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The Silence Of The Lambs

We invite you, dear reader, briefly to take pause this monsoon Sunday morning and ponder a while on why you, having invested a hard-earned Rs 40 in the journal you hold in your hands, trouble read The Sunday Leader. You, after all, have a television; you watch the news each evening. You have friends; you exchange news, opinions and perchance a spot of juicy gossip with them. Chances are you tune in to the radio as you drive yourself to earn your daily bread. So, all things considered, you can’t be badly informed. Yet you choose to curl up on the sofa each Sunday morning, a hot mug of Dimbula Highgrown at your elbow and, having dispatched your wife to see her mother, set the kids their homework and kennelled the family hound, delve into these pages. Chances are by now you’ve read the lead story, the Nutshells and the political column, if not just about everything else: you saved the editorial for last. You’ve just taken a long, refreshing sip, lubricated your tonsils and said to yourself, "Now let’s see what these blighters have got to say for themselves."

If you’ve had your ear to the ground this past week, you would have shaken your head in disbelief (not that you could, of course, have done so had your ear really been to the ground). After a space of almost 10 years, that ugly word ‘debacle’ again reared its head in our midst, in connection with the goings on at Muhamalai. First our duly elected government claimed nothing was going on. Then it suddenly changed its mind and said that something was, in fact, going on. That ‘something,’ whatever it was, it said, led to the demise of 43 young men of the good sort and "over 100" of the other kind, including "15 senior terrorists" (the remaining 85 presumably having been cub scouts still in their formative years, honing their skills by slugging bricks at stray cats).

That, at any rate, is the version as narrated in the Gospel of Gotabaya. But if you, like us, believe in the principle of audi alteram partem, you might have dared to hack into the evil pages of tamilnet.com and seen what the Apocrypha has to offer. You need to hack in because it is censored — Gotabaya would rather you read only the Authorised Version, namely, his version — and only those of us with above-average intelligence can access this evil site, by the devious means of our proxy servers. But on this occasion, one need not go to such extremes, for CNN, Associated Press and the other international news services have been carrying dramatically different statistics, alleging that 143 bodies had been brought to Colombo, in addition to which a further 30 were missing in action and 28 retrieved by the LTTE and returned through the good offices of the ICRC. We don’t believe a word of it, and we do not expect you to, either.

It is not news that hospitals are brimming with casualties and the call has gone out for the public to donate blood. And so anxious is the government that these casualties should make a speedy recovery that the media have been forbidden to enter the hospital premises and talk to them. These troops need plenty of rest and would like to see only politicians subscribing to the government persuasion. Or do they? The government’s television footage of Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Health Minister Nimal Siripala Silva (both of whom would do well to donate a pint or two of blood by their ample tummies) visiting the troops in their hospital beds might have been better left censored by Gotabaya. No happy, grateful looks did they get from the brave boys in bed. Indeed, there was hardly eye contact. The gallant young soldiers averted their gaze and responded only with sullen monosyllables to the VIPs’ solicitous inquiries after their health, clearly averse to being made use of for a cheap photo op by publicity-hungry politicos.

And all this bloodshed despite all the terrorists having been eliminated! After all, none less than Army Commander Sarath Fonseka told the world earlier this year that only 3,000 Tiger terrorists remained and that he would kill them all by August. As if to make the point eminently clear to the meanest intelligence, large maps have been displayed strategically about the country. According to the Defence Ministry’s own statistics, well above 3,000 Tiger terrorists have already bitten the dust, but the handful that remain seem to pack a devilish punch. What these Tiger terrorists need is a vasectomy: they are simply breeding faster than we can kill them. It simply is not fair.

It would be perverse of the government to conclude that the public should not know of the actual facts in the field of battle. After all, it is public money that is being spent and public blood that is being spilt in the name of war. The families of the fallen deserve to know how their sons died: it is the least they deserve.

Yet there is ample reason to believe that the war has become little more than a ploy behind which the Rajapakse Brothers and their cronies could hide their dirty linen. Question the wisdom of the war publicly and you become a traitor and your patriotism is questioned. But where is the line drawn? Is it unpatriotic to question the Army Commander’s purchase of a top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz for a bizarre Rs 44 million? Or is it unpatriotic of the Army Commander to have obtained a Green Card, a permanent-residence visa for the United States? Having won the war and retired (as he has publicly stated he will do within this year), does he plan to withdraw to Florida and put his feet up in a ranch in the backwaters of the Okefenokee? (What then will be the fate of that Mercedes?)

In two short years the Rajapakses have reduced Sri Lanka to a pariah state, and a poor one at that. The whole of the civilised world — and perhaps most importantly India, our closest and potentially strongest ally — has walked away from us. Our dearest cronies have become the Iranians, with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad billed to be the first to pay the Rajapakses a state visit (the first of their presidency) next week. Who next? Hugo Chavez? And just in case anyone misunderstood Ahmedinejad’s intentions, it seems nuclear cooperation has been put on the agenda already. So it should surprise no one to learn that Western diplomats sighting their Sri Lankan counterparts in the hallways of the United Nations quickly cross to the other side of the corridor and suddenly remember to examine their fingernails for grime.

But one need not delve so deeply into the niceties of international diplomacy. Look at the saga of the IIGEP that ended in tragedy just last week. Faced with international condemnation of grave abuses of human rights under his watch, Rajapakse announced on September 4, 2006, that he would "invite an international independent commission to probe abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings." It took him only two days, however, to realise that was a bad idea: they might, after all, come out with the truth. So he handpicked a group of internationals who, presumably, he thought were safe, simply to monitor a commission of inquiry he handpicked. The only bit Rajapakse got right was that the members of his IIGEP were eminent: the rest of has for him been a public relations nightmare.

The head of the IIGEP, Justice P. N. Bhagwati, was from 1967 to 1973 the Chief Justice of Gujarat, a state three times the size of Sri Lanka. From 1973 to 1985 he served as a judge of the Supreme Court of India, and was appointed Chief Justice in 1985. No chicken he, in the field of jurisprudence. Then there is Sir Nigel Rodley KBE, LLB, LLM, PhD, who was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture from 1993 to 2001. He is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Committee and a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists. His publications include The Treatment Of Prisoners Under International Law, International Intervention In Defence Of Human Rights, Enchancing Global Human Rights, International Law In The Western Hemisphere, and International Responses To Traumatic Stress. And finally, Professor Yozo Yokota, an eminent legal scholar from Japan, having served as Professor of Law at Chuo University, the University of Tokyo, Adelaide University, the University of Michigan and Columbia University. He was from 1992 to 1996 the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar and is currently a member of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

All in all, they don’t come more eminent than this. But in choosing them Mahinda Rajapakse might have chosen well, but he did not choose wisely, for unlike all the cronies he has appointed to high office, they have declined to eat out of his pocket. And it is against this trio of intellectual giants that poor C.R. de Silva has been trying to pit his wits, making not only a colossal ass of himself in the eyes of the world, but also our poor country. It was the job of these eminent men to decide whether the Commission of Inquiry appointed by Rajapakse to investigate the execution of 17 Action Contre La Faim aid workers in Muttur and the retaliatory murder of five youths in Trincomalee, functioned according to international norms. Not only did they determine that it does not, they clearly decided that it could not, and shook the dust of our island off their feet last week. It is not just an indictment of the pathetic human rights record of the Rajapakse administration, it is a shame for our entire country.

The funny thing is, that just like the world’s other tin pot dictatorships that do business as democracies (Pakistan and Zimbabwe come immediately to mind), Sri Lanka’s economy too, is in shambles. So endemic is corruption in the government that the Rajapakse Administration has come to be associated with a single four-letter word: deal. Everything is a deal presided over either by the nation’s Mr. Ten Percent or by one of the many ministers with their fingers in the pie. So busy are they making money hand over fist for themselves that inflation is running at an unprecedented 28% and the prices of essential commodities spiralling out of control. In the past year alone, the prices of rice, dhal, onions and coconut oil have each increased by more than 100%, even granting that the price of fuel is at least in part due to international price rises. But in the case of rice and electricity in particular, high prices are largely the result of government corruption (almost half the country’s electricity is purchased from hand-picked private merchants at arbitrary prices in a process that is as transparent as Sarath Fonseka’s Mercedes).

Amidst all this chaos is the silence of the lambs, viz., His Excellency’s loyal opposition. One wonders whether in Sri Lanka there exists an opposition at all. True, you do sometimes see an opposition MP or two at receptions given by the posher embassies. But there isn’t very much they seem to do about the tragedy that is fast befalling Sri Lanka apart from chatting idly about the ‘situation’ with itinerant diplomats.

No protests, no marches, no agitation. "C’est la vie," they have said to themselves, and dozed off. The predicament of the present government — rising prices, food shortages, human rights abuses, nepotism, corruption, unemployment — should be manna from heaven to an opposition that has its wits about it. But the slumbering, barely-warm-and-breathing dodos that pass off as the opposition of Sri Lanka don’t seem to have the imagination of an earthworm. One can almost hear Ranil Wickremesinghe, on reading these lines, stifling a yawn and telling Lakshman Kiriella that someone should really do something about this. Someone else, that is. And what of the president-aspirants, such as Sajith Premadasa? Not a whimper of protest do we hear out of them. The UNP’s General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake, in the heat of a provincial council election, is on the trot. What Sri Lanka needs desperately, in the opinion of many, is not so much a new government as a new opposition.

No surprise then that when Mahinda Rajapakse is asked whether he’d like mint sauce with his grilled lamb he replies no thank you, he’d rather take it as it comes — from Sirikotha.  


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