By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people.” – Charlie Chaplin (The Dictator)
There is a particularly pithy Sinhala aphorism which, in inadequate translation, can be rendered as, ‘If both the fence and the bund eats the paddy, to whom do we tell our plight?’[i] In its original, it is an evocative expression of the tragic and despairing dilemma that is created when protectors turn abusers.
That dilemma is becoming increasingly familiar to Lankans, from North to South. In the absence of an independent judiciary, a non-partisan police and a free media, what is the recourse available to the ordinary and the powerless? To whom do we, the people, turn if the very instruments of justice turn unjust?
Under Rajapaksa rule, abuse, injustice and impunity are not just Tamil (or Muslim) problems; they are also Sinhala-Buddhist problems. The killers of young Roshain Chanaka, the FTZ worker shot-dead during a peaceful protest against the kelptocratic pension scheme the Rajapaksas tried to impose on private sector employees, will escape justice as will the decorated ‘war-heroes’ who murdered three unarmed demonstrators in Weliweriya.
The sole (thus far) exception to this general law of impunity exposes one of the few really-existing impediments to abusive power in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka – not the constitution, parliament or judiciary, not morality or religion, but persistent and well-targeted international pressure. Rajapaksa-acolyte and Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha Chairman Sampath Chandrapushpa is being prosecuted for the murder of Khuram Shaikh for the same reason that the regime has refrained from inflicting on the 13th Amendment the same pulverising blow it dealt to the 17th Amendment – the presence of a powerful non-national defender. Khuram Shaikh, unlike the Northern Tamils or the Southern Sinhalese, was a non-Lankan; that and the unremitting public campaign for justice waged by his British family and the MP of his home-constituency are the only reasons Mr. Chandrapushpa is behind bars (while the likes of Duminda Silva strut about in fearless freedom).
Sans unceasing international pressure, no Lankan victimised by the Rajapaksas can expect any justice, as the war-winning army commander and the country’s topmost judge found out the hard way.
Gen. Sarath Fonseka masterminded the ‘Humanitarian Operation’ and approved/tolerated the illegal incarceration of 300,000 civilian Tamils in open prison camps. Then he himself became a target of Rajapaksa maltreatment; when he resigned in protest and joined the opposition, the Siblings unleashed the furies of state-power on him. He was arrested, like a terrorist, and accused of terroristic crimes, including conspiring to overthrow the government and to murder the President and his family. That these accusations belonged in the same mendacious category as ‘Humanitarian Operation’ and ‘Welfare Villages’ became obvious when he was finally charged of hobnobbing with opposition politicians while in uniform and misusing his powers to the advantage of his businessman son-in-law!
A regime which denies its former army commander and its serving chief judge a fair trial cannot be logically expected to deliver justice to ordinary citizens it looks askance at.
When, under duress, the Rajapaksas give the impression of pursuing justice, it is often an illusion. In 2007, the President Rajapaksa personally invited 11 international experts to form the IIGEP (International Independent Group of Eminent Persons) to assist the national Commission of Inquiry to look into 16 incidents of serious human rights violations. In 2008 the IIGEP was literally hounded out of the country by baying Rajapaksa acolytes. In its final report, the IIGEP spoke of the “atmosphere of confrontation and disagreement…engendered by the organs of Government”[ii]. Recently much ado was made of the arrest of 12 suspects for the 2006 murder of five students in Trincomalee. But the senior police officer identified by the UTHR as the mastermind of the murder, SSP Kapila Jayasekera, is not among them; instead he lords it over the same Trincomalee, as its DIG[iii]!
Impunity born in the North is now a national malaise. Its repercussions are evident not just in political attacks such as the Weliweriya shooting or in the proliferation of acts of torture and extra-judicial killings by the police in very Sinhala-Buddhist areas, but also in the growing number of non-political crimes committed by serving and former combatants against ordinary citizens. “Most of the soldiers who were sent to the frontline during the height of the fighting….came from humble village homes and after being part of the military campaign they returned home as hardened men who had lost all fear”[iv]. According to former DIG Nimal Mediwaka, “It is these individuals who maintain a mindset that they can do anything and get away without being apprehended….”[v]
The Magnitsky Option?
Allowing opposition parliamentarians to present private members’ motions is a method used by democratic legislatures to ensure that the minority has its say even as the majority has its way. But the Rajapaksas are becoming increasingly intolerant of even such banal trappings, as is evident from their crude reaction to Wijedasa Rajapakshe’s Bill on judicial impeachments.
A Familial-oligarchy cannot coexist with an independent judiciary. Impeachment is the Rajapaksa’s ‘nuclear-deterrent’ to ensure the continued submission of the judges of the superior courts. The Ruling Siblings would have never permitted the bill proposed by Wijedasa Rajapakse to become law, as its declared intent was to ensure that any future impeachment does not become an orgy of iniquity and injustice[vi]. But given the colossal majority they command in the parliament, the Rajapaksas could have allowed the Bill to be tabled and debated in perfect safety. That would have made sense given the regime’s supposed desire to present a united front in Geneva with the Opposition. Instead, Prime Minister-hopeful Nimal Siripala de Silva objected to the tabling of the bill; Deputy Speaker[vii] called for a vote, effectively aborting the bill.
The Rajapaksas behaved in an identically intolerant manner when Rosie Senanayake tried to introduce a private member’s motion for mandatory 30% female representation in local bodies. That bill too was aborted, on the grounds that it had not been referred to the AG[viii].
The Siblings’ unwillingness to make even a nominal concession to the Opposition (and to hallowed parliamentary traditions) is indicative of their overarching maximalism and their near absolute intolerance of any form of national dissent. The Rajapaksas seem intent on totally disempowering opposition parliamentarians, forcing them to make a Judas deal with the government, even to get a totally innocuous private members motion into the order paper.
Political, economic and societal omnipotence is the ultimate Rajapaksa desideratum. The Rajapaksas do not want to give up power because they cannot afford to go back to ordinary normality, literally or metaphorically. Unrestrained abuse and total impunity are the inevitable corollaries of this collective Rajapaksa addiction to power. Those who benefit from a problem cannot be expected to resolve it, of their own volition.
Regime change is the business of ordinary Lankans. But the world must help restrain the Rajapaksas from over-abusing power. Thanks to the Magnitsky Act[ix], the international community can punish the Rajapaksas without harming ordinary Lankans. Since two of the three Ruling Siblings are said to be American citizens, imposing a travel and an asset ban will be far more effective than annual Geneva resolutions.
[i] ‘Watath niyarath goyam ka nam kata kiyamuda eh amaruwa?’
[iv] The Sunday Times – 1.12.2013
[vi] “According to the provisions of the Bill, when a resolution for the impeachment of the Chief Justice is placed on the Order Book of parliament, the Speaker in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition would appoint a panel of inquiry to investigate the alleged misbehaviour or incapacity of the judge concerned. In the case of the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka it will be heard by a panel consisting of three persons, each of whom holds or has held office as a Judge in the highest Court of any Commonwealth country other than Sri Lanka. In the case of any other Judge of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the inquiry will be held by a panel of three persons, who hold or have held office as a Judge of the Supreme Court.” – The Island – 22.1.2014
[vii] Chandima Weerakkody whose execrably partisan role during the Impeachment travesty was an outstanding disgrace
[viii] http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-37445-news-detail-govt-strikes-down-rosys-bill.html and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/selective-treatment-and-womens-issues-i-wish-to-lodge-a-strong-a-protest/
[ix] Sergi Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act