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Creeping Talibanization in Sri Lanka – Prof. David

[TamilNet, Monday, 17 August 2009 08:28 No Comment]

Noting several trends in Sri Lanka point to "early steps in [reaching for] totality of power," Prof Kumar David in a column in the weekend edition of "The Island" asserts that the cultural control exercised by the current Rajapakse regime are no different to those of "the Mullahs of Teheran and the iconoclastic Taliban fundamentalists." Prof. David summarizes the views of six lawyers expressed at a Lawyers’ Press Conference organised by the Platform for Freedom (PfF) early August where one notes that the scene is set for ever expanding authoritarianism as Sri Lanka’s President flagrantly violates the "supreme law, the public [is] apathetic and the judiciary [is] powerless," and another points to the holding of 300,000 people "against their will, in defiance of local and international law" as "obscene infringement of the constitution."

Full text of the article follows:

Professor Kumar David State bureaucrats, and the political hypocrites at whose behest they function, are telling us what films to watch, what music to listen to, what to drink and smoke, what animals to torture, and instructing our lawyers what clients they dare appear for. Have they gone mad? No not at all, they are perfectly sober and cynical. These are but early steps in assimilating a totality of power; better known as totalitarianism. Cultural control by the Mullahs of Teheran and the iconoclastic Taliban fundamentalists are forerunners of culture control as a means of exercising political power.

Historically, hypocritical prudery – a cover-up for vileness in the private lives of the power elite – go back to the Borgia Popes, and further back to the mad Caligula who made his horse a Senator (now don’t say its better than having jackasses in parliament and cabinet), or the paedophile emperor Tiberius who had children perform unspeakable abominations as he swam naked in the pool. Rodrigo Borgia was a Cardinal and later Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) and while in these offices he fathered a number of children by his mistress Vannozza Catanei. Conversely, the wise emperor Dharma Asoka never sought totalitarian control of the minds and freedoms of his people.

I do not need to dwell on corruption in public life in Sri Lanka, and profanity in private life, links to the drug underworld, and the drift to political absolutism. Understandably then, reactivation of the draconian press council is entirely for the purpose of controlling dissent.

Six lawyers speak out

"The erosion of the rule of law has been a process, continuing at a steadily worsening pace. First it was white vans and abductions but the majority took little note since the victims were a minority community, then it was journalists and editors, then lawyers came under threat, and now scores of common "criminals" are being bumped off by the police – who knows the truth; how many personal scores are being settled" said leading Kandy lawyer and LSSP PB member Lal Wijenayake speaking at a Lawyers’ Press Conference organised by the Platform for Freedom (PfF) at the National Library Auditorium on 4 August. Alleged criminals held in police custody are taken in handcuffs to a remote location, suddenly, as if by magic, hand grenades and T-56 assault rifles materialise in the hands of the criminal "forcing the police to gun him down in self-defence" like a dog. The lie is of Gobblesian proportions. Wijenayake thinks that between 50 and 70 may have been eliminated in cold blood. Off the record the police say summary extrajudicial execution is necessary because the legal process is too slow and criminals escape via loopholes in the law.

"Now that this trend has taken hold, remember nobody is safe; you may be the next in line and the reason may well be something you never foresaw" warns Wijenayake. A day after he spoke Nipuna Ramanayake a student at the Information Technology Institute was abducted, allegedly by the son of a Senior Superintendent of Police and taken to the SSP’s home where he was beaten mercilessly for several hours (Daily Mirror 6 August, front page). Then an attempt to force him to sign a false statement at the Crime Division office of the Dematatgoda police station mercifully misfired with the timely arrival of his parents. What does the IGP say? "No comment". What has the President done? No comment from me! Lal Wijenayake could well have added: ‘Not even your sons and daughters are safe any longer from uniformed thugs masquerading as officers of the law.’

Six lawyers spoke at the Press Conference which was a model of brevity and clarity. Each took seven or eight minutes and made an incisive presentation on topics related to creeping dictatorship. President’s Council Srinath Perera dealt with the threat published on the website of the Ministry of Defence against a team of lawyers. The case is a private plaint filed by the Secretary to the Defence Ministry, Gotabhaya Rajapakse (the President’s brother), against the Editor and owners of the Sunday Leader newspaper. The Ministry, in contempt of judicial process, published a statement describing the lawyers appearing for the defence as "traitors"!

In Perera’s view this amounts to three simultaneous blows aimed at demolishing the rule of law. Firstly it was a violation of the constitutional right of a citizen to a fair trial and representation by counsel; second it was an attack on the bar and on the ability of lawyers to work without intimidation. Third and most insidious, it is a warning to the judge hearing the case that he had better be careful – if the verdict goes against the Defence Secretary, the implication is clear; the judge has sided with national traitors. The sanctity of the courts is being flagrantly, openly and unashamedly violated on a never before seen scale by agencies of the Sri Lankan state.

The lawyers expressed their disappointment with the Bar Association which has been supine in the face of these threats. The public is largely apathetic to creeping dictatorship, still basking in the glory of war victory. Many professional bodies including the Bar Association are spineless, cowed down in fear of the Executive. The Vasudevas, firebrands of old, are now domesticated presidential lapdogs. These are sad and dangerous times for those who believe that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance". The all powerful executive does not care a damn: ‘We do as we damn well like, what the hell can any of you do about it!"

Chandra Kumarage, a lawyer with a pro-left (LSSP) and one time pro-PA background, described the long fight for human rights that had made this country, if not a model, at least an example of a society where the rule of law had some space. He dealt with the period when Mahinda Rajapakse, as a lawyer and an opposition politician, had been with human rights agitations and taken briefs to HR commissions overseas. Now all this was being reversed on Rajapakse’s watch as President of the Republic, said Kumarage.

Sudarshan Gunawardena, lawyer and PfF convenor, believes that despite the end of the war the government will not return democratic rights to the people; instead gross violations will continue and take new forms. The moral is clear; it is up to the people to come forward and boldly take back their rights, there is no other way. Nanny-state sponsored displays of priggishness, cultural fascism, threats to impose prohibition of alcohol by 2015, and religious leaders stooging political masters, all constitute a cultural assault to supplement the slide to totalitarianism.

Infringing common rights

J. C. Weliamuna, another PfF convenor, discussed the breakdown of the constitutional framework. In this lawyer’s view the functioning of the executive in defiance of the provisions of the 17-th Amendment is grossly illegal. When the President is in flagrant violation of the supreme law, the public apathetic and the judiciary powerless, the scene is set for ever expanding authoritarianism. Mercifully, however, a few sections of society are beginning to stir; artists and film makers are infuriated by the impending ban on adult’s only films soon to be imposed by the nanny state. The state cleverly convolutes adult themes with pornography to inflame gullible public opinion. The Taliban and the Mullahs of Teheran convolute artistic licence with paedophilia and lechery; that is the stock in trade of cultural fascists on the road to totalitarianism.

K. S. Ratnavale, who has appeared in many human rights related cases, turned the spotlight on the IDP camps calling them the largest concentration camps in the history of the world. I am not too sure whether they earn the title largest, but concentration camps they are. Between two and three hundred thousand people are held against their will, in defiance of local and international law, and in an obscene infringement of the constitution. Hundreds of thousands have been in illegal detention for three months, in effect hostages of a minority race, hostages of the state. As for their release, nothing that is said by any official source can be believed.

Xenophobia and the traitor image

Zimbabwe is an extreme case where xenophobia served to undermine human rights. There was a change from liberal democratic values to an authoritarian and xenophobic ideology; an attack on ‘Western style’ human rights values, and an attack on colonialism and imperialism for past atrocities. The critique found some popular support since it was linked to the aftermath of a racist regime. TV and the press were mobilised and opposition politicians, parties, journalists and newspaper editors were branded as traitors and paid the price.

Circumstances in Lanka are not yet as dreadful but there is a distinct turning away from human rights values, denigrating them as a Western post-colonial imposition. There is a not so subtle effort to conceal the universal applicability of human rights. Xenophobia is underlined by a turn in foreign policy that speaks approvingly of friendship with China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. The logic is that these governments provided arms and diplomatic support during the war while the West took a more nuanced view; proscribing the LTTE and freezing its assets and access to arms, but also making war crimes allegations and raising human rights concerns. This did not pan out well with the regime since the new friends did not raise such embarrassing concerns.

I do not object to the government turning to China and elsewhere in addition to the West for development aid, investment and markets as a part of a strategy of economic diversification. The problem is when this turn takes a twist in relation to human rights. Unfortunately there are no human rights traditions and independent civil society organisations in those countries with which the democratic left or bourgeois liberals can form links. Hence continuing emphasis on lines of contact with peoples and institutions tested in the human rights arena is necessary. The peoples’ movements and civil rights organisations in Western democracies have strengths that can be crucial allies in Lanka’s struggle against totalitarianism.

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