The modus operandi of this government in cracking down on legitimate dissent and protest would be truly farcical if it was not so deadly. What is the government frightened of? First mobs of Buddhist monks are used to ferment and arouse hatred between communities. Now, much like instant noodles, we have ‘instant civil society organisations’ [...]


Crude intimidation of legitimate protests


The modus operandi of this government in cracking down on legitimate dissent and protest would be truly farcical if it was not so deadly.

What is the government frightened of?
First mobs of Buddhist monks are used to ferment and arouse hatred between communities. Now, much like instant noodles, we have ‘instant civil society organisations’ formed out of nowhere and used with crude intent to disrupt civil society work. What exactly is this government so afraid of? If its conduct during the war was as impeccable as is loudly clamed, from whence comes this deplorably frantic and frightened reaction?

This Monday, a decorous meeting held at the Centre for Society and Religion within the premises of the Fatima Church in Colombo by parents and family members of Sri Lanka’s ‘disappeared’ was stormed by a hitherto unknown organization calling itself the Association of Families of Missing People from the South.

Clear objective of intimidation
On all accounts, diplomatic representatives attending the meeting were held hostage for some time. The meeting thereafter dissolved in disorder. True to form, the police stood idly by. Unpardonably, the Ministry of External Affairs thereafter issued a statement calling upon the diplomatic community to “be more conscious of local sensitivities” when attending what it called “events of an emotive nature”.

The objective therein was clear. Diplomats were warned that attending events of this nature would bring about its own perils, the responsibility for which government authorities will not assume. What better illustration could we have of a country where the Rule of Law has become non-existent? In what functional scenario could a government implicitly affirm with such careless abandon that it is not responsible to ensure basic law and order?

In simplistic terms, the government’s strategy is obviously tied to the embarrassing predicament which Sri Lanka’s President has to face when he visits the United Kingdom for instance and has to face the lobbying of diaspora activists from the Tamil community. That may well be the case. But what sane government or a division thereof issues statements of the nature that the Sri Lankan External Affairs Ministry has thought it fit to do?

The collapse of Sri Lanka’s foreign service
Much may not be expected of this Ministry or naturally thereof, the Minister. This week in Parliament, the Minister refused to provide details relating to the panel of foreign experts tasked to ‘advise’ the most recent Sri Lankan Commission of Inquiry looking into the conduct of parties during the end stages of the Wanni war. In so attempting to justify the appointments of these experts, the External Affairs Minister referred to himself as a Professor of Law from Oxford University.

His Ministry has the dubious distinction of bringing about the collapse of Sri Lanka’s foreign service which is now virtually dominated by political hangers-on as detailed by the Janatha Vimukthi Preamuna’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake in Parliament this week. No wonder that there is a joke going around overseas that Sri Lankans who have earned similar distinctions particularly in the field of law, should refrain from using them, given the odious political colouring that clings to ‘professors’ and ‘doctors’ here.

Logical inference as to responsibility
Regardless, there is a certain process of logic to these matters. So, the Department of the Police draws back from providing security to the head of the Bar Association. Ludicrously, the Bar Association is then compelled to go to court to ask for adequate security to be provided. The logical inference is that the government itself is behind the intimidation. Similarly, when mobs attack meetings and law enforcement authorities do not intervene to protect the affected, one can only assume that this is a strategy sanctioned at the highest official levels.

Some time ago, these column spaces reflected on the government’s Janus-faced state policy. Janus, if one recalls, was the Roman god of gates and doors and possessed a double-faced head, each head facing in opposite directions. Colloquially, this term means hypocrisy, deceptiveness and of saying something and actually doing another. Interestingly, the original notion of Janus meant a study in contrasts, beginnings versus endings, primitive life versus civilization, countryside versus the city and peace versus war. And in post-war Sri Lanka, state policy has meant aggravated conflict rather than its cessation directly as a result of deliberately enforced Janus-faced practice in the worst sense of the term.

In other words, what the government parades in terms of reconciliation are miserly sops thrown to the beggarly. This latest attempt to expand the terms of a local commission of inquiry to cover events related to the war is another good illustration. Given the patent mala fides shown so far in this regard, how can this act be taken seriously and with a good conscience?

Accountability of the State comes first
For some time, the government focus has been singularly on the accountability of non-state actors. Hence the constant call for the laws of war to be reformed in order to meet the challenges of internal conflicts. Undoubtedly this focus will be taken to a high point through the appointments of these latest advisors to the Maxwell Paranagama Commission.

But it is the President as Head of State who should emphasize and ensure the accountability of the State before we come to non-state actors.
This cannot merely consist of another fruitless commission exercise while cracking down on legitimate dissent. This Monday’s disruption of the CSR event was unacceptable and intolerable. President Rajapaksa himself would have been the first to acknowledge this in his earlier avatar as a vigorous opposition parliamentarian in the eighties holding similar meetings on the Southern disappearances. State responsibility cannot be brushed aside like a mere inconvenience. On the contrary, reinforcing the Rule of Law is a fundamental.

Clearly however, to expect this to happen now is the height of naivete if not stupidity.
The writer won the D.R.Wijewardene award for Earning the Appreciation of Public and Peers. The award was presented to her at the Journalism Awards night last Tuesday.

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