President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s address to the nation on Sri Lanka’s 65th Independence Day this week was remarkable, not for its tired refrains of national sovereignty which are a mockery when the State itself primarily oppresses the people, but for the utter insensitivity of his administration to the paramount concerns of the Sri Lankan citizenry.
Actual state of religious tension
The address was made from Trincomalee which, given its multi-ethnic character, should have been the ideal platform for President Rajapaksa to mark a departure from the past and note a new way forward. Instead, only empty presidential platitudes were issued in regard to ensuring the equal rights of all communities in the country. More seriously, the President’s address was characterized by grave misrepresentations of events in order to justify the government’s perpetual bogey-man of the LTTE. A particular example was his comment in passing that ‘the Buddha statue at Trincomalee was protected with barbed wire fencing around it. There was no peace or freedom even for the sacred statue.’
Let us look at a far different version of the controversy in regard to this statute in a well researched report of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) ‘From Welikade to Mutur and Pottuvil: A Generation of Moral Denudation and the Rise of Heroes with Feet of Clay,’ Special Report, No. 25, 2007. Incidentally the meticulously detailed UTHR reports have been consistently relied upon by the Government itself due to their stringent and steadfast condemnation of the LTTE. These activist university teachers were among the few possessing the courage and the determination to oppose the LTTE at the height of its de facto authority in the East. The UTHR report used the Trincomalee statue incident to highlight ominous warning signals in regard to the quickening politicization of the judiciary. Yet these were signs that we consciously ignored in a calamitous process that ultimately led to the political impeachment of the country’s 43rd Chief Justice who was literally hounded out of office this year with the state of Sri Lanka’s judiciary now attracting national and international concern.
Relevance of the incident to the legal system
As the UTHR report relates, issues regarding this statue first arose when a magisterial order was delivered in Trincomalee ordering the removal of unauthorised religious structures, including a Buddha statute as well as four Kovils. Advice of the then Attorney General (AG), the late Mr K.C. Kamalasabayson had been sought and action had been filed on this basis. This move was however opposed by a Buddhist priest who went before the Supreme Court alleging that the magisterial order was issued “on the advice of the AG, Mr. Kamalasabayson, who is a Hindu and a Tamil, and who also was a former resident of Trincomalee.”
The UTHR pointed out that this petition “amounted to a personal attack on the AG citing his minority affiliation, when in fact he was carrying out a task assigned by the Government.” As such, the Supreme Court might simply have refused leave to proceed. Instead, former Chief Justice Sarath Silva advised the AG to withdraw the case filed in the lower court in return for the Buddhist priest withdrawing his petition. The UTHR remarked aptly, ‘the AG, who struck observers as having been shaken, gave in. The exchange was done on 18th July 2005. Legal sources read this as the AG being arm-twisted with the threat of giving the petitioner leave to proceed. Then the AG is likely to have been left isolated with the hounds baying for his blood.’
Government inactivity in regard to religious extremism
This fairly complicated history behind the controversy regarding this statue as related by the UTHR is directly at odds with the superficially simplistic reference by President Rajapaksa during his Independence Day address. This particularly relevant instance is symptomatic of the manner in which quite deliberate misrepresentation of language and facts by ruling politicians illustrates the dangerous courting of religious and racial extremism to serve political agendas.
This pending conflagration of religions and ethnicities in this small country, if allowed to run in its destructive course, has the potential to make the three decade old conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan State pale into relative insignificance. The emergence of the Bodhu Bala Sena is just one manifestation of this growing phenomenon. Instead of the President summoning such extremist groups to Temple Trees and giving them prominence, what is needed is for the law to be activated sternly against incitement of racial or religious hatred by extremists of whatever colour, Sinhala, Buddhist and Tamil. But this is what the Government, quite consciously, chooses not to do. Its subordination of the judiciary and courts of law are necessarily part of this grand scheme. And therein lies the seeds of even a greater destruction of our society than what we have seen so far. Certainly these tensions are not limited one community alone as a strongly worded letter of the Roman Catholic Archbishop to the Government regarding attacks on Catholics recently, indicates.
Irrelevance of the LLRC
The Government’s appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was supposedly a step towards reconciliation of communities. Yet, as cynics predicted all along, this has been a predictable eye wash. The debunking of the LLRC recommendation to delink the Ministry of Defence from the Department of the Police, by a board of army officers appointed by the Army Commander proves this very well.
The LLRC had strongly recommended this delinking, stating that the Department of the Police should be a civilian institution. The Army, quite naturally, disagreed. With this, the proverbial kiss of death was administered to the LLRC report notwithstanding ambitious Action Plans that are not worth the paper that they are written on. The recent approving of an extended detention period is also part of this same scheme that transforms Sri Lanka into a militaristic dictatorship. We will see its deleterious consequential results even more strongly very soon.
Sri Lanka needs a miracle
As local government politicians continue to gang rape children with impunity, as women are assaulted and raped in increasing numbers each day, as monks are killed as a result of land disputes, the status of law and order in Sri Lanka will become life threatening to each and every one of us.
Constitutional reforms proposed by a government intent only on the aggrandizement of more power are a joke. Notably the main opposition United National Party, (at least where its leadership is concerned) also has little commitment to the abolition of the Executive Presidency. In the face of continuing naked oppression therefore and barring a miracle, Sri Lankans can only lament at the plight of our once precious land.