I am writing this on the morning of July 22 looking at footage from the early hours of that morning showing soldiers and police attacking demonstrators, journalists and lawyers outside the presidential secretariat in Galle Face, Colombo. activists report on social networks that demonstrators and journalists were severely beaten with truncheons, threatened with being shot. Many tents and structures built by protesters over the past three months at this site have been destroyed. It was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first day in office, having been chosen as Rajapaksa’s new proxy president in a deeply corrupt vote organized by a Rajapaksa-controlled parliament.
It should be noted at this time that the protesters had already announced their intention to leave the site later in the day, responding to a court order which was itself punitive. Even by the standards of dictatorial abuse of power, violence was tactically superfluous. Instead, it was a message to protesters and the nation as a whole signaling how Wickremesinghe intends to govern, beginning with the brutal and malicious crackdown on peaceful dissent.
This can be confusing to an outside observer. Much of the commentary on Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa (the brothers who have dominated Sri Lankan politics in recent years) has focused on their family: corrupt strongmen who were responsible for the island’s many failures. If the nepotistic and violent Rajapaksas were all that was wrong with Sri Lanka, it seems their removal should have made things better. Instead, little has changed. This is for two reasons, both deeply related. The first reason is that the governance structure of Sri Lanka is deeply distorted around the overpowered office of the executive president, generating a flood of power-hungry despots. The sole purpose of this office is to abuse it. One of the calls of the current protest movement is to abolish the office entirely.
The second reason is that the Rajapaksas are far from the only nepotistic and violent political dynasty to hold executive power in Sri Lanka. There are three to note: the Rajapaksas, of course. The Bandaranaikes, whose patriarch invented the racist demagoguery that still characterizes Sri Lankan politics today, and whose statue overlooks the site of the protest which was brutalized last night. And there are the Wijewardenas, now led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s new executive president, who fills the post created forty years ago by his own once-removed first cousin, JR Jayawardena.
It was Jayawardena who also gave Sri Lanka the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has been used for four decades to arbitrarily detain and torture. Its targets, like the targets of the Sinhalese-Buddhist-dominated state of Sri Lanka generally have been in the post-colonial period, have been primarily members of the Tamil and Muslim minority populations, albeit a brutal instrument used as carte blanche by the state. Detainees are theoretically charged with “terrorism”, but often held without charge for years or decades. Journalists and writers have also been frequent targets of this and other legal instruments that the Sri Lankan state uses for repressive purposes. These are by no means the only mechanism available to the state – many journalists and writers have been killed, disappeared, assaulted and forced into exile. But in addition to the extrajudicial violence of the state, the cases under the PTA also demonstrate the depth of complicity of the various arms and organs of the state in the conduct of repression.
A clear example is the case of Ahnaf Jazeem, professor and poet. In 2019, after the Easter attacksthe government started arrest hundreds of muslims under the PTA, often on the most tenuous “evidence”, such as possession of Arabic texts. Jazeem, then 25, was arrested under the PTA in May 2020, after these outlandish ‘investigations’ led police to search his workplace, a private school where he taught and lived until lockdown of the pandemic. In his quarters, they found copies of his book of poems. It was his first collection, Navarasam, published a few years earlier. The poems were written in Tamil, which the Sinhalese police could not read and which, due to the Sri Lankan state’s ingrained racism, were therefore automatically suspect. Additionally, the book included art alongside a few poems, some of which depicted activists, illustrating (what the police couldn’t read as) anti-war poems. In this context, this was considered sufficient to imprison a poet without charge or trial. Early Sinhalese media reports did not even identify Navarasam as a collection of poetry: it was only described as an “extremist text”.
Jazeem was held in squalid conditions in the TID building under the PTA, handcuffed even while he slept, without access to a lawyer, for months. He has been accused of supporting terrorism, Easter bombers and ISIS through his teaching and his book. The criminal court had Navarasam hastily translated by the court’s sworn translators, resulting in a very literal word-for-word translation which was then sent to a group of child psychiatrists in a public hospital to determine if this text could influence children towards “the extremism”. psychiatrists report was fierce, but assertive enough for the magistrate’s purpose, citing several poems as glorifying violence and religious hatred.
Navarasam was then independently translated by writers and scholars working for the release of Jazeem with his pro bono legal defense team – which of course took much longer, as the correct literary translation of a book of poetry does not is not something that can be done in a few days to support a fabricated legal case. Here is an excerpt from one such back-translation, by Shash Trevett, of one of Jazeem’s poems, “The thundering Himalayaswhich the psychiatrists’ report specifically cited as promoting violence, leading Jazeem to spend a total of 19 months in custody.
If you are brave, you can defeat tragedies.
If you submit, failure will follow you.
If every minute of every day
you think anything is possible
you will own all the obstacles in your way
and the world will open under your feet.
A river is not designed to stand still all day.
He runs towards his desire
to become one with the sea.
Anything that will obstruct, will obstruct.
What must happen will happen.
Everything in its path will stay there.
as the river crawls ever forward.
A boulder might block his path
a dam could impede its course
but a river will always overcome obstacles
which impede its flow.
In order to achieve his goal
it will splash and spray.
He will gently dislodge the rock
and set a whole new course.
He encounters no obstacles with violence.
it does not drown them
or split them in half.
Instead, it rises above the rocks
and flows on its way.
If you were to be like a river
you can achieve anything you want.
Even if the Himalayas should stand in your way
you can easily take them apart.
During this period, more and more writers, activists, scholars and organizations took the floor suggest readings on the bookboth in the original and through its legitimate translations, confirming again and again that the text was explicitly anti-extremist, anti-war, anti-violence and, in fact, specifically anti-ISIS. Jazeem was finally released on bail in December 2021, but the case is still ongoing and he has to travel 180 km every month to sign to the Terrorism Investigation Department, although it is becoming more and more difficult due to the fuel shortage in Sri Lanka.
Jazeem was arrested and detained under the PTA without investigators or the magistrate even being able to Lily the book they considered damning evidence against him. The prosecution and its accomplices wallowed in this expeditious illiteracy; it is its defenders who have had to read poetry, produce back-translations, advocate for fair reading, and argue that truth even matters. In this case as in so many others, the Sri Lankan state’s utter indifference to reality in the service of power manifests itself as hypocrisy but is so deeply rooted in systemic conditions that it is perhaps worth be better to describe it as a perversion.
The genocidal “humanitarian operation” of the Rajapaksa in 2009 remains the nadir, but Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration is now fully engaged in the same rhetorical maneuver, citing ‘civil liberties’ to justify the violent onslaught of protesters and ‘political stability’ to explain its renewal of a cabal of Rajapaksa allies and Sinhalese-Buddhist hardliners to his new cabinet – the very government that had lost its mandate due to mass protests, whose resignations prompted Wickremesinghe to enter the government to save Rajapaksa’s throne as it wavered about to fall. Under this interim Rajapaksa administration, the rapid return of Gotabaya himself seems all too likely.