$ 2 Billion For Defence But No Freedom From Abduction In White Vans

The pall of abductions that threatened this sunny isle on the eve of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year receded somewhat with the missing political activist Kumar Gunaratnam being fortunately ‘found’ and being immediately put on a plane bound for Australia where he is resident but the ugly crime of abduction appears to have taken root in this country.

We will not comment on this alleged abduction of Gunaratnam immediately because the story has the trappings of an international spy thriller with the Defence Ministry claiming that Gunaratnam ‘had not entered’ the country and other stories of Gunaratnam going by another name. He had gone missing on the same day as another activist of his political party, the Frontline Socialist Party Dimithu Attygalle. Read her account of what happened elsewhere on these pages.

According to the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe 56 disappearances have been reported in Sri Lanka during the last six months and 19 of them having occurred during the period the anti-Sri Lanka Resolution on alleged violation of human rights by Sri Lanka was being debated at the UNHRC in Geneva.

By whatever standards that are considered, the responsibility for abductions or disappearances of citizens falls squarely on the shoulders of the government in power. The knee-jerk reaction of government party politicians to Wickremesinghe’s allegations would be the inane cry: What did you do when you were in power? This asinine and constant response to accusations against the government by its defenders has brought Sri Lanka into the zone of being a failed or pariah state and the more kindly epithet of Banana Republic. Indeed abductions took place in UNP times and even during the rule of the Bandaranaikes but to have the sole reply to opposition allegations as: ‘Such things happened in your times as well’, is indeed infantile politics. The Rajapaksas were elected not to repeat the mistakes of the Bandaranaikes, Jayewardene or Premadasa but to correct all their mistakes and blunders.

It was only the other week that UNPers recalled in Parliament how human rights activist Mahinda Rajapaksa led an aggressive opposition to violation of human rights of the Southern people during the quelling of the JVP insurrection. Rajapaksa and fellow SLFP members sought the assistance of Western ambassadors to protect the human rights of southern Sri Lankans. Seeking assistance of Western ambassadors was by no means considered a ‘treasonable’ act as of now.

To seek whatever possible assistance to protect your own kind against political goon and murder squads is justifiable. Sri Lankans have developed a horrendous political culture, when in power, of organising political goon squads to obliterate any kind of political opposition. Journalists and political activists have been the favourite targets of these squads that maim, abduct and kill. Sivaram who openly advocated Tamil rights was bundled into a white van opposite the Bambalapitiya police stations and disappeared. His body was found next morning by the highway to parliament. They did not abduct Lasantha Wickrematunge. They simply killed him on the highway. Pradeep Ekneligoda a virulent critic of the ruling class disappeared two days before the presidential elections of Mahinda Rajapaksa as president for the second time (January 2010). Ekneligoda has not been seen since then, despite all the pleas and appeals of his wife and children trace his whereabouts. This disappearance sent a chill through the entire free press which is still being felt. The harassment of journalists in Jaffna is innumerable. Nineteen journalists have been killed in since 1992.

Since the Sri Lankan police have not been able make the killers ofthese journalists face justice, the government stands in the dock even in the court of international opinion.

The other victims of political thugs are those of international NGOs and political activists who challenge the ex-cathedra pronouncements of government leaders. The JVP despite their failure at the polls is today the most effective critic of the Rajapaksa regime. While leaders of the old JVP have mellowed down, not so the Young Turks of the breakaway faction- the Frontline Socialist Party of which Kumar Gunaratnam has been identified as a leader. Gunaratnam is said to be a citizen of Australia but obviously his political intrusion into Sri Lanka again should be a cause of concern to many.

It is not only political violence unleashed by thugs that is a matter of concern to decent law abiding citizens. There is a marked breakdown in law and order of the country and that is why hired armed thugs – some of them ex-servicemen – are able to roam the country freely unchallenged by the police. Even government politicians who do not fall in line even with the self declared local ‘field marshals’ of electorates are liable for punishment.

There is grim irony in this because the government spends as much as 4 percent of its Gross Development Product (GDP) for defence which is equivalent to US$ 2 billion. India spends $ 36 billion on defence – 18 times higher but with a population 56 times more than Lanka and a land areas which is 50 times greater. A more revealing statistic is that the defence expenditure per capita in India is $ 30 while it is $ 95 for Sri Lanka!

That is the amount each Sri Lankan pays for its defence and maintenance of law and order. And what do we get? No freedom from white vans and the goons that ride them?

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