SRI LANKA: Advocating A Different Political Project

201422545423463734_20by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

The normalization of the abnormal is an inevitable result of conflict. This is hoary wisdom. Yet there is a lived-reality of this truth which needs to be meditated on with painful clarity. The breakdown of the Rule of Law and the clear-headed compulsion of the State to oppress without much resistance are symptoms.

So too is the ability of many to shrug their shoulders and turn away. Some do this cynically, others through a sheer sense of frustration. Regardless, this is a reflection of the profoundly grotesque, of the minimalist citizens that we ourselves have become as much as a reflection of our presumed leaders.

If law and order is not possible, what else?

This week, a harmless small time businessman and father of one driving his motorcycle with another while returning home close to midnight in Pasyala, was shot allegedly at point blank range by a policeman manning a checkpoint. On national television, a weeping father called down curses on the killers, alleging that the pistol was placed at his armpit and the shot was fired by a drunken officer who took offence at the way in which the victim spoke to him.

From the government meanwhile we hear embellished fairytales. The police spokesman claimed that the motorcycle riders had sped away when asked to stop by the police who fired as a result. When questioned by an enterprising journalist as to how the shot had been fired from the front if that was the case, the answer was only that this is a fit question for the judicial medical officer.

In Geneva, just a day after this incident, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations explained during the Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in the Human Rights Council that, ‘humanitarian crises can be overcome with political commitment.’ But the question that arises is infinitely simple. When political will is absent in the tackling of basic law and order, how could such commitment be manifested regarding far more complex issues of humanitarian justice? Is it any wonder that much of the world laughs at us in the face of these ridiculous assertions?

‘Disappearances’ to immobilise political opposition

This is not an isolated story. When such reports emanate from the North and East concerning Tamil citizens, they are given even less importance in the media. The fault lines where our systems cracked seem clear now. Yet despite all the lessons that history teaches us, we remain blind, deaf and mute. A recent socio-political study on Sri Lanka’s disappearances by an Australian doctoral researcher Jane Thomson-Senanayake (Asian Human Rights Commission, May 2014) should be a compulsory read for seasoned analysts as well as curious students. As she explains in her preface, disappearances served as an integral part of a system of state power and patronage, ‘to enable the political elite to immobilise all political opposition.’

Her analysis is less about the law and more about the human anguish of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who have been the primary targets of the Sri Lankan security State since the 1970’s. The focus is therefore very much of political failures informing a systemic strategy of disappearances utilized by successive political leaders. The exploitation, and ultimate destroying, by the political elite of popular movements formed by survivors of political violence from the North to the South is an important core point of this socio-political exploration. The co-opting (and collapsing in consequence thereof) of the Southern Mothers Front of the Disappeared in the eighties by an upcoming opposition parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa is one such illustration.

Thomson-Senanayake’s doctoral study is the most recent in a growing body of work which urges a re-conceptualization of Sri Lanka’s accountability crisis within an overarching framework of state impunity encompassing the majority as well as the minorities. This will have its critics who will argue that the specificity of Tamil grievances is downplayed as a result. And the conceptualization of a Sinhala-Buddhist ‘hegemonic State’ (a term burrowed from other historical contexts to which it is perhaps far better suited) will be used to contend that nation building need not concern the Tamil people.

But these are grievous mistakes to make in the current political environment. Indeed, this skewed rationale only helps a xenophobic post-war political leadership, as exemplified by the unreasoning fury of state media lapdogs calling themselves editors when the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), in a perfectly proper reading of its mandate some years ago, focused on the post-war crisis of the Rule of Law.

Time for courage and a little commonsense

In sum and stripped away of fascinating labels, the overriding ‘project’ of this administration is pure greed, nothing more and nothing else. Its ‘Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic’ character is a facade as seen in its bypassing of advice offered by the Mahanayakes from the impeachment of a Chief Justice to the operation of casinos. Hence also its virulent opposition to the enactment of a Right to Information Law, its targeting of Tamil and Muslim (indeed even Sinhalese) business establishments and the militarization of civil administration in acquiring land.

A visitor to this country last month remarked that it was difficult to believe that graves of disappeared persons still continue to be unearthed, in Matale and in Mannar. ‘What unbelievable beauty this country possesses’ she said ‘…and what unbelievable horrors have its people gone through.’ In sober retrospect, perhaps it is a miracle that the deadly implosions we see now were not manifested earlier. That systems and institutions did indeed continue despite the decades of blood spilt across all ethnicities.

These are simple truths that should be taken to heart. This is not through a cosmetic exercise of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by a government which has yet to acquaint itself with either truth or reconciliation but through deeply reflective collective collaboration. And perhaps also it is time that not only courage but a little commonsense informs our thinking.

Excerpted from the ‘Focus on Rights’ column in The Sunday Times, 15th June 2014 for which newspaper, the writer is a legal consultant/columnist.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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