“I received information from a third party. Either myself or the Government does not know anything about Eknaligoda – it is only God who knows” – Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris, in a statement before the Homagama Magistrate on 5 June 2012
On Tuesday, 29 January 2013, three years and five days since her husband disappeared without a trace, Sandhya Ekneligoda tied a black cloth over her mouth and took her place at the front row of the Black January protest in Town Hall.
Tireless and unyielding in her quest to discover what became of her husband, Sandhya Ekneligoda has become a crusader for Sri Lanka’s ‘disappeared’ and the face of a small but vocal campaign against impunity and media suppression in the island that media rights watchdogs say has seen nine journalists murdered and one disappeared since President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005.
For Sri Lanka’s media, January is a very black month indeed. A host of atrocities against media personnel both during and after the war have occurred in the first month of the year. Lasantha Wickrematunge, founding Editor of The Sunday Leader was assassinated on his way to work in January 2009.
Days before his murder, a claymore mine exploded inside the studios of the Sirasa Media Network. In January 2011, Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan, an editor of the Jaffna based newspaper Uthayan was brutally assaulted.
And on 24 January 2010, Prageeth Ekneligoda vanished without a trace on his way to work, in the heat of a tight presidential race between incumbent President Rajapaksa and his former Army Chief, Sarath Fonseka. He has not been heard from since.
In November 2011, former Attorney General and Legal Advisor to the Cabinet of Ministers Mohan Pieris told the UN’s Committee Against Torture (CAT) that the Government of Sri Lanka possessed information that Ekneligoda was alive and well in a foreign country. He claimed that the campaign to secure the cartoonist’s release was a farce.
Seven months later, Pieris informed the Homagama Magistrate’s Court, where he was answering summons in a Habeaus Corpus application filed by Sandhya Ekneligoda, that his pronouncement before the UN CAT was based on information received by a third party. The now infamous proclamation soon followed, as the former state prosecutor stood in the same courtroom with the woman who had been seeking the whereabouts of her husband unceasingly for over two years, that “only God knows” Prageeth’s whereabouts.
The same man now heads Sri Lanka’s Judiciary, where Sandhya is seeking redress by obtaining a Court of Appeal Writ that will force the authorities to release Prageeth from detention and bring him before a court of law.
But at least the Ekneligoda disappearance remains alive, partly because of Sandhya’s indomitable spirit and partly buoyed by the efforts of media rights organisations in Sri Lanka and around the world to keep his case alive, Prageeth remains a focal point of international concern. There are the families of hundreds that have disappeared in the north and east, highlighted by the Government’s own commission of inquiry on the final phase of the war, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that are seeking answers.
Far from abating post-war, abductions and disappearances have continued, and a lack of progress in any official line of inquiry and the even stranger phenomenon of abduction victims turning up when the appropriate amount of international pressure is exerted upon the highest echelons of the Government – in the case of Kumar Gunaratnam for instance – points to some degree of state collusion, human rights activists say.
Some of the abductions took place even after the Human Rights Council of the UN flagged Sri Lanka for its appalling human rights record and adopted a resolution in March last year urging the Government in Colombo to effectively ‘get a move on’ regarding post-war reconciliation and accountability concerns, by implementing the recommendations of the LLRC report and finding a mechanism to investigate and prosecute the allegations of human rights abuses and excesses during the final phase of the conflict with the LTTE.
To coincide with the UNHRC sessions in Geneva last March, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa orchestrated massive demonstrations against the US sponsored resolution, railed against Western conspiracies and denounced them as being LTTE plots to tarnish Sri Lanka’s image.
Two months later, the Sri Lankan Government agreed in theory to meet its international obligations as set out in the UNHRC resolution. A national action plan on reconciliation was drafted and the military began its own ‘inquiry’ into allegations of excesses and violations of international humanitarian law.
Those inquiries continue, the military says, even though the international community continues to be dubious about whether Sri Lanka’s military, in an increasingly militarised state is capable of investigating itself against such serious allegations of atrocities.
For the better part of the year 2012, any progress the Government has touted has been limited mostly to words, especially in terms of genuine reconciliation that would build trust between the communities and genuine will to understand and hold to account those that may be guilty of excess in war time.
Resolution – take two
Predictably then, Sri Lanka finds itself where it is today, if anything having exacerbated international concerns by a cavalier attitude to the principles of democracy, rule of law and civil liberties, often dismissing them as ‘Western notions’ of just and fair societies.
If it was not already clear when the question of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake’s (then proposed) impeachment came up during Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in November, the three-member US Delegation visiting Sri Lanka this week made sure the writing was on the wall.
“The United States has decided to sponsor a procedural resolution at the March 2013 session of the UN Human Rights Council along with international partners. The resolution will be straightforward, it will be a procedural resolution, and it will build on the 2012 resolution which called on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation and accountability,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James R. Moore told journalists in Colombo earlier this week.
Just to clear up any doubts, his counterpart for Defence for South and Southeast Asia, Vikram Singh also made the following observation about how much the concerns of the international community have grown because of the Government’s decision to impeach Bandaranayake in breach of an order by the two highest courts in the country and despite the outcry both within and outside the country that the process was deeply flawed.
“I think it’s safe to say that the impeachment of the Chief Justice which was mentioned before as a concern has also contributed to a desire to ensure that the record stays fresh in Geneva,” Deputy Assistant Secretary Singh said. Interestingly, upon landing in Colombo last Saturday (26), the first meeting the US State Department delegation held was with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance.
For two hours, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan and MPs M.A. Sumanthiran and S. Sridharan discussed issues pertaining to the Tamil community in the north and east and accused the Government of dragging its feet on meeting the political aspirations of the Northern Tamils.
The next day, the delegation toured Jaffna where they met with the military command and interestingly, Jaffna Bishop Thomas Soundaranayagam, another vocal critic of the Government’s snail’s pace on reconciliation and building normalcy in the post-war phase.
The delegation returned to Colombo and acknowledged that there had been ‘some’ progress but a lot more work left to do, especially in terms of providing answers to the families of the disappeared. This was a central theme of the LLRC’s report too, leading the incumbent regime to believe that the Commission Report had ironically become its own worst enemy.
There is a strange sense of déjà vu building as the weeks inch closer to the opening of the 20th Session of the Human Rights Council on 25 February this year. The sessions will continue for nearly a month and the second US-sponsored resolution is likely to be tabled in early March.
Already, the Government’s most vociferous mouthpiece on Western conspiracies, Wimal Weerawansa has condemned the visiting State Department delegation as US spies. Weerawansa is a Government Minister, but continues to voice these opinions publicly and without censure from the regime, and is likely to lead the campaign against the second resolution and its proponents in the weeks ahead.
External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris meanwhile, denounced the international efforts to make Sri Lanka live up to its post-war obligations as an ‘economic revolution’ by the LTTE rump at a political event in Hambantota recently.
The Government says it is ready to face its next major challenge in Geneva and hectic preparations are underway to present Sri Lanka’s case before the Human Rights Council, led for the most part by Presidential Special Envoy on Human Rights, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.
Samarasinghe is reportedly appalled at the decision of the External Affairs Ministry to issue a strong letter to UN Human Rights Commissioner Navinetham Pillay following her remarks on the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake, believing it would hurt rather than help Sri Lanka’s cause when the High Commissioner tables her report before the member states of the Council a few weeks from now.
The irony attached to the rule regime is that while it comprises those handful of individuals that could insert a degree of sanity to the bull-in-a-china-shop approach Sri Lanka has taken in her engagement with the UN and the Western world, few of them remain willing to make their case before the powers that be.
As the Government tightens its grip on power domestically, it appears to have increasingly taken the view that it can conduct its foreign affairs in much the same, boisterous and domineering way it deals with the local electorate.
If the Rajapaksa regime seemed petulant and belligerent in the run up to Geneva in 2012, it promises only to get worse as Sri Lanka enters the Geneva 2.0 phase, where it is likely to find many friends that stood stoically beside them in 2012 are scrambling to abandon ship.
In fact, this is a point repeatedly driven home in the last few months by Sri Lanka’s ‘friends’ in the world, such as Japan. The country is not currently a member state of the UNHRC, but unbeknownst to most, Tokyo played a part in tempering the support for the US backed move in Geneva last year.
When progress was slow on the issues raised at the UNHRC in 2012, the Japanese Government offered a few words of wisdom to Sri Lankan officials, including the fact that it was necessary that Colombo ensured that its friends had something to work with by the time UNHRC rolled around again in March 2013.
New Delhi saves the day
The message has also been echoed repeatedly by New Delhi, which intervened at the eleventh hour in March 2012 to dilute the language of what was previously a stronger resolution drafted by the US. Yet still peeved by New Delhi’s decision – partly motivated by pressure in its emotive South – to vote in support of the US backed resolution, Sri Lanka has done little to assuage India’s fears that the current administration in Colombo has no real desire to offer a permanent political solution to the island’s Tamil minority.
Conversely in fact, Sri Lanka is preparing to slap New Delhi in the face in the coming months by proposing to repeal the India-designed 13th Amendment that offers some autonomy to the provinces over some governance subjects. The move is particularly irksome from New Delhi’s perspective because since the end of the conflict in 2009, the Sri Lankan Government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa no less, has vowed to base a final political power sharing solution to the island’s ethnic issue, by building on the 13th Amendment.
But as far as the regime is concerned, the 13th Amendment is no longer viable, especially following the fracas of the Divi Neguma bill when the Supreme Court ruled that each Province in the country had to endorse the legislation before it could be considered constitutional and then ruled further that the Northern Governor could not endorse it in the place of a democratically constituted Northern Provincial Council.
The rulings not only sealed the fate of Chief Justice Bandaranayake who led the bench that delivered the determinations, but also underscored for the Government that even one Provincial Council that would be controlled by the TNA and within the Tamil’s Party’s political ambit, would be too great a liability from the point of view of consolidating power.
Under the circumstances, with the Government preparing to bring a 19th and 20th amendment to the Constitution, the first to shorten the tenure of a Chief Justice and the second – possibly – to repeal 13th Amendment, it is unclear whether there will exist provision by September 2013 to conduct a poll in the north to constitute a Northern Provincial Council. This is despite repeated promises by the Government to Washington and New Delhi – promises that were reiterated to the visiting US delegation – that a poll will be held by September this year.
Under the circumstances, if it becomes a little too hot to handle in Geneva this March, the way it did in the preceding year, there is no longer a guarantee that New Delhi will be the ungrudging saviour it proved to be in the last minute in 2012. As it did in the run up to March last year, pressure from India’s south has also begun to build, with the Karunanidhi-led DMK party from Tamil Nadu calling on the Central Government to support the resolution in Geneva.
India vs. Ranawaka?
It is in this backdrop that the main Opposition UNP charged on Tuesday that the primary motivation behind the reshuffle of the cabinet earlier this week was the removal of Minister Champika Ranawaka. Ranawaka was previously heading the Ministry of Power and Energy which was transferred to Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi in the reshuffle.
According to the UNP, Ranawaka’s removal was due to pressure from India, which continues to insist on the commissioning of the Sampur coal power project. Ranawaka, partly due to his nationalist positions and also because he had actual reservations regarding the project’s feasibility and efficiency was opposed to the project being driven by New Delhi.
The UNP claims that during Minister Peiris’ visit to New Delhi last week, for the Sri Lanka-India Joint Commission, he pledged to move on the power project and informed Indian officials that Ranawaka had been dragging his feet. The Opposition Party claims that Ranawaka was sacrificed in exchange for India’s limited support at the UNHRC, should another resolution from Washington materialise there.
Neither the Government nor the Indian High Commission have denied or confirmed the claim, but political analysts are unanimously convinced that Monday’s reshuffle of the cabinet was motivated primarily by the need to shift Ranawaka from the Power and Energy Ministry.
Secondary to that reason was the apparent system of rewards that was obvious in the appointments and promotions, to those members of the Government that had played a key role in the impeachment. All of the Deputy Ministers who were promoted for instance, were signatories to the impeachment motion against Bandaranayake. Some sources say that the motivation behind Ranawaka’s removal from the Power and Energy Ministry was also the fact that the JHU strongman had refused on principle to sign the impeachment motion, although he and his party voted for the resolution to oust Bandaranayake in Parliament on 11 January.
The much-anticipated appointment of a new Prime Minister, given D.M. Jayaratne’s failing health, did not occur in the reshuffle. According to Government sources, the new appointment may come with a little less fanfare in the coming months. But the regime has consistently allowed senior SLFP members to hold the premiership, in part to silence the party’s old guard that continues to have serious concerns about the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling family.
International concerns are also building about a growing divide between Buddhist and Muslim communities, with the monk-led Bodhu Bala Sena leading a campaign of agitation against Halal food products and Muslim enterprises. The movement, whose members also led a violent protest against the Bangladesh High Commission in Colombo late last year, recently attempted to storm a clothing store in Maharagama and barged into a tourist hotel down south a few days later, because it allegedly had a Buddha Bar in its premises.
Other more disturbing expressions of religious hatred came from Kuliyapitiya, where an organisation calling itself Hela Sihila Hiru held an ugly demonstration last week, sporting symbols and expressions deeply offensive to Muslims. Eyewitnesses say policeman merely observed, while the demonstrators paraded the images in front of Muslim business establishments.
Audience with the President
The regime’s response to the blatant incitement of communal violence was ludicrous. Instead of instructing its law enforcement arm to arrest and prosecute the persons attempting to create communal tension, it provided the Bodhu Bala Sena priests an audience with the President at Temple Trees on Sunday morning. The meeting included a coterie of senior ministers and Government officials.
They were asked, nicely, to refrain from creating religious tension, a claim they vehemently denied. The Bodhu Bala Sena representatives reportedly denied being part of the attacks on the Bangladeshi High Commission and disassociated itself from the Maharagama and Kuliyapitiya incidents. The denials were despite widely available video footage of their obvious involvement in many of the ugly incidents.
It defies reasoning that the Government, that has little trouble with enforcing the law on dissenting groups, pavement hawkers and shanty-dwellers, with an iron hand when necessary, believes that the answer to the problems the Bodhu Bala Sena and its affiliated groups pose is to invite them to tea and ask them politely to desist. But there are more sinister reasons to believe that there is a covert hand in the intolerance of this ‘new enemy’ of the Sinhala Buddhists.
At a recent meeting with a Muslim delegation of politicians and civil society activists, a high ranking regime official admitted to having supported the vigilante cause of the Bodhu Bala Sena and groups like the Sinhala Ravaya in the past. The official admitted that it appeared now that the movement was taking on a form and life of its own. Whether this new life is something the Government will remain passive about, remains to be seen.
In the short term, the silence is deeply damaging to its purported claims of being committed to reconciliation and trust-building between the majority and minority communities. It is if anything, irrefutable proof that it lacks the will to address minority concerns and ensure minorities are safeguarded in post-war Sri Lanka.
Like the damaging impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake and the continued climate of impunity that allow disappearances, abductions and suppression to go unchecked, the Government’s attitude to a growing problem of religious disharmony will do Colombo no favours in Geneva 2013 or all the UNHRC sessions and censures to come in the foreseeable future.
In the long term, the deafening silence of the rulers in the face of something that if left to metastasize could lead to decades of violence and bloodletting may well be the country’s next great tragedy.