Vinoth Ramachandra

A Political Obituary

Posted on: January 14, 2013

Several countries in the last century moved from being “tinpot dictatorships” to flourishing democracies.  Sri Lanka has plummeted, since its independence in 1948, from a flourishing democracy to the status of a “tinpot dictatorship” today.

Last friday saw the sealing of the final nail in the coffin of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. Politicians of the ruling regime voted to impeach the Chief Justice, in total disregard of the judicial decision by the country’s two highest courts- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal – that the entire process was seriously flawed and unconstitutional. We thus have a legislature that has lost all legitimacy, having shredded the Constitution that it was elected and sworn to uphold.

Regular followers of this Blog will be familiar with the rapidly deteriorating political and human rights situation in Sri Lanka in recent years. I began this Blog three years ago, and my first post (“The Gods of War”) lamented the terrible carnage that was being inflicted by both sides in the final months of the war. There was much euphoria when the 30-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, and great hopes were entertained of national reconciliation, an end to militarism and the recovery of the economy. However, those of us who knew the nature of the ruling regime, and watched with dismay the chauvinist jingoism that attended the President’s boast that he had won “the war on terror”, had no such hopes. Predictably, what we feared has unfolded- the obstinate refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the army, and the legitimate grievances that led to the war in the first place; the repression of the media and the manipulation of electoral politics; the appointment of the President’s family members and cronies to key positions in government and the economy; and the systematic elimination of dissent and the continuation of militarisation under the pretext of preventing terrorism from rising again.

Predictable it may have been; but not the speed at which it has all happened. What is most shocking is the way not only business leaders but highly educated academics and other professional men and women meekly capitulated and acquiesced in the nepotism, corruption and outright deceit that has become a regular feature of public life in Sri Lanka today. Whether through bribery, intimidation, or sheer apathy, people have chosen to remain silent and passively follow orders. It reflects badly on the nation’s educational system, let alone religious institutions- of which Sri Lankans have always boasted.

What has become stark is the division today between men and women in public life who are governed by a moral sensibility and those opportunists who are driven only by self-gain. This division is more fundamental than differences on policy or of political affiliation. The President’s loyal members of parliament are all either gangsters or otherwise intelligent men who have sacrificed their moral scruples for the intoxications of power or the material benefits that flow from being close to power.

I am happy to report that the 3 committed Christians in parliament (only 3 out of 225 members) have not compromised their moral integrity in discharging their political responsibilities. On the contrary, they have been the most well-informed, articulate and outspoken critics of the ruling regime. As a result they attract venomous abuse in the state media. Two of them are personal friends, and I am full of admiration for their moral courage.

Moral courage is not what comes to mind when one thinks of  the Chief Justice. It is another political irony that, having been widely perceived as a “stooge” of the President, she should now become the nation’s principal political martyr! When a couple of recent Supreme Court rulings went against the President’s party, she became the target of a scurrilous media campaign and false charges of corruption were leveled against her.

We can only hope that more “stooges” will eventually rebel. The famous words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, in the context of the Nazi tyranny, echo throughout history:

“First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me-

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.”

Speaking out is not easy in the face of political thuggery and restraints on the media. Also, as a young law student from the University of Colombo wrote to me yesterday: “An unfortunate thing about most political analysis today is that it makes the problems we face seem so huge that even those who want to change things, feel nothing is possible. I was wondering what sort of suggestions one might give people about how to use our individual spheres to help change society. Conversations on these issues with those we meet is one thing. Being informed, knowing our history is another. challenging minor injustices is another. But are there any other ideas you have on this? And, do you know if there is literature on this? I am sure social activists have struggled with, and written about, how individuals can make a difference for the good, in the small spheres of influence they have. Any thoughts?”

How should I answer him? We are eager to learn from those who have lived under similar political regimes and have seen justice and freedom restored, even in part.

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16 Responses to "A Political Obituary"

Gene sharp.

Sad how things change in Sri Lanka. Is this law student a Christian? He could perhaps get some new energy from the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in the hands of the nazi regime in 1945 Germany. He stood up against one of the most powerful regimes in the last century. http://www.dbonhoeffer.org

I think of Christian Führer, the Lutheran pastor who started a small discussion group which grew into a weekly prayer meeting which helped bring down the Berlin Wall. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/november-6-2009/the-rev-christian-fuhrer-extended-interview/4843/)

And of Rosa Parks, the African American domestic who became a tireless advocate for racial justice (http://atthedarkendofthestreet.com/)
and whose example sparked the Freedom Riders six years later.
(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/watch)

And this week – I think of Martin Luther King. Early in his involvement in the civil rights movement, he received death threats and was afraid, ready to withdraw. God’s encouragement gave him courage to keep going: ” “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth, stand up for peace. And I will be at your side forever” (http://www.johndear.org/NCR_Articles/Jan16_07.html)

I met with the Chinese dissident, activist and artist, Ai Weiwei, last Friday in Beijing and his words to individuals inside China’s police state might have relevance for Sri Lanka:

“Very often people will ask me what can I do. They say, I am so scared. I say, write down how scared you are. “Today the police asked me to come for tea.” Write down correctly how it happened. What is the conversation. What do you feel? Put it on the internet or give to me. That will help you. Otherwise you will have a deep scar at a psychological level and you will live with it forever. This is a mishandling of state power to an individual or human being. No one has rights to do it, to scare you, to make this kind of corruption of the state, to try and make every citizen bear the cost of their illegal performance.”

Is the internet still available in Sri Lanka as a place to record and monitor abuses? Micro-blogs have become such an online place to record human rights abuses in China. Likewise in SL?

[...] made deeper by our recent visit to Sri Lanka (the Beautiful Isle) that I now also link to his post “A Political Obituary” it is thought-provoking [...]

So far, yes, Terry.

Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS) had a group of students who studied and prayerfully sought solutions to issues that faced them during the prolonged closure of Sri Lankan Universities. (1980-1990s)There were good examples of the Word applied to the world at the time. Our confidence came from OT books like Habbakuk, Amos, the major prophets as well as NT. indeed this Vikalpaya group’s recommendations were the final solution to the crisis involving the private medical school. I would humbly suggest that our Law student brother should be informed of our history including the fears, our own feelings of inadequacy and the exhilaration of seeing God fulfil His purposes in our lives and in our society.

I was on holiday in Sri Lanka over the Christmas and New Year period recently. The lack of military checkpoints and the increased number of tourists filled me with a sense of hope and optimism for that beautiful country. In private and honest conversations with friends and family , though, a much darker image emerged.
I need not go into the horror stories told of corruption, cronyism and downright abuse of power. All I can say is that this government may have won the war but they are “losing the peace”.
Sri Lanka is suffering from the tyranny of the few whose sins are visited on the many. I sense, however, that there are enough of intelligent and upright people who know what is good and proper for the country.These are the honest, hardworking folk from all strata of society and comprise a mix of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus.They are looking for a leader, a few honorable men and women, to be the catalyst for truth and democracy, decency and justice.
They are legion.

You know it does not look possible for us to change the leadership of Sri Lanka in the short term. But the power that leaders enjoy is also derived power. Taken from the military, from those working in high positions, ambassadors etc. They can be the neck that turns the heads. To think that all leaders working in these areas are all useless is not truthful. We must find those second and third level leadership who are honest and moral and begin to encourage them. Encourage and educate other leaders so that the neck will begin to put pressure on the head. That might be the one way we can do something right now which moves us forward, may be an inch at a time. Hopefully it will build up to being a foot at a time and then a kilometer a time.

Chrisso, you are right. I would add that change begins with people learning to refuse to carry out orders that are unjust or to benefit from unjust actions against others. The way that tyrants rule is through the tacit support of countless acts of passive obedience (whether out of thoughtlessness or fear)- not only in the police and army, but government bureaucracies, advertising firms, IT companies, banks, universities, TV stations. Sadly, in Sri Lanka, there are many professing Christians among them. If they were truly converted to the Lordship of Christ, perhaps the system of oppression will begin to unravel.

practise the eucharist.

None comes to mind except the biblical, “but the people who know their God will firmly resist him/them, and he will come to his end and no one will help him/them. Dan.11 : 31b & 45 b. Martin Niemoeller’s words turned on its back.

I have revisited this post as it is alleged that the Australian government is about to hand over to the Sri Lankan navy a group of 150 Tamil ayslum seekers. The ayslum seekers will not have had their claims looked at and are likely fleeing from the people they are about to be handed to. The Australian government is telling Australians that Tamils would no longer need to seek asylum and flee their government. I suspect this post stands and what the Australian government is about to do is a great human rights abuse.

The Australian government opposed the UNHRC Resolution to launch an international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses- because it is in their narrow interest to deny that human rights abuses are still taking place in Sri Lanka (not only against Tamils but others who oppose the ruling regime).

Peter,

It seems that the majority of such boat people these days are not Tamils from the north but Sinhalese. They are duped by organized gangs of people smugglers into parting with massive sums of money (their families get into great debt) since they are promised jobs in Australia or New Zealand.

The gangs cannot operate with impunity without the backing of politicians and even local police. I’m sure that Australian intelligence services know who these people. So I cannot fathom why the Australian government (with the help of Interpol) cannot go after these smugglers and their political backers!

Obviously I don’t support what the Australian navy has done. There may be genuine asylum-seekrs among the boat people and all their cases need to be properly investigated. But the navy is targeting the wrong people. This is what you should be saying to your MP and any media folk with whom you may be in contact.

Thanks for updated information Vinoth. I will aim to make sure that we ask accurate questions as we follow up our government in Australia. I am hopeful that the church is currently generating energy to hold our government to account on how it treats those who seek asylum or are the victims of people smugglers. It is sad that it is this group of people that have to endure such poor treatment.

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