(Excerpts from the “Sunday Politics Column in the “Sunday Observer” of October 29th 2017)
If there was one thing that characterized the 10-year rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that would be the unprecedented level of violence unleashed upon the regime’s political opponents.
Infamous ‘white van abductions’ were prevalent in the capital city of Colombo, while strong critiques of the government often came under attacks from ‘death squads’ that operated with the blessings of the top echelons of the government.
Former Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda exposed the corruption of the Rajapaksa government at the expense of their own lives, while senior journalists Upali Tennakoon, Poddala Jayantha and many others had to flee the country after brutal assaults.
The law enforcement bodies had little or no regard for human lives as the military and the Police freely opened fire on protesters during protests at Rathupaswala, Katunayake and Chilaw.
There was no action on the perpetrators who killed unarmed protesters and in fact, some of them got promotions with diplomatic postings. It was a clear indication that the top-rung members of the Rajapaksa administration had no regrets about the precious human lives lost on the blood-soaked streets of Rathupaswala, Katunayake and Chilaw.
This callous indifference and disregard for human rights and democracy was one of the key reasons behind the downfall of former President Rajapaksa on January 8, 2015.
Despite his military victory over the LTTE, people had no qualms about sending the former President home as they wanted a government that was committed to ensure democracy, freedom and human rights in the country.
For any political party, the time it spends in the Opposition is a time of reflection. It gives the party some breathing space to reflect, re-adjust and re-strategize. Many believed the Rajapaksa group too would use the January 8 defeat as an opportunity for reflection and self-criticism.
But, it is now abundantly clear that the Rajapaksa group has hardly learnt anything from the election defeat. It was manifested again when former Major General Kamal Gunaratne, who led a military battalion during the final phase of war, addressed a gathering in Gampaha, a few days ago.
Kamal Gunaratne was the Commander of the 53rd Brigade established by former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka during the final phase of the war. It was Fonseka who appointed Gunaratne as a Brigade Commander before the final battle overlooking many other senior Army officers.
But, the same Kamal Gunaratne turned against Fonseka when the latter contested the Presidential Election in 2010. Gunaratne and several other senior Army officers appeared on State television channels to belittle Fonseka’s contribution in the final phase of the war against the LTTE, soon before the Presidential Election 2010 in which the former Army Commander was the Common Candidate of the Opposition. A day after Gunaratne retired from the military service in 2016, he launched a book ‘Road to Nandikadal’, which became an overnight sensation among the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist bloc in the South.
The book was launched at the Ananda College auditorium, in Colombo, under the auspices of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also present at the event and copies of the book were presented to the Rajapaksa brothers by the author. It was a clear indication that Gunaratne’s affiliations lied with the Rajapaksas even before he became a speaker of the ‘Viyathmaga’ campaign.
It is in this context that the current controversy surrounding the retired Army General has to be analyzed.
Gunaratne, addressing a ‘Viyathmaga’ event that was aimed at promoting former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, indicated that all who supported the new constitution should be killed.
In his speech, he first explained how the proposed new Constitution was “traitorous” and “unpatriotic”. Then he went on to claim that all traitors should be killed, in the same manner the JVP killed its opponents during the 88-89 insurrection.
What he implied was that the supporters of the new constitution, whom he called traitors, should not be given a decent funeral.
Ironically, the event where Gunaratne voiced his opinion was called ‘Viyathmaga’ (The path of intellectuals). The retired Army officer’s remarks were testimony to the calibre of intellectuals who have aligned themselves with the former Defence Secretary.
It would be wrong to assume that Gunaratne’s remarks came on the spur of the moment. It was, needless to say, a glimpse of the ideology espoused by Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is aspiring to be a presidential candidate in 2020. It also resembled Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s conduct when he was the all-powerful Defence Secretary of the Rajapaksa administration.
Gunaratne’s controversial statement came under criticism from various quarters in the political circles. Even some senior members of the Rajapaksa group described Gunaratne’s remarks as “insane and senseless” saying it would irreparably damage the political campaign of the former President.
They said, while former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa was trying hard to draw the support of ethnic minorities, the allies of Gotabaya Rajapaksa openly talk about killing political opponents.
They said, Gunaratne’s statement was a serious blow to the former President’s political campaign against a backdrop where Basil had gone an extra mile to admit the alleged crimes committed by members of the security forces, during the Rajapaksa presidency.
Among the politicians who strongly criticized the former Army officer’s irresponsible statement was Finance and Media minister Mangala Samaraweera who said, the defeated political elements were misusing the democratic space secured by the current government.
The Minister, in a strongly worded statement, accused them of acting as pawns of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
He reiterated that the “Viyathmaga” movement was formed to cater to the future political aspiration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Minister reminded that the unity government received a clear mandate in 2015 to introduce a new Constitution to usher in permanent peace, reconciliation and development.
Also citing Gunaratne and Retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara’s recent comments that all who support the new Constitution must be killed and the most recent comment by Weerawansa that Parliament should be bombed, the Minister pointed out, these horrific comments were made at a time the government is working towards delivering this undertaking of formulating a new Constitution.
“We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power. These threats also put the lives of democracy-loving and wise people at risk,” Minister Samaraweera stated.
The Minister went on to say, Kamal Gunaratne in his recent book had betrayed the Sri Lanka Army by illustrating the fatal attacks on the Northern people and instances of looting their property and thus preparing the ground for war crimes allegations. He reminded that investigations are still on against Gunaratne over the mysterious death of a Sri Lankan, which occurred when Gunaratne was in the diplomatic service.
Samaraweera referred to Gunaratne’s book ‘Road to Nandikadal’ as ‘Handi-kadal’ (breaker of towns) as it explains how some enraged soldiers destroyed villages and towns occupied by Tamil civilians during the period of war.
Samaraweera, commenting on Weerawansa’s statement on bombing Parliament, said, Weerawansa had displayed his fanatic political hooliganism following the same footsteps of his brother-in-law who bombed Parliament in the 1988-89 era.
The Minister, recalling the infamous white van culture in the Rajapaksa era, noted that the criminal mindset of those in the Rajapaksa camp remains unchanged with or without power.