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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Current crime wave generated by ruling family acolytes is unprecedented in annals of modern Lanka

Tisaranee Gunasekara –  “Look over the edge of the abyss, and consider how close we are to losing what we have created here. Ask yourselves if the time has not arrived for us to come to our senses, to break out of our paralysis, to demand for ourselves, finally, the lives that we deserve to live”. David Grossman (2006 Rabin Memorial Lecture – New York Review of Books -11.1.2007)

The unprecedented victory over the LTTE is being followed by equally unprecedented, albeit less felicitous, events.

Abuse of power is hardly a novelty in Lankan politics. But the current crime wave generated by political acolytes of the Ruling Family is unprecedented in the annals of modern Lanka. Lawlessness is far from uncommon in times of war and conflict, but the crime wave we are experiencing is happening in peacetime.

Never in Ceylon/Sri Lanka did a politician tie a public official to a tree, in public; never in Ceylon/Sri Lanka did two political factions of the same party engage in a no-holds-barred gun battle at a busy suburban junction in broad daylight, causing four deaths. Never in Ceylon/Sri Lanka did a politician become implicated in such a horrendous crime as the lynching of an unarmed man and the gang-rape of a woman. If the victims of that last and most abominable crime had been Sri Lankans, Sampath Chandrapushpa, the Chairman of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha, would have got away with it, just as he got away with killing an elderly woman during the 2010 Presidential election campaign (plus several less onerous offences).

The AL results fiasco is the penultimate in a long series of politico-administrative errors, which included the Hedging Deal and the importation of adulterated fuel.

Though Lankan administrations have a far from stellar record in such areas as efficacy and probity, mistakes and misdeeds of this magnitude and frequency are utterly unprecedented in our post-Independence history. Last week’s fire in the Lakvijaya coal power plant, the third since its commissioning just 13 months ago, is the latest disaster in this series of major and minor mess-ups. According to senior officials of the CEB, these frequent fires happen because the plant lacks “the necessary protection required for a plant of its nature….. So there is always the tendency for a fire to breakout” (The Island – 7.1.2012).

The surviving victim of the Tangalle lynching, Russian tourist Victoria Alexandrovna, had identified the suspected murderers, including Sampath Chandrapushpa. Her inability to identify her rapists indicates that she was unconscious when she was raped, as claimed by eye witnesses and reported in the media.

Will the Rajapaksas move to suspend their abhorrent acolyte’s party membership and remove him from his position as the Chairman of the Tangalle Pradesheeya Sabha, at least now? Doing so will send a clear warning to other would-be-warlords in the UPFA, while a failure to do so would amount to giving impunity another disastrous fillip.

No country with an under-funded and dysfunctional education system has achieved development. If tourists are not safe from gun-toting political-thugs tourist industry can and will suffer. These two outrageous happenings, back to back, are early warning signals of a form of governance which is at variance not only with democratic rights or norms of civility but also with economic development and national prosperity.

As even the most zealous neo-liberal knows now, history never ends. In the fairy tale the hero gets the country and the princess he saved and all live happily ever after. But in real life, heroes can perpetuate their rule over their countries only by becoming as monstrous as the monsters they slew. Zimbabwe is the ideal example of the dystopian horror which results when the liberator tries to become ruler-in-perpetuity.

Despots prefer their imagined worlds to less pleasant realities. From ‘humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties’ we are progressing to equally absurdist fantasies of perfect democracy, miraculous development and peerless future prospects. This pretence is taken to grotesque extremes by acolytes because they know that their chief task is not to solve problems but to sweep them under any rug (however threadbare) to maintain appearances. An excellent case in point is the disastrous manner in which the Lankan Ambassador in Washington responded to a recent report on Sri Lanka by the International Crisis Group. Jaliya Wickremesuriya, a tea-taster turned tea merchant, is among the Rajapaksa kith and kin elevated to high positions under Rajapaksa rule. His mother is a first cousin of the Rajapaksa Siblings – a prime qualification for high office in the Rajapaksa One Family State.

During his embarrassingly bungling performance, not only did Mr. Wickremesuriya contradict himself, his logic more abysmal than even his English; he proved that he is unaware even of official information on Sri Lanka released by Lankan government institutions. Ambassador Wickremesuriya first denied the existence of a rape problem in Sri Lanka: “…..oya rapes this and that not taking any place in Sri Lanka…” (Groundviews – 6.1.2012). From this ‘zero-rape’ position, he moved to a ‘few rapes’ position: “Like any other country, we have, like couple of cases” (ibid). Clearly the Ambassador was blithely unaware that he was taking a stand totally contradictory to the findings of the Sri Lankan police:

“Police Spokesperson Superintendent of Police Ajith Rohana says the number of cases recorded from island wide so far this year was much higher than previous years” (Colombo Page – 28.12.2011).

In really existing Sri Lanka, rape is assuming crisis proportions; most of the victims of these horrendous crimes are children under the age of 16. “According to the current statistics, about 5 rapes and molestations of women take place every day… The number of incidents has seen a massive increase since 2007.The number of incidents that stood at 542 in 1995 has risen to 1,397 in 2007. There were 1,582 cases in 2008, 1,624 in 2009 and 1,854 in 2010.

The police say most of the victims were under the age of 16” (ibid – emphasis mine). Had Mr. Wickremesuriya made an effort to familiarise himself with a few official statistics, he could have avoided such an embarrassing faux pas. With ambassadors of this ilk its little wonder Sri Lanka has to spend millions of dollars hiring public relations firms to do the job diplomats performed just a few years ago.

The dismal performance of Ambassador Wickremesuriya is symbolic and symptomatic of the inherent ills of Rajapaksa governance. Under Rajapaksa rule the most important quality a politician or an administrator can possess is unquestioning obedience. If one is a relation or an acolyte, qualifications or capacities matter little.

Thus the likes of Mervyn Silva thrive; the AG’s Department makes no move to arrest Duminda Silva; Sampath Chandrapushpa got away with one heinous murder and went on to commit another.

Pretence is in the very life blood of societies with despotic rulers, because flaws, even natural ones such as unpopular leaders, are incompatible with the ‘living happily ever after’ illusion which every despot insists on maintaining. Denial forms an important part of such systems; that and blaming enemies. Ambassador Wickremesuriya is following in the footsteps of his Uncle Gotabhaya who first insisted on zero civilian casualties and then shifted to a few civilian casualties.

A recent incident demonstrated how society too is becoming infected with these habits of pretence and denial. When an imitation ring was found in a rice packet from the popular eatery Sensal, its owner first accepted responsibility and then went on to hint at the possibility of a conspiracy hatched by hostile multinationals! He also opined that ‘reporting of such distressing incidents is a national misfortune’ (Gossip Lanka – 6.1.2012).

Societies can become inured to corruption and even murder.

Tourists die, and they are even killed. But the Tangalle lynching is probably the only instance of a tourist being killed by a ruling party politician and his band of thugs. The attempts by members and supporters of the Rajapaksas to play down the gravity of this crime are almost as disturbing as the crime itself, because it indicates a growing incapacity to be outraged by the outrageous.

For once Minister Keheliya Rambukwella got it partially right. We, the people of Sri Lanka, are partly responsible for the sorry state of our polity and society. Not only do we permit rulers to violate our rights at will. We also seem to show little discretion in how we use the preference vote. All too often our preference is given not to men and women who can help the community but to moneyed criminals or pretty stars, who either look good on posters and/or have enough money to saturate the electorate with propaganda.

The argument is a circular one. Voters will say that they vote for undesirable elements because political leaders give such elements nominations; political leaders will excuse themselves by arguing that they give nominations to people of questionable character and conduct because these elements can win elections.

Both political leaders and voters have a choice. Political leaders need not give nominations to people with known criminal tendencies while voters can vote for their party and not give their preferences to such elements.

Take the example of Duminda Silva. Despite his questionable record, he was given nominations by both the UNP and the UPFA. He had two serious cases against him – one on child abuse and the other on abduction. He was also implicated in several other violent incidents. But the voters of the two major parties voted for him in huge numbers, repeatedly. At least the voters of Colombo can be exculpated in the case of another well known desperado, Mervyn Silva.

He contested from Colombo more than once and lost abysmally. Then the Rajapaksas shifted him to Kelaniya in the Gampaha district and he won the 2010 parliamentary election with a thumping preference vote tally. The UNP voters of Gampaha placed a politically neophyte actress at the head of the preference vote list, above party veteran and deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya. She rewarded their gullibility by switching side at the first opportunity.

So Minister Rambukwella was partially right. While most of the blame should accrue to the Rajapaksas and their acolytes, we the voters, cannot do a Pontius Pilate.

Criminals and other undesirable elements are very much in evidence in the parliament, in provincial councils and local government institutions not only because they get nominations from party leaders but also because they get preferences from voters. Party leaders can inflate the preference vote counts of their favourites, but building a massive tally from a place close to rock bottom would be difficult. If the voters so desire they can teach their own party leaders a lesson by not voting for candidates with criminal tendencies.

People, it is said, get the leaders they deserve, especially in democracies. If we deserve parliamentarians such as Mervyn Silva and Duminda Silva, and local government members such as Sampath Chandrapushpa, what are we?


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