A chest thumping Minister of Public Security has warned Sri Lanka’s Tamils and Muslims that if they go on protest marches despite court orders banning the protests, they will be put in prison and their vehicles seized. Despite how well all this untoward roaring for punitive action sounds on television, he must advise himself to [...]


The road to redemption from Pottuvil to Polikandy


A chest thumping Minister of Public Security has warned Sri Lanka’s Tamils and Muslims that if they go on protest marches despite court orders banning the protests, they will be put in prison and their vehicles seized. Despite how well all this untoward roaring for punitive action sounds on television, he must advise himself to look at the unfolding situation in Myanmar where the citizenry has taken to the streets irrespective of military or court orders banning protests.

Sri Lanka on the knife-edge of political tumult

The Minister’s fury was directed at the march from Pottuvil to Polikandy by war afflicted Tamils asking for justice, united with Muslims pleading for the right to bury their covid-afflicted dead. But imprisonment is exactly what protestors want, as the politically infantile Minister may be well reminded. This is the way towards precipitation of the cause, of propelling critical mass energy and calling attention to legitimate demands for fairness and justice.

That has long been the case in the South as well as in the North and East. Our law books are full of instances where the Supreme Court has upheld the right to protest, sometimes even against arbitrary magisterial orders. Perhaps his Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa may school him on the politics of protest, hearkening back to the times when, as an opposition parliamentarian, he marched in the South against a United National Party Government when thousands of Sinhalese youth were killed by the State irrespective of court orders and police intimidation.

Some may however question with a wink and a cruel smile as to what exactly the Prime Minister himself is able to do, given that his assurance on the floor of the House regarding burial of covid-19 victims of Muslim ethnicity was contradicted almost immediately thereafter by a mere state minister. Certainly this country is poised on an exceedingly sharp knife-edge of political tumult, aggravated by heedless ethnocentric showmanship. And lest we forget, we also need to remind ourselves in a nation of short memories, that this grievous tumult is a direct result of colossally failed ‘yahapalanaya’ policies.

Bad combination of arrogance and stupidity

Constitutional amendments brought in 2015 by a coterie of United National Party, (read, Ranil Wickremesinghe) loyalists, notwithstanding many good elements therein, were disastrously shot through by shortsighted political thinking. It was a bad combination of braggadocio (‘the Rajapaksas will never return to power’) and overweening stupidity (‘we know what is best for everyone else and the hoi polloi may as well eat mud’). True, it needed tremendous chutzpah to grab the electorate narrowly by the skin of its teeth through fielding an outsider, Maithripala Sirisena plucked from the heart of the Rajapaksa ranks.

It needed even worse conceit to expect him to thereafter retire to (presumably) looking after his paddy fields in Polonnaruwa while UNP grandees ruled in his stead, including ransacking the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. It also needed that self-same stupendous arrogance to ram through ‘special units’ to investigate corruption on a contested legal footing at best and with scant heed for the potential that this opens up to allegations of ‘political victimisation.’ Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what has happened now. Indeed, the consequences therein are worse than at any other point in Sri Lanka’s unhappy history of such political reversals.

As best exemplified by the Commission of Inquiry into Political Victimisation, a fact finding body has assumed supra-judicial powers with nary a squeak from the Bar Association deep in pro-Rajapaksa slumber, displacing both the Attorney General in the prosecutorial role and the judiciary in its adjudication role. The implications of this go far beyond a particular President, Prime Minister or a Government. It impacts on the country’s entire edifice of the law and the judiciary. In fact, the judiciary is being relegated to nought in a manner that is far more dangerous than the flamboyant claims of judges being corrupt by one parliamentarian languishing in jail for contempt of court.

Threatening marchers with fire and brimstone

But the point is that we are now in the curiously ironic position of onetime ‘yahapalanaya’ loyalists in politics and civil society alike looking towards the Prime Minister as the epitome of reasonableness on matters ranging from burial of the covid-dead to constitutional sense and sensibility. This is contrasted to his younger brother, the President and assorted shrill minions in that ‘Gota’ group, including our Public Security Minister threatening brimstone and fire on the heads of recent protestors.

This Minister’s withdrawal of security to a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) frontliner for participation in this protest is part and parcel of a grand pseudo-nationalist bonfire that we are witnessing to our intense mortification, fanned by a racist media which has abandoned all claims to professionalism let alone impartiality. But this profound misery has been, let me repeat, enabled by criminal ‘yahapalanaya’ failures of which the TNA was very much a part. Its attempted resuscitation through Tamil ‘nationalist’ protest reminds me, irresistibly, of a ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ moment, in the best of Bibilical traditions of redemption.

That said, some celebrating this march have also taken the absence of similar protests in the South as evidencing the yawning gulf between the (Sinhala) South and the (Tamil) North and East on the importance of justice. This argument is as farcical as that of the Public Security Minister raving against protestors. To bemoan the absence of empathy in the South while consistently positing the demands of the North and the East as an exclusive search by minorities for justice in Sri Lanka is eminently hypocritical. That too in the face of historical evidence to the contrary.

A more inclusive case for justice in Sri Lanka

Indeed, if the case for justice had been fashioned in a more inclusive rather than exclusive manner, recognising the brutality of the Sri Lankan State towards Sinhalese along with Tamils and Muslims, Sri Lanka’s long march towards ethnocentric and majoritarian supremacy by its various political leaders may have been far less effortless. The agonised point at which we are at now is a failure not only of Governments and political leadership; it is also a failure of our collective intellect, if indeed Sri Lanka ever possessed one.

Regardless, what is happening on the global stage today in regard to Myanmar must surely compel saner elements in this Government to step back, re-position and rethink. This Friday’s unanimous call by the United Nations Human Rights Council, (despite Russia and China “disassociating” themselves), for  immediate release of detained civilian leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint follows the US freezing of assets of junta leaders. Potential imposition of punitive sanctions, arms embargoes and travel bans are no longer hypothetical. We are definitively in a post-Trump international order.

Cynics may well say that when the world steps back periodically and examines as to how it is living up to the ideals of justice, it is much like a shamed teenager entering on a new year resolution of sobriety following a hungover aftermath of a riotous party. In other words, it is more a declaration of strategy rather than genuineness, apart from glib expressions of contrition.  Thus, that examination may not impact on powerful nations while smaller nations are put on the chopping block.

Regardless, this is international realpolitik which vulnerable nations made more vulnerable by covid-induced economic shocks  may do well to take stock of. If, by our own actions, we invite hostile scrutiny from beyond our shores, we have only ourselves to blame.

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