2 October, 2023


Sri Lanka’s Damaged Mindset This Independence Day

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena –

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

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.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Independence and Sovereignity of the people has become a joke. We are now a fifedom of the Rajapakse dynasty. We are third class passengers on the plane to no-where-land with MR in the pilots seat and GR as co-pilot. Look forward to a crash landing when the fuel runs out.

    • 2

      Good one, with 100+ thieves as passengers!

  • 9

    Ever since Banda and his fellow politicians put SL on that inexorable slide, WE, the capable class, have learnt to look askance at the politics and politicians of this island. We managed. We adjusted. We adapted. We made life easy with ‘international’ schools and private healthcare for our loved ones. We complained but kept our voices down. We built high walls to hide our home comforts. We kept our heads down. We sent out children abroad to learn. We encouraged them to establish careers in foreign lands and were chuffed when some stayed proud long-distance Sri Lankans. We allowed the barbarian to take the driving seat of our civic affairs – law and order has been buggered, the legal system is in atrophy, and the country is in the process of fracturing along ethnic and religious lines, once again. For some years now independence has meant one thing – the right of the regime to do as it bloody well likes. WE the capable class will have the chance to rue our apathy for a very long time.

    • 0

      Agree with you. This is the age of the bad people, the ruffians, the cruel, the ignorant. Besides the apathy of the ‘good’ people, we need to ask why there are more and more ‘bad’ people. Why have we failed to produce more ‘good’ people? Or are good people out of power because they are good? Is it because the laws have been circumvented to deny protection for the good people? Sometimes I wonder whether the good people must become bad to wrest control of this country.

  • 3

    This is what SWRD Bandaranayake ushered in as Uppe aanduwa!

    Now it has become Satan’s aanduwa.

  • 3

    “Sri Lanka no longer has a functional legal system. 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.”

    How many Sri Lankans understand this or care a hoot?

  • 3

    Keep up you excellent work Madam Kishali! You are one of the rare exceptions in a deeply compromised Colombo “civil society”, which does NO introspection and self-critic.
    Today Democracy is a SHELL GAME in Sri Lanka partly because local NGOs, civil society and academics are deeply compromised and DISHONEST – in bed with the Jarapassa regime having failed to EDUCATE SInhalaya modayas on what democracy really means.
    Nimalka Fernando, so called HR activist for whom HR is a lifestyle choice to jet to Geneva on donor funds while in bed with Vasudeva Nanayakkara whose Ministry is run by his son (the Family Business of National Languages and Social Integration?) are prime examples of the fact that most NGOs and civil society organizations are there for donor money and the ride..!

  • 2

    All you say correct KPJ- please translate into Sinhala since it is Sinhalayas who need to read and be educated about the state of their country which is run by South Asia’s Gaddhafi family.

    Today Sri Lanka is a military dictatorship, with power concentrated in one family – with a facade of democracy maintained by the CIRCUS OF STAGGERED ELECTIONS and a GIANT CABINET OF CORRUPT and UNEDUCATED MORONS who only have perks and NO power. Power vests with the 3 brothers – Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gota the goon and Basil Mr 10 percent who are looting the public wealth and indebting the country.

    Gota the goon operates the DEEP STATE (code name: tea party) with select officials in the JUDICIARY (Mohan the clown), Administration (Lalith Weeratunge the chaos-specialist who promises chaos if Mahinda Jarapassa is dethroned, the criminal clown Nivard Cabraal at Central Bank who fixes Statistics, and business cronies such as Casino King Dhammika Perera).
    Sinhala Modayas claim to have the “oldest democracy in South Asia” but do not know what DEMOCRACY really means.. They think that feudalism and patronage politics and MONEY politics is Democracy.
    Today, 60++ years after independence, what is needed is a social movement and Aam Aadmi party (as in India ),to EDUCATE the Moda Sinhalayas on the spirit and SUBSTANCE of DEMOCRACY and DEMOCRATIC PRACTICE and also needed is an alternative to both the corrupt SLFP and UNP parties, and a social movement against corruption and criminality.
    Sinhala POLITICAL CULTURE is rotten to the core, so the Sinhalaya modayas distract themselves by attacking minorities, rather than looking inward and fixing their OWN ROT and CORRUPTION.
    Please translate your writings into SINHALA to EDUCATE the SInhala voter on what democracy is and is NOT. Particularly, there needs to be a campaign against more than 1 member of a single family being in government positions at any given time.
    Today democracy does not exist. It is a SHELL GAME run on MONEY POLITICS and FAMILY BUSINESS of corrupt politicians..

  • 1

    Tamils are a soon to be extinct race. So who cares?

    • 3

      First the Tamils, then the Muslims, thereafter the Christians, and then the Uda Ratta’s, and then the non-Rajapaksa’s? — Yes, the country is right on track – close your eyes an ears and just kick up that accelerator!

  • 4

    Much is being written in English – satisfying the arm-chair commentators.

    If the pen is mightier than the sword, there is one way to give effect
    to a educated voter base. Will some true lover of Democracy form an
    Organisation that will translate the many writings/essays into small
    pamphlets, for circulation via Political-cells throughout SL. We will
    achieve a change very democratically if someone or Organisation adopts

    • 1

      “educated voter base” – quicker we do this better for all.

    • 1

      Punchinilame: your comment is fine, but on the suggestion of printing and distributing of pamphlets I have a word of caution based on an experience when I worked in the Fort in the early seventies. One of our peons was an activist who worked especially hard at his politically-inspired tasks. In late 1970 he was a member of a small group given the job of distributing pamphlets that questioned the activities of the then Sirimavo government. While carrying out this thankless task in Borella one evening, he was cornered by a small group who didn’t approve, taken to a quiet corner of Kanatte, and beaten to within an inch of his life. When we went to see him in the General Hospital, he had a broken jaw, a burst ear-drum, a broken nose and swollen testicles from a well-aimed kicking. His political zeal was undiminished. He went m-i-a in April 1971

      • 0

        The challenges are greater and wider now but SL can find ways
        to meet them if they are to come out successfully against
        just a rowdy family and their henchmen.. the media-grip must
        somehow be weakened and only intellectuals can play the part.

        Lets wait then till they are forced to do it!!

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