By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“This place is dangerous, The time right deadly.” – Shakespeare (Troilus and Cressida)
For political activists of many generations, the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) was an unfailing haven. It was the place for meetings disallowed everywhere else or discussions which required secrecy.
Father Tissa Balasuriya, the founder of the CSR, was a Liberation Theologian of global renown who was once excommunicated by the Vatican for his dissenting views[i]. He often disagreed with the political ideas and projects of those who sought refuge in the CSR. But he made sure its doors were always open for those in need of its protective shelter. He was the ultimate Good Samaritan, whose solidarity was unaffected by ethnicity, creed or ideology.
The CSR was a favourite haunt of political activists not only because of its unfailing openness but also because it was a place of total safety. Perhaps the powers that be did not intrude because the CSR was located in the grounds of the Fatima Church; or their non-intervention stemmed from Fr. Balasuriya’s unsullied reputation. Whatever the reason, once inside the CSR, you could have your political meeting or discussion in freedom and safety.
The times, how they have changed!
This week, probably for the first time in its long history, a discussion at the CSR was violently disrupted. A monk-led mob invaded the grounds of the Fatima Church and the premises of the CSR to obstruct a meeting between families of the Northern disappeared and some members of the diplomatic community. The mob was uncouth, as ever. The police were unwilling to uphold the law against the mob, as ever.
Predictably the mob had its way. The meeting was abandoned.
The Rajapaksas are honing a dangerous new weapon. Mobs made-to-order, which act outside of and unimpeded by the law are becoming increasingly potent. These mobs are more effective than the police or even the military at attacking opponents and terrorising minorities. They produce the desired results; and the Rajapaksas can claim innocence, however implausibly.
Mob-power was used to invade Sirikotha. It was deployed to prevent Channel 4 journalists from going to Jaffna during the Colombo Commonwealth. It was unleashed against the minorities, many times. It was used to chastise ministers and even the prime minister.
In January 2014, a training workshop for Tamil journalists was abandoned, after an invasion by a Buddhist monk-led mob[ii]. In May 2014, a workshop on corruption was cancelled due to pressure from the military, using the threat of mob-invasion. The Army denied pressurising the hotel management; “We only informed them that according to our intelligence sources a group of people are organising a protest rally against the workshop”, the military spokesman stated[iii]. Subsequently the owner of the hotel, Deputy Minister Siripala Gamlath, confirmed the allegations: “Our managers told me there is huge pressure from the army, so I asked the organisers to get permission from the military. They apparently tried until noon…..and failed”[iv].
On June 7th, a three-day workshop on Investigative Journalism organised by Transparency International Sri Lanka was attacked by a ‘well-organised’ mob carrying printed placards (complete with colour photographs of some of the journalists). Instead of ordering the protestors out, the police demanded that the workshop be cancelled for the safety of the participants, an order which met with the full approval of the Government Spokesman subsequently![v]
Then there was Aluthgama.
In each of these instances, made-to-order mobs, the police and/or the military worked in tandem to subvert Rajapaksa opponents or to terrorise the minorities.
Influencing Voters and Winning Elections, Rajapaksa Style
The Greeks called it Ochlocracy – mob rule.
In Sri Lanka we have Ochlocracy with Lankan characteristics. Here the mobs are not autonomous; they are the pawns of the country’s rulers.
The Rajapaksas were at the apogee of their popularity during the 2010 Presidential election. The situation will be both better and worse for them next time. Better, because thanks to the 18th Amendment and other measures and practices, the electoral playing field has been made ludicrously uneven, in their favour. This will give the Rajapaksas a considerable built-in advantage in any election. Worse, because their once solid popular base has sprung leaks, thanks to growing economic problems and waning economic hopes, as the CPA surveys clearly demonstrate.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is more likely to win than lose the next election; but it will not be an easy win. The Rajapaksas seem to know this; their actions indicate not confidence but uncertainly and concern. The hope of a common oppositional candidate is almost dead. But even if there are several oppositional candidates, they still can come to an agreement to direct their fire at the Rajapaksas and not at each other. In fact if the UNP, the JVP and General Fonseka can enthuse their supporters and appeal to some of the disgruntled SLFP/UPFA voters, it might be possible to reduce Mahinda Rajapaksa’s margin of victory to a sliver; or even push the election into a second round. It is a long shot, admittedly, but not an impossibility.
In the coming months the Rajapaksas will do what they can to improve their electoral prospects. They will use the Sajith factor to confuse and confound the UNP. They will incite anti-minority feelings, to retain their Sinhala-Buddhists base. They will use mob-power to do what the police cannot do to sabotage the electoral activities of the Opposition.
More than a month after Aluthgama, the high level committee of investigation promised by the President remains non-existent. And from the Sabaragamuwa University comes the disturbing news of an attack on a Tamil student by an unidentified gang. The attack had happened inside an external hostel around 2 am. The security of the external hostel is reportedly being handled by Rakana Arakshaka, the private security company functioning under the Ministry of Defence.
According to the JVP, the thugs also pasted racist posters threatening the Tamil students: “The slogans in broken English and Tamil say, ‘This is our country, Leave this place, you are Tigers’”[vi].
Will we see another made-to-order mob attacking Tamil students in Sabaragamuwa and elsewhere?
According to a recent article by Ameena Hussein, some houses in Colombo (mostly Muslim) seem to be getting a form purportedly from the police, asking for details about inhabitants. According to Ms. Hussein, a friend of hers, a Muslim, was told by the police officer who gave him the form “that after they obtain the forms they divide them in the station according to religion.”[vii] From where do these forms originate? What is their purpose? Are they even legal? Is this an attempt to frighten the Muslims? Or is someone really thinking of a controlled pogrom, as a way of winning Sinhala votes and BJP hearts?
The police meanwhile have arrested four ordinary Muslims for the ‘grievous crime’ of forwarding a text message about a planned anti-Muslim pogrom[viii].
The Uva nominations are not yet over and the UPFA has already started violating the election laws, on a mammoth scale. This is indicative of what awaits Lankans in the months to come. Given the Rajapaksa need to win every election, with a stupendous margin, the immediate future may well belong to made-to-order mobs.