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Where o where have the guns gone and the law too

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This is the stuff history is made of. And in this once glorious country, history is made every day by clutches of ham-fisted politicians while the long arm of the law is hastily withdrawn to cover its shady eyes.

But this story surely is untold history—until now that is—and deserves a place in any modern version of the Mahawamsa along with histrionic tales of political shenanigans, bribery, corruption and egregious turpitude that should have sent any other nation into cardiac arrest.

If a struggling populace has held back the heart attack, it is only because droves of medical specialists have quit the country as swiftly as its one-time president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and they cannot trust Health Minister Rambukwella and his ministry cohorts to import dependable ‘emergency’ medicines to help them survive, instead of hastening their departure to the next samsara.

But who would not struggle to live to hear stories such as this which comes straight from the horse’s mouth—as it were—and revealed in Parliament, that so-called august assembly, told in a more august month?

The State Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara Tennekoon told MPs last week that 100 or more out of 150 of their species who had been issued guns between 1980 and 1990 had not returned their weapons. Some of them, said State Minister Tennekoon, had passed away.

While one might commiserate with their next of kin, it is hardly likely they took their State-issued weapons with them wherever they went.

So, what one might conclude from State Minister Tennekoon’s disclosure is that the guns are still somewhere around but with whom and where is the question. That information may not be known to the public, which, for almost 35 years was unaware of the brazen audacity of the so-called representatives of the people.

Besides that, here are lawmakers who have turned lawbreakers. Not that the present lot, some of whom do not hesitate to parade in a thin veneer of patriotic ardour when the occasion arises, are paragons of legal rectitude.

Still, there surely would be those in or outside parliament who would be aware of the names of the “Mighty Hundred” who are guilty of breaking the conditions under which these guns were issued and perhaps the law itself by retaining State property for which licences are required.

One condition would have been or certainly should have been, that these guns be returned to the issuing authority as soon as their term as an MP ceased.

One does not know whether any of the recipients of such deadly weapons are sitting members today. Given the time frame, it would have been those anarchic years that saw the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the landing of Indian troops in northern Sri Lanka to quell the LTTE insurgency.

That caused a violent reaction in the south with the then JVP and its armed battalion Deshapremi Janata Viyaparaya (DJV), unleashing armed attacks which many living in Colombo and elsewhere saw as a “reign of terror”.

Politicians, officials, journalists and others were killed or threatened with death as we were.

In my case they would have succeeded too had I not fortuitously changed my regular route home that Sunday morning, after a brief visit to the newspaper office where I worked, unaware that on a DJV claim they had shot me, army patrols were out searching for my body and my relatives were directed by police to also look at the identified bodies in the mortuary.

The UNP government of the day headed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa under a gathering siege, decided to fight fire with fire creating its own paramilitary groups. That was Sri Lanka’s southern ‘killing field’. But that’s another story.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was a cabinet minister at the time and would surely recall the traumatic times. He is probably the only minister-politician from those days in active politics today.

State Minister Tennekoon who disclosed the facts and figures in parliament in response to questions raised by Opposition MP Dulles Alahapperuma, would have enough information at hand to divulge all the 100 names of those who withheld the guns and thereby violated the conditions of issue.

Surely that list of names would be disclosed if this matter is pursued further, in parliament or outside under the Right to Information Law, because the people have a right to know what kind of laws the persons they elect make to govern the country.

What the public would also surely want to know is what efforts—if any—were made to recover those weapons. After 35 years, the Defence Ministry still cannot account for the missing weapons except say over 100 MPs to whom guns were released have not surrendered them.

So, if MP Dulles Alahapperuma had not raised the issue in the House, this whole sordid mess would have been conveniently buried and hidden from the public like so many other dirty deeds and deals.

What have the police been doing all these years when one-time MPs who had no right to retain the guns that they had been provided with during those anarchic days—and with good reason—decided to keep them?

The Defence Ministry obviously has a list of names of MPs who retained the weapons. Otherwise, the State Minister could not have said how many guns were still missing, though he did not name those who held back.

What an already irate public would wish to know is whether those MPs to whom weapons had been issued and were no longer entitled to them, were written to asking for the return of the weapons and if so, what their responses were—if any.

If there were no responses what action did the relevant authorities take to retrieve the weapons and was any legal action taken against the recalcitrant former MPs or
any of them who might have returned to parliament subsequently?

If not why? How many times have governments changed since those guns were first issued? Yet ministers in office still have the gumption to turn up in parliament and admit unashamedly that so many of them who paraded as representatives of the people, had broken the rules.

Or is that the same old game is being played year in and year out by governments in and governments out, because they are all birds of the same feather despite the different colours of their plumes?

That old saying about scratching each other’s back has undergone a redraft under the political game being played in this Resplendent Isle—you clean my feathers and I’ll clean yours.

The police are ever ready to fire tear gas and turn water cannons at ‘enemies’—both men and women—holding such dangerous weapons as cardboard placards. But when an irascible politician from today’s governing party threatens prisoners by holding a weapon to their heads or a former UNP MP firing his gun in the air inside a polling booth at Ladies College during the 1982 referendum called by President Jayewardene, nothing ever happens because they flock together.

Since January, 60 shooting incidents have been reported in the country in which 37 persons died and 30 wounded while the police were busy shooting their water cannons having abandoned the search for missing guns if ever there was one.

Sounds like the Gunfight at OK Corral played by the Barmy Army.

 

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later, he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

 

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