I posted this article on Open Salon on March 26 2011. I will be rewriting the article to bring it up to date in the light of recent developments in Sri Lanka and Ireland.
Terrorism, Business, Politics and Ordinary Decent Criminals
There are fuzzy boundaries between war, terrorism, crime, politics and business. Politicians use terms like “war on terrorism”, “war on crime”. “war on drugs”. Some might believe that this is part of a plan to militarise civil society. “Freedom fighters” easily morph into criminals as they resort to bank robberies and drug dealing to raise funds for the cause. Many once considered as terrorists later take their place in government.
On the right of the picture, a young Martin McGuinness at an IRA funeral
While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict.
IRA leadership 1972 – Martin McGuinness on the left of the picture.
Raids on illegal distilleries in Ireland uncovered bottling and capping machinery and high- quality copies of brand labels. Many of the products were designed for use in pub optics. The IRA took the production of counterfeit spirits so seriously that it even had a quality control unit.
Martin Cahill with a truly criminal wrap-over hair style
The Irish gangster Martin Cahill was the subject of two feature films. In The General he was played by Brendan Gleeson. In Ordinary Decent Criminals he was played by Kevin Spacey. Cahill was involved in petty crime from an early age and turned to armed robbery after stealing arms from a police station. O’Connor’s jewelers was forced to close, with the loss of more than one hundred jobs after Cahill stole €2.55 million worth of gold and diamonds from the store at Harold’s Cross.
In 1994, a gunman, who was armed with a .357 Magnum, shot Cahill in the face and torso, jumped on a motorbike and disappeared from the scene. The IRA said that it was Cahill’s “involvement with and assistance to pro-British death squads which forced us to act”. One theory is that John Gilligan, who was convicted of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin (also shot by a motorcyclist in a hit similar to the murder of Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge), had Cahill killed because he was trying to get a slice of Gilligan’s drug profits.
Gilligan effectively had the complicit support of the Dublin IRA and had members of the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) in his pay. He was importing enough cannabis to make everybody rich. He was even importing small arms which he passed on to republicans as sweeteners.
The rate of murders in the Irish Republic that can be attributed to organized criminals, all involved in drugs, has trebled since the period before the murder of Veronica Guerin.
The Murphia on the Costa del Crime
The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.
The dissident republican group, the Real IRA, has been responsible for murders, attempted murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community. In 2009, the Army Ordnance Corps dealt with 61 live bombs and 140 hoax bombs. In 2010, they dealt with 40 live bombs, mostly in Dublin.
Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein
The Provisional IRA funded its activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. McGuinness was a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland until he resigned to run for the presidency of the Irish Republic. He visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation. In the Republic’s last general election, Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein topped the poll in Louth, in the north-east, with more than 15,000 votes. Sinn Fein, which used to be seen by voters in the Republic as the proxy of the Provisional IRA, has scored its best-ever election result in the Republic with 14 seats and will be a major Opposition force in the new Dáil. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.”
The Tamil Tiger Mafia
In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in the early days on robberies and extortion. Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking.
Crime Pays and so Does War
There were those on “the other side” who profited from the conflict continuing for so long. As in Ireland, Sri Lankan politicians and businessmen are accused of taking commissions to do favors. War is a profitable business.
Former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, fought the presidential election in January 2010 on a platform of rooting out corruption and nepotism. An Asian Tribune article, published on November 22, 2009, was entitled “Every bullet fired at innocent Tamil civilians fetched kickbacks to Gen Fonseka family”. One of the charges against Fonseka was that he was involved in corrupt arms deals with his son-in-law, Danuna Thilakaratne. Thilakeratne’s company Hicorp, was involved in the purchase of MIGs from Ukraine, uniform and telecommunication equipment from China, food rations from Malaysia and tank transporters from Russia. Hicorp also supplied ration packs, which were past their shelf life and bought cheaply from a Malaysia. Thilakaratne started many new businesses in Sri Lanka, such as a beauty salon at the Galle Face Hotel, as well as a salon in Las Vegas, and a communication company in London. He invested millions of dollars in the American and Sri Lankan stock markets. Where did he get this money? After police investigated his bank accounts, Thilakaratne fled the country. Fonseka is in Welikada prison.
The Asian Tribune has also accused Fonseka of selling off army land rovers for his own profit. When Fonseka was Army Commander, he forced the Army Board to condemn many serviceable army vehicles which found their way to Dhanuna’s friend , who bought them cheap. The Asian Tribune published this man’s name and address. I will not repeat it here as he knows where I live and, indeed, has been an uninvited guest in my home.
Police and Crime, Criminal Police
One incident (among many) in 2009 highlighted the danger of people’s frustration at police impunity turning into mob outrage and vigilante “justice”. Two young men were killed by police at Angulana. Local people described the Angulana police post as more like a brothel-cum-tavern than a police station. Nine police officers from Angulana police station were arrested and a court heard that they had been drunk on the night of the murders. Eyewitnesses testified that armed police officers blindfolded the young men and took them away in a jeep on the night of 12 August. The two victims, handcuffed and with blue polythene bags over their heads, were bundled into the jeep by the police, one of whom was armed with a T-56. One of the accused policemen admitted to his uncle (another policeman) that he had shot and killed the two victims.
Clint Eastwood was LTTE leader Prabakharan’s hero and seems to have many fans in the Sri Lanka police, at least in his Dirty Harry persona.
The Sri Lankan government’s “war” on the underworld led to key underworld figures being “taken out’”. Summary executions by shadowy death squads during the JVP uprising in 1989, evoked memories of the British government’s “shoot-to-kill policy” in Northern Ireland. The phrase “culture of impunity” is frequently heard in Sri Lanka. No one wants to live in a country where the police can kill anyone they want, including private-grudge enemies, and get away with it. There is a danger of police impunity being mirrored by vigilante justice by sections of the public.
The Angulana incident garnered a lot of publicity, and some have taken comfort from the fact that police were arrested and brought before a court. They were found guilty and sentenced to death (the death penalty is still on the books but never used). Yet hundreds of other incidents around the country may go unreported. The lawyer and human rights campaigner Basil Fernando had high hopes in 2003 of the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which included the setting up of a National Police Commission (NPC). He described the NPC as “one of the most extraordinary mechanisms created in Sri Lanka to check human rights violations.” Unfortunately the NPC has been allowed to wither and die, with its powers delegated to officials of various ministries, including defense.
Banalisation of Violence
Eric Meyer wrote in his book Sri Lanka: Biography of an Island about a “society confronted by the banalisation of violence. Meyer does not attribute this only to the deadening effect of thirty years of terrorism, brutal conflict and emergency legislation. He traces a deeper malaise. He sees the frustration felt by a large part of Sri Lankan society: “arrogance and indifference of the capital’s bourgeois microcosm, the corruption found in the administration, the Macchiavellism of the country’s leaders, and the frustrations of the younger generation faced with a competitive society that only parsimoniously concedes them a place”.
These tensions are exacerbated by the contradictions imposed by Buddhism being the dominant philosophy. Buddhism’s emphasis on harmony and non-violence “does not permit the verbalisation and exteriorsation of impulses that brutally and suddenly erupt into frenzy, condoned by the silence of the authorities”.
Meyer also sees in Hinduism and Catholicism ambivalent strains that contribute to a proclivity to violence: “The diverse religious traditions provide the people with the means to confront and combat violence, yet they tend to diabolise the adversary, stripping him of his human qualities”.
Nevertheless, whatever ambivalence may have been generated by Buddhism, Hinduism and Catholicism, they have been in Sri Lanka for a long time and violence does seem to have got measurably worse in recent times. According to John Richardson, communal violence ranked low among categories of violence in the immediate post-independence years. Two events reported in 1948 and 1952, were Sinhalese-Muslim and Tamil-Muslim clashes. From 1953, incidents of communal violence began to be associated with rising Sinhalese Buddhist political movements. Initially, clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils were similar to Northern Ireland turf wars over tribal marching.
The real descent into political instability came in three phases: the first from 1955 to 1961 over affirmative action measures for the majority Sinhalese; there was a second phase of confrontation, often leading to violence, in the 1970s, culminating in the riots of 1977; the most violent period of ethnic conflict began in 1983, when the killing of soldiers by Tamil terrorists led to horrific anti-Tamil riots involving the hacking to death and mass rape of innocent bystanders.
Broadcaster and journalist Vincent Browne wrote of the Irish situation: “Just think of the thousands of lawyers, accountants, bankers, stockbrokers and others who must have colluded in criminality over the last decade or so, in fraudulent accounting, in fraudulent trading, in fraudulent preference, in insider dealing. And such is our public culture that not one of them has been charged with a crime and, very probably, not one of them will go to jail.”
Irish people have expressed their despair at the ballot box at the crime wave and the corrupt complicity of politicians, bankers and business men.
Have thirty years of conflict desensitised Sri Lankans to violence and criminality?