By Rajan Philips –
On September 1, the people of Afghanistan woke up for the first time in 44 years without a foreign power on their soil. Two days earlier the people of Sri Lanka found themselves under a “surreptitiously declared” (as it has been aptly called) Emergency Rule – yet again in more than 70 years after independence. And two days later (Friday, September 3) a Sri Lankan migrant in New Zealand carried out a knife attack in a supermarket in Auckland. The attacker has now been identified by NZ authorities as 32-year-old Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, who arrived in New Zealand in October 2011 and was granted refugee status two years later. Local authorities in Sri Lanka have identified the assailant as a former resident of Kaththankudy in Batticaloa. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government stuck to its now routine Friday announcement of Covid-19 lockdown – which is now extended to September 13.
The imposition of emergency rule on August 30 under the pretext of dealing with the emerging food scarcity situation, is once again a reminder that governments and rulers have no qualms about restricting or putting on hold civil liberties in their countries for their own authoritarian reasons. They do not necessarily require a foreign military or agency for it. I am not sure if one should be surprised or not by the government’s decision to impose emergency rule now after steadfastly rejecting calls for emergency measures last year during the first wave of Covid-19.
As many have pointed out, the imposition of emergency rule as a food emergency measure is quite unnecessary and an obvious overreach. In addition, the government has committed another characteristic blunder and done itself a huge disservice just weeks before its biannual pilgrimage to Geneva. Professor GL Peiris (or PGLP, as he has been delightfully abbreviated) will have his work cut out in arguing his government’s case before UNHRC while the country has been placed under emergency rule by the selfsame government.
When President Jayewardene imposed Emergency Rule exclusively on the Jaffna Peninsula in 1979, the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice & Equality (MIRJE) placed it in the context of Sri Lanka’s historical experience of emergency rule – imposed either to quell working class agitations or political protests. Before and after their 1977 landslide win, JRJ and his UNP severely criticized the prolonged emergency rule of the previous (United Front) government and vowed not to impose emergency rule again. The promise was broken first in Jaffna – ostensibly to “eliminate the menace of terrorism in all its forms,” and over time more inclusively in every part of the country.
At the time the Public Security Ordinance No. 25 was enacted in 1947, fundamentally in response to the General Strike of that year, neither Sri Lanka’s first parliament nor anyone else would have foreseen the law becoming, 30 years later, a powerful weapon in the hands of a single individual, namely, an elected president. Even under the presidential system, parliament retained the power to periodically review and endorse the continuation of emergency rule. It makes no difference, however, when the President enjoys a rubber-stamp majority in the legislature.
In any event, the second Rajapaksa regime (2010-2014) managed to find ways to finesse around this requirement. One of the achievements of the one-term Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was its success in avoiding the imposition of emergency rule. As well, the same government put an end to arbitrary arrests and detentions, and to kidnappings and disappearances outside the law’s radar. Emergency rule is back now, surreptitiously or not, and we know not how far its tentacles will be set to stretch during the remainder of this regime’s tenure. What we know is that emergency rule is not going to be of any help in either controlling Covid-19 or helping people survive their current ordeals.
America and Asia
There is a critical lesson for Sri Lanka from the experience of Afghanistan over the last 20 years. That experience is also the world’s most spectacular failure of a massive development initiative backed by an equally massive military deployment. Put another way, blind investments in infrastructure development do not automatically produce economic growth and social benefits. When misapplied, they can in fact turn out to be counterproductive. Equally, the efficiency and security benefits often predicated on military deployment are ultimately unsustainable. Either they disappear as soon as the military is withdrawn, or they will degenerate if the military overstays its initial purpose. These failures have not been quite identified as inherent to the whole American project in Afghanistan. Rather, they have been noted mostly for their symptoms.
On Tuesday, August 31, as the Taliban celebrated the American military’s final flight out of Kabul, President Biden addressed the media and the country from his White House pulpit in Washington. While defiantly defending his pullout decision, the President also stressed that the “era of major military operations to remake other countries” has ended. Some have noted that no previous president has ever said such words before. But the statement in itself is not indicative of any significant change in direction. It is not only the Taliban that has to live up to its word, but also the US government that has to demonstrate that after Afghanistan there could be a different America.
There was in fact a different diplomatic demonstration in Southeast Asia even as the US was airlifting itself out of Afghanistan. In late August, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam capping off a flurry of visits by senior Biden Administration officials to ASEAN countries in recent months. Defense, digital trade and Covid-19, and not Afghanistan, figured prominently in the bilateral discussions in the two countries. In Vietnam, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was effusive about the growing US-Vietnamese co-operation, which he said was “in line with the wishes of the peoples of the two countries, and the wish the late President Hồ Chí Minh had conveyed in his letter to US President Harry Truman 75 years ago.” Truman of course ignored the now famous letter and its plea for American support to end French colonial rule in Vietnam. America is now fully courting Vietnam while the EU and France are reconsidering total reliance on the US for their security.
In Sri Lanka, the TNA is calling on the government “to present a solution” to the problems faced by the Tamil people in the North and East, and wants America to be “the mediator that studies and approves these solutions.” That is a tall ask by any measure and it has come in the wake of dinner diplomacy by the outgoing US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, that included, as guests, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran and the new Foreign Minister GL Peiris. PGLP was apparently directed to attend by his SLPP boss, Finance Minister and dual citizen, Basil Rajapaksa. The TNA has been asking for an appointment with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa “to discuss their proposals with him prior to the UNHRC session.” Now the TNA has been put on the spot to talk about the government’s decision to declare Emergency Rule. In addition, the Auckland knife attack would seem to be reinvigorating Sri Lanka’s usual political twists and quirks.
Auckland Attack and Reactions
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as has been widely reported, said that the attack was carried out ‘by an individual, not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity, but an individual person gripped by an ideology that is not supported in New Zealand by anyone.’ The New Zealand High Commission in Colombo reiterated their Prime Minister that “the perpetrator alone bears responsibility for these acts. The attack was carried out by an individual, not a faith, ethnicity or culture.” The High Commission went on to say that “New Zealand’s Sri Lankan community is, and will always be, an integral and treasured part of Kiwi society.”
Once again, this island country of five million people (72% European and changing; and 48% having ‘no religion’) and its Prime Minister are being exemplary to other political societies, big and small, powerful and powerless, about the way governments should conduct themselves when facing public crises. They have been showing it in their response to Covid-19 and in their response to terrorist attacks. For nearly a day after the attack, information about the assailant was withheld because under New Zealand law the attacker’s name could not be revealed as his refugee status was before the courts. The ban had to be lifted by a High Court judge for officials to release information.
According to New Zealand Herald, Samsudeen would appear to have claimed refugee status as “a Tamil” on the grounds that “he and his father were attacked, kidnapped and tortured because of their political background.” His claim “was supported by scars on his body,” and a psychologist’s report that presented Samsudeen as “suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.” He would also seem to have been without close family or friends in New Zealand, and the Herald noted that he was “a perfect candidate to be radicalised in his living room,” by social media.
Samsudeen first came to police attention in March 2016 after Facebook postings in support of ISIS and has reportedly told “a fellow worshipper at a mosque that he planned to join Isis in Syria, and that if he were stopped from leaving, he would commit a random “lone wolf” style knife attack in New Zealand.” In May 2017, he was stopped from leaving New Zealand on a one-way flight to Singapore and was arrested. He has been in and out of court and in and out of jail, and is known to have been combative and anti-western in his outbursts with police and in court proceedings.
NZ police kept him under constant surveillance and Immigration was taking steps to revoke his refugee status. But he could not be detained for longer terms because of a court ruling that “preparing a terrorist attack was not in itself an offence under the legislation.” Justice Matthew Downs of the NZ High Court acknowledged that this lacuna was an “Achilles’ heel”, but told Crown prosecutors that “it was for Parliament, not the courts, to create an offence of planning an attack.” Changes to the law were already in the works and Prime Minister Ardern has said that they are now being expedited.
As for Sri Lankan reactions, there is no comparison between the police and courts in New Zealand and the conduct of Sri Lankan police and prosecutors before and after 2019 Easter bombings. More importantly, New Zealand has no tradition or culture for collusions between political personas, police personnel and criminal agents. New Zealand police acted responsibly within the law but vigilantly kept their target ‘lone wolf’ under constant surveillance and pounced on him immediately and minimized the disaster. Sri Lankan police, on the other hand, and especially in the 21st century, have become accustomed to breaking the law to harass law abiding citizens, including legitimate protesters, and leaving the law to be broken by all types of criminals with political connections.
At the sociopolitical level, Sri Lanka has miles to go before it can demonstrate the cultured balance and the political courage that New Zealand’s Prime Minister, its government and opposition leaders, and its High Commission in Colombo have shown in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. May be, Sri Lankans need not be too hard on themselves because there are bigger countries known for worse reactions. There is also the larger question that is posed by the attack in Auckland coinciding with the changes in Afghanistan. Islamic fundamentalism is vigorously back on the geopolitical radar, but with a new twist – pitting the old Taliban against its new ISIS avatars. Sri Lanka can learn from New Zealand to respond to these challenges with transparent care, caution and intelligence, without political calculation and ethnic emotions.