Unheard Sounds And Faint Memories Of ‘Bloody’ White Vans

In the questionable days of the Rajapaksa regime, the most dreadful sound, amongst many a sound of shooting in Rathupaswala, Katunayake and post-war Jaffna, was the one that you did not hear: a white van parked outside your home. How many men and women were forcibly shoved into the van and taken away and threatened, their bones smashed, and spirit drained, one may never know. Among those countless shrieks and screams and unbridled impunity to those who hurt innocent men and women who happened to hold a different view from that of those in power, their broken noses and shattered bones might yet be bleeding.

Those who wrote a different story, different from the garbage thrown out by the state-owned media and sycophants of the regime garbed in officials’ dress, had vanished. The heart-wrenching saga of a wife going from one government desk to another is still being written in many a newspaper page, yet she doesn’t seem to get any plausible answer. Prageeth Eknaligoda was no ordinary journalist who happened to write the Rajapaksa-fed flattering stories about the glories of the First Family’s far-fetched and exaggerated triumphs. Eknaligoda’s disappearance has been in the realm of news stories that would haunt the reader’s curiosity for many an year. Those government politicians at the time either maintained a muted demeanor or those in the then Opposition tried hard to bring forth this unbelievable tragedy to the attention of a placid public, invariably and tragically fell short. Prageeth Ekneligoda was supposed to have written some investigative piece which was allegedly devastating to the collective personality of the First Family. It is more akin to a mad dictator’s reaction to an unfavorable account of a nasty act committed by the Family.

 Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance cannot be rotting away in an empty, socio-political quarry forever. Evan in the unlikely event of a Rajapaksa comeback into governance-territory, the body of Prageeth, still breathing or not, has to be produced (habeas corpus) to reach a finality. Otherwise the rule of law is absent; investigative arms of the basic governing body of any society cannot just be cut off in order to conceal the evil deeds of a democratically elected Mafia bosses. The ‘fixers’ of a greedy and power-hungry members of a ‘Family’ need to be exposed but how can that elementary distinction of the rule of law be made to exercise its basic function if the present-day rulers turn their eyes and ears the other way? One can still remember how the infamous Alfred de Zoysa of the Kalattewa fame was convicted of murder when the bodies of those who were murdered were missing. Neither State-sponsored terrorism nor an impotent non-response of the State is any answer to legitimate grievances of a wailing public.

But the irony of the situation is even more heartbreaking. A government that was ushered in on a podium of eradication of corruption, nepotism and impunity from the rule of law, seems to be even more entrenched in its own mass of lethargy, indecision and saliva for money. While a sad cloud of the Prageeth Ekneligoda saga is still hovering over a docile and ineffective government, those who are accused of executing this dreadful deed on a freelancing journalist and his family are still free. And the answers don’t seem to be forthcoming. That is not a complementary commentary on a Yahapalanaya government. The net-effect of such placidity and indifference to the real world is the likelihood of the return of the villain- the Rajapaksas.

On top of the Prageeth Eknaligoda case, the incident of the daytime murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sunday Leader, the premier newspaper that went after the corrupt practices of the Rajapaksas, too weighs heavily on the those who are charged with the investigation and pursuit to an end of its legal process. Two and half years is long enough time for the investigations to produce a result, one way or the other. The snail’s pace at which the judicial processes are meandering gives room for suspicion and distrust in the totality of the process. Is someone deliberately instructing the investigators to go slow or not to proceed along the lines which are getting too close for comfort for some close members of the former First Family? The inquisitive public is getting weary of this disgustingly sluggish and tortuous snaking.

Lasantha Wickrematunge had friends in high places. The then circle of diplomats and foreign envoys, especially those representing neo-liberal Western and North Western Europe, exhibited and adopted a curious, keen and encouraging stance and embraced Lasantha’s fearless attitude towards going after the corrupt and degenerate. In the eyes of the public, reading or otherwise, there was only one party that had the motive to silence Lasantha Wickrematunge. That was the regime of the Rajapaksas. Into whose closets Lasantha looked and what degradation or decomposition their contents were in, we are not able to see. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder is a gruesome reminder of what political power, gone to the fringe, could do not only to a worthy man, it is even more of a reminder of that power that could be mustered to thwart the freedom of expression of a people, a fundamental right of human society.

Along with a the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge came the Rathupaswala and Katunayake murders of innocent civilians who chose to exercise their fundamental right, protesting against the government policies. The murder of a Tamil journalist attached to the ‘Udayan’ newspaper has been swept under the carpet. All these are among a crowded field of journalists such as Upali TennakoonKeith Noyahr, and Poddala Jayantha against whom violation of human rights had been committed.

But what stands out like a brutal reminder of ignobility of a ‘Power Family’ is the mysterious killing of Thajudeen on unbelievably personal grounds. The evidence has emerged connecting very high-up personalities at the time to this murder and the public is still awaiting finality, not to mention  the Prison Riots that claimed more than twenty five lives of inmates.

These are all crimes, plain and simple. Killing is a crime. It is the principal and most horrendous crime one can commit. If the criminals are not found and convicted and punished, the rule of law, upon which every civilized societal structure is founded, collapses. Either anarchy spreads or authoritarianism of a ‘Family Junta’ would begin its heinous grip on a docile and totally breakable society. The battle for such a choice between two revolting options has been fought by the Joint Opposition (JO). Theirs is ostensibly for a faster-developing and a more orderly society. Faster-developing yes, but more orderly is loaded with frightening potential for the control of our basic rights; for control of minds and of every aspect of our lives. That is certainly not an enchanting prospect.

Every member of the Joint Opposition and every financier of that movement, if left to his or her own devices and demeanor, would be a dangerous parasite in our midst. Bringing back a democratically defeated political force that is controlled at the center by corrupt and evil predators of one single family is no option for the civil sustenance of our society. 

But what is even more disheartening and depressing is what lies at the end these arguments and debate. A government that is purported to be founded on Yahapalanaya is sadly lacking in focus and seems unaccustomed to the vagaries of political storms. Yet overcoming a potentially damaging no-confidence motion, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is basking in a false sense of relief. If he fails to pursue the wrong-doers of the last regime and bring them before the rule of law and justice, if he once again fails in that crucial task, then he might as well say good bye to power, come next elections. If, on the other hand, he does succeed in bringing the Rajapaksas before the rule of law and secures unforgiving sentences that go with it, Ranil Wickremasinghe might have a fighting chance, that again if he manages to contain a squabbling Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a league of Muslim parties.

The choice before Ranil Wickremesinghe is, to use a worn-out cliché, as clear as crystal. However, it could be extremely unpleasant, not to others but to himself. If he intends to remain as leader of the United National Party and also is infatuated with idea of contesting the forthcoming Presidential Elections in 2020 as its candidate, he has only one single choice: vigorously go after the Rajapaksas and their henchmen and pursue that judicial process to a successful conclusion. If, on the other hand, Ranil Wickremasinghe opts to stay out of the said Presidential Elections and yet continue as the UNP leader, then that might offer a more pliable leverage to would-be contestants such as Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake.  

The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com