Swallowed in a spiral of self-destruction
When impunity and immunity becomes entrenched in the system, Gunathilaka’s case becomes just another signpost
Sri Lanka’s cricket, once known for its dashing playing style and legendary stars, has made world headlines for the wrong reasons. One of its cricketers, Danushka Gunathilaka, who was touring with the national team for the recently concluded T20 World Cup in Australia has been charged and detained for alleged sexual assault in that country. He was enlarged on bail on Thursday (17).
These comments are not in any way about Gunathilaka’s guilt or innocence. We see a polarized and divisive commentary on the issue. Some observers rush to defend Gunathilaka claiming he is being framed by a ‘honey trap’. Others have already convicted him in a trial by media, ignoring the concept of presumption of innocence until proven guilty. What we would suggest instead is that, because the matter is now before the Australian criminal justice system, the process should be allowed to run its course, instead of armchair pundits passing judgment without access to the minutiae of the case.
Rather, these comments are about the pathetic plight of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) that allowed Gunathilaka to be swallowed in a spiral of self-destruction, regardless of the outcome of his case, and how that is emblematic of the country in general.
Ever since Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, SLC has been seen as a cash cow to be milked by schemers, manipulators and businessmen who saw in the organization an opportunity to make not just a quick buck, but millions of them. Ana Punchihewa, who headed SLC during the 1996 campaign was deposed soon after the World Cup win. Gradually, Thilanga Sumathipala stepped in. Ever since, Sumathipala has had a stranglehold on SLC. When he wasn’t able to hold office due to legal issues, one of his proxies such as Mohan de Silva steps in. To this day, Sumathipala remains the puppeteer pulling strings at SLC. The head of SLC, Shammi Silva, is Sumathipala’s team mate from his school days at Nalanda College.
It was former Sports Minister C.B. Ratnayake who famously lamented that SLC was one of the most corrupt institutions in the country. Those comments reflected the frustration and incompetence he felt when he could do nothing about SLC despite being the Cabinet minister in charge of the institution. Even the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s anti-corruption unit has had occasion to censure SLC for the dealings of some of its contracted players.
Despite many attempts to reform SLC, the status quo remains. Even when the ‘yahapalanaya’ government came into office, SLC could not be salvaged because Sumathipala, the astute operator that he is, had switched allegiance from the Rajapaksa camp to the Maithripala Sirisena camp. Arjuna Ranatunga could beat the rest of the world and win a World Cup but, despite being a minister in Sirisena’s Cabinet, he couldn’t dislodge Sumathipala from his pedestal of being the Godfather of the SLC mafia. Governments have come and governments have gone but Sumathipala and his proxies carry on.
All this is relevant to how Danushka Gunathilaka finds himself in his current predicament. The culture within SLC is one of impunity and immunity: impunity by those in power and immunity for those who transgress ethical, professional and legal norms if they happen to be acolytes of the clique that runs SLC. The lack of law and order or even simple discipline permeates SLC from top to bottom. As a result, cricketers who are enveloped in a heady mixture of fame and fortune, instead of being guided on how to carefully navigate vulnerable situations, have become a law unto themselves knowing they can get away with almost anything as long as they have the correct connections within SLC.
Gunathilaka’s prior shenanigans with regard to disciplinary matters have attracted much publicity. The question is why they were not dealt with appropriately at the time. If they were and, as a result, if either Gunathilaka wasn’t playing international cricket anymore or alternatively if he had become a stickler for discipline, he wouldn’t find himself in dire straits and detained in a cell in a foreign land today.
In a broader sense, what transpires at SLC reflects what has happened to the rest of the country. A clique of rulers has held a stranglehold on power for the past fifteen years or so with a brief interruption in the ‘yahapalanaya’ era, which had its own demons.
A culture of impunity and immunity is again the hallmark of this clique. Those who support them get away with anything. Even when a few are charged for acts of commission and omission and brought before the courts, they are ‘acquitted and discharged’, at times following lengthy investigations and trials the Attorney General’s Department has a change of heart- usually after a change of government- and decides not to proceed with prosecution.
Just as much as Sumathipala presides over the SLC, it is the Rajapaksas who preside over this cabal of politicians, their lackeys and hangers-on. Just as it happens at SLC, when Mahinda Rajapaksa is unable to contest an election for legal reasons, a proxy is put forward who, of course, was yet another Rajapaksa. One could argue that even Ranil Wickremesinghe, judging by some of his recent actions and his deafening silence and inaction on matters related to the alleged misdeeds of the Rajapaksas, is also their proxy- after all, he was voted in as president only because the Rajapaksa camp in Parliament endorsed him.
In another parallel, SLC is spending for Gunathilaka’s legal defence in Australia. Irrespective of his guilt or innocence, the situation he has got himself into relates to his own personal conduct and has nothing do with cricket. That SLC, cash-strapped as it is, is footing the bill is unfathomable and unbelievable. Didn’t much the same happen with the Rajapaksas who built vanity projects- stadia, ports and airports which bear their name- when they were of very little benefit to the country?
What happened to Danushka Gunathilaka- whatever the outcome of his case – should serve as a lesson to other cricketers who, hopefully, will not repeat the same mistakes. We cannot however be so certain that what has happened to Sri Lanka today will deter us from electing those responsible yet again.