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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sri Lanka: Where journalists self-abduct and ecocide is green – Tisaranee Gunasekara

Image: journalists  Sujeewa Gamage who was abducted and tortured speaking at  a Press Conference.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two is four. If that is allowed all else follows.” ~ Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four)

To mark the Global Climate Action Day, the youth wing of the Wild Life and Nature Protection Society put up a massive mural decrying ecocide.

The President’s environmental-loving soul was lacerated by that unsightly sight. The mural spoiled the environment, he explained. Environment is not being destroyed he said. No one knows environmental protection like I do, he added.

Coaxing and compelling people into denying the obvious, the self-evident, is the starting point in any experiment in reality control. The Final Eelam War was a Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties. Open prison camps in which more than 300,000 civilian Tamils were incarcerated were Welfare Villages. The loss of nearly 15 billion rupees in the Sugar scam is not a loss but ‘foregoing of revenue’. Who needs Oxygen?

Forests are unruly, uncontrollable, wild badlands, like dissidents. They might even be unpatriotic since they obscure the vistas of prosperity and splendour. To protect the environment patriotically, you need proper parks, with neat trees, well-behaved wines, and disciplined bushes.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation is planning a change of laws to enable the sterilisation or killing of wild animals who ‘harm agriculture’. Presidential attention has been drawn by some monks to the dearth of tame elephants. The monks and the Tame Elephant Owners Association want a short and a long term plan to deal with this pressing national issue. Capture elephant calves, tame them through violence, bind them in leg iron, and condemn them to a life of enslavement as perahara fixtures or tourist attractions. Wouldn’t that be a final solution to the human-elephant conflict?

A history-making development

In a history-making development, the head of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people, Uruwarigelage Wannila Eththo (together with the Environmental Justice Centre) has filed a writ petition in the Court of Appeal about his community’s loss of ancestral land. In the petition, he claims that for countless generations, his community has lived in the mountain ranges of Pollebedda and Horikana. In 2020, 6000 acres belonging to this forest reserve had been divided into 15 parcels and sold to 15 companies by the Mahaweli Authority. The resultant environmental destruction will have wide ranging implications, because of its effect on the catchment areas of the Rambakan Oya reservoir, the writ petition warns.

“You cannot have development without destroying the environment,” claimed Minister Sanath Nishantha (he of ‘why oxygen?’ fame). That indeed seems to be the thinking of the current regime. But like our prudish-morality, this anti-environmental approach to economic growth is a residue of colonial thinking, and a legacy of laissez-faire capitalism which believed in subsuming everything to profit.

When the American Civil War broke out, the politically powerful textile manufacturers in England feared that the end of slavery would affect their supply of cheap cotton and tried to get England to enter the war on the Southern side. England’s Factory Act of 1844 banning the employment of children below 9 years of age and Mines Act of 1842 prohibiting women and girls from working underground and introducing a minimum age of 10 for boys were enacted over the objections of those who argued that the legislations would cause a decline in family income, a collapse of industry and massive unemployment. History proved them wrong.

Last week, the skies in Beijing turned orange due to a massive sandstorm and air pollution, the direct result of environmental degradation around the city. As the UN Secretary General warned, humanity’s war on nature is “senseless and suicidal.”

“The ongoing environmental destruction is a worse danger than the pandemic,” Wannila Eththo has stated. If kumbuk trees in Kataragama are being felled to facilitate helicopter landings, if the Wildlife Minister forcibly frees a timber racketeer detained by Wildlife officials, then the message is clear. Ecocide is no accident or oversight. It is Rajapaksa policy. An environment degraded beyod the point of no return might well become the only lasting Rajapaksa legacy.

Tentacles of Repression

On Global Day for Climate Action, the director of the Environmental Police came in person to the Vihara Maha Devi Park to remove the mural decrying ecocide. Smiling benignly, the senior policeman explained that the mural uglifies our beautiful Colombo. “There was garbage everywhere in the city,” he explained. “But after the new government came in there’s no garbage anywhere. No dust. Everything is cleaned, flowers are planted, beautified.” Then he delivered the piece de resistance. “See even this conversation about the environment is happening after our government came”.

Our government! A senior policeman, blessed with an abundance of zeal and a paucity of discretion, acknowledging the police’s new role as propagandists for and enforcers of the Rajapaksa regime.

Kings and monkeys

No wonder the police rushed to question that courageous young woman, Bhagya Abayaratne, for exposing the degradation of the Sinharaja forest. No wonder the police tried to lock up journalist Sujeewa Gamage, for claiming that he was abducted and tortured. What else can the police do, given their new role, but discredit messengers and turn victims into criminals?

Bhagya Abeyratne

When Bhagya Abeyratne appealed to the conscience of a nation with her passionate words on Sirasa Lakshapathi quiz programme, her visibly concerned father expressed his fear that they will not be able live in the village. The police not only questioned Ms. Abeyratne. They reportedly made enquiries about her family in the village, probably in the hope of digging some dirt and using it to frighten her into silence or discrediting her voice.

After his alleged abduction, journalist Sujeewa Gamage was warded in the National Hospital for several days. When he was discharged, the police were waiting for him. He claims that he was forced to consent to a false confession. He also claims that the threats levelled at him included the decapitation of his wife and harm to his young son.

Hejaaz Hisbullah

His story indicates a possible pattern. The police tried to get several children to give false evidence against lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah. This illegal attempt was made in the magistrate’s chamber, in his presence. The revelation was made by the magistrate himself in open court. Police Sub-Inspector Sugath Mohan Mendis informed the Gampaha magistrate that he was arrested because he refused to give false evidence against Shani Abeysekara.

In a letter written to the Human Rights Commission, the lawyer for the jailed poet Ahnaf Jazeem claimed that his client is being threatened to make incriminating admissions. He also claimed that Mr. Jazeem was handcuffed to a chair for the first two weeks of his detention.

What seems evident is a concerted attempt to use the entire state machinery to discredit anyone who wittingly or unwittingly contradicts the Rajapaksa narrative. This was how Rajapaksa law and Rajapaksa justice worked during Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. For example, In 2011, Mohan Peiris informed the UN Committee Against Torture, “Our current info is that Mr. Ekneligoda has taken refuge in a foreign country… It’s not something that I am saying with a tongue in my cheek, it’s something that we are reasonably certain of…” But when cross-examined during the court hearing into Mr. Ekneligoda’s disappearance in 2012, Mr. Peiris said: “I have no information that the corpus is alive or not and I do not think the government does either and that God only knows where Ekneligoda is.” This was the man handpicked by the Rajapaksas to be AG, Chief Justice, and is now Sri Lankan’s UN Ambassador.

Once again, public officials are being used as Rajapaksa apologists and defenders, in direct violation of their duties and responsibilities. Once again, discrediting the government is treated as an unpardonable crime. This is the context in which the latest addition to the PTA should be viewed.

De-radicalisation gazette 

The Prevention of terrorism (De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No 01 of 2021 can result in the mass incarceration of minorities and opponents of the government, without even a faux trial. Given its wide scope and ambiguous wording, this gazette can enable the police to detain anyone on suspicion of being an extremist, and to condemn him/her to a ‘rehabilitation centre’ for a period of one year with only the consent of the AG and a magistrate. There will be no trial. In all probability, the suspect will not be given a chance to refute the charges against him/her.

Are the Rajapaksas borrowing a page from the political playbook of their Chinese masters? Is this the Lankan version of China’s Transformation through Education project which has caused incarcerated around one million Uighurs?

The internment might begin with Muslims, but it won’t be long before other communities too fall victim, including those Sinhalese who insist that two plus two is four and ecocide is happening.

Reality Control

Under Rajapaksa rule, sugar is the bitterest pill to swallow. The rupees 15.9 billion loss – or the foregoing of revenue, as the Treasury Secretary phrased it – is probably the biggest scam in the scam-ridden history of independent Sri Lanka.

According to media reports, the lion share of the ‘foregone revenue’ has turned into a gained revenue for one company, Pyramid Wilmar Ltd, a subsidiary of Wilmar International, a global leader in agribusiness, especially Palm Oil. The head of Wilmar International, Kuok Khoon Hong is a member of well known Kuok business family which owns the Shangri-La hotel chain. Colombo Shangri-La was built on the land that once housed military headquarters. The land was sold to the Shangri-La during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Since the hotel’s opening in December 2017, it hosted several Viyath Maga events including a gala gathering at which Gotabaya Rajapaksa presented his Vision 2030 policy programme.

The NMRA saga

Last week, the State Minister of Health abruptly and arbitrarily sacked four board members of the National Medicines Regulatory Authority. The NMRA chairman resigned in protest. According to media reports, the NMRA had withheld approval for China’s Sinopharm vaccine, probably on the very sound ground that the WHO is yet to approve it. The board was immediately stocked. The newly reconstituted board bestowed its approval on the Sinopharm vaccine with no delay or ado.

The Rajapaksas might be inept at controlling inflation or fulfilling myriad election promises. But when it comes to taking care of their interests, they never prevaricate. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the opposition.

The opposition’s inaction means that some issues go unchallenged, while in others fringe elements are filling the vacuum. For example, the ultra racist Sinhala Ravaya is rapidly taking over the ecocide issue. The monks went to Sinharaja to visit the land Bhagya Abayarane talked about and are leading the protest against the alleged construction of a road through Rumassala to a hotel owned by Dudley Sirisena. If this process continues, the oppositional space too will become Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist and not truly Lankan. Quite apart from the undesirability of such an outcome from a national point of view, an abiding lesson in Lankan electoral history is that the UNP has never won any national election without minority support. That would be true of its offshoot SJB as well.

The politicised monks

The politicised monks might cavort in the oppositional space, but when it comes to election times, they will go with the Rajapaksas. Their allegiance to Rajapaksa politics seems way greater than their adherence to the Buddha’s teachings. When Medagoda Abayatissa thero was asked about ongoing militarisation, he began his answer by saying, “The Lord Buddha ensured the discipline of monks through a total military training” (Ravaya – 31.1.21). In trying to win over such elements, the opposition is likely to stay silent or respond just marginally to some of the most damaging of the Rajapaksa measures such as the proposed extra-judicial internment of suspected extremists.

In his review of Alan Mikhail’s God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, his Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern World, Charles Saravan emphasised Islam’s history of openness and tolerance. This extended beyond the Ottoman Empire. For example, Muslim Granada and Cordoba had about 12 synagogues each at a time Jews were bloodily persecuted in the rest of Spain. This history is something both anti-Islamic extremists and Islamic fundamentalists deny. The best way to counter Islamic extremism lies in this history and not by interning any Muslim who says something unacceptable to a bigot of another religion.

The new gazette, by enabling mass internment, will create new breeding grounds for extremism. And nothing would serve the Rajapaksa project better. That way, Sri Lanka, like Orwell’s Oceania, will never lack enemies, and will ever be susceptible to the false promises of self-proclaimed deliverers.

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