Deaths of innocents in Sri Lanka have had a long and terrible history. No political party can wash its hands of this blood despite the hypocritical outrage often professed in public. Such fire breathing rhetoric only increases in intensity when an election draws near. But the cold hard truth is that a genuine righting of wrongs is not manifested. Instead, these deaths are used for political advantage, time and time again.
This is the one constant
The only time it seemed that this devastating link would snap was when several Disappearances Commissions were established by the Kumaratunga Presidency in the mid 1990′s to look into nationwide killings during the previous United National Party (UNP) government. Alas, it did not take too long for the Commissions to meet the same inglorious fate of previous such bodies. It took years for their reports to be made public. Their findings were used to disparage the previous regime, not to address systemic failures in the Department of the Police and the Department of the Attorney General which had enabled the killings and encouraged the cover-up. Criminal investigations recommended by the Commissioners in regard to particular perpetrators were thrown to the wayside.
And as this Presidency too moved into its own phase of attacking civil liberties, there prevailed a monstrously bloodstained quid pro quo to the effect that ‘I will not disclose whom you have killed if you observe the same courtesies in return’ The controversy that enveloped the Supreme Court arose precisely during this period when senior Supreme Court judges reputed throughout the Commonwealth for their erudition were bypassed for promotion to the office of the Chief Justice. Certainly if the integrity of the legal system had been maintained at least, the downward spiral thereafter may have been checked somewhat.
Today, as well intentioned members of civil society call upon voters to protect the gains of the January 8th electoral victory and hail the apparent restoration (in their infinitely optimistic minds) of the independence of Sri Lanka’s judicial institution, there must be pause for thought. The mere removal of one (purported) Chief Justice by executive fiat does not miraculously accomplish this as the past six months should surely illustrate. Instead, the woes of the judiciary must be seen in historical context and addressed as such. Absent this understanding, what we have is a superficial plastering over of the systemic with the personal.
Acknowledging the systemic issue
President Maithripala Sirisena recently defined Sri Lanka’s deficit of a democratic political culture as not being purely due to Rajapaksa ills but as a systemic problem. This is exactly the same issue in regard to the accountability and functionality of the investigative, prosecutorial and legal agencies that are tasked with ensuring justice. This is also why former President Mahinda Rajapaksa found incredibly easy pickings in institutions weakened earlier by attacks under political leaders who should have known much better, starting from the Jayawardene Presidency and coming down the decades thereafter.
This week, as people shuddered at emerging details regarding the unspeakable torture and murder of ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen in 2012, the Cabinet spokesman implicated three men of the Presidential Security Division (PSD) as being involved in the crime. In a somewhat surreal development meanwhile, the security provided to key political leaders is being revamped as a consequential result.
On his own part, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa now battling for an electoral comeback may thunder that he, his sons and his sycophants are not implicated. But what happened to the police investigations and prosecutorial follow-up on the part of agencies so firmly under his thumb at that time? Both under domestic constitutional law and international law, a State is responsible not only for direct involvement in a crime but also when effective investigations fail to ensue. The question is simple. Was the police report regarding the torture of Wasim Thajudeen squirreled under a desk this entire time? Of course, the answer to that question is also quite simple.
The sinister nonchalance of the Rajapaksas
Closely following announcements on the Thajudeen case, the government also stated that two senior army officials will soon be questioned on the enforced disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda.
Here too, only flippancy was demonstrated by the Rajapaksa Presidency. Then advisor to the Cabinet, later (purported) Chief Justice Mohan Peiris waxed eloquent in Geneva that Ekneligoda had fled seeking asylum. Soon thereafter, in a domestic habeas corpus hearing into the disappearance, Peiris was quick to claim that only the deities above knew where Ekneligoda was.
This is the same sinister nonchalance with which deaths of innocent Tamil students in Trincomalee and Tamil/Muslim aid workers in Mutur more than eight years ago were dismissed. Exactly the same patterns of state cover-up as evidenced in the Thajudeen case were seen here as well. The absolute impunity of the State is evidenced thereby far more even than civilian deaths in the end stages of the Wanni war. There is not even the slim excuse of raging conflict to explain the horrendous and sadistic nature of these executions.
Lifting ourselves up from the nadir
That said, some of the very same state officers who either participated or covered up these crimes in the police and prosecutorial branches of government are now proudly holding aloft the flag of ‘yahapalanaya. This then, is Sri Lanka’s paradox of ‘non-accountability’ premised on false pretences. And while public support must be afforded to the investigation officers looking into the abominable killings of Thajudeen and Ekneligoda, these disclosures on the eve of a general election should not be used as political bargaining points. This would be the ultimate insult to the victims.
So even as we go to the polls in eight days time, what is at stake must be kept in mind. Assuredly, the fight is not between the pure and the impure but between the ‘not-so-good’ and the ‘infinitely far worse.’ Decades of blood stained history testifies to that.
We are now at the nadir and can only painfully lift ourselves up, inevitably lapsing back into the mud at times. Or we can continue to die as a nation, painfully and slowly. The choice indeed is ours
– Sunday Times