“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars” - Martin Luther King Jr.
Government-sponsored intimidation of leading members of the bureaucracy, judiciary and the
media is not a new phenomenon. Its history could be traced to as far back as the fifties, yet for our conversation, let us begin with the seventies. A remarkable increase in the Government-sponsored intimidation, harassment and even murder has occurred during the last four decades. This mode of government conduct may not be limited to intimidation and harassment directly perpetrated by the security forces such as the Police and members of the three armed forces of the Government. More often than not, the intimidation has been committed by either civilians or personnel of the police and other security forces in their civil personalities and clad in civil.
Intimidation – the starting point
The first of these intimidatory actions, ultimately leading to wide-spread mayhem and violent deaths occurred on a large scale in the wake of the declaration of results in the 1970 General Elections. The United National Party got totally annihilated in the elections and the ensuing violence that visited upon the UNP supporters in the remote villages were so extreme, that the then Leader of the Opposition J R Jayewardene had to take it up in Parliament on the very first day the House met; yet the answer that J R received from the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike was most bizarre and even more provocative than the very acts that were being committed.
Does Sirimavo justify the violence?
She declared in Parliament that the Government should allow its supporters to celebrate the massive victory of the People’s Government. Such a public declaration by none other than the Prime Minister, ostensibly condoning and justifying violence as a means of celebration, was mean and unbecoming of an elected leader in a democracy. The orgy of violence that was unleashed on the UNP supporters following the ’70 General Elections went unchecked and unhindered for almost two full weeks. The Police was asked to look the other way and no complaints were entertained in police stations throughout the country.
Job interviews at Rest Houses
With that, an ominously cruel benchmark was set by the ruling party. Political power became all too powerful in the hands of those who were elected to office and the large number of “common men” garbed in the national dress purportedly representing the masses who entered the House of Parliament, the “Temple of Democracy” as it was called by a great leader of the yesteryear, began to behave as if they had not savored the taste of power in their lives. Ministers began conducting interviews for government jobs at “Rest houses” located in major town centers in the country. Some Members of Parliament were found drunk in the well of the House and no action whatsoever was taken to discipline these “common men” for whom a sense of decorum was as alien as a feather to a tortoise.
The trend of violence was set in the seventies
With the trend so set in as to the conduct of Parliamentarians, the Government of the day carried on regardless, living in their own cocoon of power, unleashing brutal violence on its opponents in a series of by-elections that were held during this period. Yet the people at large chose to exercise their franchise in a very calm and brave manner, a mindset that is not evident in today’s voter.
JR did not kill the trend but nurtured it
However, after J R Jayewardene assumed office, this trend did not die. The almost ‘reciprocal’ post-election attacks on SLFP supporters and the attacks on the Supreme Court Judges, on Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra as well as brutal sabotage of the 1980 general strike were ugly examples of that era of a “Righteous Society” (Dharmishta Samajaya). All these acts of violence and cruelty were committed either by civilians or security personnel in civil clothing. The seventeen years of the powerful UNP regime saw many a misdeed in this sphere of government-sponsored intimidation and harassment. However, overt and covert intimidation of the men and women of the silk, barring one incident in which the houses occupied by the Supreme Court Judges were stoned, was a rarity indeed.
Common man’s government
But ever since 1994, with the re-advent of the so-called “common man’s” government, attacks on Members of the Judiciary and key figures in the fourth estate have accelerated and this absurd trend progressed to its present state of rule by brawn instead of brain. Attacks on members of the media outlets that are not so loyal to the party in power took a violent turn with the attack on the abode of the then Editor of Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga. That was during the time of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga. Attacks on political opponents, on members of the entertainment industry, (Rukantha and Chandralekha), violence of unprecedented scale unleashed by the CBK regime during the Provincial Council elections in 1999, set a pattern that kept on aggravating with each passing election and each passing year.
Absence of accountability
The most telling aspect of this pattern of conduct is the total absence of accountability. The trend continues to date as if it is quite normal to indulge in such dastardly acts of violence. When violence becomes the norm, then one wonders what the exception is.
A few of the most prominent acts of intimidation, harassment, disappearances and murder after 2005 are given below, not necessarily in the chronological order in which they occurred:
• Murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga in broad daylight – the editor of the Sunday Leader. No culprit has been caught and legal action is still going on at a snail’s pace.
• Disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda – Journalist. Former Attorney General Mohan Pieris made a joke of himself in front of a World Forum with regard to this mysterious disappearance.
• Disappearance of Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan – human rights activists
• Tying up of a Grama Niladari by Mervyn Silva, Minister of Public Relations
• Attack on journalist Poddala Jayantha
• Mervyn Silva’s open boast and threat to other journalists that he would mete out the same treatment meted out to Poddala Jayantha
• Bharatha Lakshman’s murder, once again in broad daylight and the main accused is being treated in a foreign hospital who is claiming amnesia as to the incidents of the day.
• Mervyn Silva’s son Malaka Silva attacking an Army Major and getting away with the Army Major now suffering a bout of amnesia.
• Attack on the Secretary to the Judicial Services Commission
None of the above incidents have been investigated to the fullest and culprits found. No legal finality has been reached in any one of the cases mentioned above. The pattern has been set and all parties connected or otherwise, carry on regardless. The apathy that has set in would eventually claim its own victims. These take place at a time when the Opposition is weak and bereft of an inspiring leader and the general populace is too busy making ends meet rather than bother about the invisible erosion of fundamental rights.
This process of government-sponsored intimidation, harassment and murder continues, unabated. It has a past and it’s happening at present and its future would be measured only by the pace at which it accelerates.