Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs who also (to the eternal shame of his students) was a professor of law and a past Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University surpassed himself last week by his nonchalant announcement that the ‘Weliweriya incidents’ were ‘part and parcel of life’ (see Financial Times, August 8th 2013).
A stupendously bad governance record
This claim, which is as brazen as it is bizarre, deserves scrutiny as it sums up the entire thinking of the Rajapaksa administration which the Minister represents. It is not merely some off-the-cuff remark that came while he was attempting to explain that the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) will not be affected by these ‘incidents’ as he termed them.
True enough, the Minister sounded a tad desperate when being asked as to whether pressure by visiting Heads of State would not intensify in regard to the stupendously bad governance record of this administration as a result of inter alia, the Weliweriya ‘incidents.’ That however does not justify nor explain such a response which is bad enough coming from a politician per se but incredulous when coming from an individual supposedly trained in law.
But perhaps this is where the mistake lies; in assuming that these individuals are still aware of the law and its standards under which a Government sending out soldiers to shoot live ammunition into a crowd of protestors violates some of the most fundamental tenets, (language that this one time law professor would be familiar with), of rights to assembly, association and expression.
Ministers would have resigned in other jurisdictions
On the other hand however, the Minister’s preposterous claim is reflective of the reality, though not in a way that reflects well on his own administration nor in the exact sense that he meant. Weliweriya is indeed part and parcel of ordinary life under the Rajapaksa government. Citizens should expect routine violations of the law in the manner that state agents behave, whether in the case of the police or the army and in regard to Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim alike.
In functioning jurisdictions, the outrage of soldiers killing protestors in cold blood, storming into the premises of a church, abusing the priests and nuns (even asking priests to kneel according to eye witness accounts), hammering innocent bystanders over their heads with guns and pursing journalists engaged in the legitimate duty of reporting, would have brought about the resignation of the Minister of Defence, the Army Commander and other inferior officials. Simply put, such outrages would not happen in the first instance as the perpetrators would know full well that they would be brought to a measure of accountability.
Not so in Sri Lanka. We need to expect such impunity from this regime which is intent only on pursuing profit through destruction of livelihoods in the South and on affirming its militaristic ego in the North and East. Arbitrary acquisitions of land, the privileging of multi-million dollar businesses over the livelihoods of the poor, attacks on places of worship of other religious minorities form part of this pattern. Soon after Weliweriya, we saw the attack on the Grandpass mosque. In the North, attacks on kovils which are the most sacred places of worship for the Tamil people are routine.
A former senior public administration officer in Jaffna told me despairingly last week that after the war, all that the Tamil people wanted to do was to return to their lands, worship at their kovils and resume their life after the veritable hell that they had been through. However, they were not allowed to do this, he said. At every turn, they are humiliated, violated and trespassed upon in regard to the most sensitive aspects of their daily lives. Their lands are being taken away from them for the expansion of the military with a mere letter being issued by the Ministry of Defence. ‘Do they not want us to belong to this land?’ he asked.
Killing of innocents part of state policy
So in the pejorative turn of that phrase uttered by the External Affairs Minister, the violation of the law and the killing of innocents is part and parcel of state policy now. The sooner that we realise that truth, the better it will be for all of us.
The post-Weliweriya reactions of Sri Lanka’s rulers (I use this phrase deliberately as we are ruled not governed) does not mitigate from what happened either. Taken aback by the stunned and angry reactions of people country-wide, the Rajapaksa government backtracked in its defence of the illegal actions of a company headed by one of its favourites. The President met with representatives of the protestors and his brother in whose electoral constituency Weliweriya comes under, issued an apology. Certainly however, if these actions of the army had been taken lying down by the Weliweriya people and by ordinary Sri Lankans who stood back appalled, none of this would have occurred.
Are we newly emerged from barbarity?
Essentially, the question is not about pressure being exerted by the visiting Heads of Government whether this concerns Weliweriya, Deraniyagala, Valigamam North, (where the military acquisition of land is most acute in the Northern peninsula) Grandpass or any other place which has now become marked on the map as exemplifying the excesses of this government.
The question is about appreciating and recognising the sensibilities and sensitivities of people who have become victims of abuses by state agents. The question is about acting in conformity with the law. Sri Lanka, after all, has exhaustively developed legal standards dealing with these matters. Our judges have written well reasoned decisions on these very issues, relying not only on the law of the Commonwealth but also standards developed in international law including by entities such as the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and the European Court on Human Rights.
These standards are now thrown to the four corners of the wind by this government which acts as if it has newly emerged from barbarity. Regardless, frivolous dismissals of the excessive use of force in dealing with demonstrators akin to what we saw in Weliweriya only reflect aberrantly on the makers of such statements. Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs would do well to remember this fact despite his current role as a ministerial acolyte who famously would see no evil, hear no evil and do no evil.