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Thou shallt not oppose the ruling family: New First commandment for Sri Lanka

Tisaranee Gunasekara
“The evils of tyranny are rarely seen but by him who resists it”. John Hay (Castilian Days II)
 ‘Either you are with us or against us’: that was the Rajapaksa leitmotiv during the Fourth Eelam War. According to this credo, only those who supported and obeyed the Rajapaksas, uncritically and unquestioningly, were considered ‘friends’ by the Ruling Siblings. Everyone else was castigatingly-categorised as ‘national enemies’, irrespective of their stance on the LTTE.
That was how those two key architects of the Appeasement Process, GL Peiris and Milinda Moragoda, became transformed into patriots.

That was how organisations such as the UTHR and the Human Rights Watch, which laboured tirelessly to expose such reprehensible Tiger practices as child conscription, murder and extortion, were condemned as ‘pro-LTTE’.

Throughout the war years, the Ruling Siblings used the state and the law to favour ‘friends’ and punish ‘enemies’. Friends received protection and succour, sympathy and compensation, accolades and assistance.

Non-friends – and this very fluid category included civilian Tamils as well as Southern dissidents – were accorded neither the protection of the law nor the assistance of the state. They were harassed, abused and even killed, with impunity, with scant relief and no recourse to justice.

Many Lankans would have regarded this Manichean policy as a temporary measure, made necessary by the exigencies of the war. But it continues to be a basic premise of Rajapaksa-governance, post-war. In fact, the practice of using and abusing the law to aid supporters and punish opponents has become intensified in the last two and a half years. And with each such act, a brutally clear message is sent to the society at large: those who are with the Rajapaksas will flourish; those who are against them will not.

This message was powerfully conveyed when Gen. Sarath Fonseka was jailed, even as KP became an honoured state-guest with his own NGO.

By conflating patriotism with pro-Rajapakasaism, the Ruling Siblings were able to anoint loyalty to themselves as theabsolute priority, over and above every other concern or tie. The persecution and prosecution of Danuna Tilakaratne’s aged grandmother for sheltering her fugitive grandson symbolised the creation of a new ethos, with ‘Thou shalt not oppose the Ruling Family’ as its First Commandment.

According to this new political-morality, loyalty to the Ruling Family is the greatest – and the only really necessary – virtue. If you have it, you are assured a place in the political Shangri-la, irrespective of any other vice. If you are devoid of that cardinal virtue, you will be consigned to the nether-regions, irrespective of every other virtue you possess.

Last week the Rajapaksas took the next logical step from evicting Colombo’s poor and grabbing their tiny but strategically located properties. Using a confounding mix of the legal and illegal, they moved to possess assets belonging to an anti-government businessman, thereby sending a message to the entire business community: about the deadly dangers of opposing Rajapaksa Rule.

The Bill to expropriate assets deemed by the Siblings to be ‘underperforming’ or ‘underutilised’ was hatched in secrecy and in clear violation of all norms and procedures. It was prepared not by the AG’s Department but by a private law firm; its contents and even its very existence was kept a secret from both the parliament and the general public until it was sent to the Supreme Court for its opinion (even the Bar Association of Sri Lanka knew nothing about it, as its President stated subsequently). And the Supreme Court was asked to decide on the Bill within 48 hours. Thus every conceivable step was taken to keep the polity and the public in ignorance about the Bill, thereby rendering impossible any petitions to the Supreme Court challenging it.

As the President of the BASL, Shibly Aziz, pointed out in a courageously frank statement, the Bill was presented to the Supreme Court as a piece of legislation ‘urgent in the national interest’. This “removes the opportunity granted to citizens to challenge a Bill and removes from the Supreme Court the time of three weeks available for consideration for inconsistency with the Constitution”

The true intent of the Bill became evident last Thursday, when government supporters “stormed and occupied” one of the companies mentioned in the Bill, the Sevanagala Sugar Industries, owned by a businessman belonging to the UNP. “Company owner Daya Gamage said a director of the company was beaten up and other managers were locked out by a pro-government mob which also damaged two vehicles and disrupted work at the factory. ‘We have complained to the police, but nothing is being done to protect the factory’, Gamage told reporters in Colombo (AFP – 5.11.2011).

The Siblings’ decision to place parliamentarian Duminda Siva above the law sent a clear message to SLFP seniors (and juniors) about the dangers of not supporting the Rajapaksas wholeheartedly (The current cacophonic-silence in the SLFP demonstrates that this lesson has been learnt fast and well). Similarly, the wholly invasion and occupation of the Sevanagala Sugar Industries, without even the benefit of a dubious law, is a warning to the Lankan private sector of the inadvisability of opposing Familial Rule. Given the spineless nature of the Lankan business community (with a few, very honourable exceptions), there cannot be any doubt that the warning will be heeded.

As Mr. Azis stated, the categorisation of the bill as one in urgent national interest is unwarranted: “No reason is discernible as to why the Bill could not have been placed on the Order Paper of Parliament for the citizenry to be able to exercise their right of pre-enactment review of the proposed legislation within one week of such placement (this procedure is itself quite quick).

The institutions expressly covered by the Bill have been in their present state for years, and in the circumstances, any urgency that justifies negation of the full exercise of the right of pre-enactment review by concerned citizens/affected persons is questionable…. The Bar Association itself was unaware of the fact that such a Bill of tremendous implication was being referred to the Supreme Court, until after the Supreme Court had taken the matter up for consideration”.

The Bill and its manner of enactment are as archetypal of Rajapaksa Rule as the 18th Amendment. The entire exercise is premised on the faux equation of nation with the Ruling Family, and, thus national interest with Rajapaksa interest. The Expropriation Bill is not in the national interest, urgent or otherwise; but it is indubitably in the Rajapaksa interest, because it will enable the Siblings to kill two birds with one stone: make money and punish opponents (both are key Rajapaksa considerations).

If approved – and it will be approved – the Bill will set a dangerous precedent. Soon other laws will be introduced to expropriate other assets, which can then be sold/leased to fill Rajapaksa-coffers. Eventually the poor, the middle classes and the rich will all be affected.

The total hypocrisy of the Bill becomes evident when it is considered in conjunction with the latest COPE Report. The Report investigates 249 state-owned companies which made a collective (and colossal) loss of Rs.19 billion in just two years (2007 – 2009). As Minister DEW Gunasekara, who heads the COPE, pointed out, “The appointment of unqualified people to top management posts on political grounds and the lack of financial and administrative disciplines had ruined many of the public enterprises” (LBO – 3.11.2011).

Governments the world over have the common habit of appointing unsuitable people to important positions based on political loyalty. But in Sri Lanka, under Rajapaksa Rule, political loyalty seems to have become the sole-criterion for all appointments, major or minor.

Sachin Vaas Gunawardane, who lost billions of rupees at Mihin Air, and Ashanta de Mel of the hedging infamy are two extreme-examples of this omnipresent practice.

The COPE has made some excellent recommendations on how to nurse these loss-making entities back to financial health. As Minister DEW Gunasekara stated, “One of our strong recommendations will be to appoint educated and professionally qualified people to the top management at these institutions” (ibid). Another excellent recommendation is making “all top officials and board members accountable for financial or administrative malpractices even after they had left their places of employment” (Daily Mirror – 3.11.2011).

So the regime has been set a task, in the national interest, by a multi-party parliamentary committee. The regime has been told to set its own house in order and offered some useful advice on how to set about it. If the Rajapaksas really care about the nation, they should focus on these 249 loss-making state enterprises, since a failure to do so will cost the nation many more billions of ill affordable rupees.

According to a recent report, a seven year old in Tissamaharama was allegedly raped by three men. This news-story provides a harrowing illustration of some extremely disturbing statistics revealed by the Family Health Bureau at a recent UNFPA conference: 10% to 14% of underage girls are sexually abused in Sri Lanka annually and around 7% get pregnant at a very young age (Sri Lanka Mirror – 29.10.2011).

Arresting and reversing this trend is an urgent national concern. This task requires political and societal will. Unfortunately, our political leaders, who turn hysterical about ‘unpatriotic’ lyrics, seem rather apathetic about this truly evil national ill. (Is the appointment of a parliamentarian, who had been charged in a court of law of child rape, as the monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry, indicative of the regime’s true attitude to this issue?)

Another matter of urgent concern is the state of education in the war-torn North and East. According to a recent report education in the Eastern province had been battered by the war and by natural disasters. For instance, “Secondary schools in Eastern Province lack 222 mathematics teachers, 128 science teachers and 69 English teachers, according to 2010-2011 data from the Provincial Department of Education… At the primary level, Eastern Province schools are short of 465 English teachers and 104 general subject teachers” (Transucurrents – 3.11.2011).

Many schools are still under military occupation. Attending to the educational needs of the North and the East is a sine-qua-non for the creation of a generation of Lankan citizens.
 Another urgent issue is preventing extra-judicial killings by the uniformed guardians of the law.

In the latest instance, a Pettah businessman Jayasuriyage Gunawardena Gamini Thushara was handcuffed and killed by the police. The police then reportedly tried to frame their victim by “placing a T56 assault rifle next to him after having labelled him as an underworld gangster” (Daily Mirror – 4.11.2011). Murder by police is thus another issue of national concern which the regime needs to address, forthwith.

Child rape, educational woes and custodial murders are national concerns. But they are not Rajapaksa concerns. That is why dispossessing political-opponents and making a quick buck will continue to get priority under Rajapaksa Rule.


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