OPINION BY TREVOR GRANT:
Increasingly, one collective mindset identifies those people who keep on telling the world that meaningful change, as opposed to a marketing makeover, has come to Sri Lanka in 2015 with the election of a new president.
It’s called suspension of reality.
It’s impossible to mouth the platitudes we keep on hearing about the newly- inclusive Sri Lanka, and keep a straight face, without ignoring what is really happening on the ground, as opposed to what some people want to believe is happening.
It could be the speech from the president Maithripala Sirisena this week in which he made clear yet again he’d be maintaining the brutal militarisation that continues to ravage the daily lives of thousands of innocents in the Tamil homelands.
Or it could be his unequivocal endorsement of two of the military’s most senior accused war criminals, Jagath Dias and Sarath Fonseka; his refusal to end the tyrannical Prevention of Terrorism Act, or his belligerent non-co-operation with the UN war crimes investigation, emphasizing that he, as acting defence minister during the mass slaughter of civilians at the end of the war, has as much to hide as his former cabinet ally, the ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Or it could be the continued arrest and detention of suspected former Tamil Tiger fighters who made the mistake of returning to the country in the belief things had changed.
It doesn’t matter what it is. These critical indicators must be deliberately ignored if you are to maintain the fiction that Sri Lanka has become a land of peace and serenity for all, including the Tamils.
Instead the Sirisena urgers, to justify the unjustifiable, prefer to embrace the superficiality and tokenism, such as:
(1) The replacement of the military man who was governor in the north with a civilian.
(2)The well-publicised hand-over of a few stolen acres to Tamil property owners while keeping thousands of acres that belong to Tamils under strict military control, or in the hands of recently-arrived, government-supported Sinhalese settlers.
(3) The release from jail of one high-profile political prisoner, such as disappearances campaigner Balendran Jeyakumari, to appease the outside world, while keeping hundreds of political prisoners locked away in secret prisons.
Indeed, the new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged on the record in February that political prison camps remain active. He said there were hundreds of prisoners detained. Yet this week Sirisena told journalists there was no such thing as a political prisoner in Sri Lankan jails.
Every day new cracks appear in the façade of a government that values far higher than the idea of principled rule the ability to deceive, misinform and lie with a straight face. As the months, and the honeymoon period, pass, it’s obviously becoming more infused with the same arrogance and self-delusion that characterized its predecessor.
Take Major-General Jagath Dias’s recent elevation to army chief of staff. He was commander of the notorious 57th division at the end of the war and has been recorded in UN war crimes investigations as being directly responsible for bombing hospitals, temples and humanitarian aid stations. These violations caused the deaths of thousands of trapped Tamil civilians.
After the war, as part of Rajapaksa’s desire to hide his war criminals in a diplomatic bubble, Dias became Sri Lanka’s deputy ambassador to Germany Switzerland and the Vatican. It was a short-lived appointment as he was hastily recalled to Colombo just before dossiers on his crimes were about to be sent to European courts. The Swiss attorney-general announced Dias would be prosecuted if ever he returned to the country. He has also been refused entry to Australia and US on the basis of his war-time reputation.
Yet Sirisena’s government, despite making empty statements about the need to investigate and pursue those guilty of crimes at the end of the war, portrays Dias as a hero, and rewards him thus — as they do the supreme military commander during the apocalyptic last days of the war, General Sarath Fonseka.
About to resume political life, Fonseka who openly brags about his responsibility for the deaths of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians, is touted as a future senior cabinet minister.
Apart from a steadfast denial of past crimes, just as Rajapaksa did, Sirisena’s rule is also characterized by a litany of broken promises.
Soon after coming to power the new government – attempting to woo US officials — announced in Washington it would end military oversight and infiltration of day-to-day civilian affairs. Yet there have been countless examples in the media of continued army and navy presence in all kinds of political, economic and social situations in the Tamil homelands. This week, Sirisena publicly dropped the pretence, wholeheartedly endorsing the continued involvement of the military in civilian life.
The new government also announced a week before May 18, the date the war ended in 2009, that it would no longer commemorate the day as “Victory Day”, with an aggressive military parade that deliberately, and openly, danced on Tamil graves.
Instead it would be known as “Remembrance Day”, a much more inclusive term which, it was said, would give some acknowledgment to Tamils who died rather than only Sinhalese.
This was trumpeted as evidence that Sirisena was pursuing a much more conciliatory line than his predecessor. However, it proved to be another deception, as the day was officially declared “War Heroes Day” and adorned by a military parade. There was no acknowledgement of Tamil deaths, except if you count the overt monitoring, and harassment by Sri Lankan army intelligence of those Tamil civilians attending many ceremonies in the north.
As several independent observers, such as International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, noted this week, Sri Lanka does not deserve to be rewarded for progress it has not made.
It’s time to acknowledge that the new leader identifies much more with his old boss and close ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, than his urgers, at home and abroad, are prepared to recognise.
It’s time to suspend fantasy, look at the facts and get real.