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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The abnormal as normal is normalcy in not so normal Sri Lanka

Namini Wijedasa
This is not normal.
In coffee lounges and around dinner tables in contemporary Sri Lanka, it is not uncommon for people to talk flippantly about who abducted whom or who killed whom in police custody. And despite everything that many Sri Lankans might think or say to the contrary…that isn’t normal, you know.

I was recently in a discussion with a senior government official, a public servant of the highest calibre. I brought up the issue of abductions and disappearances. I pointed out that some people were turning up dead.

Others were still missing. Yet more were taken away, thoroughly roughed up and dumped somewhere in the expectation that they will find their way home.

As I spoke, I injected into my voice what I thought was the right amount of judicious indignation (and horror). But the public servant met my gaze calmly and asked: “What disappearances? What abductions?” Needless to say, I spluttered. “Why, those abductions!” I said. And he replied: “Oh, do you mean those underworld characters?”

To be honest, I don’t know the profile of every person in this country that was abducted or has disappeared in recent times. I’m guessing that some of them might, indeed, have been “underworld characters”.

Who can tell? They were not subjected to a verifiable investigative or judicial process to determine whether they dwelled under the world or above it. Some people might have been privy to that knowledge but not all.

And what of those who might not have been ʺunderworld characters”? What of those who are taken away on a hunch? What of Tamils whose relatives say they were last seen in the custody of the armed forces and are still missing? What of people who disappear that have no criminal profile at all? What of people who are abducted as revenge for personal disputes? What of politicians that abduct their rivals? All types are being taken away in white vans. It may be commonplace now but… this is not normal, you know.

Underworld or not, countries have systems and processes in place to ensure that justice is meted out to every individual. Democracies respect the rule of law. Sri Lanka is a democracy, but increasingly only in name. It is not for an abductor—whoever it may be—to decide who is or isn’t a criminal. It is for a court of law.

If this dangerous trend continues, it will soon be a free-for-all in Sri Lanka. Anybody could abduct anybody and nobody would think it unusual. Oh, wait a minute… silly me. It already is a free-for-all! No. This really is not normal.

Take deaths in police custody. Not a month passes by without at least one taking place. As for torture in police custody, let’s not even go there. Every police station in the country is a hotbed of torture. It happens every week, if not every day. Unfortunately, only a fraction of cases is reported. Sri Lankans take it for granted that torture does and will occur at the hands of police. It is not thought of as an aberration. This definitely is not normal.

And amidst all this and other more serious crises in the country, Ranil Wickremesinghe lumbers around waffling about his party constitution. He has full powers not only to give orders but to ensure strict discipline, it seems. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer UNPers are giving a donkey’s behind about his powers. Far larger numbers are wondering whether they would ever see the back of him.

At a heroic speech in Kandy, Wickremesinghe has lamented that the rule of law has collapsed. He has pledged to mobilise the masses under the UNP leadership to fight injustice and oppression.

Dude, Ranil, let’s have some perspective here. Oppression is serious business. It’s not like a few chumps flinging rocks at your building, tearing the fence down or storming the venue while you quiver tremulously inside. It requires (among other things) organisational skills, the ability to unite people behind a single, charismatic force, lucidity, a compelling personality, unshakeable commitment to fair play, a common touch and a certain freshness of outlook and presence. Let’s not hoodwink yourself into believing you have all that.

The only thing Wickremesinghe has successfully mobilised in recent months is a determined challenge to his leadership. But despite relentless pressure on him to step down, he has stayed resolutely in his seat. The voices of “dissidents” are silenced. They are removed from key party positions and committees. Disciplinary proceedings are initiated against those that oppose him. Their views are not accommodated. The main opposition is crumbling, incapable of reaching consensus on any national issue.

In the meantime, Wickremesinghe has surrounded himself with blind, eggshell-treading worshippers who will never steer the UNP to an electoral victory. This, ladies and gentleman, is the chap who wants to fight oppression. Cute, no? courtesy: LakbimaNews.lk


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