15 June 2016

Fathers and Sons: Rajapaksas, Jayaratnes and others

On the 14th of May, 2016 in the dying moments of a rugby encounter when Ovin Askey sent the oval shaped ball floating over the crossbar to secure a tie for his school in an all important inter-school match.  Ovin’s father was right next to me.  He turned and hugged me, sharing his job and screaming: ‘Machang, that’s Ovin, my son machang!’  We were all thrilled for Ovin, his father Roshan and of course our old school, but even as I cheered, my thoughts were with another father-son story and in particular about the son who was at that very moment contemplating suicide. 

I’ll get to that story later.  Earlier that afternoon when I ran into my friend and our Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Harsha De Silva at the Mahaweli Reach Hotel, I asked him a few questions regarding what was happening at the high seats of power.  He paused and he didn’t have to say anything, his expression said it all.  I told him ‘All you need to say Harsha is that you cannot answer for anyone else but yourself!’  Later that evening, when I met him again, Harsha said ‘What can I do Malinda, I am Haris De Silva’s son!’ 

Another father-son statement.  I’ve known Uncle Haris almost all my life.  The former Director of the National Archives will always be remembered for being an exemplary public servant, a dedicated scholar and a man of impeccable integrity.  I quarrel with certain of Harsha’s political choices and have questions about his views on the economy but I think he’s clean and I hope he will remain clean (yes, I do not give blank cheques to politicians).  Two things are relevant here: a) integrity and b) the father-son story I referred to earlier.

During the above mentioned rugger match I got a message from a friend urging me to check out a youtube video.  I said I was at a match but he was insistent.  It was a video made by a young man claiming that he has decided that there’s no way he can win the battles he had decided to fight and that therefore he was going to end his life.  මම අද සිය දිවි නසා ගන්නවා කියන්න වෙලා තියෙන්නේ සටන් කරන විදිහ නෙවෙයි , දාලා දුවන විදිහයි” was the title (“I have to say I am going to commit suicide not to show how to fight but to show how to flee”).    

I knew the young man, who by the way is now domiciled in Switzerland, having left Sri Lanka fearing assault or worse for statements he had made and positions he had taken vis-à-vis the previous regime.  The mutual friend who alerted me to the crisis wanted me to talk to him.  I sent him a message but there was no reply.  I tried to call, he didn’t pick up.  I left messages.  Finally (and thankfully!) he called, but the noise got in the way.  I told him to give me two hours that I will call him back. 

It was a simple ‘postpone the moment’ strategy and it worked.  We talked at length later that evening.  And he retold a story he had told me 4 years before.  It was another ‘crisis’ situation.  He was a Facebook friend who I had ‘added’ because he posted interesting and controversial comments.  We had exchanged pleasantries off and on, but weren’t buddies as such.  But that day was different.  He sent a cryptic message: 'සර්....මම තාත්තව මැරුවද සර්?' (Did I really kill my father?)’

I asked him for his phone number and called him.  He told me then that his father had passed away and said that he had been told not to attend the funeral.  He was sobbing.  Not knowing what to do I asked him to come to my office.  He did.  I told him I will accompany him to the funeral the following day and assured him that he will not be harmed.  Even now I don’t know how I could give such guarantees.  He left, promising to come back the next day.  He didn’t.  Now I know that he had indeed attended the funeral.  Shiral Laktilleka had accompanied him.    

I did see posts since then that indicated he was abroad, but there didn’t seem to be any particular reason to communicate until he called me out of the blue saying he was in Switzerland and that he was going to die.  He was sobbing once again and sounded desperate.  It appeared that he had consumed some poison. I told him to get out of his room and get some help, but he said he didn’t speak the language and no one understood him.  To this day I don’t know what really happened or how he survived. I did the best I could, asking a friend in Switzerland who lived about 4.5 hours away to check on him. 

Thereafter, there was nothing dramatic.  Just the posts.  The occasional ‘hi’.  Until this. 

From the above you might conclude that Thushara Jayaratne was mentally ill or at least considerably disturbed.  That may be so.  Nevertheless he is extremely intelligent, politically very sharp and highly articulate.  There’s something about Thushara that makes me want to believe him.  Absolutely.  But let’s leave that as an open question.

A few weeks ago, he told me ‘මගේ තාත්ත ගැන මොනවා හරි ලියන්න' (write something about my father), pointing out that his fourth death anniversary would fall on the 10th of June.  I remembered that day in 2012.  I remembered telling him by way of trying to calm him down that his father, if he (the father) was like him (Thushara), would have in silence celebrated Thushara’s efforts to seek justice not just for himself but every single citizen of the country. 

Dasanayaka Mudiyanselage Thilakaratne Banda was 63 years old when he died.  He had been a lathe worker who worked at CPC (Ceylon Petroleum Corporation) and was a pensioner.  He had suffered a severe stroke a year before and had been bedridden since.  By that time, unfortunately, Thushara’s determination to fight a regime and a system single-handedly had made it impossible for him to visit his father, forget getting him the medical help he needed.  How all this happened is another ‘father-son’ story.  The father: Mahinda Rajapaksa.  The son: Namal Rajapaksa. 

It all began in October 2010.  Thushara was sitting for the final exam at the Law College, along with Namal Rajapaksa.  Namal, according to Thushara (as well as others) was allowed sit for the relevant papers in a separate and air-conditioned room where he was provided or else allowed to use internet facilities in contravention of standard examinations procedure.  Pertinent also is the fact that the then Principal of Law College was later made a Presidential Advisor by Namal’s father, then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

Thushara lodged a protest in December 2010.  An inquiry was held in January 2011.  The following is the gist (translated from Sinhala to English) of his appeal to the Chief Justice:

“I complained to the Principal of the Law College, the then Chief Justice, the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission to Inquire into Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, and the Keselwatte Police.  Mr Gajanayake who was the Office Manager of the Law College called me from a Law College telephone, threatened me and asked me to withdraw my complaint.  He threatened to kill me.  As a result of these threats I was unable to sit for the final paper of that year’s examination. 

“Your Honour, during an inquiry into this matter held on January 11, 2011, I submitted evidence to support three allegations. First, by providing special facilities for Lakshman Namal Rajapaksa to sit for the exam, including an A/C room with internet connections, basic examinations procedures were violated. Secondly, that the question papers had been leaked to Lakshman Namal Rajapaksa before the exam date. Thirdly, that I was threatened by a Law College official using a Law College telephone, where he demanded that I withdraw the above petition. To date I have not been intimated of the outcome of that inquiry.”

It did not end there.  In fact the more sinister harassment, according to Thushara began only thereafter:

“I was once abducted from Kohuwala and questioned.  This was on the 3rd of March, 2011.  I managed to brush them off in the first instance and hopped on to a bus.  But one of them also got into the same bus.  I got off near the Pillewa temple and there they caught me.  They questioned me for about 10 hours.  They wanted to know who was advising me. 

On another occasion, later the same month, some people came to my house and threatened me.  They returned a few days later and forced to sign some papers.  This was just before the results of the Law College exam were released.

“I went to Sunila Abeysekera and she put me in touch with an organization called INFORM.  They helped me.  The Law and Society Trust also helped me.  A fundamental rights application was filed on my behalf by Lakshan Dias who was at that time working at the Law and Society Trust.  Today Dias is the head of Transparency International Sri Lanka.  I was not granted leave to proceed because the application had been filed two days after the 30-day deadline had passed. 

“I was given refuge in a church in Kandana.  From there I was taken to a church in Hatton from where I was abducted by unidentified men who took me to a tea plantation where I was questioned and threatened”

Thushara says that when he was picked up in Hatton, someone had told his father that he had in fact been shot.  Apparently that was the day his father suffered a stroke.  .    

Then I was moved to a seminary in Kandy.  Around this time INFORM advised me to drop the whole case.  After that I was essentially on my own.  A few months later, I was traced to a hotel in Wattala where I was assaulted, along with employees of the hotel.

I have lodged police complaints regarding each of these incidents. My complaints to the Police, the then Chief Justice and the Human Rights Commission did not prompt any response whatsoever.  The Fundamental Rights application was rejected.  Meanwhile Namal Rajapaksa took his oaths before the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, who even posed for a photograph with him in her official quarters in an unprecedented move.   He took his oaths at an auspicious time and the then Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr Mudunkotuwa had to make a public apology for calling out his name before this auspicious time.   

“Due to threats to my life, I left Sri Lanka and am now resident in Switzerland where I take treatment for ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’.  The Asian Human Rights Commission has complained to the UNHRC regarding my situation.  I appeal to you to initiate an investigation into the above and take steps to remove Namal Rajapaksa from the Bar.”

This is what Dasanayaka Mudiyanselage Thushara Jayaratne, son of the late Dasanayaka Mudiyanselage Thilakaratne Banda has to say.  And some of the above has been reiterated in a couple of interviews with Boston Lanka, one in June 2013 and another in January 2015.
Today, he reveals that there wasn’t a single NGO activist working on human rights who was ready to accompany him (Thushara) to see his father, who was bedridden following a stroke.  He expressed utter disappointment (generous word) regarding the behavior of human rights activists both in Sri Lanka and Switzerland.

So what do we make of all this?  The ranting of a mentally ill individual?  Downright lies?  Unsubstantiated claims? 

We do know that Namal was favored in many ways.  We do know that the then Law College Principal was the then President’s friend.  We do know that this same individual’s behavior with respect to his own son, another Law College student, was at best dodgy. 

We know something of fathers and sons.  We saw the tears in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eyes when his other son Yoshitha was arrested.  I am sure Roshan Askey embraced his son Ovin tight and with much pride just after that rugby match.  I know that Thushara Jayaratne could not pay his last respects to his father after he passed away on the 10th of June, 2012.   

At the end of it all, Thushara Jayaratne, a friend and a brother now, remains a traumatized individual needing all the help he can get but being shunned at every turn.  He wanted me to write about his father, but he didn’t tell me much.  All I know is that he had known Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra’s father because the two of them had been in the same trade union at the CPC.  All I know is that the old man had come home after appealing to Bharatha on behalf of Thushara to intervene and make sure that the law takes its course.  All I know is that he had reported to his family that Bharatha had dismissed him saying ‘ova karanna baha bandayye’ (such things cannot be done) and that Hirunika (now an MP) had laughed when he said this.    

On the 11th of July, 2012, a month after his father passed away, Thushara left Sri Lanka.  There’s a lot that must have happened in the four years that have passed since then.  Let’s not go there for now.  How his story will unfold no one can really tell.  But one thing is clear.  He was dead right when he made the following observation: “I took on the Rajapaksas when no one dared to do so and yet, today, with the Rajapaksas out of power there’s no one of those who have benefited from the political changes who cares about me”.      

So, Thushara Jayaratne, on the 14th of May, 2016, had come to a decision.  There was no point in attempting any penalty kicks.  The goalposts were made to move and make futile even the most accurate kick.  There’s no father to hug him and say ‘It’s ok son.’  This we know. 
Today, June 14, 2016, I got Thushara to give me access to the youtube video that he had removed one month ago.  The video is harsh on a lot of human rights champions.  It is also a sad indictment (maybe based on personal experience alone, but then again in a certain sense that’s all that counts, one feels).  He says: “Don’t place your trust on struggles.  The majority of those who talk of struggles will flee when two fire crackers are lit.  I am going to die as a victor because I have not reneged on my objectives – it’s just that there’s no way forward from here on.  My biggest objective was to enshrine the Rule of Law. This will not happen because today those who talk of the Rule of Law are the very same people who betrayed me – in this Government and in this program, only Mahinda Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa are missing; all other rogues are with them.  Everyone has to go one day, but the lumpen politicians and NGO operators will never come to our aid.”

All of a sudden I am remembering the lines of a James Taylor song “I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song….just can’t remember who to send it to” (Fire and Rain). 

But let's not speak of addresses.  Let Thushara say something about 'fathers and sons'.

මාගේ පියාට කරන ගෞරවයක් ලෙස, මාගේ මරණ යෙන් පසු, මාගේ සිරුරේ සියළු පටක කොටස්, මෙහි අදාල පටක බැංකුවට, ලැබෙන ආකාරයට ලියකියවිලි සකස්කර බාර දුන්නෙමි.  මාගේ පියාද උපතින් බෞද්ධයෙකු උවත් , අපි දෙදෙනාම කිසිම විටක පෙර බවයන් විශ්වාස නොකෙලෙමු.  මාගේ පියා විස්වාස කලේද, මා අදවනතුරු විස්වාශ කරන්නේද, අප උපන් සමාජය වෙනුවෙන් උපරිම දේ කලයුතු බවයි.  තාත්තාට මං තාමත් ආදරෙයි.

"As a mark of respect for my father, I perfected and handed over all documents to relevant organ banks so that the respective organs can be collected upon my death.  My father was a Buddhist by birth but neither he nor I believed in previous lives.  What he believed and what I believe still is that we must serve to our utmost ability the society which we were born into.  I still love my father."

This article was first published in the Colombo Telegraph on June 14, 2016.