Colombo Telegraph

The “Shape” Culture & Life In Sri Lanka

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

The honest, but awkward, manner in which Mr. S.C. Mayadunne, retired Auditor General and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) National List Member of Parliament, resigned immediately after taking his oaths as a Member of Parliament (MP) makes it impossible to beg the simple question that he answered in the affirmative: Are Sri Lankan voters undeserving of the right to elect those who have, literally, power of life and death over them?

At a recent “pocket meeting” to enlist a potential MP and Cabinet Member to spearhead the upgrading of a road to bring it up to the standard it was at half a century ago and, thereby, give residents critically important motorable access to essential services, I used my (very rusty) basic Sinhala to suggest to those gathered there that it was in the interests of all of us to elect a government that would ensure equity and justice. I sought to make the point that it was the poorer elements of our society who were most deprived of their elementary rights if justice and fairplay did not prevail. After all, the more affluent could and inevitably did have their needs attended to because they had the money to buy such services. I believe what I had to say resonated with my listeners if nodding heads were any indication

Mr. Mayadunne, though, raised another thought. He seemed to say quite simply that Sri Lankans, for whatever reason, chose to ignore the violence and corruption practiced in the name of governance and elect those very perpetrators to continue to run their lives.

Given the flotsam and jetsam elected to the legislature on the coattails of a man addicted to violence of a hitherto unprecedented level, it was hard to dismiss the comments of this honest, intelligent and honourable man.

When one gets to thinking, the question arises: “Why is it that a “Three-Wheeler Mentality” has established itself in the home of 2500 years of “Sinhala Buddhist Civilization?” If Mr. Mayadunne is right and all evidence points in that direction, how have we come to such a pass and what, if anything, can we do about it?

I still believe, based on what I have seen around me for the past decade at least, that the “Shape mentality” is in place and its foundations appear to be further reinforced with every passing day.

But the question remains, “Why would some poor villager who has less ability to influence what passes for justice than I do by virtue of being poorer than I am still insist on voting into authority, again and again, the very people running such a system?” After all, he has less of what it takes to influence the course of what passes for justice in this country than I do: money. I certainly cannot aspire to a bank balance the size of the lowliest local elected politician can display within, literally, months of being elected to office. However, even if I cannot aspire to wealth of those proportions, I certainly have more money that Madduma Banda or Siriyalatha have. And, day in and day out, they experience, in very real terms, how that directly impacts them in their day to day lives.

The damage that has been done in the matter of corruption to the very soul of this country is that, at virtually every level of society, except for a handful of people who still cling to the (old-fashioned?) principles of honesty, the rule of law etc. etc., there is a broad acceptance of the fact that whatever passes for justice can be bought.

In the case of the poorest elements of society, I do believe that they have made a kind of trade-off in that they’d try to stay within the law in matters of day-to-day survival and trust in their ability to apply what meagre resources they have to buy “justice” if the need arises.

If circumstances reach the point when they perceive the issue to be one, literally, of life and death, they end up taking the law into their own hands because they see no alternative. After all, if what passes for the forces of law and order are seen as inoperative, one has little alternative but to act accordingly. Crimes of extreme violence are simple acts of desperation, when the perpetrator sees no alternative to what he or she feels is simply a choice between “kill or be killed.”

Acts of that kind are driven by impulses very similar to those that drive suicide – a final act when it seems like there is nothing else available to deal with the crisis before one. The final and only act seemingly available to the one committing it is a simple act of final desperation.

Reinforcing the status quo is the fact that the Rajapaksa Regime and its acolytes, even at the lowest level, have proved, in practice, that you can get out of any fix you get yourself into by the simple expedient of buying your way out of that predicament.

The benchmark for this “shape culture” was provided by no less a person than an all-powerful President when the husband of the Chief Justice at the time got himself into some very hot water at the National Savings Bank which he headed up at the time by indulging in some quite “unorthodox” involvements by that institution in the stock market. At the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa made a very simple and straightforward statement that it was only because the opposition insisted on raising the matter that his hand was forced and that, in the normal scheme of things, he would have “shaped” the problem because the Chairman of the National Savings Bank was “our man.” The financial irregularities involved in all of this were of truly mind-boggling dimensions and beyond the comprehension of any but those familiar with the sums of money involved in truly high finance.

I am not suggesting that financial corruption began with the Rajapaksa Regime and that it does not occur in what are regarded as the more mature democracies. The difference in those countries is that there are mechanisms to expose and prosecute culprits and, no matter how cumbersome and slow they sometimes are, they are activated from time to time. If that was not the case, there would be no representative democracies, no matter how flawed, in existence anywhere as I write this.

On the 8th of January and, again in August of this year, the people of this country spoke loudly and clearly to one simple fact: they had reached the end of their tether in the matter of corruption and wanted that changed.

However, what has begun to unfold, as, literally, dozens of politicians, some of whom have not even been able to buy themselves into the legislature because of the corruption of which they have been guilty are being sworn in as “Ministers” of one description or another! This is not only unbelievable but simply disgusting. People who have been rejected in even a monumentally flawed electoral system are being inflicted on those of us who have the misfortune to watch the daily television news. Day after day, broadcast after broadcast! I know that horror movies are popular in some circles, but inflicting these characters must have Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney rolling in their graves and Jack Nicholson feeling that what followed “Here’s Johnnie” is beyond passe!

The response to the seeming conundrum is simple except that, given the continuing slide into the slime that “Yahapaalanaya” is generating, it is not going to be easy. Every person of decency should open every available window and door and shout the timeless words of the late Peter Finch in that groundbreaking film, “Network,” a true classic: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Futile? Who knows. You certainly won’t until you try it and, besides, what alternative is there to resistance in any shape, form or fashion to what is promising to put the final nail in the coffin of democracy in this country we call home?

I challenge anyone to provide an alternative to what I have just said.

In all fairness and lest this outburst is being treated as purely a prophesy of doom and gloom, there are some glimmers of hope.

One of them is the appointment of a dignified and intelligent man as Leader of the Opposition. It does show that we do have the capacity to return to lawful conduct of our affairs. It’s a start but is certainly not much more than that.

We need to continue down that path and the first thing we need to do is stop giving preferential treatment to major figures in the last regime and launch prosecutions to the full extent of the law. A small first step is having the mass graves being unearthed all over the country subjected to forensic investigation and assigning responsibility to whoever had immediate responsibility for those “burial details” and please no more “scientific analyses” by two-bit outfits in some part of the USA (located in some neighbourhood 7-Eleven, perhaps) or blatant lies such as that in respect of the mass grave in the premises of the Matale hospital, of all places, that they were bodies of people who died in an epidemic of smallpox that afflicted the Matale District in the 1940s. Simply put, there is no such epidemic on record. Additionally, I’d strongly urge that whoever made such a statement be taken into custody and charged for deliberately seeking to impede the course of justice.

There is also the obscenity of the “K.P.case.” Kumaran Pathmanathan, to use the alias most commonly applied to him is probably the single biggest merchant of death during recent times, the weapons procurer for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), its leader on the demise of Velupillai Prabhakaran and figuring prominently on the “Red List” of Interpol. The most recent bulletin on the subject of this man who would have been a star accused at the Nurnberg Trials claimed that the evidence against him “had been destroyed.” Pray tell, isn’t it an offence to destroy evidence, particularly of such massive criminality and why is nobody being held responsible for this monstrous crime? All of this is truly unbelievable and, if I might be permitted the use of the “b-word” again, bizarre.

I am sorry that Mr. Mayadunne chose to throw in the towel in the conflict between what are, simply put, good and evil. I hope that there are still some among us who will seek to have this country restored to one in which we can live in peace and amity and where the rule of law will prevail.

None of what I am suggesting is rocket science and can be instituted with the resources available to the state at this point of time. What appears to be lacking is the will to act.

Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister and those near and dear to you whom you trust, we’ve had enough of the never-ending equivocation and now this irrational behaviour both in the matter of appointments to positions of power and importance and the blatant lack of will to act to bring to justice those accused of the most heinous of crimes.

Cease and desist forthwith in the matter of your present conduct and get on with the job that we, the people, entrusted you with!

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