By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“….a culture in which orders from above, even if evil, are followed, because they are confused with the law itself.” – Jean-Marie Kamatali (Following Orders in Rwanda)[i]
This week, two trains collided in Sri Lanka.
It was an accident waiting to happen, caused by a technical failure left unattended for too long, despite many complaints: “The points of the railway track of the Pothuhera Railway Station were faulty for several years but repeated requests to higher-ups to rectify the problems fell on deaf ears. We were expecting a railway disaster at any moment.”[ii]
In most countries, resignations would be offered and heads would roll. Not in Sri Lanka. Here politicians and officials will shrug off the blame the same way they shrugged off the responsibility. (Incidentally, the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport is Dhammika Perera whose US$350 million casino-resort, The Queensbury, was one of the three projects given the green light last week[iii]).
A high-level probe has been ordered. But its fate will be no different from that of other probes, for instance the probe on Weliweriya. As Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay stated in her official report to the UNHRC, “On 2 August 2013, the Army Commander appointed a military court of inquiry into the incident. The court submitted its report on 21 August, but it has not been made public. On 30 August 2013, the Army announced that four senior officers had been relieved of their duties with immediate effect, although no court martial has been initiated. The factory has since been relocated and compensation offered to the families of those killed.”[iv] The probe thus became an instrument of concealment, a way to prevent the public from discovering who ordered the army to act with unrestrained brutality (including lethal violence) towards unarmed protestors.
A state which is enslaved to a personality/family is incapable of acting in the best interests of either the country or the people. The outlook of such a state is narrow and petty; partisan political interests and even frivolous whims and fanatical fancies are accorded precedence over vital national issues. Total fealty rather than competence is what such a state demands from its officials. Its task is not to admit and rectify errors, but to maintain the lies, the Maya about infallible rulers and wonderful governments. The Pothuera tragedy is just one more outcome of this model of governance.
Having got away with such monumental lies as ‘Humanitarian operations’, ‘Zero-civilian casualties’ and ‘Welfare Villages’, the Rajapaksas cannot be blamed for regarding the Sinhala majority as preternaturally gullible.
The President swears that casinos will not be allowed in the mega resorts. Gambling is James Packer’s business. As the official website of Mr. Packer’s planned resort in Sri Lanka states, it will offer customers ‘World class gaming facilities’[v]. If he is not allowed to make money by fleecing the addicted, the gullible and the vulnerable, Mr. Packer will not invest a cent in Sri Lanka, even with the unprecedentedly generous 10 year tax holiday. Therefore President Rajapaksa’s ‘no casinos’ statement is as much of an impossibility as his previous statements about Lankan soldiers waging the Fourth Eelam War with a gun in one hand and Human Rights Charter in the other, food for the displaced over the shoulder and a heart full of love. Since most of the Sinhala South opted to believe that outrageously atrocious fib, the Rajapaksas cannot be faulted for thinking that they will fall for the much smaller lie about casinos.
President Rajapaksa is the popular face and the ever-ready smile of the Rajapaksa Inc. Brother Basil provides most of the brains and Brother Gotabhaya handles the brawns department. Brother Chamal plays the role of the ‘honest broker’ with remarkable adroitness, even though at crucial moments the mask is set aside – such as during the Impeachment witch-trial. The Siblings probably have their differences and disagreements, as all families do. But they are indubitably moving in tandem towards the same goal: turn Sri Lanka into their sole and permanent preserve.
The latest BBS antic, the Wilpattu drama, and its obviously pre-programmed outcome, the religious police, too will be used to further this overarching purpose.
A Common Threat
The Muslims of Musali were expelled from their homes by the LTTE in 1990. For the next twenty plus years they lived in a state of limbo in Puttalam. The LTTE did not allow them to return during the Third Peace Process. When they went back in 2012, they found that the Navy was in occupation of much of their land. Soon seven huts put up by the returning families were destroyed in a mysterious fire. A police officer on duty was reported saying, “We can see how the people are suffering but who are we to tell? Nothing can be done….. The news on the ground is that the Defence Ministry is trying to secure 1500 acres to build a hotel in this area.”[vi] There were also reports of a government attempt to settle non-displaced Sinhalese from Anuradhapura in Musali, while the legal owners remained homeless[vii].
Eventually, some of the displaced families were allocated land in the buffer zone of the Wilpattu sanctuary, by the Presidential Task Force Committee, with the knowledge and approval of all relevant authorities.
Had these facts been verified, “unnecessary tension and conflict could have been avoided” lamented the Mannar Divisional Secretary, when everything was over[viii]. Are we expected to believe that the Rajapaksas were unaware of these facts? The Wilpattu issue was another storm in a tea cup, a political drama produced by the Rajapaksas and enacted by the BBS, to divert public attention from the casino issue and to create the context for the setting up of the new religious police. Once the casino gazettes were through and the religious police was up and running, the Wilpattu furore, having served its insidious purpose, was allowed to die, like the Halal furore and cow-slaughter furore. (Birth control and conversions may be the next BBS targets[ix]).
The Rajapaksa ‘patria’ is a deeply hierarchical place which discriminates against the minority in favour of the majority and the poor (including the Sinhala-Buddhist poor) in favour of the rich. The plight of the people of Ragamwela is the best proof that UDA/military land-grabbing is as much of a threat to the Sinhala-Buddhist peasantry as to the urban poor, Tamils and Muslims. According to the Spokesman of the Panama Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority, “the Navy had…acquired land belonging to the villagers and places considered by the Central Environment Authority as rich in biodiversity”[x]. Actress-cum-environmentalist Iranganie Serasinghe appealed to the Navy “to refrain from engaging in activities that would have an adverse impact on the Panama lagoon”[xi], to no avail.
Paris foreman Pierre Bruno wrote that the 19th-century working class harboured three aspirations – to combat ignorance, to combat poverty and to help one another[xii]. These aspirations are apposite for the anti-Rajapaksa opposition as well. The people must realise the devastating truth about the Rajapaksas, Mahinda downwards, and understand the need for human sympathy and political solidarity across ethno-religious and class lines, if Sri Lanka is to escape her own Nandikadal, of Rajapaksa making.
[ii] Repeated Complaints Fell on Deaf Ears – Daily Mirror – 1.5.2014
[iv] Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka
Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
[ix] 890,000 Sinhala women made infertile – BBS – Sri Lanka Mirror – 30.4.2014
[x] The Island – 27.6.2012