By Vishwamithra –
“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” ~ Carl Jung
‘According to the Batalanda Commission the only conclusion one could arrive at about the matters discussed at Batalanda was that they were illegal. Noting that Ranil Wickremesinghe had advised the police on dealing with public meetings convened without permission, the Commission stated that he had no legal authority to give such instructions to the police and therefore he had abused his position. The Commission was of the view that this issue was connected with the running of illegal detention centers and torture chambers at the Batalanda’. So describes Dharman Wickremaratne, one time editor of the Silumina newspaper of the Lake House Group of newspapers, in his column dated August 3, 2015 under the heading, ‘Demons of Batalanda: Who was behind them?’ No contradiction was published thereafter and no request for an apology was made by Ranil Wickremesinghe after its publication. In the journalistic world, it’s an unofficial official acceptance of the veracity of the facts contained in the said column.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was just a Minister under the Premadasa regime. Batalanda is situated in the Biyagama electorate, Ranil’s electorate which he nurtured after the 1977 General Elections. Batalanda was an out and out torture chamber for the members of the then Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The dishonorable days and the more inglorious hours during which some of our brethren, whether they were loyal to the State or not, were subjected to inhuman torture. The creators of torture chambers such as Batalanda went outside the constraints of our Constitution to quell such an insurrection of the JVP.
One can debate the pros and cons of the ’87-’89 insurrection engineered by Rohana Wijeweera and his loyal supporters of the JVP. No way can one agree with the means and methodology adopted by the murderous JVP at the time. Their means and methodology went far beyond constitutional and legal constrictions. Innocent men and women were slaughtered and killed; unsuspecting civilians were selected for sudden disappearance and eventually found killed in the most brutal manner; human heads appeared on culverts; decrees on the precise manner and ways were issued as to how the funerals of the dead could be conducted. A macabre scenario existed during these darkest days of our sociocultural drama. Those who watched these killings helplessly may still be among the living, but I’m sure it must be extremely jarring to recall those memories.
That is the context within which the Batalanda and other torture chambers were put into action. Their functioning was extremely efficient in attaining their desired targets. But at what cost is the million dollar question. Can a small democracy like Sri Lanka withstand an assault on itself and survive? Can she take prophylactic measures to avoid such an armed insurrection? These questions have been asked a million times in human history and each time the answer has been yes and no! Mankind has proven time and time again that it is not capable of answering these complex questions. It is the ultimate tragedy of mankind. It is utterly depressing and utterly distressing. But does that condemn all mankind to the caves of ‘un-civilization’?
Any group or segment of our population can engage in many a way of opposition to the Sate machinery. They could resort to the most violent means available; but they must also realize that if they fail in their attempt to topple an incumbent government, they must face the consequences but it is certainly crazy and draconian for anyone to subject those insurrectionists to unspeakable torture and physical agony. It is neither unfair nor unreasonable to expect the State to treat the violent wrongdoers within the accepted methods and structures of justice and fairness. Sirimavo and Felix Dias Bandaranaike knew it could be done and they showed it in the wake of the ’71 April Insurrection. Only a demonic and perverted mind would resort to other devices. Ranil Wickremesinghe is such a demonic and perverted mind.
After Ranil Wickremesinghe was (s)elected President by a majority of parliamentary representatives amidst the chaotic status created by the fleeing of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the country, who became victims of a kind are the Aragalakaruwos, those who had the daring and creativity to engage in vigorous opposition to the State machinery and its wheel-turners. Ranil recognized the power of the Aragalaya and its ominous consequences to those who rule. He, within mere hours after being sworn in to office, deployed the armed forces on the Aragalakaruwos on Galle Face Green. Then began a process of suppression aimed at those who dared the government and resumed their Aragalaya. Little did the Aragalakaruwos know that they, in fact, were facing a much more brutal President, sinister in character and determined in personal vendetta. He was never ever fortunate to be rightfully elected to that office of President of Sri Lanka. Ranil Wickremasinghe then began his statecraft which is less narcissistic but more liberal in appearance. At the core was a modern makeup of a little Mussolini.
He got busy with drafting legislation sugarcoated with harmless names but inherently dangerous to the highly acclaimed human rights of a people. In this connection, Human Rights Watch remarked as thus: ‘On September 23, 2022, the Sri Lankan government invoked the Official Secrets Act to designate public streets and government buildings in central Colombo as ‘high security zones’, where written permission from the Police is required to hold any public gathering. Under the regulation, Police have extensive powers to arrest anyone inside these ‘high security zones’. Only the High Court can grant bail to those detained. These broad and stark restrictions embolden excessive use of force and prolonged detention for people exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and expression’.
‘The sweeping new regulation severely restricting public protest in Colombo is President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s latest desperate attempt to stop people from protesting,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ‘While the country is struggling to deal with a deep economic crisis, the government should be making it easier for people’s voices to be heard, not throwing them in jail when they speak out’, Meenakshi reiterated.
While the world watched Ranil went to town. He did not implement this super-statecraft in a vacuum. He paid his tribute to the armed forces and the Police. He extended his untidy hand to the brothers and sisters of the forces. Overnight Ranil became the darling of the Police and the three armed forces. Then came the Bureau of Rehabilitation bill. One has to look back only to 22 March, 1933- Hitler’s establishment of the first concentration camp, Dachau. The entrance gate used by prisoners carries the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (‘Work makes free’), or ‘Work makes [one] free’; contextual English translation: ‘Work shall set you free’). This phrase was also used in several other concentration camps such as Theresienstadt, near Prague and Auschwitz.
Rehabilitation has a very harmless connotation. That is to the outside world; but to those who are being sent for rehabilitation, it’s virtual death sentence. Ranil in effect is creating a 2nd Batalanda. Those who protest are the enemies of the State and need to be rehabilitated. The very forgettable era of R Premadasa is being reinvented and at the helm this time is the one who so loyally defended Premadasa during his impeachment days. Political cycle has taken a full circle and spinning mindlessly without anyone’s awareness. The grandnephew of DR Wijeywardene clad in western clothing, speaking English and appearing as a neoliberal is silently engaging in the most harmful statecraft and subjecting today’s liberal-minded youth to rehabilitation camps for showing the heart and guts to express themselves in speech and assembly. None is so powerful than those who hide their power. Ranil is falling into that category of leaders- who hide their real power.
It is certainly not too late for us to realize this stark truth. And it is not too late for us to do something about it either. It might cost them too much. Those who cannot are seen today crowding the long lines at the Passport Office. They are leaving the country. Especially those who are educated and equipped with the credentials that the foreign companies ask for are in a mad rush. It indeed is tragic that a novel paradigm has set in our midst. The echoes of Batalanda are not very conducive to the ear that has been used to the evening lullabies and romantic serenades.
The present generation of youth does not know the history of Batalanda saga. Its melancholy decors and tasteless functions have taught the previous generation an unmistakably depressing lesson. But whether we have learnt anything from such dastardly inhuman treatment of fellow human beings is another dynamic. If we choose to look the other way, turn a blind eye and act as nothing has happened and let the bygones be bygones, such attitudes will not get any nation anywhere as is promised in our nation’s beginning. Struggle is no alien element and struggle has not deterred our march, on the contrary, it has rendered much needed determination and momentum. But let not Batalanda saga repeat in any form, mild or harsh.
*The writer can be contacted at email@example.com