“It’s time to cut down the tall trees.” These words and others from a local radio station provided the blood stained soundtrack to the danse macabre conducted with machetes during the second and third quarter of 1994, in Rwanda, by the majority ethnic group – Hutu led Government, paramilitaries and militias, against the Tutsis who were a minority ethnic group, moderate Hutus, and the Twa pygmies.
Fast forward to 9 May, 2022. Sri Lanka.
“We are going to end it. Get ready. We will start the fight.” These words are from agent provocateur and eminent rabble rouser, former Minister and incumbent Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Parliamentarian Johnston Fernando’s address to the gathered, or more aptly bused, crowds (including according to some accounts, prisoners, which has however been denied by the Prisons authority) that had descended upon the official residence of the Prime Minister – the Temple Trees on the day, in support of the then Premier and current SLPP MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, demanding that the latter not step down from his post.
Following hot on the heels of his most loyal lickspittle, Rajapaksa whose self professed hierarchy of priorities concern “firstly, the country, secondly, the country, thirdly, the country”, told the assembled masses, whilst reminding them that “no one had the right to betray the Constitution (so much for being a more than willing participant in the Constitutional coup in October, 2018, to name his most recent egregious Constitutional infraction)”, that his credo was to “face challenges and emerge victorious over such, and not run away from the same.”
Motivational speeches both or fighting words (a doctrine concerning incitement tending towards an immediate breach of peace, that is both upheld and increasingly narrowly interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States)? Au lecteur, you decide.
“and let slip the (reportedly sodden) dogs of war.”
Although the damage done to democracy following the assault of peaceful protestors at MynaGoGama in front of the Temple Trees in Kollupitiya and GotaGoGama at Galle Face and the Galle Face Green, and the attack on the said protest sites, cannot be quantified in psychological terms, such savagery and vandalism only begot as Rajapaksa had presciently noted earlier, “violence”. If his was a mere premeditated attempt to shore up public support towards him as proof for his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to witness, and thereby make a case for the need for him to continue to remain in office, the events that ensued in the melee proved that this was not just a grave miscalculation of the pulse of the people, but a fatal error of judgment that literally sent several (in the double digit range) including, among others, a cop and a SLPP Government MP to an early grave, injuries to persons in the triple digit range, and precipitated exceptional destruction with both movable and immovable properties of Government MPs, pro-Government Local Government Chairmen, Councilors and Members, and supporters including SLPP Party Members and non-Members, being torched and razed to the ground, along with similar collateral damage, and looting. For his part, the former Premier resigned in haste on the day itself, and true to his ethos of facing challenges and not running away, emerged, if not victorious, physically unscathed, by adopting one of the signature defenses of the meerkats, scampering amidst military cover to the Mynabunker (a la Führerbunker) in the East, after kicking up a veritable shitstorm. Too bad that he did not receive the lecturing his elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa gave last week – that it would have been better for him (Mahinda Rajapaksa) to have retired after his second Presidential term and that pain and suffering would not have been his present lot had he given up the lust for power and practiced the Buddhist notion of letting go at the correct and suitable time – in time, pre-2015 Parliamentary Elections.
But there is another side to the catastrophic events of 9 May.
“Plots” had been “laid”, with “inductions dangerous.” It was reported on 10 May that it was the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana D. Wickramaratne, acting on the instructions of the Public Security Ministry Secretary, Retired Major General Jagath Alwis, who had instructed senior cops including the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) in charge of the Western Province, Deshabandu Tennakoon and Senior Superintendent of Police in charge of Colombo Central, Nishantha Chandrasekara, to refrain from using water cannons and tear gas to disperse the mob that emanated from the frangipani bungalow. SDIG Tennakoon had, according to Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, who quoted President Rajapaksa, been instructed by the latter on 9 May morning to take necessary steps to prevent any violence. According to Dr. Pathirana, who cited SDIG Tennakoon’s response to the President when queried as to why SDIG Tennakoon had not carried out the President’s instructions given in the morn, SDIG Tennakoon had received a call from the IGP in the afternoon of 9 May, where he had been instructed to not use water cannons and tear gas on the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa supporters. SLPP ‘independent’ MP Wimal Weerawansa claimed in Parliament, citing SDIG Tennakoon’s statement to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), that both the IGP and the Public Security Ministry Secretary – when he (SDIG Tennakoon) had received a call from the former (IGP Wickramaratne), and when he had called the latter (Rtd. Maj. Gen. Alwis) – had told him to not get involved, despite his (SDIG Tennakoon’s) plan to employ water cannons and tear gas following repeated warnings given to the pro-Government supporters (not to mention also informing certain Ministers and MPs who organized the group of supporters to prevent any incident, employing roadblocks and deploying riot control trucks and Police personnel at Galle Face), as the matter involved two brothers (the President and the Prime Minister) and one of the brothers – Mahinda Rajapaksa’s henchmen, and to therefore not get his hands burnt, so to speak, as he stood the chance of being at the receiving end once the sibling duo reconciled. Rtd. Maj. Gen. Alwis has since denied the claim.
Regardless of the veracity of the claims, the die was cast, and afterwards, it was mayhem, “que sera, sera” style. The President’s belated intervention with SDIG Tennakoon was too little, too late, as by the time the law enforcement authorities kicked into high gear, “the fighting had begun, they were falling one by one, prisoners were taken, and death”, for some, was “just a heartbeat away” as Gary Moore and Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott sang in ‘Out in the Fields’.
In the wake of the events, lawyers filed cases (note that it is not the Police that filed), naming, among others, SLPP MPs Fernando, Sanath Nishantha Perera, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa, Sanjeeva Edirimanna, Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi, and Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Moratuwa Mayor Saman Lal Fernando, Government supporters including Dan Priyasad, Mahinda Kahandagama and Wasantha Handapangoda, IGP Wickramaratne, SDIG Tennakoon and Prisons Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya as suspects. In their complaints, the attorneys cited criminal acts of commission and omission allegedly committed by the suspects including of being members of an illegal assembly, assaulting or obstructing public servants in suppressing a riot, provoking the public with the intention of inciting a riot, accommodating participants in an illegal assembly, voluntarily injuring persons, using dangerous weapons, inflicting grievous bodily harm, causing intentional or serious injury, torture, assault (on a female), criminal coercion, misdemeanours, and criminal intimidation, etc.
Attorney General (AG), President’s Counsel Sanjay Rajaratnam had thereafter instructed the IGP to urgently, owing to the domestic and international ramifications, probe what he termed “unlawful interferences” into Constitutionally guaranteed public freedoms and civic and fundamental rights of free speech and expression, peaceful assembly, and association, the circumstances that led to them, and the consequent commission of Penal offences in the process including in the aftermath, elsewhere in the country, outside the confines of Galle Face.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also summoned the IGP and Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva over negligence and dereliction of duty related concerns involving failure on their part to maintain law and order.
The IGP then handed over the investigations to the CID.
Following the CID presenting facts from their probe to the AG, the latter instructed the IGP to arrest a total of 22 persons, including SLPP MPs Fernando, Nishantha Perera, Milan Jayathilake and Edirimanna, and SDIG Tennakoon, if reasonable suspicion exists regarding their involvement in the incident of peaceful protestors in front of the Temple Trees and at the Galle Face Green being attacked by a group of SLPP Government supporters on 9 May. Nishantha Perera (was seen being a part of the mob), Jayathilake, Lal Fernando (for transporting attackers) and Priyasad have since been arrested and remanded in this regard while SDIG Tennakoon, Wanniarachchi, Abeygunawardena, Edirimanna, SLPP MP C.B. Rathnayake, Namal Rajapaksa, IGP Wickramaratne and the Police Special Task Force Commandant have been questioned regarding the same.
There are however some loose ends.
Where was Minister Prasanna Ranatunga who was at the time the Public Security Minister, and what was his role in not preventing or proactively curbing the incidents? As Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and National People’s Power Leader and MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake queried – why was the Police and Army not deployed on 9 and 10 May, despite a state of emergency being operative at the time, and island-wide curfew being declared on 9 May (charges pertaining to the alleged involvement of JVP Members and/or non-Member supporters in the aftermath of the events at Galle Face have been leveled by SLPP MPs and refuted by the JVP). Ranatunga needs to be questioned concerning the matter.
SDIG Tennakoon who was photographed with Nishantha Perera at Galle Face on the day, needs to be arrested for alleged complicity, being a part of a conspiracy, and aiding and abetting in the commission of offences through acts of omission on his part.
IGP Wickramaratne and Rtd. Maj. Gen. Alwis, both need to first be interdicted for the duration of the related investigations (an Acting IGP and Acting Secretary can be appointed for the time being), then questioned (the IGP has been) and arrested, if the evidence adduced warrants such.
Fernando needs to be questioned and arrested for his role as an inciteful (note not insightful), motivational speaker.
What about the master of the ceremony himself – Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose “grim visage” and aegis made all of this possible? Since he has come out of hiding, he should be summoned to the CID offices for questioning and be arrested. It is pertinent to remind the IGP that the Constitutionally guaranteed Presidential immunity from suit does not apply to Presidential has-beens.
The main Parliamentary Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has, citing British scientist Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, questioned as to why there is more progress on the part of the Police probe into the ‘reaction’ (attacks elsewhere in the country which only occurred after the violence visited upon MynaGoGama and GotaGoGama, the latter protest which remained without incident for over a month at the time of the attacks) than on the ‘action’ (attacks on MynaGoGama and GotaGoGama) that set in motion, the ‘reaction’. “First arrest those who led the attacks and then the others,” noted SJB MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne.
While Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who succeeded Mahinda Rajapaksa in the position, seems to be going gung ho with regard to addressing the economic crisis, and also, solidifying Governmental stability, his few public statements touching on the state of law and order in the nation and dealing with political criminality, do not engender confidence.
There is a law and order crisis in the country, especially concerning inequities in the implementation of the same, which is intimately linked to political influence, that is in turn fuelling the concomitant economic crisis, and such politicization also impacts the very grundnorm (basic norm) of the rule of law, thus resulting in the lawlessness evidenced on 9 and 10 May. The bedrock of political stability is the doctrine of the rule of law and the central tenet of the rule of law is equality.
Therefore, the onus is on Premier Wickremesinghe to prove his detractors – who point to his being thick as thieves with the presently down on their luck, political bedfellows – the Rajapaksas, and having a deal or mutual understanding with them, depending on how one is inclined to view the matter – wrong, and perhaps even sway the doubters. This involves ensuring that qualitative and transparent action is taken against those who masterminded the events of 9 May – what the Opposition terms the ‘action’.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa- whose much demanded resignation does not seem to be forthcoming unless events similar to 9 May see a repeat – should, if he intends to continue to defy the wishes of the protestors at the eponymous GoGama at Galle Face Green, set about gaining lost credibility. And towards this end, disapproving of the incendiary events of 9 May alone does not pass muster. Cutting political ties and making a clean political break with family bandyism is only the first step.
To those in political authority, the law has, by and large, been a good servant. It is time for the law, which carries the weight of the people’s legislative power, to be a bad master. The answer lies not with taking the law into their hands; instead, to be guided by the law.