Do those who vehemently and oftentimes quite hysterically rise to the defence of this Government’s self-aggrandizing post-war policies, pause to ask themselves as to why we are now witnessing extreme intolerance directed at the minorities which was not seen even when the North and East war was at its fiercest?
Perhaps some reasoned and calm introspection in this regard is long overdue.
The playing of a dangerous game
Good examples are the post 2009 attacks on Hindu, Moslem – and for that matter, non-mainstream Christian – places of worship by militant groups who remain outside the reach of the law. This Government appears to look blandly on such attacks. Powerful figures within the establishment even offer covert support as was the case when President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa attended official ceremonies of the Bodu Bala Sena which is clearly implicated in attacks on mosques.
Does the Government think that by bringing the genie unpleasantly out of the bottle at carefully timed intervals, that it can intimidate the minorities as well as embolden its majoritarian and nationalist platform, thus preventing the generally decent Sinhala majority from rising up in arms against its corrupt extravagance which has impacted most drastically on the daily low/middle income wage earner?
Whatever may be the reason for such twisted policies, it is a dangerous game that is being played. This is precisely why Sri Lanka is fast losing sympathy in the world as we can see not only by the increasingly critical language resorted to by Western nations but also by India and Japan whose veiled calls to the Government to demonstrate restraint and bona fides, tell an eloquent tale. These are warning signals that Sri Lanka may well recognize even at this late stage.
Looking to the LTTE as an example
Indeed the Rajapaksa Government may look to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as an illustrative example, as delightfully perverse as this may be. When the LTTE attacked the Dalada Malgawa, massacred Buddhist monks and worshippers at the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, in Aranthalawa and elsewhere during the conflict years, these events led to seminal changes in international perception.
The LTTE was recognized as totalitarian, decimating Tamil citizens, intellectuals and thinkers who opposed them as well as Sinhalese and Muslims. This was a perception that stood to the benefit of the country despite latter-day politicians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) who persist in hailing the late leader of the LTTE as a hero.
If being a hero is characterized by dragging the Tamil people down to the depths of ignominy, by persisting in extreme violence for its own sake when a degree of accommodation may have been reached with Sinhalese governments and by killing off liberals who disagreed with the LTTE’s policies, then the meaning of heroism may perhaps need to be drastically redefined. Nonetheless, the point is that that these acts on the part of the LTTE irreversibly defined its image as a terrorist organization.
Realising the damage done to itself
Throughout those difficult years, the Sri Lankan army for its own part, had bloody markers against its name particularly in the early nineties when attacks by the LTTE were met by reprisal civilian massacres in Tamil villages. Perpetrators responsible for these massacres were not generally brought to trial. Investigations only took place in rare cases such as the Kokkadicholai killings of 1991 when the deaths of two soldiers and the serious injury of another after an LTTE-placed device exploded, led to the massacre of sixty seven civilians of a nearby village. In Mylanthanai when thirty five Tamil civilians were killed in similar circumstances (1992), eighteen accused soldiers were indicted. But neither case led to serious conclusions.
In the Kokkadicholai case for example, then President, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa appointed one of Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous Commissions of Inquiry which recommended weakly that court martial proceedings be initiated against the responsible soldiers. This was despite strong protests by civil rights organisations that a military court-martial was hardly the appropriate forum to look into extraordinary human rights violations. This court-martial led to the dismissal of just the officer in charge on the basis that he had failed to exercise control over his troops. And in the Mylanthanai case, most extraordinarily, all the accused were acquitted by a predominantly Sinhalese jury with witnesses being intimidated and the case transferred from the Eastern Province to Polonnaruwa and thence to Colombo.
However, even though there were no great trials or compelling judgments handed down by the courts which acted as a deterrent, the army slowly brought down the number of these incidents by effective internal control, realizing the damage caused thereby to itself. By the end of that decade, reprisal civilian massacres gradually became exceptional rather than the norm even though dark happenings of torture, rape, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions continued, fostered by state terror as well as LTTE terror.
Damage to ‘divine statues and theft
But what is singular is that places of religious worship of the Hindu community were not targeted even when fighting was at its height. So is it not ironic that attacks on Hindu kovils are being regularly reported after active fighting has ceased in the country following the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009?
This week, the All Ceylon Hindu Congress (Federation of Hindu Religious Associations and Hindu Temples in Sri Lanka) expressed its ‘shock’ and ‘grief’ over the damage caused to a 150 year old statue of Shri Muthumariaman which had been worshipped in Shri Murugan Kovil located in Udunuwara in the Hali Ela area of the Badulla District. The cautiously worded statement of the ACHC only said that the statue had been ‘damaged by undesirable criminal elements.’
The organization pointed out that it had brought notice of such destruction and theft to ‘the appropriate authorities,’ including President Rajapaksa, his brother, the Defence Secretary and the head of the police but that those responsible have not been arrested and brought before the law. And it was observed that ‘failure to take action appears to be encouraging those undesirable criminal elements to continue these criminal acts of destruction and theft.’
This statement, in fact, asks as to who is responsible for ‘divine statues being continuously destroyed and valuable items being continuously stolen in Hindu temples?’ (Colombo Telegraph, December 12, 2013).
Well meaning but simplistic excuses
So are these statements of outrage and cries for help to be dismissed out of hand as pure fabrications? This is a moot question.
It is well meaning but somewhat simplistic reasoning to say, as some have done recently, that Sinhalese soldiers will not carry out attacks on Hindu temples since the Buddhist and the Hindu traditions are closely intertwined in customary Sri Lankan religious practice. The fact is that ordinary soldiers are not inferred as being culpable. Instead, the manifest impunity demonstrated in regard to these incidents and the failure of the police to investigate infers that the perpetrators are a select group, secluded within the government apparatus.
It is hardly plausible to think that well organised raids with Hindu statues being stolen and other statues being damaged can occur otherwise. This was similar to attacks by ‘grease-men’ targeting women in rural communities some years ago. When area people chased the intruders, it was commonly reported that they ran into the nearest army or special task force (STF) camp. Those responsible were never apprehended. And those incidents died down as mysteriously as they had commenced.
Enforcing the responsibility of our own Government
In this scenario, to talk of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) predicated on the South African example is laughable. This is not a Government that recognizes the essential meaning of either truth or reconciliation. Its post-war policies offer ample evidence of that truth. If there is however a sincere acknowledgment of its own mistakes, then it must first put right these mistakes without being offered the tempting carrot of a TRC. This will only again enable prevarication and obfuscation on fundamental issues regarding adherence to the Rule of Law.
And the question is not the excesses indulged in by our onetime colonial masters, the impolite posturing of UK premier David Cameron or the undoubted hypocrisy of Western governments in preaching to small nations while perpetuating atrocities with abandon elsewhere in the world. The question is also not about the totalitarian character of the LTTE. That bank of international empathy has now been thoroughly exhausted.
What should concern us is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Government in regard to the due operation of the law and our duty to enforce that responsibility for the collective good. Engaging in hyperbole and rantings against outsiders will not serve to detract from that essential duty.