Columns - FOCUS On Rights

An undercurrent of evil in government

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

There is a profound perversity in the events that are unfolding now in the Wanni. Decades back, when July 1983 happened, I recall the protestations of many Southern Sinhalese who felt that their individual actions in shielding Tamil innocents caught up in the mob violence would somehow absolve themselves of the horror of that time. The fact of the matter however was that these interventions, (however brave they may have been), were not enough to cleanse ourselves of the stain of collective guilt.

Much more was required to ensure that this country would never again witness such atrocities. Cosmetic "Truth Commissions" (such as the so called Commission of the July 1983 riots presided over by a former Chief Justice, himself a member of the Tamil community) played a singularly pathetic role in this process. Perhaps far more was achieved by the collectively outraged soul searching that held our politicians in check for many years thereafter. Indeed, the boast was that July 1983 would never happen again and for years, we could tentatively believe in this boast.

Erosion of a collective consciousness

Yet now, propelled by the despicably expedient actions of the LTTE in its using of civilians as a human shield against the advancing military taken together with the erosion of civil liberties by the Rajapaksa administration, this collective consciousness is being gradually eroded in the South. Far too many of those among us are apt to satisfy their consciences in regard to the continuing loss of civilian life in the Wanni merely by donating money towards food and other supplies, as a demonstration of the benevolent majority towards a helpless and trapped minority, as much as (uncannily) we did in 1983. But far more is required by us to demand from our government. We need to demand greater accountability, not only in the manner of warfare that the government engages in within the few kilometres of land in which the LTTE is using human shields but also in the so called welfare camps to which the refugees are fleeing.

Deaths in welfare camps

While the necessity to observe strict security safeguards is self evident (given the dangers of the LTTE merging with the refugees), the predicament of persons inside these camps should be fully understood not as the propaganda of our enemies but the actual terrible fate of those caught in a battle not of their own. A recent court order dated 27/04/2009 by a District Magistrate of Vavuniya illustrated the plight of elderly persons within these camps, thirty of whom had died due to starvation. This court order registers that the deaths have been due to lack of maintenance and caring facilities within the camps. Recent eye witness accounts of visits to these camps indicate the extent to which basic facilities have become a problem and the deep sense of insecurity that the internally displaced persons feel.

Probably the government will discredit these findings as they have indeed, discredited the evidence of doctors in hospitals situated within the no-fire zone, the boundaries of which itself are in flux. Yet, as observed in last week's column, much of the stepped up international pressure directed towards the government may be defused if concrete steps are taken towards reversing an overt policy of racism that is actively pursued by some of the leading figures in this administration.

In other words, the undercurrent of evil lying beneath the government's hugely successful propaganda effort that Victory Day is nigh, needs to be dealt with head on. For many of us, including the highly educated, (as well as, for that matter, a sizeable portion of the privileged Tamil elite), the wholesale decimation of the LTTE is an end, by and of itself. As the thinking goes, everyone then would be able to heave a sigh of relief and life as it existed in this idyllic isle before the LTTE (was there every such a life?) would be gradually restored, bringing sanity and order back.

Destabilization of the legal regime

But this is, of course, the most dangerously disingenuous of day dreams. The military victories won at such high cost to our ordinary men and women who serve in the armed forces have served as a cover for an increasingly bold destabilizing and demoralizing of our constitutional and legal systems of governance as well their replacement with an alternative regime of political power. Each week, each day, there are examples that illustrate this statement. One of the most recent cases concerned an activist and sociology graduate Stephen Sunthararaj who was arrested purportedly on suspicion of LTTE involvement. During his time in detention, demands were made to his family to pay ransom money. However, given that the formal legal process had been set in motion, the demands for ransom were not acceded to. He was released on court order on May 7 once it was found that there was no evidence against him. However, some hours following his release, he was abducted by unknown figures and his whereabouts remain unknown up to date.

His case bears a striking resemblance to the plight of Sudar Oli editor N Vidyatharan who was similarly released upon lack of evidence but who was sufficiently fortunate enough to escape the later fate that befell Sunthararaj. As must be recalled, Vidyatharan was one of several who, despite being released after exhaustive investigations and judicial scrutiny, were categorized by prominent members in this administration, including the Defence Secretary, as terrorists. These cases, taken individually and collectively amounts effectively to a situation where the writ of the court does not run in the South and where court orders are not respected. What more needs to be said to illustrate the grave plight that we are in?

Abandoning the Constitution and the law

And what has been the fate of other oversight mechanisms? The National Police Commission's term expired recently and to all intents and purposes, it is a matter of time before the other 'independent' commissions under the 17th Amendment follow suit. Vital appointments, including to the head of Sri Lanka's judiciary, are pending in the coming months, all of which would be effected without reference to the Constitutional Council by President Rajapaksa without even the figleaf of adherence to the Constitution.

Yet many among us still continue to cling to the belief that what is wrong with our country is the LTTE and only the LTTE. This is what is veritably and truly astounding. This is what has to change, if not now in the jubilant flush of believing that we have defeated the enemy, then surely before it is too late for this country and for our democratic systems.

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