By Anura Gunasekera
Chaminda Lakshan, an unarmed 41-year-old father of two, a member of a group of anguished citizens, waiting for days for a meagre fuel ration, at a price they could ill afford, was shot dead by the police, at Rambukkana, on the 19 April.
He joins a long list of citizens, who have been murdered on government order, simply because they dared to protest against the institutionalised suppression of democratic dissent, or for voicing genuine grievances or unpalatable truths; about a dozen journalists, from Subramanium Sughirdharajan, in January 2006, to Isapriya, in May 2009, three civilians, including a child of 14, who took to the streets to plead for uncontaminated drinking water (Rathupaswela – August 2013), 22-year-old Roshen Shanka (Katunayake – May 2011) who, along with thousands of other workers, protested when government proposals undermined the security of the Employees’ Provident Fund, and fisherman, Anthony Warnakulasooriya (Chilaw – Feb 2012), protesting against a fuel price hike. Let us also not forget the Welikada jail massacre of November 2012 which ended in the death of 27 prisoners, some reportedly executed at point blank range; bear in mind the Aluthgama incident (June- 2014) which ended with four deaths, many wounded and enormous loss of property and assets; add to that around dozen custodial deaths of suspected criminals, under transparently ridiculous, identical circumstances, which strain public credulity; collectively, a grim litany of extra-judicial killings, in all societies viewed as a violation of a citizen’s most basic right.
Most such episodes have been followed by highly sanitized media announcements, lately often delivered by Senior Police Spokesman, the bland Ajith Rohana, SDIG, exonerating the agents of any excesses and, even before the initiation of an investigation, portraying such killings as justifiable acts of self-defence, or the exercise of suitable force. Invariably, in the absence of any witnesses, other than the agents of the State responsible for the deaths, or the reluctance of witnesses to volunteer information because of fear of reprisal, the inquiring magistrate is compelled to concur with the perpetrators’ version. During his official statement on the Rambukkana incident, DIG Rohana casually slipped in the rider that the victim Lakshan had two court cases against him, as if to suggest that in this case execution was merited. Perhaps, it escaped his mind that many members of the current Parliament have been at some point of time, or still are, accused in various cases. That includes both the President and the Prime Minister.
All of the above killings coincide with Rajapaksa periods of governance, elder brother Mahinda as President and sibling Gotabaya as Secretary of Defence and, most recently, with Gotabaya as President and Mahinda as Prime Minister. Significantly, there were no such killings between January 2015 and October 2019, during the Yahapalanaya regime. It was inefficient but did not silence dissent with murder. Its incompetence may have been a causative factor in the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage but that needs a separate writing.
As is to be expected, none of the perpetrators in the mentioned killings have been brought to justice. In this instance Prasanna Ranatunga, newly appointed Minister of Public Security, speaking in Parliament, was quick to justify the killing, on the grounds that had the police not opened fire to prevent the fuel bowser being set alight, at least 300 people would have died, though it is yet to be established whether the protesters actually attempted to set the bowser on fire.
The investigation into the incident, from the very first step, has been fraught with doubt as to its impartiality. The first “A-report”- detailing an incident which does not necessarily involve a crime – was rejected by the Kegalle Magistrate, Wasana Navaratne, as the incident involved a killing. The subsequent hastily prepared “B-report” was censured by her as it carried unacceptable alterations and deletions.
There are eyewitnesses to the incident, who allege that live rounds had been directed against citizens fleeing the scene; one eyewitness declared on TV, in the presence of Sarath Fonseka, MP, a number of local Buddhist priests and other people, at the funeral house of the late Lakshan, that the police had threatened to string him up by his feet if he gave evidence at the inquiry. The same man repeatedly alleged that the secretary of a ruling party MP had been involved in orchestrating events, creating the conditions which led to the shooting. The alleged intensity of the firing – against unarmed civilians – and the nature of the orders given to the shooters, suggest that the firing was not a minimum-force deterrent to possible violence, but driven by an intention to kill.
There are also allegations that the police set a three-wheeler on fire. Members of the Buddhist clergy present at the protest site claim that the interaction between the protesters and the Rambukkana police personnel on duty had been absolutely cordial, but the turmoil had been created by a contingent from the Kegalle police, led by SSP Keerthiratne.
Addressing Parliament later in the day, Sarath Fonseka quite categorically declared that SSP Keerthiratne had been responsible for the escalation of the incident and that he had been under the influence of liquor at that time. If the above information is correct it sullies the general conduct of the police, which has demonstrated commendable restraint in the recent islandwide protests.
The IGP has declared to the Human Rights Commission that he had not instructed the local police to open fire on the protesters. The initial inquiry into the incident which, ridiculously, had been handled by the Rambukkana Police, has now been entrusted to the CID. In totality, the sequence of events is very similar to previous investigations, under similar circumstances, across successive regimes, wherever the State authorities have been clearly seen to exceed their remit. Everything points to a classic cover-up strategy, very common to the Sri Lanka police and not uncommon in fascist regimes in other parts of the world. Victims retract complaints, witnesses develop amnesia, witnesses die, or disappear along with evidence, and crime scenes are sanitized immediately after an incident, obliterating leads and preventing any meaningful detective investigation.
In the meantime, a gazette notification has been issued, on the instructions of the President, deploying the Tri-Forces to maintain public order in 25 specified districts. Surprisingly, there has been no public comment on a development which, in the context of the ongoing turmoil, is akin to throwing dynamite into a fire.
The above is another perfect example of Gotabaya Rajapakse’s inflexible mind-set, in which there is no space for basic common sense, the logical measuring of options, or the evaluation of different points of view; that which is collectively largely responsible for the current state of the nation.
It is the narrow mindset of an ill-informed military man, that the exercise of authority is most effective when delivered through the barrel of a gun. Political power is defined as a key ingredient in the glue that holds a nation together, and that which enables control. But when abused, as we have seen the world over, leads to aggressive civil reaction and revolution; Sri Lanka today is the textbook case of South Asia, if not of all Asia.
The character and integrity of a regime in power is reflected best in the way it treats its ordinary citizens, the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable, ensuring that those classes enjoy the same rights and access to basic needs and facilities, and, most importantly, to justice, as much as the economically, socially and politically privileged. The worth of a nation, especially in a multicultural society, is best measured by the manner in which it treats its minorities. Our government, and previous regimes as well, have failed on the first count and our nation has failed itself in the second. But now the opportunity has come to right both wrongs. The current regime can, and should, accept the verdict of the people and let go of governance. The nation, in the wonderful unity it has shown in the recent demonstrations against a government which has lost legitimacy, has demonstrated its potential to heal and to bridge the racial and religious divisions, which successive rulers have leveraged in order to gain power. For the first time since Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, always a fractured polity, has in its gravest hour become a nation.
In the face of nationwide rejection why must Gotabaya be so obdurate? He is not a career politician but a man levered into power through the convergence of fortuitous circumstances; the voters’ disillusionment with an inept “Yahapalanaya”, the adulatory support of a large segment of the Sangha, combined with brother Mahinda’s fervent desire to have a Rajapaksa at the helm, until the launching pad is secure for son Namal to compete for the presidency, or the premiership. The other factor is that for those who have blatantly abused power- “malfeasance in office” for so long, there is a personal danger in letting go of the reins. That is equally true for the political lackeys and fellow travellers who have benefited from the rulers’ generosity and condonation of outright corruption, considerations which compel that group to maintain the benefactor in power. That much is obvious if one considers the most ardent of the Rajapaksa supporters in Parliament. In the event of a Rajapaksa family demise, they have much more to lose than power and position.
If even at this late stage Gotabaya Rajapaksa can drag himself out from the dark cavern that is his mind and, with the constitutional power still at his command, catalyze the change that the nation is desperately seeking, he can yet avert a catastrophe and emerge from the present chaos with a semblance of dignity. A structured exit will enable an orderly reconstruction. If not, he and the Rajapaksa family, and the nation as well, will be consumed in the inferno that will surely follow.