Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
For good reason and going by past bitter experience, Sri Lankans have learnt to distrust wildly acrimonious statements by their two quarrelling ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) leaders, President Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe as a doomed political entanglement unravels amidst mutual personal distaste.
But with acrimony between the two men deepening each day, anti-progressive and in some instances, raw communal and chauvinistic forces are emerging more strongly in the guise of populistic drivers of inflammatory public opinion, trapping the gullible and the angry alike.
In some respects, we have regressed to a breakdown of social cohesion that is worse than what prevailed during the conflict. Visceral expressions of hate by one community towards another are becoming commonplace amongst the educated and not-so-educated.
Pantomimes played for our benefit
Deeply worrying as this may be, it is not surprising as the Republic implodes in multiple ways and each political faction recoils to protect its own loyalists. Instability at the highest levels of the State is intertwined with the chameleon-like serpentine workings of an entrenched ‘deep state’ security apparatus. Only a few security heads and policement have been disciplined for disregarding prior intelligence warnings and enabling Islamist jihadists to attack churches and hotels on Easter Sunday as easily as if they were picnicking by Colombo’s Galle Face Green. Other ‘favourite’ officers who were culpable appear to have escaped without a reprimand.
Adding to a pervading sense of unease, agreements impacting on defence and national security have reportedly been signed with the Governments of China and the United States respectively by the President and the Prime Minister, regarding which the country know little. An engagingly diverting pantomime is now being played for our benefit at the Parliamentary Select Committee to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacres. Agents and double agents of different power blocs as well as politicians protest in dewy-eyed innocence that they were deaf, dumb and blind to jihadism growing in their midst. These explanations will be taken with a pinch of cynical salt by seasoned political observers.
Indeed, the parliamentary select committee process is an excellent illustration of how blindingly unbelievable lies can be told and retold, translating to ‘the truth’ as framed in superlatively Gobbelsian political propaganda. This play-acting is the worst insult that can be offered to the dead and injured of the cataclysmic Easter Sunday massacres. Each week, another fatality joins the list of the dead from the blasts. Who now even keeps count?
A continuing vacuum in government
Meanwhile, communal unrest is carefully manufactured. This week, a local court went to the unprecedented extent of ordering that Muslim traders be permitted to ply their wares at a weekly fair in a surburb close to the capital. This was in consequence of striking down a racist directive by a local area politician belonging to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Podujana Party following a common pattern after April 21st, where Sinhalese traders prevented Muslim businessmen from putting up their shutters. Clearly this had to do more with economic trade-offs rather than with maintaining the ‘public peace’ as the Wennappuwa Pradeshiya Sabha chairman claimed, which unconvincing excuse was summarily dismissed by the court.
In this case and after the matter became public, the Podujana Party moved swiftly to distance itself from the offending actions of this local level member. But the party has yet to show that it will do more than merely issue statements to rein in its unruly members. Elsewhere, a charitable foundation providing food to patients and family members visiting hospitals in Colombo had to close following baseless allegations reportedly again by a podujana politician that it may be ‘unsafe’ to partake of the free meals. In yet another instance, the Criminal Investigation Department informed court that sensationalised accusations against a doctor alleged to have carried out forced ‘steralisations’ of Sinhalese women were not substantiated by real evidence.
So as tensions simmer, a continuing vacuum in government is underpinned by a peculiarly self-sabotaging thrust that directly puts the country at peril. We saw this in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks as the President and the Prime Minister pulled in different directions. Two months on and as elections approach in one form or another, the rhetoric is ratcheted up. There is breathless suspense as to what new calamity is in store. This week, President Sirisena sardonically announced to editors and media heads that he had signed the death warrants of four convicted drug traffickers, ordering the executions to be carried out ‘soon.’ This announcement was presaged by his literally hair-raising approval of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s shoot-to-kill orders in regard to suspected drug traffickers.
Side-shows and diversions are a betrayal
As many in Sri Lanka rebounded in panic, the question arose as to whether this was just another side-show meant to take the national debate in a different direction to where it is supposed to go. In any event, the procedure for carrying out capital punishment cannot be met with one careless flick of a Presidential hand. Rather, a meticulous procedure needs to be followed where case records of prisoners sentenced to death have to be called for and reviewed on a case by case basis. The observations of the judge who tried the case have to be forwarded to the Attorney General for instructions and thereafter sent to the Minister of Justice who is required to make his or her recommendations and in turn pass it on to the President.
It is only after completion of all these mandated procedures and if all three reports are adverse that the presidential signing of the death warrant must take place. These procedures must be evidenced on record, not subjected to executive whim. Yet in truth and if the President’s threats are taken seriously, it is ludicrous to claim that reactivation of the death penalty will arrest the spread of drug trafficking, as he thunderously proclaims.
Sri Lanka classically exemplifies a country where crime/drug kingpins are situated at the highest levels of the political and law enforcement machinery. They are the ‘untouchables’, immune to the reach of the law. Thus, showpiece executions of luckless sprats will only further brutalise Sri Lankan society and achieve little in terms of actual crime prevention as a Commission on Capital Punishment pointed out as early as in the late 1950’s.
Regardless, each new side show by the political leadership diverts attention away from deplorable failures of state security and politicians resulting in the Easter Sunday massacres. This is where the sole attention of the country and its political leadership should be focused. But that is not the case. Certainly, as politicians bicker and a salivating opposition waits in the wings, these acts of great betrayal by those tasked with steering the nation need to be judged harshly and without mercy.