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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Expose The Old Regime To Risk Its Return – by Ranga Kalansuriya

[68,000 of them were recovered. who paid for them and who ordered them?]

Our ‘democratic spring’ could well be short lived

President Maithripala Sirisena has asked exiled journalists to return, promising an end to attacks on media and the culture of impunity. The new media minister Gayantha Karunathilaka echoed the same assurance when he assumed duties last week.

As of now, the new President has remained true to his promises; he has shown no interest in personal aggrandisement and shown a flexibility – unseen in his predecessor- in the national question.

He appointed a civilian governor for the Northern Province; removed restrictions on travel in the North and East by foreign passport holders, unblocked dissenting websites and promised a fresh investigation into the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

And he has gone an extra mile, shunning a second term and then, most unexpectedly, telling his supporters and coterie of turncoats to remove cutouts and banners that they have put up in his honour and to desist from doing that in the future.

That is a remarkable gesture of integrity, which not only his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but his mentor, Chandrika Kumaratunga were not capable of in their time.

President Sirisena could well be an accidental leader, but, he is surely representing higher political values than most of his counterparts.

The regime of his predecessor thrived in a fear psychosis and conspiracy theories which provided a justification of its military centric rule in the North and authoritarianism in the South.

President Sirisena is gradually debunking those fallacies.

Under his presidency, Sri Lanka may be experiencing a democratic spring. But, I have my fingers crossed: the days of new found optimism could well be short lived; whatever the democratic reforms undertaken during the first 100 days of Sirisena’s Presidency risks being overturned.

Mahinda Rajapaksa may return with a vengeance. Exiled journalists and dissidents that the new government is courting back would have to defend themselves from marauding white vans, hired thugs and military intelligence units.

Tamils and Muslims who voted Sirisena to power in en-masse would pay a price for their insubordination. Lake House and Rupavahini would resume singing paeans to the Rajapaksas. Hudson Samarasinha would ruin your morning with his hate filled slanderous commentary on the State radio.

Rajapaksa can still pose a formidable challenge should he contest (Which he would) at the General Elections to be announced in three months.
He won the majority of Sinhalese votes on January 8 Presidential election; a feat he can repeat.

He has handed the chairmanship of the SLFP over to Sirisena, but should Rajapaksa get elected at the Parliamentary elections (And provided that the SLFP wins the most number of seats) he would vie for the post of newly empowered Prime Minister and retake the control of the party and the country.

He tried to make a comeback through a national list seat, but, had to give up on the legal grounds (As only those who have been on the list can be appointed through the National List)

The old regime robbed the country’s wealth, turned an entire nation into a familial fiefdom and its key stakeholders officially sanctioned a series of attacks on dissidents. Interestingly, in an interview with NDTV, young Namal Rajapaksa has justified the dynastic rule of his father.

But, the thrust of the problem is that the indoctrination of the public under the old regime is so intense, that still a sizeable segment of Sinhalese folks consider Rajapaksa being their saviour.

This servile adulation is not uniquely Sri Lankan. Rajapaksa reminds me of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister, who nurtured a personality cult among the country’s rural poor, through the provision of generous government subsidies, while dismantling democracy in one of the few practising democracies in Asia.

Even after he was forced out in a bloodless military coup, after the rich and the elite rose up against his regime, Thaskin’s party continued to win every election held since then.

(His sister Yingluck, who was the last Prime Minister was also forced to step down last year, after the Constitutional Court ruled that she had abused power)
The polarisation of the Thai society has now made democracy elusive under multiparty elections.

The Sri Lankan electorate suffers from the same systemic defects that beset its Thai counterpart. Rajapaksa would exploit those shortcomings. He and his cronies are already complaining that Sirisena failed to obtain a majority from the Sinhalese voters.

Equally dangerously, the Rajapaksa regime has built and nurtured a deep State, which is a combination of servile judiciary, a politicised military, all powerful intelligence agencies, a coterie of wheeler-dealer media owners and newly rich racketeers, who made their ill-gotten wealth thanks to the kleptocratic familial system.

When the Chief Justice himself is a member of the old regime, it places the new administration in a tricky place.

When Chief Justice Mohan Peiris is seen in the Temple Trees in the wee hours of the election-day, it raises concerns over his integrity, notwithstanding his very appointment itself which was a mockery on judicial independence.

Now, he has been accused of being part of an attempt to illegally retain power after Rajapaksa lost election. Only an independent investigation would reveal the truth about those allegations, which the former President has however denied. Then, there is the military of which higher echelons have been subjected to intense politicisation.

Former president Rajapaksa purged the military after Sarath Fonseka’s electoral challenge in 2010; two dozens of respected senior officers were sent on compulsory retirement and the military, specially the senior ranks were subjected to politicisation. It is interesting that the Army has not made an official comment on the allegations (Now a complaint on the alleged plot has been lodged with the CID) that the ex-president sought the military help to disrupt the counting of votes and retain power through extra constitutional means.

The silence could be proof of the degree of confusion felt by the military top brass, since the recent political changes.

There are also the Terrorist Investigating Division (TID), State Intelligence Service (SIS) and separate intelligence arms of tri –forces; all have been used to spy on and terrorise political opponents, journalists and dissidents.

Military intelligence operatives were behind the repeated disruption of media workshops in recent times.

Also, the cronies of the old regime continue to control the lion’s share of media in the country. Those ‘nobodies’ who became ‘somebodies’ thanks to wheeler-dealing pose a grave threat not only to free media, but also to the ambitious democratic project now being undertaken by the new government.

In addition, there are newly rich businessmen, who made whopping billions of rupees thanks to their connections with the Rajapaksas.

All those unsavory elements owe their existence to the old regime. They would come in collision with democratic reforms.

There is only one practical way to meet this particular challenge: Expose the regime in its gory detail.

The government should investigate white van abductions, killings of journalists, dissidents, and ordinary Tamils and bring the perpetrators to justice. Under the old regime, investigations into the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge were suspended on the orders of the political leadership.

The former head of Military intelligence corps, who was sent to Eretria as Sri Lanka’s counsel general there, was recalled during a military investigation into Lasantha’s killing and twelve soldiers of a special army unit were confined to the barrack before the orders were issued to suspend the investigation.
Investigations into the disappearance of Ekneligoda were suspended, again on the instructions from the political higher ups, after the police traced the last caller to Prageeth’s cell phone to Batticaloa.

The new government should open fresh investigations and instruct the military top brass, vast majority of whom have no involvement in those crimes, to cooperate. Investigations, if conducted independently could well reveal the culpability of some, who are partners of the current administration.

However, such an exposure and eventual legal action would have a cleansing effect on the current administration. One should not have misgivings that only the Rajapaksa brothers wielded monopoly in violence in the past.

Also, equally mind boggling is the extent of the alleged mega corruption and economic malpractices, ranging from large scale cost inflation of mega infrastructure projects to manipulation of the Colombo Stock Market.

The government rather than indulging in regular allegations should conduct an independent investigation into those charges.

Several complaints against the key stakeholders of the old regime have now been lodged with the Bribery Commission.

However, the present Bribery Commission, staffed with the cronies and stooges of the old regime, including its chairman Jagath Balapatabendi, who himself is facing a corruption charge, would not fit for this momentous task. The government would have to set up a new independent commission and appoint qualified technical staff.

In the contemporary world history, when despots step down, they engage in extensive bargaining to secure immunity for their past sins. Last week, President Rajapaksa himself sought that he and his family be protected from investigations.

The new President assured that he would not indulge in a witch hunt, nor would he interfere with investigating agencies.

However, when the time passes by, enthusiasm would also fade away. It is when those seedy deals of immunity are entered into.

There again the question is about the political will to investigate those gruesome economic crimes.

Sirisena has surprised millions of Sri Lankans by displaying a degree of personal integrity unseen in contemporary Sri Lankan politics.

However, whether the UNP leadership has the same commitment to bring the robber barons and modern day Ceausescues to justice is open to question. Ranil Wickremesinge, a clean politician he may be, is a status quo player. He lacks political will for decisive actions- which saw a previous UNP government being ousted in 2004 by a Constitutional Coup hatched by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

That is why those of the JVP and JHU’s Patali Champika Ranawaka and Ven. Rathana Thera, whose commitment to good governance is a pleasant contrast to their regressive standing on the national question, should lead the campaign to bring to justice the robber barons who robbed billions of public money, earned by our women who toiled in Arab households under near slave like conditions.

People who admire Rajapaksa for winning the war and putting in place mega infrastructure projects, also ought to know about the billions of rupees of public funds siphoned by the regime.

People deserve to know who the real owner(s) of the Dubai Marriott Hotel are. A determined government can launch an independent international investigation, with the assistance of international partners to trace billions of rupees taken out of Sri Lanka and also to recover the nation’s wealth.

This government has no choice, but to push forward with a genuine independent investigation into the crimes of the old regime. The exposure of the grime details of the Rajapaksa regime would be an eye opener for some sections of the public, who are still blinded by servile loyalty.

Mahinda Rajapaksa thrived in collective ignorance, that begets blind loyalty to the regime. The new government should shock the public out of their compliancy.

If the government fails to do that, it would be at the expense of our new found democracy.
Courtesy _ Daily Mirror


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