The fact that nationally significant events such as the ones that the government has initiated are attracting less emotion and interest in popular debate than Hitler, the LTTE and the death penalty is a tragedy of the present time. Those who are leading this debate include religious leaders who are expected to be the bearers of universal values that have humanized society over the ages. It is doubly tragic that they are variously putting forward the view that Hitler, the LTTE and the death penalty are solutions to the problems besetting the country.
President Maithripala Sirisena has stated that the death penalty should be implemented for drug dealers. The issue of the death penalty being reintroduced has come to the centre stage of the public debate not only in Sri Lanka but also internationally. This has led the Office of the President of the Philippines to commend the government of Sri Lanka for its plan to replicate the “success” of the Philippines’ war on drugs. The Philippines government statistics show that 4,354 persons accused of dealing in drugs died while 147,802 have been arrested in 102,630 anti-drug operations since July 2016.
Under President Duarte of the Philippines drug dealers are not being provided with the due process of the law prior to being executed. They are being shot in the streets or after being apprehended by the police and para military forces. The closest that Sri Lanka has come to this in recent times is with the white van abductions that were employed to eliminate suspected LTTE members during the time of the war and also political opponents of the government.
CUSTODIANS OF VALUES
The Sri Lankan government has come in for criticism from human rights groups both within Sri Lanka and internationally for announcing its latest stance on the implementation of the death penalty. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has called on the government to abolish the death penalty entirely like over one hundred other countries in the world have done. In deference to this criticism the president seems to have relented and has taken the position that only those who have been sentenced to death and are in prison but who continue to ply their trade from within their prison cells will be subjected to the death penalty.
The government is not of one mind on the issue of reintroducing the death penalty, which has not been practiced since 1976. Minister Ajith Perera reflected the government’s ambivalence on the issue when he said that carrying out the death sentence will not stop crimes and added that this is a reality he learned through his experience as a lawyer and a lecturer at the police training school. He said “I have learned though my experience the crimes cannot be stopped by imposing the death sentence but we will support President Maithripala Sirisena in his decision to the impose death sentence on those who are charged with crimes pertaining to drugs.”
The basic flaw in the government’s understanding is that it seems to be thinking that by eliminating individuals it can get rid of the problem. However, it has been pointed out that those behind bars are often not the leaders or financiers of the drug cartels. There will always be replacements for those individuals who are executed. Instead of executing individuals, some of whom might be innocent or have been framed, it is necessary to reform the criminal justice system that permits those in prison cells to be in communication with their cartels outside. Religious leaders in particular who are the custodians of a society’s higher values, need to take the lead in this regard.
HARDNESS OF HEART
Many years ago, during the time of the war in 1998, when the LTTE controlled large swathes of territory in the north and east, I visited the north of the country and stayed at the residence of the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph. He was often misunderstood as an LTTE supporter on account of his strong views on Tamil rights and the legitimacy of the Tamil cause. But he was also one of two Catholic bishops who mediated between the government and LTTE during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga to bring peace to the country through peaceful means in accordance with the religious precept that all human life is sacred and should be safeguarded and not destroyed.
One of the books in the Bishop’s House that I happened to come across was a long letter to the people of the United States written by the Catholic Bishops of that country. It was on the cold war the US had with the Soviet Union which was continuing and there was the ever present threat of nuclear war. The bishops were aware of the antipathies the Soviet Union aroused in the American people. In fact President Ronald Reagan had just described the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire." But as religious leaders the Bishops felt obliged to keep raising in the realm of the political debate, truths that ought to ground their involvement in political affairs.
Therefore, they pointed out that “the Soviet people and their leaders are human beings created in the image and likeness of God… we do warn against ‘hardness of heart’ which can close us or others to the changes needed to make the future different from the past." Not even five years after the US bishops wrote this letter, their predictions began to come true. Change began to occur within the Soviet Union. The call for the imposition of the death penalty reflects a hardness of heart that is not in consonance with the belief that all human beings can change, and do change, and can be redeemed, even as Karuna Amman of the LTTE was, with a war-changing result.
As in the case of the death penalty, the debates on Hitler and the LTTE focus on the effects rather than the causes. Hitler has been promoted as an appropriate model of leadership for Sri Lanka at this time when the government is compared to a bullock cart with an ox and buffalo leading it. The return of the LTTE is being proposed as a solution to the rape and murders taking place in the north. It is one thing when less educated and more emotional people offer such solutions to the problems facing the country. Cry, the beloved country, when leaders of the polity and religion offer such solutions. Those who think differently cannot be the silent majority; they need to stand up and be counted.
(“Cry, the beloved country” was the title of a classic novel written about apartheid in South Africa by Alan Paton in 1948. Writings of this nature, and the thoughts underlying them, subsequently saw the emergence of leaders of the caliber of Nelson Mandela who took the helm, albeit four decades later)