impunity Club continue to thrive. Yasantha Kodagoda whose performance in the Commission of Inquiry was so abysmal is now a supreme court justice and is likely to become chief justice, like his predecessor and founding Impunity Club member Chief Justice Sarath Silva . Given the nature of Kodagoda’s training and performance in the ACF case, what could the minorities expect from him as a judge? 

And so, we come back to the central problem. If it is life and its quality that we want to enhance, what is then the urgency of protecting the Sri Lankan Rupee when Lankan life has been made so very cheap? We are happy to learn that in the current protest to send home the present leaders, questions about our bloody past have begun to be raised but until accountability is embraced in all spheres, our future remains bleak.

Impunity in times of uncertainty; Can Currency be Protected where Life and Freedom are Savaged? Addressing Lanka’s Trust Deficit must go deeper than Economics

This essay is dedicated to the late Ramasamy Shanmugaraj of Nuwara Eliya who amidst the plethora of unacknowledged crimes was a lone Tamil witness, who of his own volition resisted fear extracted from a minority, and provided the information to lay bare the ACF massacre whose perpetrators rule the roost until now by impoverishing the rest.

The humiliating exit of the strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa less than two years after he led his party to an astounding victory with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote in the August 2020 parliamentary elections shows political instability in Sri Lanka to be deeply endemic.

Sri Lanka’s current economic woes are of unprecedented severity and threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of Lankans. They are the root of the popular outrage that sent the President and his family scrambling for shelter from protesting citizenry. How surreal it must have felt, hunkered down at the Trincomalee Naval Base and looking for a way out of the country, as their ancestral home burned, and family statues toppled. This was a far cry from complete impunity and near royal treatment they enjoyed just months ago.

While the Rajapaksas have much to answer for, from alleged stolen assets to war crimes, the corruption and impunity that contributed to the current crisis had been enjoyed by Sri Lanka’s political elite for many decades before they took power.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pretended political adversaries former President Maithripala Sirisena and six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stand equally discredited. The main parties, essentially the UNP with SLFP, with new labels and factions, are jointly responsible for the country’s descent to impunity and bankruptcy. Sri Lanka cannot be put together again without a considerable reform, including substantial loosening of the country’s centralised power structure[1] as well as an honest accounting of its many crimes against its citizenry and a clear look at its social fracture lines.

Economists lay the blame for the current crisis on a variety of poor decisions and irresponsible policies. W.A. Wijewardene, a former central banker has faulted the Government for losing 5.5 billion USD in bids to protect the value of the Rupee. He accuses the Government of taking an unjustified gamble in the expectation of foreign remittances at the end of 2021 (The Island 15 Mar.2022). But when an ill-spent 5 billion dollars to protect the Rupee triggers a crisis of the current magnitude despite an annual GDP of 83 billion USD, a much more penetrating look at Sri Lanka’s economic and political reality is required.

Investment banker Jayamin Pelpola contends that a government running on deficits in both the current account and budget may get away, if it avoids a trust deficit, by convincing creditors that the debt level is sustainable. This involves an active Central Bank constantly reassuring international stakeholders (Jayamin Pelpola, Daily Mirror, 25 Apr.2022).

While addressing the trust deficit with international institutions is important in the short term, it is much more urgent for the government to address its trust deficit with the Sri Lankan people, and in particular the minorities, whose trauma from years of political violence and discrimination, combined with other uncertainties and imponderables like corruption which increases the debt burden, easily becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

For ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka, trust in the system – in law enforcement, the courts, the major political parties and the majority-dominated government has always been in short supply, and with good reason if we re-examine notorious examples of impunity from the recent past. Families have waited decades for justice for killings and enforced disappearances of loved ones, but the corrupted system is heavily stacked against them

The strengths of our institutions depend on whether our politics provides the social basis and harmony to sustain them. Our leaders paid lip service to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s legacy advancing universal suffrage, free education, and trade unions, social democracy, and education, while undermining his vision. We pride ourselves on our democratic system, but we have not been a true democracy since the Citizenship and Franchise Acts made serfs out of the most productive section of our working class. Respect for International Law enables Nordic countries to resolve their problems, social and diplomatic, peacefully while Sri Lanka time and again has tried to wriggle out of its obligations. We have hobbled ourselves with narrow nationality and ethnicity, fought over dubious histories, and we have bloodied ourselves.

Our people seek to migrate, often at substantial risk, rather than invest their efforts in Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka will not invest in them. To trust a country with your family’s safety or your hard-earned resources requires confidence in its systems. In the end this goes back to integrity in government, stability and protections that are enforceable. If the current crisis ends peacefully and an IMF agreement enables us to limp on, do we go back to the same state structures that bred discord and made us backward?

Speaking from the perspective of a resident of Sri Lanka’s North, the economic potential and intellectual life of the North has been stifled. Where are the erudite products of Jaffna’s educational system of the past, and where our vibrant culture? The dominance of Colombo in our lives is economically and intellectually stultifying. We need elbow room. Any settlement to the ethnic conflict will have to loosen the tight grip Colombo has on the entire country. We have a long way to go to gain social democracy. But reopening Jaffna to resume its natural traffic and commerce would be a great gain to life in this country. An arid North that produces largely emigrants is no boon to the country.

Impunity: Evidence of Our Systems in Collapse

Abduction and Murder by the Navy: Sri Lanka’s most politically patronised defence force, the Navy (the same force that recently shielded the Rajapaksa family from angry mobs), is heavily compromised. A series of Naval Commanders have been linked to the abduction for ransom and killing of at least eleven people (children and young adults) in 2008 and 2009, and efforts to cover up the truth about those atrocities. Commander Wijegunaratne, the last Naval officer named in the case, helped leading suspect naval intelligence officer Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi flee the country. President Sirisena rewarded him by making him Chief of Defence Staff upon his retirement in 2017. By contrast, his successor as commander, Travis Sinniah (who is Tamil), and whose testimony to the CID in 2009 helped to blow open the scandal, exposing the Navy’s role in the abduction for ransom and murder of youth of affluent Colombo families, was denied the customary extension and retired by Sirisena after two months as commander (18 Aug 2017 – 26 Oct 2017). Sinniah had also opposed the purchase of an old Russian war ship for 80 million USD more than what it was worth (Mohamed Fazl, Colombo Telegraph, 22 Dec.2017). The succeeding Gotabaya government, harassed, arrested and put out to grass the two police officers responsible for bringing the scandals to light. Wijegunaratne was released on bail and has not been tried.

Negligence and Complicity in the Easter Bombings: The government of former president Sirisena and its defence advisors are also guilty of gross negligence in their handling of investigations into the series of bombings that targeted church goers and hotel guests on Easter Sunday 2019, killing hundreds, pointing strongly to their possible complicity. Removing the two effective police officers involved in investigating the bombings demonstrates their patent lack of seriousness in establishing the truth (Rajan Hoole, Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy, 2019).

These examples should tell us where the prevailing trust deficit comes from. There is nothing so scandalous as the highest in our political life and defence services being complicit in the uncontrolled greed, reflected in prolonged cruelty in the 11 students’ case – which led to defenders of our seas becoming protected bandits in Colombo’s suburbs.

Sri Lanka’s Impunity Club: Most culpable in today’s grim predicament is the club of impunity inaugurated in 2005 by Chief Justice Sarath Silva and Vice Admiral Sarath Weerasekera when they legitimised and planted an illegal Buddha statue in Trincomalee, which spurred a series of atrocities with guaranteed impunity.

The 2006 ACF massacre of 17 mostly Tamil aid workers in Muttur for which the same club was responsible was covered up by Justice Udalagama and Counsel Yasantha Kodagoda assisting the Commission of Inquiry, working overtime to shred the good evidence, causing tremendous trauma to the victim families.

Lt. Commander Ranasinghe being brought into the initial stages of the planned ACF murders and given the licence for impunity, no doubt provided inspiration for the Navy’s abduction for ransom scandal that followed. Would Justice Kodagoda, as he is today, ever find the nerve to sentence Senior DIG Kapila Jayasekera, the evidence against whose grave misdeeds he helped to subvert? Doubtful.

Given this huge trust deficit in cases of mass murders unpunished, who in authority is left to protect the poor man’s Sri Lankan Rupee? Corruption, both that irritates and ruins, are founded on human rights abuses as instanced in the MIG fighter aircraft purchase scandal and the Navy’s abduction for ransom scandal. The first added several millions of USD to our debt burden along with the murder of the journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, while the second resulted in ten million Rupees loss to individuals beside their loved ones.

Financial mismanagement in our crisis is just the tipping point. It is what every Sri Lankan, regardless of ethnicity, background or previous experience of abuse can relate to. The principal purpose of government is to protect, foster and enhance human life. But we have a history of startling public crimes. In the face of atrocities such as the Bindunuwewa Massacre or the public killing of five students in Trincomalee, our law enforcement agencies and judiciary hummed, hawed and wrung their hands claiming that they could not find the evidence witnessed by hundreds. They have done the same for many thousands of other cases, some internationally notorious, others barely registering in the public consciousness.

One may ask: If our accounting systems dismiss the loss of human life as so meagre, who could credibly account for vanishing gold and dollars from the treasury? How could any lender trust a country where the judiciary is so notably fickle or partisan, if not actually corrupt? If we want to function as a nation at all, and especially if we need international support to help us through times of crisis, we must be able to demonstrate respect for the rule of law. At present, that is impossible.

Below we sketch the issue looking at the history of events the country has allowed to fester.

 [1] Introduced by the Colebrooke – Cameron Reforms of 1833 followed by coffee and then tea plantations in the central hills, the production of which by labour imported from India formed the centre of the export economy. In turn Colombo became the hub of commercial activity. This is reflected in the decline of the once thriving ports in the North and Galle in the South, and the rail network by which the British reinforced central control.

*To be continued….

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

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    • 5
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      TUCO Eagle Eye

      Let’s start at the very beginning
      A very good place to start
      When you read, you begin with A-B-C

  • 7
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    A very good article. However, we cannot expect that Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalism and the Sinhala ruling regime would allow ordinray Sinhalese to understand how they were cheated with racism and Buddhist Fundamentalism. Unfortunately, the so called educated Sinhalese professional are with the same mentality. For example, the current President took a revenge by using Sinhalese armed forces to attack Sinhalese youths for nothing other than the burning of his own house even without finding the truth who burnt his house. There were hundreds of houses and properties burnt in Colombo during the recent so called riots (?) against Muslims and in 1983 so called riots against Tamils(?) , the military was not used against those who burnt.
    We all can remember that Lasantha was a Sinhalese journalist closely worked with Mahinda Rajapaksa as a human rights activist later exposed a corruption was murdered in a day light in front of a miltary check point. He was accused as an LTTE supporter by Rajapaksas. Even Ranil UNP government did not want to find the truth and murderers of this murder.

  • 5
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    Least said the better, about Sorry Lanka’s “Low and odor”. Finally SB are now getting the taste of it. Along with bankruptcy, corrupt govt and broken system, reflects on a nation’s failure.

  • 4
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    Isn’t it funny to see Ranil/Dinesh duo, telling the starving nation “we are here to preserve and save LOW and ODOR”. The very next day day Ranil’s name is taken off from Easter inquiry because, now it’s his turn to use “get out of jail” free card. Rajapaksas ,MS and RW , are making a mockery of a broken system (Easter inquiry). Haven’t heard a word on Mahinda’s involvement in organizing violence against protesters.

  • 3
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    A Clear exposition of the DEEP STATE that is Srilanka. Even going back to the turn of Independence. The crisis that we have in the country is just not the economy.
    It is the Impunity that went hand in hand with Government and its institutions.

    The Impunity Club was formally inaugurated after Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa captured the reigns of Power in 2005. It was there even earlier though comparatively dormant.
    Its Patron was ex:CJ. Sarath.N.Silva. The man who ran away with another mans wife while he was a member of the Judiciary. See Victor Ivans book- An unfinished struggle 2007.
    As the months and years rolled by membership swelled with the Armed forces too joining. There was no membership fees so anyone who was a somebody fell over each other to taste the forbidden fruit. As this essay has recorded members of the Judiciary were also leading lights of the Impunity club. So much so Impunity is an entrenched feature in the day to day life of Srilanka.

    Dismantling this would be more daunting than sorting out the Economy.
    Systemic change is a way out ……………..Lets hope the Aragalaya will lead the way………..

  • 1
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    Thanks, Dr Rajan Hoole.
    .
    I’ve read all this, and I know that all that you have said is justified. I can’t right now think of a suitable response, but I will try to work out what I feel can be done – there will be nothing profound that I can say, but at least let me state that I know that all these are facts that have to be faced up to.

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    It is high time the Sri Lankan leguslators take respecting humanrights seriously and protect the rights of all its Citizenship.

    Especially the rights of those who are under arrest should be protected.

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    Have no doubt whatever that, over-all, what Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingam Sritharan say here is absolutely spot on.
    .
    But what useful comment can I make on this article, and the other parts which are to follow, given that I am one of many “Sinhala_Men” and “Sinhala_Women” who claim never to have discriminated against Tamils, although there was one Tamil who referred to a double-sided sheet of paper that I had distributed and told the HQI, Bandarawela Police, that it was designed to cause racial unrest. Such things also sometimes happen! If you want to know all the details of that incident, please ask me right here! If you don’t ask, I’ll be accused of slander! This man was a quisling who pretends to be pious.
    .
    Much more light-hearted is this observation about Travis Sinniah (whom I have never met) and his wife whom I knew very well when she was Miss Thiruni Ramanathan. It so happens that although both had Tamil fathers, they had Sinhalese mothers – I knew the latter’s mother reasonably well – Mrs Lilani Ramanthan (I’m sorry I don’t know her maiden name).

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    I mean…..no wonder the Tamils want to secede ( always wanted to secede) from the Sinhala Sri Lanka – they always instinctly knew that fellow Sinhalese lack the brains to run a normal country. Either let them secede, I say, or give the Motherland to the Tamils to run! They’d do a noble job of running it for the Sinhala Masses.

    Just look at what Ranil is up to now…..(didn’t I tell you before). Fellow has finally got his itchy fingers on the Rajapaksa alternate global network deal, and is working big time with Russia to get us free fuel. Big Sinhala plan : To play one great power against the other and collect the droppings. What an immeasurable risk!

    Little or no other plan otherwise, to boost up the brain and brawn power of the workforce of the country. The Eilte will become even richer, and the workforce who don’t migrate, work as slaves to maintain the parlour parties of people like Ranil who has all our national artifacts in his grand hall.

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    The authors, the Ramanathan couple, and Roshan Rajadurai who has much to do rescuing our tea plantations from Gota’s ravages, just happen to be normal, decent human beings. I aspire to be that, but then there is that quisling who may claim otherwise!
    .
    I don’t think that either of the Ramanathans knows much Tamil; it’s difficult to say, since I know absolutely no Tamil. My first language is Sinhalese, and I speak it fluently, since I am a villager; however, I’ve taught English all my life, and the result is that I’m not now really literate in Sinhala. This is almost inevitable, but we like to pretend otherwise.
    .
    I have just noticed that a comment that I made here:
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-janus-moment/
    .
    has triggered a great deal of interesting discussion, and I must hurry there, because it for those Sinhala racists who challenge the veracity of what I say. However, before I go there let me state that our racist governments usually love to have a few guys with Tamil names to claim that Tamils actually have equal rights in this haven for apartheid.

  • 1
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    RH & KS
    Thanks for bringing up all the issues/problems associated with the Racist Sinhala Buddhist Majority rule ever since Independence.
    It’s important to Stress that Majoritarianism is NOT democracy.
    None of the Sinhala leaders of different political parties will acknowledge your articles. What we currently need an ALL party Government consisting of individuals who are clean, honest, capable non partisan. They should take over the RULE asap

  • 2
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    Constitutional gimmicks started with S29(1). Graduated to amendments galore, receive scant respect being intended to manipulate only. Its time for to breakaway with a break……..how Zat ?
    Jumping professori now remembers Legal and HR issues seriously, like well bred Collegiate Oxonian after pub crawling blackout.
    Why not also be a Patriot and tell British Ambassador to just give money only and leave this lecturing to you.
    After all we need money always..……fix match and now allow Thomian to enter from legitimate pavilion side !

  • 2
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    PS —-Im reffering to th acrobatic Pandura professori and not to you Dr Hoole.

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