Since the end of its civil war against the ruthless Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009, the Sri Lankan regime's own reputation for ruthlessness has grown. At its heart are the three Rajapaksa brothers - President Mahinda, defence secretary Gotabhaya ("Gota") and Economic Development Minister Basil - controlling a formidable military force that has quashed all resistance and committed many grave human rights abuses. For the Tamil and Muslim minorities, the end of the war has been marked by further discrimination and alienation. But for many who belong to the country's majority Sinhalese community, government restrictions on personal freedoms and the relentless militarisation of the island have seemed like a small price to pay for the prospect of national security and an end to the LTTE's brutal campaign for a separate state... until a disturbing incident last month provoked unease and dissent even in conservative Sinhalese circles.
On 8 October, in the Kolonnawa district of Sri Lanka's commercial capital, Colombo, Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, an adviser on trade union affairs to the Sri Lankan president, was killed in broad daylight during a shoot-out with a group led by another parliamentarian, Duminda Silva, a Colombo district MP who had worked closely with Gota Rajapaksa. (Silva's website states he was the Ministry of Defence's monitoring officer - something the MoD is now struggling to deny.) Premachandra and three of his supporters died on the spot. They had been shot repeatedly from head to toe with T-56 assault rifles. A police source said that at least 40 rounds were fired.
Two of the bullets ripped through Silva's skull. He was rushed to hospital and put on life support. A few days ago, the Sri Lankan press reported that he had been taken abroad for further treatment. During a parliamentary exchange the Leader of the House confirmed that no police statement had been taken from Silva because he had been judged unfit to speak. He added that Silva could not be prevented from leaving the country as "police had not identified him as a suspect". Gone is the man who might have been able to shed light on this shocking incident, a man alleged to have connections to the defence secretary and the Colombo underworld.
So what do we know? According to the police, violence between the two factions involved is both commonplace and common knowledge. But Premachandra and Silva were prominent politicians belonging to the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance, not gang members. And the timing of the shooting - just two hours before the close of local elections - also points to a political, not a strictly criminal, cause.
This is the stuff of gangster stories, of the Mafia and Camorra, of Martin Scorsese films. In Sri Lanka, it is just another day. Following the attack the Minister for Construction Wimal Weeranwansa - an ardent Rajapaksa supporter whose manufactured anti-UN protests have provoked much derision - told a public meeting that "when a politician goes with an underworld gang and shoots another politician dead, it is not good for the country". A breathtaking understatement that reveals the true nature of today's Sri Lanka.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has sought to create the illusion of a government that is strong and united, but this incident hints at the truth: Sri Lanka in is disarray. The Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan broadsheet newspaper, has described the country as 'Oppressed North, Lawless South', where top politicians like the all-powerful Gota display thuggish behaviour and criminal affiliations. These are not mavericks or exceptions. Several other politicians have been involved in similar incidents. Mervyn Silva, for instance, currently Deputy Minister of Highways - previously Deputy Minister of Mass Media & Information, once tied a government official to a tree for his alleged failure to attend a dengue fever prevention programme. His name was also mentioned in connection with the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.
Yet somehow, the Rajapaksa regime has managed to persuade the international community to believe in a very different Sri Lanka. At the Commonwealth heads of state meeting in Australia, just three weeks after the shooting, most leaders - with the notable exception of Canada - were happy to avoid discussing the human rights record of the country that will be hosting their meeting in 2013, whilst Sri Lankan representatives dismissed a UN war crimes report as "a travesty of justice and preposterous". They must have been delighted when the meeting's host, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, said that Sri Lanka had to deal with its human rights issues itself.
On 14 and 15 November, foreign governments again fuelled the Rajapaksa myth by wining and dining with Gota during the 'Galle Dialogue' sessions in Sri Lanka. The guest list included representatives from Canada, Australia, France and the UK who had been invited to discuss strategic co-operation in the Indian Ocean. This sort of PR stunt, aimed at bolstering Sri Lanka's international reputation, would have been a golden opportunity for countries to take a stand. But instead of boycotting the event, the international community showed once again that it has little to offer other than platitudes.
Within the country at least, dissent is beginning to take hold. Last month's shoot-out sparked a newspaper frenzy, with much speculation on whether the defence secretary has been protecting Silva. Familiar allegations of Gota's connections to well-known thugs and criminals have gained a new lease of life, particularly the nature of his relationship with Silva, which many believe is the reason why Silva has not been named as a suspect in the shoot-out investigation and was allowed to leave the country. And this time, dissenting voices like the Sunday Leader have been joined by others that normally support the government (or are too afraid to speak out) such as Colombo Page and the Daily Mirror.
Sadly, the response has been another media clampdown. Two Sri Lankan news websites featuring articles and footage related to the incident, Lanka e News and Lanka Newsweb, have been blocked - another sign that, even though the war ended more than two years ago, the Rajapaksa regime is not ready to release its iron grip. Dissenters are still routinely accused of being LTTE supporters and are threatened or harassed, if not worse.
Sri Lanka's Sinhalese elite is finally realising that the end of the war will not bring freedom, rights or accountability. It is time that the global community wakes up too.