In October two mid-ranking politicians within the Sri Lankan ruling coalition exchanged gunfire in broad daylight – killing three. In November, in front of the President, MPs from the same ruling coalition ran across the floor of Parliament to punch opposition lawmakers in the face. And in December Sri Lankan politicians were again in the news, with tragic results.
Khuram Shaikh Zaman was 32 and British. He worked for the ICRC in the Gaza strip (he headed up the programme giving prosthetic limbs to landmine victims) and was in Sri Lanka on holiday with his friend, Victoria Alexandrovna, 23 – a Russian. On Christmas Day he was murdered in a brutal attack; he was both stabbed and shot. She too was horrifically assaulted and has been in intensive care ever since.
The attack took place in Tangalle, a village just down the road from Hanbantota – the fishing village (population 10,000) which contains an international airport, a vast deep sea port, an international cricket stadium and an international conference venue. Tangalle and Hanbantota have the same MPs, among them: Namal Rajapaska (the president’s son), Chamal Rajapaska (the president’s brother), and Nirupama Rajapaska (the president’s cousin). They of course all represent the ruling party – the UPFA.
A key cog in that local UPFA machine, and a “loyal friend” of Namal Rajapaska, is the chair of Tangalle municipal council Sampath Chandrapushpa Vidanapathirana. Several eyewitnesses claim they saw Chandrapushpa attack a local hotelier known as “Ryan” on the dancefloor of the Nature Tangalle hotel on Christmas day. Zaman then allegedly attempted to break up the fight and he and Alexandrovna were assaulted with broken bottles. Eyewitnesses then claim Vidanapathirana reappeared with friends brandishing assault rifles, four of them were seen dragging Alexandrovna away, and Zaman was not seen again alive.
These reports have not been corroborated but it is clear that a horrific crime has taken place and that Vidanapathirana is the main suspect. Alexandrovna has now regained consciousness and identified Vidanapathirana as her assailant. After some foot dragging on the part of the police, he was eventually arrested, but he has still not been stripped of his elected office or his UPFA membership. Speculation is rife that the Rajapaska regime are protecting him – journalists reporting on the case have received death threats and many people have complained that “forces” are attempting to undermine the investigation.
Assuming the witnesses are correct, how on earth can Vidanapathirana have thought he would get away with this? It may be that this is because it is not the first time. In 2010 Vidanapathirana was arrested for the murder of an elderly woman while campaigning in the General Election. He was not charged because the police accepted the explanation that he was “mentally ill” and yet they took no further action. Nor did his illness prevent him from going on to hold elected office, or from running the Rajapaska’s local political machine.
What is clear is that officials within the ruling party believe they are above the law. And until a foreigner became involved, that was not a belief without foundation. Taking the incident that begins the piece: many people regard it as an open secret that Duminda Silva MP killed his colleague Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Even if you don’t believe the rumours, the bullet lodged in Silva’s skull places him irrefutably at the scene of the crime. And yet the Sri Lankan police allowed him to walk out of the country and beyond the reach of the law because “he wasn’t a suspect.”
Sri Lanka is in the grip of a culture of impunity. Everybody knows that if you are a member of the ruling elite you can get away with murder – and frequently they do. To understand how we got to this stage one needs to look at the events of May 2009.
If you believe an independent panel of experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon then there is credible evidence that then, in the last few days of civil war, tens of thousands (the best estimate is 40,000) civilians were killed – mostly by the Government of Sri Lanka deliberately shelling so-called “safe areas”. In addition the Government of Sri Lanka repeatedly and deliberately shelled hospitals, executed prisoners in cold blood and made political opponents disappear.
The Government has adopted an approach to reconciliation which can best be summed up as “truth and reconciliation without the truth”. The logic is that we should move on from these terrible events, and leave them in the past. But if you try to forgive and forget without first reconciling then you do not get peace: To quote, Archbishop Desmond Tutu “the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence”. Without this you get a culture where anything goes; as Silva, Vidanapathirana and all the other thugs the regime protects knew all too well.
Nor are these isolated incidents. The UN Committee against Torture found that torture was in widespread use as a tool of the job by the Sri Lankan military and armed forces. There are currently 5,000 unsolved disappearances in Sri Lanka. 34 media workers have been killed in the last six years and not a single killer has been brought to justice. The Committee to Protect Journalists adjudge Sri Lanka the fourth most dangerous media environment on the planet.
The Sri Lankan experiment, or charade, of reconciliation has clearly failed, and Khuram Shaikh Zaman and Victoria Alexandrovna are just the latest victims of its failure.