Lionel Bopage

Lionel Bopage was an Editorial Adviser of Sri Lanka Guardian from 2010-2019. He is a passionate and independent activist, who has advocated and struggled for social justice, a fair-go and equity of opportunity for the oppressed in the world, where absolute uniformism, consumerism and maximisation of profit have become the predominant social values of humanity. Lionel was formerly a General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – Peoples’ Liberation Front) in Sri Lanka, and he now lives in exile in Australia.

The Lesson Not Learnt: From “Operation Shock and Awe”  to AUKUS


The United States of America (US) must be one of the most incompetent, brutal and arrogant imperial powers in history. For Its hubris and gradual decline, the only counterpart is the Spanish rape and pillage of the Americas, 500 years or so earlier. Spain like the US hid its slow economic decline for a century or more by its military might. Its intervention in the wars of statehood resulted in a wave of bloodshed across Northern Europe; resulting in many thousands of needless deaths of its own people but also of those it attempted to subdue. As a result, Spain became an economically backward nation for centuries, banished eventually to the margins of history.

Shades of this hubris are more than evident in the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq twenty years ago; in terms of its spurious justification of the war and its incompetent governing of the country via its handpicked local proxies. The grim figures of the casualties speak for themselves. A conservative estimate of around 280,771 to 351,190 civilians lost their lives, the actual figure is much higher as there has been no desire to quantify the figures of how many died. According to the UNHCR the war left behind 5 million orphans; and there are still around 1.2 million displaced people. In comparison, the US had 5,000 casualties. The looting and profiteering of transnationals and the local comprador politicians ran into billions of unaccountable dollars. The country’s infrastructure was blown to smithereens, civil society was annihilated and, in its place came self-serving politicians and a bloody sectarian divide. In between the cracks and debris of the invasion Islamic State (IS) was hatched.

Yet if one looks at media coverage of the 20year anniversary except for brief editorial pieces bemoaning what they term ‘mistakes’ of the invasion, there is barely a mention that this immoral invasion was hatched by our AUKUS partners, who were also instrumental in the brutal occupation of Afghanistan and the quick unravelling of the proxy regime, Australia and its allies left in place – leaving the country to endure the reign of medieval fundamentalist – the Taliban. Nary a critical word is written on the deliberate surrounding by NATO of Russia led by the paranoid and dictatorial Putin and its tragic consequences for the Ukrainian population. If they win the war will Ukraine be given the money and the resources to rebuild; or will it follow the tragic trajectory of Iraq and Afghanistan? The mainstream’s disgraceful orgy of celebration of the AUKUS and its unnecessary needling of China, show we have learnt nothing and will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is therefore instructive to understand what led to the invasion of Iraq and its tragic consequences, so we can cast a more critical eye on AUKUS.

Since the end of World War 2, the United States’ military interventions and nation building have been an unmitigated disaster – starting with Korea, then moving on to Vietnam and Indonesia, Afghanistan and Iraq amongst others have resulted in millions of deaths, devastated infrastructure, and a fragile civil society of these occupied countries. Ennobling in Iraq and Afghanistan  the rise of a medievalist and intolerant strain of a violent religious insurrection. It is in this historical context; this paper will look at “coalition of the willing” invasion of Iraq.

It is 20 years since the US-UK led Iraq invasion. It began with what David Rumsfeld called “Operation Shock and Awe.” To market the operation, the Bush White House created the slogan “axis of evil,” with Iraq and Iran forming one part of the axis. President Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator prominently supported the invasion and argued for it.

There was no evidence that Iraq was involved in or planning attacks on the USA or its allies. Saddam Hussein maintained a tyranny that brutally violated the human rights of Iraqi people. However, the ruling elites in the rest of the Middle East were no different. The US depicted and justified the operation as part of its response to the war on terror. This was in response to the 9/11 attacks in which Iraq was said to have been involved. Iraq’s invasion was only one component of the US-led “War on Terror” campaign. The US is said to be conducting such operations in 85 countries. Researchers believe that more than 929,000 people including over 387,000 civilians have died since the 9/11 terror attacks. Thirty-eight million people are said to have been displaced as a result with Iraq being one of the larger disasters.

The then Secretary of State, Colin Powell stated confidently that Saddam Hussein posed a grave and imminent security threat to the US and the world, as he was developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Powell’s now notorious and erroneous speech at the UN became the prelude to the nine-year-long Iraqi war. The US Congress had already authorised George Bush to “use any means necessary” against Iraq. As proof, Powell produced satellite images, audio recordings and illustrations of supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and charged that Iraqi officials purposely evaded their obligations and hid their weapons. He was ably assisted by the conservative hawk John Bolton, who worked to thwart any efforts to establish whether Iraq possessed chemical weapons.

What the US regime cited as “solid intelligence” was based on uncorroborated reports received from Iraqi exiles, such as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi had gained the trust of senior bureaucrats in the Bush administration. He and his accomplices had convinced the Bush administration of the necessity of destroying the Baathist regime. Despite the State Department wanting to get rid of Chalabi, George Bush and Dick Cheney did not allow that to happen. Chalabi and his collaborators fed the US administration “alternate facts”, facts that they wanted to hear.

When no evidence of WMDs and other weapons or any links to terrorism could be found, Bush, Blair and Howard astutely reframed the war agenda against Iraq: to topple Saddam Hussein so as to bring peace to the people of Iraq, to replace the autocratic Ba’athist regime with a democratic one and to transform the Iraqi economy to a free-market economy.

The imperial objective of the invasion, shorn of its sham and opportunist democratic rhetoric was nothing but regime change. A tactic the US has done many times in the past, especially in its own back yard: Central and South America. Since this disastrous imperial invasion Iraqis are neither freer, wealthier, or more pro-US than they were under the Baathists. In fact, for many years Saddam Hussein was seen as a pro-American lackey.

A sham for when western powers speak of democracy in the Middle East, one would expect them to start with those regimes with whom the west has close relations and linkages. In the region, there are many tyrants and authoritarian regimes, whose survival simply depends on the US’s material and financial support. The most suitable candidate for such a campaign would be Saudi Arabia. Yet the US remain mute of its multiple human rights abuses at home and abroad, especially in Yemen.

If there was a genuine commitment to democracy, a country’s sovereignty needs to be respected unless that country directly endangers one’s own security. Vietnam for example invaded Kampuchea after the genocidal policies of Pol Pot spilled into its borders.

The world-wide left movement agitated for and supported when trade sanctions and sporting boycotts were imposed against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The west could have intervened militarily to overthrow minority white rule, but they did not.

Any social transformation will be inspiring and successful if it is driven by their own people’s struggles and assisted by international solidarity. Promoting democracy has become a slogan when it suits US imperial and strategic interests. Where was the democracy when the US security apparatus helped and aided the brutal dictators in Indonesia and Chile? When Suharto’s military dictatorship systematically annihilated any dissent against their rule in Indonesia, resulting in around a million extra judicial murders?

Globally, there was a tidal wave of opposition to the war, both before and during the invasion, and then following the occupation. It was probably the largest protest movement in human history. According to the BBC around one million Londoners protested. There were 54 countries that officially condemned the occupation. Many believed that the invasion was illegal as per the UN Charter. Some of them contested the information presented as facts for validating the intent of the invasion.

I was residing in Canberra at the time and witnessed and actively led some of the protests and marches held at the time. However, the invasion could not be prevented. This was due to a lack of organisation and coordination by the anti-war activists and groups. Nevertheless, those protests were stimulating and inspiring.

The invasion became a war of occupation and attrition, despite the expectation that coalition troops would be welcomed as liberators of Iraq. Bush, Blair[1], Howard (a proto AUKUS coalition) and their ilk carried out a huge propaganda campaign through the media supporting the neo-liberal agenda spearheaded by then US Vice President Dick Cheney[2], Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. In Australia, the Australian Labour Party led by Simon Crean and Kim Beasley supported that propaganda campaign.

Even some progressive forces supported the invasion. Some in the protest movement believed that the United Nations (UN) could prevent the invasion. History provides us ample evidence that this is not a tenable option. According to the UN rules if one of the five permanent members (US, Russia, Britain, France and China), veto a resolution, no action can be taken. One good example would be the many resolutions the UN passed condemning the Israeli apartheid regime over many war crimes committed against Palestinians. The catastrophic results for the Iraqis were not hard to discern.

“Operation Shock and Awe” directly resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths and millions of others were wounded and displaced. Hundreds of thousands were adversely affected by the war, due to the disruption of water supplies and associated health issues. Thousands of US soldiers and contractors lost their lives, tens of thousands were wounded and many thousands have been suffering from serious physical and psychological debilities. The overall loss of life due to the conflict is said to be about one million. This is said to exclude suicides committed by Iraq war veterans and veterans of America’s other post-9/11 wars. But that was just the start of the horrors that Iraqis were  enduring and are still enduring.

Unemployment in Iraq rose to 60 per cent  which led to a humanitarian crisis. Iraqis are still suffering from food shortages. More than half the population and tens of thousands of members of the armed forces are said to be suffering from psychological disorders that resulted due to the invasion. If not for the invasion, IS would not have had a social and material base to emerge. However, none of the war criminals has shown any remorse for the colossal devastation they have executed. They need to be brought to justice for their falsifications, mass killings and widespread destruction of humanity.

The overthrow of the Saddam-led Baathist regime created a power vacuum as the US-dominated occupiers excluded the Sunni-dominated political, military, and administrative apparatus. This in turn contributed to a bloody and protracted militant campaign against the occupation and sectarian conflicts between the Shias and Sunnis. The US-led occupying regime brutalized communities, destroying cultural artefacts and cities like Fallujah. Iraqi prisoners were subjected to torture violating all international human rights conventions.

If there is one incident and image that summarises the brutal, racist and incompetent occupation of the invading forces, it is Abu Ghraib, a charnel house of torture. Private security firms like Blackwater killed with impunity. The invasion resulted in the sectarian fragmentation between Sunnis and Shiites, and the rise of the Islamic State, which was defeated later. US troops were withdrawn when Iraq ordered them to leave. This happened when US forces assassinated a top Iranian general.

In a repeat of what happened in Iraq, US forces had to retreat from Afghanistan, in an embarrassing manner. Whilst the erstwhile reason they were there for nigh of 20 years – the Taliban are now firmly ensconced.

Iraq holds elections, yet, in 2022 Iraq was 124th out of 167 countries in democracy rankings and the regime is characterised as authoritarian and corrupt. Despite this, the people have been holding frequent protests, which were never permitted to occur under Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, society has become so fragmented due to narrow sectarian interests of the many ethno-religious political factions. This amply demonstrates the negative experiences a society will undergo when it is invaded with no real idea about the impact it would have on civil society.

Iraq remains one of the most violent societies on the planet. The legacy of the invasion destroyed what it meant to be an Iraqi, their identity, and their self-respect as a nation. The sectarian political system the invaders left Iraq with destroyed whatever plural aspects that remained under the Ba’athist regime between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Iraqis live in ethno-religious enclaves without appropriate power-sharing arrangements. Significant land areas in both Syria and Iraq were captured and controlled by religious fundamentalists and extremists, who continue to be a threat even today. They imposed Sharia law in those areas and slaughtered and enslaved many communities. When the Islamic State was ousted, about 10,000 civilians were slaughtered and thousands more had been forced to leave.

The so-called free market economy, as the experiences of countries around the world attest, has only benefited a minority of corrupt elites. According to Transparency International’s annual Corruption Index, Iraq ranked 157 out of 180 countries in 2022. Iraq’s oil wealth has boosted its GDP, and it is the 50th largest economy in the world. However, there is no trickle-down of such economic gains to the Iraqi people. Ordinary Iraqis continue to suffer from power cuts, lack of potable water, and poor sewage systems, health care and education. As has been experienced globally, “trickle-down” economic policies have disproportionately benefited those who are at the top of the social ladder. In terms of achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, its Sustainable Development Report, 2022 ranked Iraq 115th out of 163 countries. Iraqi schools and universities have fallen decades behind international standards. Isn’t this a dire report card?

Most Iraqis do not wish to revert to Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. However, they still bemoan the destruction caused to the harmony of the plurality that existed within Iraqi society. It is reported that since 2003, $150 billion to $300 billion of Iraqi wealth has been siphoned off. Iraq is categorised as one of the 25 most corrupt countries in the world.

The Western world, including Australians, appears to have forgotten the disastrous imperial and illegal invasion of Iraq – if the $368 billion nuclear submarines purchase by Australia is the barometer of their collective forgetfulness. This treaty is designed to protect US and UK-led neo-liberal interests in the Asia-Pacific region, not those of Australia or of Asia; it will in fact make the lives of Australians more fraught, for wars and invasions are profitable business ventures, but disastrous for civic society. Starting a war will enable the selling of weaponry and associated military equipment produced by the military-industrial complexes, enabling the fossil fuel industries to enrich themselves, and arms producers to test their new weapon systems and manufacture more advanced arms and ammunition. In the meantime, vital services like health, education, and civic infrastructure will be raided to fund the purchase of weaponry like nuclear submarines.

Faced with this untenable situation, the only option available for preventing authoritarian tyrants from popping up all over the world, will be for the working people around the globe to develop a civil society that is courageous, empowered, and energetic. Only such a mobilisation could develop into a mass campaign of civil disobedience against authoritarianism and tyranny and fight dangerous follies like AUKUS.

This has happened before when the British wanted to send their troops to Russia when the Tsar’s feudal regime was overthrown in 1917. British workers threatened a general strike and prevented troops from being sent. During the Vietnam war led by the US-led imperial forces including Australia, there were mass mobilisations the world over, against it.

Without such civil society action, political entities that pledge to bring liberation to the working people in the form of top-down authoritarian bureaucracies will ultimately resort to the use of force and violence. Mass opposition can only occur when dynamic, committed, and tested individuals are harnessed – to create an organization with principled policy and program positions that place working people’s interests first. During the Arab Spring, the Aragalaya mass protests in Sri Lanka and currently the anti-judicial reforms mass protest movement in Israel, show the way forward.

This issue of organisation has become more pressing than ever as neo-liberal coalitions prepare for future wars to maintain and expand their military-industrial and economic interests the world over. As progressives, we ought to oppose all these neo-liberal wars that will lead to colonising whole societies which is being forcefully and violently pushed across lands, where neo-liberalism is not yet the dominant mode of production.

We need to stand up for all oppressed people in their struggles to defend their rights. This does not mean supporting demagogues, whether political, religious, or ethnic, those who use progressive populist phraseology to protect the privileges and interests they themselves enjoy.

The twenty-year anniversary of the Iraqi invasion starkly reminds us that unity against oppression is necessary not only because it is just but because of the horrendous effects it imposes on the civilian population, which can blow back to us in the most unexpected and deadly ways. For if the current hullabaloo on AUKUS is anything to go by, those same imperial dunces who have learnt nothing from disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan are up to their same old tricks, they need to be opposed by all.

[1] A leading cabinet minister when Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the UK, confirmed accusations that the regime put forward “evidence” based on bogus intelligence to justify the launch of the Iraq War.

[2] Dick Cheney undercut the CIA by instructing them to send raw intelligence directly to his office. He worked with Donald Rumsfeld to establish an alternative intelligence agency within the Pentagon. These actions directly contributed to the faulty information that informed the decision to go to war.

Cheney misrepresented facts, claiming there was no doubt about the existence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. He claimed that a full-scale nuclear program existed, despite being fully aware of the questions and uncertainties about weapons and WMDs.

Cheney initiated the interrogation tactic known as ‘waterboarding’, in which detainees were blindfolded, strapped to a board, and held down. Water was poured into their cavities until their lungs filled up.

Cheney devised the operation of monitoring phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens without a warrant. Part of this operation later became known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Halliburton hired Cheney in 1995. He used contacts he had made during his time as secretary of defence to enrich himself. He earned more than $44 million from Halliburton alone, while drawing a public salary. Afterwards, he returned to public life as Vice President. Halliburton donated to his campaign and in return got numerous lucrative contracts, and is even said to have overcharged the U.S. for the prior services rendered.

The US imposed strict sanctions on Iraq, Libya, and Iran, allegedly for supporting terrorism. Yet during Cheney’s tenure at Halliburton, the company operated in all three countries.

Is there a better example of the neo-liberal “revolving door” between government and private enterprise than Dick Cheney and Halliburton?

Sri Lanka: A reflection on the similarities between 1971 and the current crisis


As the 75th anniversary of independence gathers steam, it will be important to reflect on the gradual erosion of checks and balances and the rule of law. No crisis, be it in 1953, 1971, 1983, the long civil war, or the current crisis, has seen a desire for accountability, good governance, commitment to social justice and economic competence from the three families that have ruled the country since independence. Instead, they have demanded more centralised and unaccountable power. Currently the Rajapaksa clan and several notable personalities from the UNP have combined to crush the demand for meaningful political change, using the draconian power enshrined in the Executive Presidential constitution, with such repressive legislation as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, whereby a person can be held without charge for up to two years.

This essay will look at the economic and structural reasons that lay behind to the 1971 JVP insurrection and led to the current economic crisis.


Like the current crisis, the economy in the seventies was characterised by sinking export income, growing foreign debt and escalating unemployment. Throughout the 1960s the size of the industrial sector remained static and hovered between 12 and 13 per cent, with the majority of income derived from the service sector and agriculture. In the export sector there was a fundamental dependence on agricultural products. The country was caught in a classic economic pincer movement and still is – declining export prices and rising export costs.

The country’s debt rose from Rs 95 million in 1957 to Rs 349 million in 1966, and again to Rs 744 million in 1969. Then as now, the money to pay for the foreign debt came from foreign loans and the running down of the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

Like today, foodstuffs made up a large part of county’s imports around 53 per cent.

Unemployment continued to rise in 1971. Out of a labour force of 4.4 million, 585,000 were officially unemployed. The economic authority of the time, Dr N.M. Perera, estimated the figure to be around 700,000.

Out of the 585,000 who were unemployed, 460,000 were in the rural areas and 250,000 were aged between 19 to 24. 167,000 of these had received a secondary education or went on to tertiary level.

The children of the era which began in 1956, the “beneficiaries” of the Official Languages Act, were not given the economic fruits promised to them. As a result of government repression in 1971, though never acknowledged by the country’s rulers, around 10,000 to 15,000 young Sinhalese were killed and tens of thousands more were imprisoned and tortured without due process. In contrast, according to the government, 61 civilians and 63 members of the armed forces lost their lives. The security forces’ extra-judicial killings and torture escaped scrutiny and impunity became the norm.

To prosecute the leaders, of whom I was one, the rule of law was trampled on, habeas corpus was waived and confessions gained by torture were admissible. The murder of countless thousands of Sinhalese youth by the security forces has never been examined.

The repressive playbook was set: an unwillingness to examine and fix structural issues, be they economic, political and judicial, accompanied by ever more restrictive and unaccountable measures and a marked reluctance to investigate crimes committed by the state.

An economic snapshot before the second coming of the Rajapaksas.

By the 1980s the economic direction changed, neo-liberalism became the mantra, and welfare provisions were gradually dismantled. Lanka now relied on tourism, garments, remittances and tea. National debt continued to rise

Billions of dollars were spent on vanity projects by the ruling clan: airports, stadiums, freeways, convention centres and a seaport, with no thought of who would need or use them.

Debt by the 2000s had risen to 79 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It continued to rise and rise, reaching 100 per cent just before Covid struck. The economic instability is exacerbated by the fact that the top 20 per cent of the population have 42 per cent of the Island’s income, whilst the lowest 40 per cent make do with 17.8 per cent.

Accession of Gotabaya and the latest Resurrection of Ranil

The economy contracted after the fall in tourism as a result of the 2019 Easter bombings, putting a strain on the country’s foreign currency reserves. Gotabaya Rajapaksa exacerbated the crisis by cutting taxes collected from a very small base, costing the country hundreds of billions of rupees. Next, he banned the import of fertilisers, partially due to the lack of foreign exchange to pay for them. Agricultural production declined at an alarming rate, in particular vital export earners like tea and rubber. The economy went into freefall, with a shortage of food, fuel, medicine, cooking gas and other essentials. Whilst the top 20 percent had the economic means to cope, for the vast majority the burden was catastrophic.

A spontaneous protest movement erupted which forced the resignation of the then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the installation of the veteran serial aspirant, Ranil Wickramasinghe. Instead of opening dialogue with the protestors and dealing with their legitimate demands, we got state repression and the scapegoating of the protestors. The same people who looted the public purse and were ineffectual economic managers are in charge of the recovery!  Solutions on offer do not deal with the heart of the problem: the mismanagement, corruption and wastage prevalent in the economic and political system. Those least able to pay will be forced to shoulder the burden, and the structural issues, if not addressed, will lead to another economic and political crisis.


It is vital that celebrations to mark the anniversary of independence be tempered by reflection on how the country got to the current crisis and how it should be fixed. Otherwise, we will be forced to relive past disasters. As 1971 and 2020 remind us, the failure to change the system comes with enormous costs, both at a personal and economic level. It is the least we can do for those thousands of young people being detained on spurious grounds and those nameless 15,000 young people who lost their lives at the hands of the state in 1971.

Sri Lanka: Repeal the PTA and Release Prisoners Held Under It

Voices for democracy are reverberating in many countries, where people’s rights and freedoms are being usurped by fundamentalist and autocratic regimes around the world. They are openly and covertly resorting to desperate attempts at repressing and destroying democratic movements. In some countries people have succeeded in thwarting them. In others the autocrats have prospered. In a few instances, people themselves have brought autocrats to power. Some recent examples were in the United States and Brazil. Sri Lanka and Iran are currently engaged in increasingly repressive measures against the democratic wishes of their respective populaces in order to prop up their increasingly untenable regimes.

Repressing dissent is not new in the history of Sri Lanka. The repressive dragnet has not only entrapped innocent peaceful protestors on the flimsiest of judicial excuses, but also those who have nothing to do with protests. Currently, protest leaders like the convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation, Comrade Wasantha Mudalige; the convenor of the Inter University Bhikkhus’ Federation, Venerable Galwewa Siridhamma Thero are still being held under the all-encompassing undemocratic and opaque Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). They have been held for close to three months so far.

Human Rights Organizations both local and overseas, Trade Unions and Civil Society Organisations have been asking for their release, but so far to no avail. Already many in the international community including the United Nations have condemned such attacks. When the European Union raised concerns about the regime’s use of the PTA, Sri Lanka assured them that only in extremely necessary cases that the PTA had been evoked, though many cases have shown that it isnot true. In Australia, the Victorian Trades Hall Council has expressed its solidarity with the victims of repression. Even the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has said so. The arrest, detention and continued incarceration of both the convenors from August 18 onwards under the PTA is described by the Commissioners as: “unreasonable and without justification.”

The draconian PTA in its embryonic stage came into the scene in 1972[1] under the coalition regime led by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, with the enactment of the Criminal Justice Commissions Act, which reversed the important tenets of the principles of natural justice – the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. With it commenced the degradation of the country’s criminal justice system. Following this, the UNP regime led by President J R Jayawardene first adopted the PTA in 1979 as a ‘temporary’ measure and included various provisions that contravened international legal standards.

It was made a permanent legal tool in 1982 and was used in 1988/89 period against the JVP and the LTTE, in 2019 following the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and now against the “Aragalaya” protest movement. This enabled arbitrary detention and torture repeatedly targeting political opponents of the regime, personal opponents of some of their leaders. and specifically, against the many in the non-majoritarian communities.

Due mainly to the international pressure, amending or repealing the PTA has been in political agenda for several years. In March 2022 it was amended via the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) Amendment Bill, but without touching the provisions that led to its arbitrary use of psychological and physical torture. The regime declared a de facto moratorium of using the PTA in March. This moratoriumcame to a griding stop inAugust this year with President Ranil Wickremesinghe using it to detain three student leaders of the protest movement.

People are demanding the government acts with transparency, accountability, and respects their rights. They also demand opportunities to define their identities, set precedents for inclusive political processes, and create a constitution that represent their aspirations. After Mr Wickremesinghe was selected and installed as President by a discredited parliamentary majority, the regime launched an all-out terror campaign to root out the protest movement. The sites that were used for peacefully assemble, express and protest were destroyed using political thugs and special forces. Almost every protest was attacked with tear gas, batons and clubs. In doing so, the regime also used the PTA and the Police Ordinance to hold those who have not committed any violence.

The recent protest wave, unlike earlier ones, was able to force the resignations of the Prime Minister, several Ministers and ultimately the President. The protestors like much of the country were demanding the government of Sri Lanka address the issues that gave rise to the current economic and political crisis, a crisis created by the political and business elite. This elite does not want to change their corrupt and incompetent behaviour and institutions; hence they need to find scapegoats to hide their lack of accountability and transparency. While holding protest leaders behind bars unjustifiably and under inhumane conditions, the ruling elite carries on with their authoritarian and corrupt practices. They are trying to force the burden of alleviating the debt (without reform) on those who can least afford to carry the burden, the people. This needs to be vigorously exposed and resisted.

Mr Wickremasinghe has wantonly and wilfully used the dictatorial powers vested in the executive presidency, buttressed by the emergency powers and the PTA, to supress dissent and arrest peaceful protestors in an attempt to root out their leaderships. In doing so, he is erroneously and cynically branding them, terrorists. These tactics have been used many times in the past, so as to direct people’s attention away from their incompetence and misdeeds. The regime is now trying to employ new tools of repression such as the Rehabilitation Bill, which can be arbitrarily used to arrest and hold any individual who has the potential to become a political adversary.

Individuals are imprisoned without judicial orders, under the ruthless PTA. They have been held sometimes for years. many without any legal basis to do so. So far, the regime has arrested and detained about 4000 people. Most of them were released on bail, but there are no justifiable reasons for their arrests in the first place as they have not violated any law of the country. Under the current unaccountable system that is in place, they are unable to challenge the use the PTA to prevent legitimate opposition tocurrent discredited government’s arbitrary and corrupt rule. They have done so, for the last 44 years and will continue to do so, unlessthese repressive legislative mechanisms and institutions are repealed and abolished.

The universally accepted basis for anti-terror legislation istoprevent terrorism. Terrorism is said to be about using threat, force and/or violence targeting civilians or a community of people for the purpose of spreading fear in pursuing political, ideological or religious causes. An apt description of what the current regime and the regimes in the past have done to their critics and some sections of the population. Like repressive regimes the world over they have illustrated that when the legitimacy of a regime is questioned on their unlawful, corrupt and unaccountable behaviour, they resort to scapegoating and repressive actions to prop up their increasingly illegal regimes. Sadly, Sri Lanka is not an exception.

Those held under such legislation like the current protestors, undergo huge losses in terms of family and resources for obtaining assistance including legal advice and advocacy. The PTA legalises torture, and judicial recognition of admissions made under torture. Any protections said to be available do not prevent torture or violation of an individual’s right for due processes.

Contrary to the expectations of the rulers and the bureaucracy such incarcerations could make some prisoners more popular. If these cruel and unaccountable processes and conditions help create a Sri Lankan Nelson Mandela, people will come to know that the regime who tried to demean, degrade and denigrate are genuine individuals who are fighting on behalf of the people; that they are trying to protect the fundamental right to express their views on how they are governed and hold their rulers accountable for their actions.

How can the actions, that led to pardoning individuals like those who abducted school children in Trincomalee for ransom and murder, particularly, doing so after being charged in a court of law? If there is no evidence to charge them in a court of law, the only assumption one could make is that they are been held as ransom for legitimising and maintaining or extending duration of the regime and power of the ruling elite.

Use of such legislation has misguided and brutalised society. It has not helped to heal divisions, ensuring dignity of and respect for people, or restoring a humane society. Some of those recently “pardoned” prisoners had been behind bars longer than the sentences they had been convicted for. For example, two prisoners sentenced to five years by the courts had served 14 years, and they were given “presidential pardons”! Rather they should have been set free, at the end of their periods of conviction.

How can the regime justify its so-called pardoning, after holding them illegally for a period more than they had been convicted for? This is nothing but abuse of power and a violation of human rights. A government that can appoint committees and commissions whenever and whatever happens in the country, has so far done nothing to look into what happened or why this happened. Are there any more to be given the so-called presidential pardon?

For example, A graduate engineer Sivalingam Arooran was pursuing his postgraduate studies at University of Peradeniya, when he was kidnapped in 2008. After subjecting to beatings, he was indicted five years later. He was recently bestowed the award for best Tamil literary novel “Athura-salai” (Hospital) and has been held for 16 years under the PTA. How he has been detained should be an open and wide discussion in society, as no human being deserves such treatment. How can any regime justify such illegal and undemocratic behaviour? About 120 Tamils are still being held in detention under the PTA. After the 2019 serial bombings, more than 200 Muslims were detained. What has happened to them?

We cannot say that pardoning and releasing those who have been held under the ignominious PTA will help Reconciliation. Such measures have caused irreversible harm to society. Releasing those who are being held under the PTA without any evidence orbeing charged in a court of law, is essential. It should not be done in a piecemeal and unaccountable way like Presidential pardons or amnesties, but with apologies and compensation. If they were held for questioning the legitimacy of a system, that has bought the country to economic ruin as amply evident today. It is ruling elites who should be brought under the ambit of scrutiny for their actions in causing this social and economic collapse.

In reality, the president and government are presiding over a powder keg of economic deprivation and sense of injustice experienced by the masses. Those in the protest movement are well aware that many of their fellow protestors have been arrested and are in prison. Their sense of injustice rankles when they see government-affiliated hoodlums who instigated and took part in attacks against peaceful protestors continue to enjoy their freedom and engage in their corrupt practices. The double standards being practiced continues to erode the credibility of the government and its leadership and can act as a lightning rod to mobilise future protests.

It is high time that the government take urgent measures to release all those held under the PTA, against whom thereare no evidence found and no charges laid. Also, not to use the unaccountable power of the presidency and an increasing suite of repressive measures and legalisation to further their increasingly illegitimate, corrupt and incompetent rule. All those held in detention under the PTA without being charged at a court of law should be released unconditionally,at least now!

[1]This was drafted using the South African Apartheid legislation and the British anti- Irish laws at the time, and repealed under the Criminal Justice Commissions (Repeal) Law, No. 12 of 1977.