Geneva and other fateful trysts
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“There will be no investigation in the country…because I will oppose it…. Whether it is United Nations or any other country [sic] we are, I am not allowing any investigation… There is nothing wrong happening in the country. Take it from me. There will be no investigation in the country. I will not allow…” Gotabaya Rajapaksa – Interview with the BBC – 3.2.2010
The defence secretary is shocked, outraged, and flummoxed. The National Security Council has discussed the ongoing environmental devastation. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men (airmen too) have been mobilized to stop it. “However hard we try, this forest destruction continues to happen,” he laments.
This week alone, ecocide claimed nearly three thousand acres of land in the Somawathiya forest reserve and a forest near Pidurangala, Sigiriya. Plans are afoot to decapitate the iconic Bopath Ella waterfall by building a water supply scheme at its head. This devastation is unstoppable because the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime has rendered it legal. On November 4, 2020, the government cancelled several circulars including 5/2001, removing half a million acres of ‘residual forests’ from the protective custody of the Department of Forest Conservation, placing them at the mercy of divisional and district secretaries. Environmental protection organizations warned that the move would lead to disaster. Yet it was done, paving the way for the current land-grabbing spree.
A lawsuit filed by the head of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people, Uruwarigelage Wannila Aththo demonstrates how the unholy nexus between political and financial power works in practice. Five thousand (5000) acres of ancestral indigenous land was taken over by the Mahaweli Authority and given to a multinational company to grow corn. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t stop Sri Lanka’s ecocide because it is being perpetrated by all the king’s horses and all the king’s men with the blessing of the king and his government.
Is retired general Kamal Gunaratne unaware of how his bosses enabled the ongoing environmental devastation or is he covering up for them? Is he a dupe or a knave?
There is a pattern here, one that dates back to the previous Rajapaksa administration – enable a crime, express shock, and horror, buy time, promise justice, evade accountability, enable more crimes… According to a Wikileaks cable, Basil Rajapaksa told the US Ambassador that the STF was responsible for the January 2006 Trinco Five massacre. “We know the STF did it, but the bullet and gun evidence shows that they did not. They must have separate guns when they want to kill someone”. Basil Rajapaksa also assured the ambassador of brother Mahinda’s commitment to human rights. That was in 2006. Fifteen years later, justice has not been done and the culprits remain free.
This month, facing a possible reckoning at Geneva, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardane proclaimed that the government is ready to investigate allegations of human rights violations, and deliver justice to victims and punishment to culprits. To buttress his claim, he showcased the appointment of a new presidential commission to investigate the findings of previous commissions and committees. The members of the new commission include retired IGP Chandra Fernando who was also a member of the Political Victimization Commission. The leaked version of that Commission’s report includes this gem. “For the Western leaders who nurtured Tamil Eelam Tiger terrorists this great victory was a negation of their deep desires. Therefore, Western leaders, tempered by the Tamil Diaspora, falsely accused the real heroes of the Eelam War of committing war crimes during the last humanitarian battle of the Tamil Eelam War” (page 3). The report went on to exonerate those accused of grievous human rights violations in Sri Lankan courts. The new commission’s report, when it comes, is likely to be another hosanna to Humanitarian Operations and war heroes.
Muddy the waters, buy time, cover up, deflect blame… that was ever the Rajapaksa way. A prime example was how the Rajapaksas used the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to keep India and the West happy, while the Final Eelam War lasted. President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the APRC in 2006, made an exhibition of it in public, and subverted it in private. Whenever the APRC came up with a draft report, the President picked some hole in it and sent the Committee back to the drawing board. Various ruses were used to delay the proceedings, like the time the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) walked out of the APRC, protesting the non-inclusion of the Pilliyan Group. Once the war won, the APRC was consigned to the dustbin of history.
Can the same tactics work in 2021?
The impunity rampage: from ecocide to Shani Abeysekara
The incident was caught on tape, an army lieutenant in uniform, seemingly drunk, behaving violently inside a restaurant in Miriswatte, Gampaha. The tape reveals the man’s name and the number of the army vehicle he came in. The military has promised an investigation which may or may not happen. There is a more important question. Why haven’t the police arrested the suspect or even recorded a statement from him?
Perhaps the police hierarchy has other priorities, such as shamelessly seeking legal intervention to unseat the country’s first female DIG, for no other reason than her gender. Perhaps the police are too busy persecuting those who took part in the P2P march. (The police obtained a court order against the protest march citing pandemic-related health concerns, while in Colombo the government was organizing exhibitions and trade fairs and allowing Valentine Day bashes in five star hotels. In June 2020, the police similarly used the pandemic to outlaw an anti-Chinese protest in Colombo).
Or perhaps the police have learnt a lesson from the fate of Shani Abeysekara. Perhaps no cop wants to end up like that exemplary officer, hounded and persecuted for crimes he didn’t commit.
When Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, displeased King Henry II of England, the monarch is believed to have exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Four knights of the king’s household took this lament to heart. On December 29, 1170, they murdered the archbishop.
A few weeks after assuming the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa publicly berated Shani Abeysekara for being a turbulent official. During a visit to a temple on November 24, 2019, the new president said, “Shani Abeysekara investigates according to his thinking. Non-governmental organizations don’t ask questions about that. To jail those who waged the war, officials and navy commander, to jail intelligence agencies, to jail me”. Shani Abeysekara tried ‘to jail me,’ President Gotabaya said. Now Shani Abeysekara is in jail, and his life is in danger. According to media reports, a day after he underwent heart surgery at the Colombo General Hospital, he has been ordered back to jail. Irrespective of the source of that order, it goes against common practice, common sense and common decency. It smacks of hate, vindictiveness, a desire to punish a principled official who served not politicians but the law.
In Sri Lanka, Shani Abeysekara is not the only official facing punishment for the crime of angering or inconveniencing political authority. There was Dr. Jayarunwan Bandara, demoted for telling the truth about the pandemic. When State Minister for Wildlife, Wimalaweera Dissanayake intervened to protect those devastating the Flood Plains Valley in Polonnaruwa, a group of wild life officials stood up to him. He and fellow minister Roshan Ranasinghe berated them, the latter calling them mad dogs. Now one of those officials had been transferred. The same fate may befall the courageous forest official Devani Jayatilaka.
Even those who stay out of controversies may not be safe from arbitrary punishment, as the fate of the Royal College principal demonstrates. He was forced to submit his resignation and then transferred, reportedly to satisfy a power-wielder’s yen. Perhaps it is time Lankan public officials read Pastor Martin Niemōller’s post-war reflection on the wages of cowardice. Impunity, once unleashed, is a ferocious beast whose hunger is never satisfied.
When a country is mired in impunity, when justice is unobtainable nationally, the only recourse open to victims is international solidarity and assistance. In January, two Brazilian indigenous leaders filed a lawsuit against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, accusing him of crimes against humanity. Currently, activists are demanding ecocide to be added to the crimes prosecuted by the ICC. A panel of legal experts from around the world are drafting plans to make ecocide a legally enforceable crime.
Geneva or The Hague is not an ideal option. Sadly, when there is no dividing line between national leaders and criminals, they become the only option.
Military, from pawn to boomerang?
During the second Rajapaksa presidency, Geneva season was a busy time for Minister Wimal Weerawansa. Currently, he is too occupied with his own troubles to bother with Geneva, much.
The unexpected intervention by Minister G. L. Peiris in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-Weerawansa spat is revealing. Minister Peiris would not have intervened on his own volition, because he does almost nothing political on his own volition. In the last one and a half decade, he had turned himself into a reliable stooge of the Rajapaksa Family, a mouthpiece, an instrument. His broadside against Minister Weerawansa therefore can be taken as a message from the Mahinda-Gotabaya-Basil trinity.
Speaking at a SLPP media conference, Minister Peiris claimed that some in the Joint Opposition did not want the SLPP to be formed. But Basil Rajapaksa went ahead and did it. “He did that based on a clear principle. We needed a home. There was gap. He formed the SLPP to fill that gap” (Lanka c news – 16.2.2021).
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was never quite a Rajapaksa party, even when the Rajapaksas dominated it. This was a key factor in the two defeats the Rajapaksas suffered in 2015. Basil Rajapaksa created the SLPP as a Rajapaksa Party, a political home not only for Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but for the whole family, an extension of the Medamulana Walauwwa.
In Rajapaksa eyes, a Rajapaksa can be succeeded only by another Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa project is not only about familial rule but also about dynastic succession. While Minister Weerawansa is loyal to the point of servility to Mahinda and Gotabaya, he may not want to spend the rest of his political career kowtowing to a President Basil or a Prime Minister Namal, not to mention the lesser members of the clan Shashindra and Nipuna to Udayanga. He, and others like him, might be looking to a post-Mahinda-Gotabaya future, wondering, hoping, and perhaps even talking of claiming a leadership role in such a time. Interestingly the SLPP-Wimal battle is being kept alive by the SLPP. Its relentless assaults might constitute pre-emptive strike against a future competitor to the Rajapaksa heirs.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake correctly compared the Wimal-SLPP spat to a collision of two gully-bowsers. The resulting reek is a warning of two dangers awaiting Sri Lanka.
One of the charges levelled against the Wimal-faction by the SLPP is being pawns of an unnamed foreign intelligence agency. This week, the Wimal-faction retaliated by claiming that the BJP might even buy the SLPP. These accusations and counter-accusations raise the possibility of regional powers entering the succession stakes in Sri Lanka. Since Basil Rajapaksa remains a US-Lankan dual citizen, the prospect of a Basil presidency may not please Sri Lanka’s main paymaster. And what displeases Beijing is bound to please Delhi. Thanks to the Rajapaksa familial project, Sri Lanka’s internal politics too might become a battleground for regional powers.
Of the many crimes and stupidities of Rajapaksa provenance, perhaps the most heinous one is bringing the military into civilian spaces and giving it a taste of political power. This began in 2010, discontinued in 2015 when the Rajapaksas lost power, and resumed, with renewed vigour, in 2019. This Rajapaksa-led militarization aims to transform the hitherto politically neutral military into a partisan entity whose primary loyalty is not to the Lankan state but to the Rajapaksa family. The commencement of this deadly transformation was symbolized by several top military commanders appearing on state television in full uniform praising Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa during the 2010 presidential election.
The Rajapaksa militarization is a sui generis one. Its architects and the driving force are not the military leadership but the political leadership. The military is accorded many privileges including impunity, but it has no autonomous role. Its function is to act as a reliable instrument and an obedient pawn of Rajapaksa power. The military leaders shine, so long as the sun of Rajapaksa favour illuminates them. When that favour is no more, they will either fade away, or fall hard, as Sarath Fonseka did.
Will this model work in a post-Mahinda-Gotabaya future? Will the military remain loyal to Rajapaksa heirs, especially if there is an internal tussle between the Family and non-family Mahinda-Gotabaya loyalists for power? What will be its role, if regional players become involved in this internal power struggle? What demands will the military make, in return for its loyalty? Will the Rajapaksa-games with the military and the monks send Sri Lanka the Myanmar way, someday?
-Tisaranee Gunasekara is a political commentator based in Colombo and this article was originally featured on groundviews.org