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BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT

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THE KILLING OF A PRIME MINISTER

by Sanjiva Senanayake

PART IV

(continued from last week)

SOMARAMA’S ‘CONFESSION’

In addition to the evidence of the three eye-witnesses, a statement made by Somarama to the Chief Magistrate of Colombo on November 14, 1959 was used by the prosecution to convince the jury that he was the assassin. Somarama retracted the statement long before the SC trial started, and its admissibility as evidence was contested in the SC.

Somarama had been moved to the prison hospital within a few days of the shooting and was then questioned in prison many times by police teams. The most senior police officer in the team was Superintendent of Police B.W. Perera.

Finally, on November 7, Somarama gave a statement to the police but it was short, vague and only mentioned Jayawardena. Then, a week later, he made the following statement to the Chief Magistrate of Colombo –

“One day in August 1959, when I was in the dispensary of the Ayurvedic Hospital in Borella, Reverend Buddharakkitha, the high priest of the Kelaniya temple, and H. P. Jayawardena came by car to see me. Inviting me into the car, Buddharakkitha began to complain bitterly about the general situation in the country. He said that vast sums of money were being lost at the port through strikes and mismanagement. He expressed grave fears that, if the current trends were not arrested, there would be no place for us in the land, nor would there be a future for the Sinhalese people, their religion or their language.

“He suggested that we take steps to do away with the Prime Minister, as we would then be free to fashion things as we wished. I asked him what would befall us if we were to do such a thing. “Nothing will happen to us”, he replied. ‘I have made all the arrangements with those whose assistance we need’. Jayawardena said, “If you should only do this job, we shall ensure that you are out of remand in two or three weeks’ time”.

“Buddharakkitha in turn reassured me that everything would be alright – that I had nothing to fear. I acceded to their request, explaining that I was consenting to do such a thing to one who had done me no wrong only for the sake of my country, my religion and my race. I told them that I had two pupils and also my temple to look after, but they promised to see to all that. They then said that in a day or two they would bring me a revolver, after which all details could be discussed.

“Two or three days later, Buddharakkitha brought me a revolver about a foot in length. It was a six-chambered one and was loaded. We then went to Ragama, met Dickie de Zoysa and proceeded along with him to Muthurajawela. There I fired several times at the fruits of a ‘kaduru’ tree. When I struck a fruit and felled it, someone in the party exclaimed, ‘Bravo, well done!’ After the firing we returned to my temple, having dropped Dickie de Zoysa at Ragama.

Thereafter Rev. Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena visited me often. One day, Amarasinghe, the Chairman of the Kolonnawa Urban Council, also came along with Buddharakkitha.

“Buddharakkitha, Jayawardena and I had agreed that the job be done on September 25. That morning, in order to pluck up courage, I drank a mixture which I had prepared myself and went to the Prime Minister’s residence at Rosmead Place. When the Prime Minister was talking to another monk on the verandah, I started trembling through fear. But the mixture I had taken sustained my courage. On the verandah I shot at the Prime Minister once. That shot struck him. While he was running into the house, I ran behind him and fired three more shots. Then I was overpowered. Someone shot me too and I was rendered unconscious. I do not know what happened next.”

There are several interesting features. There was no mention of visiting Amarasinghe’s house, just a discussion in a car in August, and no mention of Newton Perera either. Dickie de Zoysa had tagged along for the ride to Muthurajawela but, one month later, when hearings commenced at the magistrate’s court, the police withdrew the case against him for lack of evidence. There’s no mention of training but Somarama says he aimed at some fruits at Muthurajawela and succeeded in hitting them, establishing that he was somehow handy with a revolver. He states that he ran behind the PM and shot him but all the entry wounds on the PM were in the front or side of his body.

Somarama retracted this ‘confession’ at the end of the magisterial inquiry (on July 15, 1960), seven months before the SC trial began. In the retraction he stated –

“When I expressed reluctance to make a false statement as required by the police, I was shown a newspaper which said that the death penalty had been re-introduced and was told that, in view of this development, there could be no doubt that I would be sentenced to death and hanged. If, however, I were to make a statement to a magistrate professing that I was doing so voluntarily, the police promised to have me released and made a crown witness. To me, who now lived in the shadow of death, the offer of freedom was irresistible. Therefore, I made a statement to the Magistrate as required by the police, asserting that I was making it of my own free will. In it I implicated the persons whom the police wanted me to implicate. I now state that statement was absolutely untrue.”

The first visit to Somarama in prison by the police team was on October 2, the date on which the government had issued an extraordinary Gazette repealing the suspension of capital punishment. Somarama in a statement from the Dock, made on April 6, 1961, went further and said that B.W. Perera showed him the front page of the newspaper, explained that the death penalty had been reintroduced and he would certainly be hanged. Perera had then asked him to give a statement that he had shot the PM on the instructions of Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena and in exchange he would be made a Crown Witness and escape death. Somarama also said that Perera had mentioned the pardon given to Rupananda, one of the accused in the Turf Club robbery and murder case, as an example. Perera had been on the police team that handled that famous case ten years earlier. It should be noted that Amarasinghe had already been made a Crown Witness six months before Somarama’s retraction. Somarama also said that he had developed an addiction to opium after being medically treated earlier for haemorrhoids, and that he was offered some opium by Perera.

Incidentally, B.W. Perera subsequently committed suicide, in early 1960, when it came to light that he had provided some ammunition to an intermediary, ostensibly acting on behalf of Buddharakkitha. There was no evidence of those bullets being used to assassinate the PM.

Visiting prisoners in remand to question them regarding cases in which they themselves were involved was considered irregular. During the SC trial, the Chief Magistrate of Colombo and some senior Prisons officers stated that it had never happened before in their experience. However, despite objections by Somarama’s counsel, the Judge ruled that it was acceptable since Somarama had been jailed before the police had an opportunity to question him adequately.

Somarama’s counsel also argued that, according to the law, the retracted ‘confession’ should not be admissible as evidence since there were circumstances that showed that it had been made as a result of inducement, threat or promise. He emphasized that in accordance with the prevailing Evidence Ordinance, even the ‘appearance’ of such influence would render it inadmissible, but Justice T.S. Fernando ruled that there should be clear evidence of influence.

The judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal (https://www.lawnet.gov.lk/the-queen-v-mapitigama-buddharakkita-thera-and-2-others/) contains a rather ambiguous comment on this matter. It states –

Held, (i) that the admission in evidence of a confession made by the 4th accused to the Magistrate, even assuming that the confession was not voluntary and was obnoxious to section 24 of the Evidence Ordinance or was otherwise inadmissible, could not vitiate the conviction of the 4th accused, because the fact that the 4th accused killed the deceased was established beyond any manner of doubt by the direct evidence of some of those present at the deceased’s house at the time when he was shot there.”

Interestingly, that court had a different view on the value of the ‘confession’ as well. Another passage in the judgement reads –

“Even if any or all of these submissions are entitled to succeed, that would make no difference in the instant case, because the fact that the 4th accused killed the deceased was established beyond any manner of doubt by the direct evidence. Indeed, it is surprising that with that evidence available the prosecution thought it necessary to lengthen the proceedings so much by seeking to prove the confession.”

The prosecution appears to have had a different assessment of the adequacy of the ‘direct evidence’ at their disposal.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

The PM knew Somarama well and had interacted with him on matters relating to the College of Indigenous Medicine even a few weeks before the shooting. Somarama had been involved in campaigning for the MEP and had chaired meetings where Bandaranaike had spoken. Yet, in his ‘Address to the Nation’ written for broadcast by radio, he did not say the assailant was Somarama. He didn’t even say it was a genuine monk – just “a foolish man” wearing robes. The PM was known to be very precise in his use of words, especially in English. He had been joking with doctors and nurses at the hospital despite his injuries, fully expecting to survive, so he was in control of his mental faculties. It’s hard to believe that the PM could not recognize Somarama at such close quarters.

Somarama’s behaviour that fateful morning also raises doubts about his guilt. When he set out that morning in a taxi, which is easily traceable, he offered a lift to two people for part of the way – hardly the behaviour of an assassin primed for action within a couple of hours. Then, while sitting on the verandah of the PM’s house, he had quite normal conversations with others minutes before he allegedly became homicidal. Ananda even asked Somarama for an appointment for a friend with an eye ailment, and was requested to send him the following Thursday.

Somarama’s movements on the eve of the shooting (September 24, 1959) were quite normal too. In fact, when Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena visited Somarama’s temple that evening (for last minute consultations and instructions, according to the prosecution), they found him missing. Somarama was relaxing at a temple in Kotahena, having a chat with his friend, Colamba Saranankara. Is it likely that the master-mind and his chosen instrument of death didn’t know each other’s whereabouts, or even that they were due to meet, on the day before the long-planned assassination of the Prime Minister?

The police recovered three outer robes and an inner jacket worn by Buddhist monks lying discarded in the premises after the shooting. Somarama’s outer robe and inner jacket were pulled off in the struggle and that accounted for one robe. Even if Somarama wore two robes that day, as the prosecution argued, one more robe remained a mystery. The prosecution suggested, rather facetiously, that they had probably been kept in the house to be gifted to monks.

A woman who was cooking in a house across the road had come out on hearing the shots and saw a man vault over the perimeter wall of the PM’s house. He shouted “Hari machang” to someone in one of two cars parked on the road outside, jumped into the other one and both cars sped off towards Borella. The prosecution did not call her to give evidence, but Weeramantry did. When the prosecution could not shake her evidence, they suggested that the escapee was probably a ‘look-out’ working in league with the conspirators, and even argued that it bolstered the ‘fact’ that there was a conspiracy. It seems far-fetched that a ‘look-out’ would have had two private cars at his disposal whereas the alleged assassin, Somarama, arrived alone in a taxi that could be easily traced.

Several other common-sense questions come to mind re Buddharakkitha’s motivations and actions.

= why would a young, powerful and street-smart monk like Buddharakkitha, with his life before him, risk losing everything by killing the PM, without even having a replacement ‘sponsor’ in place?

= was he the type to wait for over one year, as the indictment indicated, before taking his revenge?

= why did he not use his close links with underworld characters to kill the PM in some remote location, perhaps as he campaigned?

= why would he draw attention to himself by sending another Buddhist monk to murder the PM in public and in broad daylight?

= why would the ‘plan’ be for Somarama to go into the house after the shooting, where he was sure to be captured, rather than escape in the ensuing chaos?

In addition to the bullet-points above, is it conceivable that Somarama could have expected to be believed when he pleaded innocence, after shooting the PM in front of so many people? On the day, he did not proudly exult that he did it for country, religion and race, as he did in his ‘confession’.

CONCLUSION

As stated earlier, the jury operated in a politically charged, pressure-cooker atmosphere, with limited technical facilities and under tremendous time pressure. On top of that, there was quite a lot of evidence presented that appeared to have little relevance to the assassination per se, which they still had to take note of and assess. The judge’s summing up alone was spread over six days. They didn’t have the luxury, that we now do, of being able to refer to documents and contemplate at leisure.

In the end, the members of the Special Jury were convinced that the prosecution’s case was proved beyond reasonable doubt, and that is what finally mattered. As Justice Fernando mentioned in his charge to the Jury, they were the sole judges of fact and therefore the real judges in the case. Besides, their opinion was in consonance with that of the experienced judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In that Court, the focus was mainly on legalistic aspects, such as whether the Judge misinterpreted or misguided the jury in matters of law. It was not a full re-assessment of the evidence, but specific submissions made by the defence counsel were considered and addressed. Deliberations were concluded on January 15, 1962.

The main focus of this series of articles is on the testimony in the SC of the witnesses, especially the ‘eye-witnesses’, and the forensic evidence as they relate very specifically to the case against Somarama. His culpability is at the core of the case.

Obviously, there are many other aspects of the alleged conspiracy – in and out of court, legal and political – that could not be covered in an article of this length. There were also many colourful characters who played their parts in this long drama that held the entire nation spellbound all those years ago. Adding even some of them on, would have diverted attention from the main actor – Talduwe Somarama.

It all boils down to a key question.

Can we be reasonably sure of anything beyond the fact that the assassin was a man – foolish or fiendish – “dressed in the robes of a monk”? That is all we know for certain from the only 100% reliable eye-witness …. the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself.

And, if the murderer was not Somarama, who was it, and why did he come dressed as a Buddhist monk?

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The writer can be contacted on this subject at skgsenanayake@gmail.com



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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!

Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.

In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.

Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.

It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.

Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!

The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!

Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.

The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.

There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”

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Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology

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By Jehan Perera

The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago.   The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events.  President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.

Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far.  The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability.  This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government.  They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.

There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people.  The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it.  It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling.  But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence.  This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.

SECOND STRENGTH

Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society.  At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress.  These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India.  Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.

Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community.  In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights.  With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months.  The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important.  The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform.  The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.

In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone.  This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges.  These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP.  These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.

BOTCHED ATTEMPTS

The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church.  The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.

Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power.  They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again.  The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied.  Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same.  This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.

The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently.  And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.

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