26 January 2020

Swiss Embassy Saga: ball in President’s court to end selective prosecution

Ishanka Malsiri, a young archaeologist, recently published one of the most exhaustive scholarly treatise I’ve read in Sinhala or English from anyone in the social sciences in this country. The title was ‘dutugemunuge harda saakshiyata pilithurak [A response to Dutugemunu’s conscience].’ The title is drawn from what the content is all about, an examination of claims made in Gananath Obeyesekera’s much celebrated essay about the conscience of the principal hero of the grand chronicle, the Mahawansa. What is most interesting and educative about Malsiri’s essay is that he has not only examined Gananath’s arguments, but has also examined the worth of claims made by those whose work Gananath appears to have taken as incontrovertible truths. 

In other words, sometimes we have people deliberately making claims and treating them as fact. Sometimes the errors are unintended. Sometimes some political objective leads people to the error of selectivity and general sloth when it comes to citation. There’s a tendency to refute those arguments that contradict the thesis people want to champion and an equal degree of reluctance to question arguments that support preferred narratives. Multiple and cross citation by scholars, political activists and others do the rest. Even those who claim ‘history is a version’ and go a step further to claim that the Mahawansa was written by racist Buddhist monks forget the subjective nature of narrative. All of a sudden, we have ‘fact’. We have myth that is worked into myth models and then we have ‘history.’

There’s a tendency to ignore something that is very basic to any investigation: reliability of source. This is a phenomenon that’s often evident in history and historiography. It is even more evident in the privileging of narratives in political machinations.

Take for example the narrative that certain political agents have agreed upon to privilege and treat as fact with respect to the last stage of military operations by the Sri Lankan security forces against the terrorist organization, the LTTE. Everything is framed by agenda. Gananath has presumed that Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is one of the key if not the only cause of inter-communal tensions in the island. He sets out to prove it. Similarly we had Yasmin Sooka, Marzuki Darusman and Steven R Ratner (who made the committee appointed by the UN Secretary General to advise him on issues of accountability and allegations of violations (human rights and humanitarian law), Gordon Weiss (author of ‘The Cage’) and other ‘experts’ on Sri Lanka, conflict, conflict resolution, accountability etc., etc., making all kinds of tendentious claims. 

What were these claims based on? Narratives! Who were the narrators? Well, there were people who had a political interest in portraying things in a particular way. Many of them were clearly disappointed that preferred outcomes had not materialized. They said, essentially, ‘so and so told us’. Who constitute these ‘so and so’? Well, others who were told things by still others. Dig further. Go back. Find ‘original source.' In the end you find a source that is unreliable on account of being politically compromised. For example, a doctor who makes a statement under duress or a combatant whose claims need to be treated with suspicion simply because he or she is in the business of killing unarmed civilians including old people, the sick, pregnant mothers and children.

When ‘reports’ come out, that original source is left out. The story takes off from a let’s say ‘reliable point.’ In the end it’s a UN panel of experts that has the last word. No longer do we have allegations. We have facts. Presumption of innocence is now flushed down a pernicious political toilet bowl. They even go a step further: in order to garnish the feast they say ‘let’s have a trial’. They say that and add ‘by the way, now that we have established (!) that Sri Lanka will not have a judicial process that is clean and independent, we will have a neutral (!) panel of judges.’ Yes, the neutrals are hand-picked. Fait accompli. Lies agreed upon.  

All this is preamble. ‘Allegation amounts to conclusive evidence of wrongdoing’ is essentially the drama enacted by the big bosses of the Yahapalanaya regime between January 2015 and November 2019 the Yahapalana government. It was all about ‘Get that man!’ or ‘Get that woman!’. The objective was clear. What was required was to come up with evidence. Well, they couldn’t find anything tangible. The stories, however, made the rounds. 

Now, it can be argued that not all the movers and shakers were committed to a witch hunt (just as we can’t blame everyone associated with processes to vilify Sri Lanka as conspirators in a vile operation). It maybe that they heard narratives related by people they trusted (just like the Darusman Committee, regurgitating the politically compromised narrative of NGO racketeers who batted for the then Opposition). In other words, they were convinced. They convicted, for all intents and purposes, in that grand and unsavory court called MEDIA.  

Now let’s move to the Swiss Embassy saga. It all began when pro-UNP websites reported a ‘white van abduction’. ‘Sexual assault’ was thrown into the narrative. Spice. The New York Times picked it up. Legitimacy. In the end, when the question of evidence came up, there was a lot of egg on the faces of the narrators, from Sri Lanka to New York through Switzerland.

What happened next? The CCTV evidence was examined. The identity of the ‘abducted’ woman and her movements were investigated. The narrative fell apart. The Swiss backtracked. Damage control.

Naturally, thereafter, the identities, politics and conduct of the players were investigated because it was an incident that could have snowballed into an international matter with seriously adverse effects on Sri Lanka. Four names came up and were even mentioned in court: the ‘abducted’ woman Garnier Banister Francis, former CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera, Dharisha Bastians (former editor of the Sunday Observer and also a correspondent for the New York Times) and Krishantha Cooray (former Chairperson, Lake House). They made calls to each other, it was claimed.

Garnier Banister Francis is the key individual. It’s her story that the Swiss Embassy officials believed and made so much noise about, only to back off when evidence showed they had been hasty and quite undiplomatic in the statements made (why, though?). Shani Abeysekera’s credentials are at worst questionable at this point. Dharisha Bastians has made a career out of information-jugglery. 

What of Krishantha Cooray? Let me state my biases here. Krishantha was the founding CEO of Rivira Media Corporation (Pvt) Ltd., and hired me as the Deputy Editor (Features) of the now defunct ‘The Nation.’ We have issues with each other’s political preferences. We are friends, nevertheless. I tease him often about me trusting him to trust untrustworthy people. We are friends and we openly criticize each other. Krishantha is sensitive and emotional. He goes out of his way to help anyone in need, even those who don’t identify with his political choices. I don’t agree with the way he ran Lake House or rather the editorial policy of that institution during his watch; he wasn’t worse than his predecessors but he could have been better. And yet, during his term, the company made unprecedented profits.

[I've written about Krishantha on one other occasion, way back in the year 2009 when he fled the country in the aftermath of attacks on Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennekoon: 'It is time to thrust sword into sheath' -- The Sunday Island, September 20, 2009]

Krishantha is obviously not a friend of this Government for he was politically very much a UNPer. He was seen as a key behind-the-scenes person in that regime and that party. Now, his name has been dragged into the Swiss Embassy saga. 

Both the President and the Prime Minister have stated in public that he was involved. Why should anyone make such a claim? Either they have compelling evidence or some person or persons they trusted told them that compelling evidence was indeed available.  That’s trust. Does not necessarily imply reliability in a broader sense. In the end the evidence has to be laid out and assessed.

So far, all we’ve heard mention are telephone conversations. Not the content, but the specific fact of someone calling someone else. Initially it was mentioned that Krishantha and Garnier had 40 odd phone conversations. When? For how long? On this, there’s no evidence that such conversations had indeed taken place.  Court was told that Krishantha had spoken with Shani. On how many occasions? When? We don’t have details. And anyway, what's wrong in these two individuals having a conversation? It is not illegal, is it? 

We need the details. Krishantha was the official Chairperson of Lake House until he tendered his resignation on the 22nd of November or thereabouts. Forget the exact date. He was in charge at least until the morning of the 17th. Dharisha was the editor of a Lake House publication. If all phone records were perused, it can’t be impossible to find out how many times they communicated over the phone every month or every day on average. Nothing intrinsically wrong here.  

Let’s suppose they did speak over the phone even after the election. What’s wrong with that? Now Dharisha is supposed to have spoken with Garnier. When first did they communicate? Now let’s assume that there was heightened communications between Garnier and Dharisha during those ‘abduction days.' Does that implicate Dharisha? Was she part of some sinister plot? 

That’s just suspicion. It does not constitute conclusive evidence of involvement. For instance, Dharisha, given her political preferences and prejudices, may have wanted information, perhaps to file a story in the New York Times. She has on occasion rushed to conjure all kinds of fairy tales based on ‘evidence’ pumped by unreliable sources. That’s poor journalism. That much can be concluded. It does not indicate involvement in some sinister plan to stage an abduction and discredit a government.  

If indeed Dharisha and Krishantha spoke during the same period, does it constitute proof of Krishantha’s involvement as well (assuming Dharisha is guilty as charged)? Not necessarily. It’s one individual discussing something with someone he/she has known for more than 15 years. They could have been talking about the weather. They could have been discussing options for the UNP after Sajith Premadasa was resoundingly defeated by Gotabaya Rajapaksa for all we know.  

The fact is, we do not know. 

We do not know. What we have is speculation. What we have is reference to phone conversations without details being furnished. No dates. Nothing about the length of the calls. And absolutely nothing about what was spoken between the concerned parties.

Gananath Obeysekera indicted the Sinhala Buddhists based on what is now known to be erroneous conclusions drawn by dubious or careless scholars. The UNHRC, the UNP and their NGO adjuncts lynched the Sri Lankan security forces by treating conjecture and narratives from unreliable sources as fact. Is that what is being done to Krishantha Cooray? 

We need the truth. And if truth is being distorted for whatever reason we need to know who is doing that and why.  Otherwise what this government would be doing, simply put, is what the Yahapalana Regime did and what the USA, UK, EU, UNHRC, UNP and their lackeys have done.  

This is a test case for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He can put an end to the culture of selective prosecution and deliberate vilification. He can be the Ishanka Malsiri of the political firmament. Indeed, we can all try to emulate Malsiri.