As empty rhetoric on freedom and rights pervade the air during routine ‘celebrations’ of Sri Lanka’s Independence, the families of slain journalist Mel Gunesekera and undergraduate Lahiru Ratnayake are mourning the loss of two precious lives. Directly or vicariously, who is responsible for these deaths? To whom should the families go to seek redress? Or have Sri Lankans abandoned all thoughts of redress, living like sheep do, mindlessly and meaninglessly until one by one, they are led to the slaughter?
Marking our diminishing as a people
There are many who will argue that the Government of Sri Lanka was not responsible for these deaths. Mel Gunsekera, as we are told confidently by the police, was killed by a would-be petty thief who nevertheless appeared to have demonstrated remarkable agility and skill with a knife in what was his first time homicide. Indeed, the Sri Lankan public was lectured to by policemen on the virtues of caution when contracting house repair jobs to handymen much in the same way that heedless teenagers are read the riot act by their parents. Surely, the exercise of caution in such circumstances is not anything that need to be specially told. On all accounts, Mel was not someone who lived recklessly. Indeed on the contrary, she showed tremendous professionalism in the manner of her life. It is doubly tragic therefore that her death has occasioned preachings by the Sri Lankan police on the simple matter of commonsense.
The larger point moreover is that in post-war Sri Lanka, a death of a journalist is seldom taken at face value. Instead, we ask probing questions, interrogate even the most minimal discrepancy and endlessly wonder. But is this unnatural, one may well ask, when the deaths of so many journalists have gone un-investigated by this administration even though state complicity was very much in issue? And Lahiru Ratnayake was the most recent casualty of the Sri Lanka Army’s Leadership Training Programme which all undergraduates are compulsorily required to attend. Vicariously his death is certainly at the hands of the establishment for compelling students to undertake these exercises without adequate rigorous medical testing. Each death, as John Donne inimitably reminded us, diminishes us. Collectively, the mindset of a country is damaged. We ‘celebrate’ a diminished nation at this Independence Day. And as each such Independence Day passes, our collective diminishing as a people can only get worse as long as we allow ourselves to continue like this.
The marginalised and the privileged
These are two recent deaths that occurred in the South. But let us not forget the fact that the predictable targets of Sri Lanka’s post war security state have it far worse. Some months ago, I was in Eastern Sri Lanka on a request by a group of provincial lawyers to discuss land problems in regard to the government’s post-war development drive. Kilometres away from the Eastern University of Sri Lanka, ten women whose husbands and sons had disappeared in the post war years, came for help.
During that discussion, when we were querying from them as to the context and circumstances of these disappearances, I happened to ask one mother who was particularly insistent that her son was being detained in an army camp as to what the soldiers who had taken away her son, had told her. ‘My son was forcibly recruited into the LTTE in the 1990′s’ she said. ‘He thereafter ran away from them and was able to go abroad.’ He came back after the war ended and was living with me and doing a good job in the town. All of a sudden, in 2010, some army soldiers came to my home and said that he had to be interrogated due to his past connections with the LTTE. He was taken away. I saw his picture in a photograph of a detention centre and I went there to ask to speak to him. They denied that he was there.’
Listening to this conversation, a younger woman burst out explosively ‘Yes, these are the lower ranking and middle ranking LTTE’ers who are being still taken in. But, what about high ranking LTTE leaders who are now with the Government? They are being protected and given privileges. What is this different treatment? And we are being asked for money for our children to be returned. What is this injustice? ‘
The existence of extra legal ‘black holes’
These are people at risk not due to legitimate security surveillance and monitoring but due to illegal activities carried out by groups within the state security apparatus most often for gain. One does not need ‘high level involvement’ to be at risk. Could a functional legal system ignore such happenings? Indeed, do we even possess the honest capacity and courage to ask these questions and confront exceedingly uncomfortable truths?
But as this column has oft times reiterated, Sri Lanka no longer has a functional legal system. In fact, the acknowledgement of extra legal ‘black-holes’ is not merely a matter of perception or hearsay. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) dwelt on the issue of accountability for postwar enforced disappearances in a great many pages of its report asking for civilian law enforcement and the immediate disarming of unauthorized military groups who operate with impunity. More than two years later, the Government (arming itself against hostile resolutions in Geneva) assure us that this has been done. Yet, is this assurance borne out by practical realities? Are the war-displaced minorities able to live with a measure of confidence in their villages? Emperical evidence indicates the contrary.
The post-war security state
In sum, the emergent post-war security state in Sri Lanka has become most dangerous to the Sri Lankan people at several levels. First, the imposing of measures that are clearly irrational, including forced leadership training programes on undergraduates. Second, the disregarding of the courts where the judiciary has lost its authority, the office of the Executive President has overridden every other institution and where the number of terms that the President can contest are unlimited, where the defence budget exceeds other budgetary allocations and where the defence sector not only runs the Northern and Eastern parts of the country but has also expanded into other areas, such as the hospitality industry and the service provider industry.
Moreover, enlisted army men, deserters and politicians use their weapons to carry out robberies and abductions for material gain or simply to demonstrate their power. Ordinary law and order has deteriorated to the extent where no one is safe in his or her own home, where abductions for gain have become common and where lands of private persons are acquired by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence sending out a simple letter to them, no more and no less. Each of us who thinks that he or she is immune from being touched by this dangerous irrationality that pervades our country is living in comfortable illusions.
And this is our Independence? Indeed.