On the day of the recent elections, Duminda Silva, ruling party politician, with his entourage of armed official and unofficial enforcers, rampaged through the streets of Kolonnawa, physically brutalizing and intimidating the opposition. Although the area had been heavily policed, the compliant and neutered arm of the law chose to remain limp, permitting Silva an unfettered run of the electorate. The culmination was a firefight in which fellow stalwart Baratha Premachandra was killed, along with three others of his party and Silva himself critically injured. Reports are that Silva fired the first shot on Premachandra, whilst one of his bodyguards, significantly a serving policeman, fired the rest.
This incident encapsulates both the political culture of the day and the culture of violence that pervades our society. Brutalized by three decades of interracial warfare – I use the word interracial with design and calculation- and the killings of combatants, non-combatants and the other excesses that have been part of it, our society has become inured to violent death, not just by the sheer numbers that have perished but also by the manner of their dying. Devotees at Buddhist shrines, Muslims at prayer in mosques, Buddhist monks, farmers tilling the fields, neutral aid workers, either shot or hacked to death , train and bus commuters fragmented by explosives, and other innocent citizens dragged out of homes and shot or burnt to death, are a few examples in a gory litany of mayhem against the defenceless.
In most wars the death of civilians is – a cynical euphemism glibly used by western powers- “ collateral damage”- caused in the pursuit of legitimate military objectives and blandly presumed to be unintentional but unavoidable. In our war, the death of innocents has mostly been the result of carefully orchestrated and designed strategy. Both factions have been guilty of these killings, with the LTTE leading the field by an unmatchable margin in terms of innovation, ingenuity and effectiveness of delivery.
Conflict based on racial, ethnic, religious or tribal fundamentals invariably tends to be far more vicious, more confrontational and personal than conventional warfare. It requires an overpoweringly visceral motivation and the total perversion of morality, to plan and kill unarmed women and children , monks and devotees at prayer or to consign a living being to a funeral pyre. Life is taken, not so much to defend a national border, a political ideology or a cherished culture, but largely because the perceived enemy speaks a different tongue , worships a different deity or lives by different customs. So let us not forget it; whilst various other equations entered our war during its long duration, it always remained entrenched in an ethnic fault line.
One may ask, what has this culture of violence got to do with Silva and his conduct? It is that Duminda and others of his ilk , many of them occupying positions of power and influence, are essentially products of a society gone feral. It is a society which has buried its conscience , which has decided to forsake its responsibility to make a conscious, personal contribution to the maintenance of law and order, which tacitly condoned the extra-judicial killings of journalists, suspected revolutionary youth and alleged criminals and which silently endorsed the unlawful eviction of marginalized citizens from high profile city locations. It has remained largely unresponsive and forgiving in the face of iniquities visited on certain segments of society by the State, in the name of development and in the pursuit of victory in war. It is a society to which violent death has become a mere statistic.
It is also a society which has, by enthusiastically voting Duminda and other Silvas of similar persuasion in to power, carefully selected its own rogue rulers. They owe their existence to one segment of the public which has empowered them, to the other segment which remains silent in the face of their most unpardonable transgressions of decent conduct and to a cynical administration which sponsors them. This society includes you and I.
Leading UPFA Parliamentarian and Monitoring authority to the Ministry of Defence, Duminda Silva, despite his relative youth, comes recommended for his current position by a substantial record of suspected criminality. There are allegations of assault and battery, causing hurt, the alleged rape of a minor, kidnapping and illegal restraint, unlawful assembly , insurance fraud and the constant and reverberating whisper of active involvement in the illegal narcotics trade; allegations, quite often made publicly but, tellingly, never proven. Apart from these his record is modestly silent on any useful qualifications or professional skills, which may have reinforced his suitability for a position of responsibility.
This man, despite his background, or perhaps because of it, was a primary choice of the voting public of his electorate and was initially promoted by the UNP as an emergent leader. When he crossed over to the governing party – the uncharitable say that it was to avoid conviction for his sexual excesses- he was received with open arms and quickly given prominence ,seemingly disproportionate to his youth , experience and service to the party. Finally , the very favours he received from the primary benefactor led to friction with his party colleague, which culminated in death and destruction.
The initial investigations in to the incident suggest that notwithstanding his injuries Silva should be treated as a prime suspect in the cold-blooded murder of Baratha Lakshman Premachandra. One journalist has pointedly asked as to why, instead of being shackled to the hospital bed like any other suspected criminal, he was visited by the Defence Secretary, who has been solicitous about both Silva’s condition and security. However , the fact is that he was reportedly given the kind of care, treatment and protection that a warrior wounded in the defence of a truly noble cause would receive, including a visit by the President himself. Perhaps, in the eyes of the ruler he is exactly that — a frontline general in the ruling family’s relentless campaign for the subjugation of the opposition and for perpetual power.
There is another chilling aspect to the Kolonnawa incident. Although Silva had apparently been accompanied by several armed civilians with suspected criminal backgrounds, the man who reportedly fired the killing shots on the already wounded and fallen Premachandra had been the policeman, assigned to Silva as an official bodyguard. If this is proven, it will further reinforce the common perception that the Police force has been criminalized to the extent that they are no longer answerable either to the law or the public, but only to their political masters. That a policeman would murder on order, in full view of the public and other policemen, perhaps epitomizes the culture of absolute impunity enjoyed by the rulers and extended by them to their hirelings. If it was Silva who delivered the first blow and fired the first shot, his past record gave him justifiable grounds for a presumption of immunity from a criminal act, but for the policeman it should have been an entirely different matter.
Consequent to these events the President has made a powerful public statement that no one will be permitted to take the law in to his own hands. To me the meaning is unclear. It is actually the rulers, their homicidal servants and venal law enforcers , who have taken the law in to their own hands. By both explicit and implicit endorsement of public misconduct and unlawful acts of its representatives, the regime has demonstrated absolute contempt for the society which it pretends to govern. The impotent public has , infrequently, reacted in the only way available to them, in mindless and futile outrage, such as attacks on police stations and other symbols of authority; spontaneous responses to criminal acts by the very institutions entrusted with their protection, which are not uncommon reactions in other communities manacled by despotic rule. The world has recently witnessed a series of such incidents in a literal chain reaction, moving across Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen , Morocco and Tunisia, where societies emasculated by decades of tyrannical rule have finally risen , in a collective groping for a suppressed civic potency.
The Arab Spring is unlikely to dawn in this country, yet. But equally strange things have happened here, events which cast their shadows long before their actual occurrence. The JVP inspired social upheavals and the LTTE movement are but two recent examples, both launched by minority segments of our own society who considered themselves to be marginalized by a more affluent and favoured majority. As law abiding citizens we totally condemn the path of terrorism, however justifiable the cause and objective. But perceived wrongs are very real to the victims and must be addressed and redressed. When the majority becomes convinced that they have been wronged and that the only solution is to violently compel the rulers to sit up and take notice, its wrath will be less easy to appease than the anger of the minority.