Slitting our future


President Maithripala Sirisena

Sanjana Hattotuwa

Lost in the melee of throat-slitting last week was statements by the President and high-profile members of the UNP. At an election rally in Jaffna, the President is reported to have personally assured that no one who had been disappeared was kept in any secret location, camp or in the jungle. He had not mentioned a word about justice or holding those accountable for disappearances accountable. Separately, in an interview to a leading private TV station, the President averred that former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was removed from his position because he agreed to co-sponsor a resolution at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva proposing the inclusion of foreign judges in investigations around allegations of human rights violations including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Juxtapose this with what others are saying about us. In September last year, media reported that the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells, praised the progress made by Sri Lanka under the leadership of the President around democratic reforms and reconciliation. In October last year, Mark Field, UK Minister for Asia and the Pacific, welcomed the government’s commitment to reconciliation and strengthening democracy. Also in November, news media reported that reconciliation programmes under the President came in for special praise by visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In early January 2018, Japan’s Foreign Minister Tharo Kono reportedly pledged his government’s "fullest support for the development and reconciliation process of Sri Lanka". In July 2017, state media noted that Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, had lauded efforts made by the President to strengthen reconciliation. Earlier that year, in April 2017, Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestag), Norbert Lammert in an official visit to the country noted that the President had taken effective steps to strengthen democracy and improve human rights and reconciliation. An official delegation of the European Parliament late last year, expressing concern that progress around reconciliation was slower than hoped, welcomed the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons. The only problem is that the OMP has yet to be constituted, and the chief stumbling block is the President.

It is entirely unclear where the well-springs of hope lie for those who remain sanguine about prospects for meaningful reconciliation, accountability and transitional justice in Sri Lanka. We have a President who now intervenes to overturn the suspension, pending inquiry, of a person whose actions in London reveal, in no uncertain terms, the mentality of the Sri Lankan Army. If this was what was threatened in broad daylight and the full glare of media in London, imagine how much worse it would have been in the scorching heat of Nandikadal, in 2009, far away from any media gaze save for trophy footage by aggressors. It is this President who says on national TV that he will not allow the electric chair to come to Sri Lanka, ignorant perhaps that as a non-signatory country to the Rome Statue, the International Criminal Court – which in the popular public imagination is equated with the electric chair – has no jurisdiction or power over us. The President’s populism reached a crescendo in the lead up to the local government election. This was to be expected, though perhaps not at the levels of shrill insanity and inanity on display. What is more concerning is the power dynamic within the coalition government moving forward, with a President so vehemently, visibly and volubly against principle tenets of accountability, reconciliation and transitional justice.

Clearly, contrary to the buoyant optimism of foreign diplomats and leaders, our political malaise runs deeper. Take the statements by senior UNP figures. Largely under-reported in the mainstream media at the time and indeed, to date, the significant violence around Colombo’s beautification under the former regime and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular is well-documented in reports anchored to the testimonies of tens of thousands displaced or relocated to living conditions by order of magnitude far worse that they experienced in the places where they were originally resident. More than most, UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva knows this. But for whatever reason, this did not prevent him from unilaterally praising Gotabaya Rajapaksa in December last year for "his efforts in beautifying" Colombo. In a comparatively late awakening to what was by then a readymade populist platform, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene praised Brigadier Priyankara Fernando’s throat-slitting gesture as the right signal to give pro-LTTE diaspora. Not to be outshone, Navin Dissanayake, UNP MP and Minister of Plantation Industries said that the Brigadier enjoys diplomatic immunity for actions performed within the embassy premises. Previously, just after the President reversed the suspension, Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake stated that they would not be conducting an inquiry into the actions by the Brigadier, adding that "that it was not in any way or form a threat meant for the protesters".

Mind-bending stuff, this. There was photo doing the rounds of Brigadier Priyankara Fernando pointing a finger to the Sri Lankan flag pinned to his uniform. Whereas videos and photos of the throat-slitting went viral, this image captures more fully and accurately Sri Lanka today, three years into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The two stripes of our flag – representing Tamils and Muslims – have always faced the Sinhala Lion’s kastane, or sword. In London, on the other side, the stripes confronted the pointed finger of Brigadier Fernando, soon after he had used it to symbolise a knife cutting the heads of Tamil protestors. And so there we have it. The first and enduring reaction to excesses by the Army is genuflection out of fear of losing votes. We have a President opposed to accountability, blocking the OMP and by extension, inimical to any meaningful reconciliation. We have members of the UNP who are no better. We have officials in our diplomatic missions whose mindless reactions are now the greatest fuel for the fund raising and propaganda efforts of the equally moronic pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and allies. The dregs of society on both sides of the nationalist-patriotic spectrum fuel each other’s frothing madness.

This is so sad. Men in uniform continue to, with total impunity and even abroad, act in a violent manner. We have an Army that says recorded evidence of violent, offensive behaviour by officials in a diplomatic mission does not remotely constitute anything that requires condemnation, leave aside punitive action. We have officials representing Sri Lanka who are oblivious to diplomacy, and worse, members of the military hand-picked by the government who are the worst imaginable ambassadors of our country. If Brigadier Fernando’s actions aren’t investigated, what hope is there for more robust investigations, as the President keeps promising us, into more serious allegations of violence? The response across the political spectrum and over social media in particular reveal a country very far from being reconciled with its past. It suggests that strategically, we are unable to effectively counter pro-LTTE provocations because internally and domestically, we continue to be wedded to racist, discriminatory mindsets which frame policy and fear progress. What is manifest overtly, is a rot that lies deep within. What is obvious now in London, is a cancer within the country that metastasized in 2009. What our politicians say and the public cheer on and vote in, is what holds us back and takes us into the past.

This is Sri Lanka today. A very different country to what the diplomats and foreign dignitaries talk about with high praise. Brigadier Fernando may have meant it differently, but what he did and how he was captured in London is in fact the future we face. Sri Lanka, led by the current government, is murdering its democratic potential. And voters are cheering this awful demise on, eyes wide open.

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