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In a country where both democracy and rule of law are in abeyance development is an impossibility

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“….the shadow of a saviour can turn into a fiendish destroyer”. – Jung (Psychology and Literature)

In Sri Lanka, treasure-hunters are becoming as ubiquitous as white-van abductors, and as omnipotent.

President Rajapaksa at the opening of renovated Dahaata Wanguwa Road, in Ududumbara, May 6, 2012-pic: news.lk

Last week, as the country prepared to celebrate Vesak, treasure-hunters descended on Villachchiya in Anuradhapura. The residents claim that they heard the sound of mechanised digging throughout the night. In the morning they informed the police and ventured out in numbers to catch the nocturnal criminals.

The treasure-hunters, who were allegedly digging up a tank bund using a mechanised backhoe, turned out to be uniformed and armed STF men.

When the enraged villagers tried to intervene, the STF personnel reportedly resorted to the use of force: “…they assaulted the villagers and attempted to shoot them. Several villagers including women were injured in the incident… Police recovered tools and equipment and a tray of offering near a 10ft. pit dug up in the tank bund by the suspects” (Daily Mirror – 2.5.2012).

The police say it was all a misunderstanding. According to police spokesman, the STF men were trying to apprehend a group of treasure-hunters and the villagers mistook the matter. The presence of the mechanised backhoe, which hovers over the half-dug pit like a stage-prop, belies this story. Who brought that yellow monstrosity to the location? Who owns it?

Would private treasure-hunters have dared to use such a huge and noisy contraption in an inhabited area? Or was the backhoe brought by the STF, and if so why? If, as the police claims, the STF came to apprehend criminals, why bring a backhoe?

Does not the blatant use of a mechanised backhoe point to a gross disregard for law, sourced in a habit of impunity?

Some weeks ago, a group of alleged white-van abductors were intercepted by a UPFA politician and his supporters in Kolonnawa. The abductors turned out to be serving army men who claimed that they were trying to apprehend deserters. The white-vanners were handed over to the police but were released almost immediately sans an investigation or charges.

The Kolonnawa incident hinted at the involvement of the armed forces in white-van abductions. The Villachchiya incident indicates that the armed forces might be involved in treasure-hunting. Juxtapose the two, and the picture that emerges is a nightmarish one.

Are members of the armed forces engaging in criminal activities without the knowledge of the political authorities? Or are political authorities using the uniformed men to execute illegal enterprises?

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Minister of Defence; his brother Gotabhaya is the Defence Secretary. In a matter of months, the armed forces under their command have become implicated in two serious crimes plaguing the country – abductions and treasure-hunting. The accusers in both cases are not NGO or INGOs or the West or even Tamils.

The alleged abductors were caught by a group of SLFP activists and supporters in Kolonnawa; the alleged treasure hunters were caught by a group of Sinhala villagers in Anuradhapura. The accusers in both cases have no axe to grind, no visceral antipathy towards the armed forces.

On the contrary; the accusers in both instances are likely to be predisposed towards the armed forces, regard them as ‘Our Boys’ and even have organic links with them. Therefore, neither incident can be dismissed as ‘international conspiracies’ or ‘Tiger propaganda’.

Post-war the armed forces are everywhere, doing everything. Plans are afoot to institutionalise and intensify this militarization of civil spaces by garrisoning every district and inducting the armed forces into development work. This rapid encroachment of civil spaces by the military is symbolised in the recasting of the Defence Ministry as Defence and Urban Development Ministry.

The Rajapaksas, like all despots, need instruments conditioned into total obedience; and what better than the military, with its ‘ours is not to reason why but to do and die’ ethos?

A military in that sense is the perfect weapon for a despot, even outside the battlefield, even in peacetime. Little wonder the Ruling Siblings are deliberately trying to efface the traditional lines of demarcation between civilian and military and enable the men-in-uniform to play an ever increasing role in the civvy-street.

The alleged involvement of the military in extra-judicial activities becomes a matter of intimate concern for all Lankan in this context. The military is everywhere, interfering in everything. If such a military engages in criminal activities, a state of lawlessness and generalised insecurity cannot but become our common fate.

The Anuradhapura and Kolonnawa incidents are related to another disturbing national trend – the increasing proclivity on the part of power-wielders, big, medium and small, to take the law into their hands.

Ignoring the law has become de rigueur in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, as if acting in gross disregard of the law is a sign of potency and being law-abiding a stigma of impotence.

Even the most minor politician or the lowliest hanger-on likes to treat the law with contempt, at least at a traffic-light. It is as if such infantile displays of arrogant lawlessness is a politician’s way of reassuring himself and everyone else that he is a person of consequence, that he matters. For such people, being law-abiding has become tantamount to losing face, a mark of disgrace anyone aspiring to be someone will do anything to avoid!

So the small fry violate traffic regulations while those with more power or influence engage in greater crimes, from assault to murder.

Anuradhapura and Kolonnawa incidents are symbolic of this growing lawlessness. A total absence of any fear of discovery and an arrogant insouciance stemming from a belief in impunity are hallmarks of both incidents.

The issue is not regime change; the issue is whether Sri Lanka becomes an unliveable land, a dangerous country not just for those of us who oppose/criticise the Rajapaksas but also for millions of non-political Lankans. Development can happen in the absence of democracy but not in the absence of the rule of law. In a country where both democracy and the rule of law are in abeyance, development is an impossibility.

According to the ILO’s Asia Pacific Labour Market Update (April 2012), Sri Lanka’s youth unemployment is as high as 20% and the increase in our income inequality levels is second only to China. Growth which creates decent jobs and reduces inequality is thus a socio-economic and political imperative for Sri Lanka. But who will want to invest money in a country where the armed forces stand accused by members of the public of such grievous crimes as abduction and treasure-hunting?

Thus, the need for an impartial and transparent investigation into the Anuradhapura incident. Unfortunately, going by past-experience, such an inquiry is unlikely to happen. Instead, the villagers might be victimised, individually and collectively, legally and illegally, especially in the absence of an opposition willing to stand by them.

The persecution and incarceration of Gen. Sarath Fonseka symbolise the fate which is in store for those who impede the Rajapaksa Juggernaut. If the Ruling Siblings are using the military to implement extra-judicial deeds, might not a similar fate befall the people of Villachchiya, for preventing the treasure-hunters from fulfilling their allotted task of plundering our national heritage?

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