Kath Noble

The wilderness of the Western Province

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 23, 2013

What Mervyn Silva has to teach us about the role of thugs in politics in Sri Lanka   

hasitha madawela killingLast week, I discussed the campaign of a tiny fraction of the majority community against Muslims, and the way in which the Government is creating space for them by neglecting sensitive issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam.

Some people claim that groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya are only defending the interests of Sinhalese. If not for their ‘activism’, we are asked to believe, Buddhists would soon have to meditate in secret or risk having their heads chopped off on Galle Face Green (while being force-fed slightly overpriced meat products through the slit in the uncomfortably warm piece of black cloth that they would be compelled to don over their sarees or sarongs!).

This is obviously unbelievably foolish. Not only can they not see that at the moment in Sri Lanka their community is not in any danger whatsoever, they also fail to think ahead to what would happen if the hatred that they are encouraging boiled over into a riot. Saying that they would not participate is not enough. Their arguments may persuade others to take the law into their own hands, and they have a responsibility to take an equally strong stand against that. Violence is clearly inherently bad, but it also has an impact on how people understand the situation in the country. Sinhalese would feel responsible as a community if any such thing were to happen – and others would hold them responsible too – so that raising even legitimate grievances would be virtually impossible thereafter.

If they thought that garnering support to defeat the LTTE was difficult, let them imagine how hard it would have been if there had been a repeat of Black July. Also, let them remember how Black July led to increased support for the LTTE (including actual foreign conspiracies, not just the ones that the Government now routinely invents to divert attention from criticism of its actions!).

Even the perception of a threat can be enough to encourage young people to turn to militancy.

This has to be avoided at all costs. Even members of the 75% of the population of Sri Lanka that are Sinhalese who for some mysterious reason think that Muslims are on the verge of taking over should understand the implications of violence between communities.

Let those who speak up in support of monks who lead mobs think again. Let them look at the way in which such people behave and ask themselves whether this is really how we should go about resolving disputes.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can mull over another important question.

I said that the Government is encouraging communal violence by neglecting sensitive issues, but we have come to a point where it is no longer clear that this is an oversight.

Many ‘oversights’ are actually deliberate.

Consider Mervyn Silva.

Literally hundreds of articles have been written by people from across the political spectrum condemning the actions of this man. There is virtual consensus. Even ardent supporters of the Government have called for his removal, on the grounds that he is a thug.

The latest incident is the shooting of Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawela on January 5th.

On January 8th, one of Silva’s organisers from Kelaniya was arrested at the airport as he was attempting to leave the country. The Police also charged several other people and recovered from them a number of guns, including what is suspected to be the murder weapon. They say that it was provided by Silva’s coordinating secretary, who is also the main suspect’s uncle. The following day, a raid on the SLFP office in Kelaniya discovered swords and a hand grenade.

Madawela’s colleagues in the Pradeshiya Sabha have since accused Silva of masterminding the killing.

On January 11th, he resigned from his position as the SLFP’s organiser for Kelaniya, but we know from past experience that this doesn’t mean anything.

After the infamous case of the Samurdhi officer who was tied to a tree as a punishment for not attending a dengue eradication programme in Kelaniya, Silva was sacked from his post as Deputy Minister of Highways and suspended from the SLFP. Trade unions protested and this was an easy way to get them to stop. The SLFP then conducted an ‘inquiry’, which found that it was all a misunderstanding and the Samurdhi officer had actually volunteered to be humiliated, despite video evidence to the contrary (never mind common sense!). Within a month, Silva had returned to the Cabinet with a promotion as Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs.

Given that he has not yet been relieved of that position, we must assume that the Government believes that crimes involving trees are more serious than those in which bullets have been used.

We had already understood the Government’s position on knife crimes, since nothing much was done about the various stabbings of staff of the Rupavahini Corporation after they took Silva hostage for assaulting the News Director.

After so many incidents, this cannot be an ‘oversight’.

We can only conclude that the Government needs Mervyn Silva.

Indeed, the man demonstrated his utility during the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since it was reported that the crowds who gathered in support of the Parliamentary Select Committee were also from Kelaniya. They roamed the streets with iron rods and sticks, intimidating people who came to join the march organised by Shirani Bandaranayake’s lawyers.

Kelaniya has become the place to go for thugs.

Of course the interconnection of violence and politics is hardly new, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it.

In the case of Mervyn Silva, the country may eventually get lucky. The Sunday Leader alleges that Hasitha Madawela’s killing was the result of a kind of falling out among thieves. It says that a group from the Pradeshiya Sabha got into a dispute with Silva last month after another of Silva’s aides was abducted and told the authorities about a whole range of illegal activities going on in Kelaniya. They felt that Silva was going to abandon them.

Let us hope so, and let us hope that the Government in turn decides to abandon Mervyn Silva.

This may be a systemic problem, but targeting an individual can still be useful in sending a signal that change is coming.

We must also hope that change doesn’t come in the same form as it did for Hasitha Madawela. The Sunday Leader claims that he was one of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha members who was involved in the attack on the Sirasa media network, for which he was arrested but later released without charge. If the legal process had been allowed to run its course, he might still be alive.

While it is extremely tempting not to worry about the deaths of people who attack journalists, we should remember that lawlessness doesn’t tend to be so discriminating.

Contempt for the rule of law is at the bottom of many of the problems that Sri Lanka is facing today.

Since the Government is constantly strengthening its grip on the institutions that are supposed to tackle lawlessness, it is easy to become disheartened.

I must say that when I saw yet another posse of monks laying siege to a clothing store in Maharagama at the weekend, I didn’t feel very optimistic. This time it was not the Bodu Bala Sena or the Sinhala Ravaya but a group calling itself the Budhu Hiru (most likely the same handful of very foolish people under a different banner!).

We await with bated breath their explanation of what appalling national calamity they have averted.

Waiting for the Government to intervene in such matters may be almost equally as foolish, so Buddhists who don’t like to see their religious leaders shouting and running amok in the streets must get together with representatives of the minority communities to resolve contentious issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam before they can be misappropriated by such people.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 23rd January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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