10 August, 2022


Crisis As Second Chance?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,

There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

Time will say nothing but I told you so…” ~ WH Auden (If I Could Tell You)

Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Admiral and Chief of Defence Staff, epitomised Impunity as swaggered into Fort Magistrate Court, white uniform gleaming, medals blazing. He had ignored three judicial summons, treating both the courts and the CID with unconcealed contempt. Protected by the president of the republic, and by his position as the highest ranking serving military officer, he clearly saw himself as way above the law.

It would all change in a few hours. 

Inside the courtroom, the admiral came into encounter with democracy at its best, where the law was blind to titles and positions, and concerned solely with justice. 

He emerged from that encounter in handcuffs, his cloak of impunity in tatters. 

That episode could have had a different ending, easily. The admiral could have swaggered out of that courtroom a free man, having trampled justice into submission. 

Justice prevailed in part because judicial independence was restored in 2015.

Sri Lanka always had brave and principled judges. Justice became scarce when political leaders were wedded to impunity and treated the law as a tool to reward acolytes and punish opponents. . 

In 2012, the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa summoned the members of the Judicial Services Commission for a meeting. The JSC, aware of its position as an independent body, refused to obey the summons. 

A few days later, Manjula Tilakaratne, High Court Judge and Secretary to the JSC was pistol-whipped by a gang of thugs in a busy suburb. No one was caught, no one was punished.

In January 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliamentary Select Committee set up by the then Speaker (and presidential sibling) Chamal Rajapaksa to conduct impeachment hearings against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was not properly constituted, and thus had no power to conduct an investigation against the CJ. Six days later the Appeal Court quashed the PSC’s findings. Two of the Appeal Court judges received death threats. Speaker Rajapaksa and President Rajapaksa ignored both rulings. The CJ was impeached, removed, and replaced with a man known as a legal underling of the ruling family, who had lied at an international forum about the fate of Prageeth Ekneligoda.

In maintaining judicial independence, the nature of the political landscape plays a crucial role. The executive might want to interfere with the judiciary. But how far will he/she be allowed to go? The Rajapaksas went all the way, and nothing and no one could stop them. 

The illegal impeachment against Shirani Bandaranayake was a primer of how Rajapaksa power worked in practice. 

October 31st 2012 – The Supreme Court’s decision refusing to give a free pass to the Divineguam Bill handed over to Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.

November 1st 2012 – An impeachment motion against the CJ, signed by 117 UPFA parliamentarians, handed over to Speaker Rajapaksa. 

November 15th 2012 – Speaker Rajapaksa appoints a Parliamentary Select Committee to hear the charges against the CJ. The CJ’s request for five weeks to prepare her defence refused by PSC.

November 23rd 2012 – PSC begins hearings. An opposition request for a pause in the impeachment proceedings during parliamentary vacation rejected. 

December 7th 2012 – PSC, sans its 4 opposition members, concludes its hearings December 8th 2012 – PSC hands over its impeachment report to Speaker. 

1st January 2013 – Supreme Court rules against the PSC

7th January 2013 – Court of Appeal quashes PSC’s findings.

10th/11th January 2013 – Parliament debates and approves impeachment by a majority.

13th January 2013 – CJ removed from office.

That was how the Rajapaksas obeyed court rulings.

 Maithripala Sirisena has not gone that far. He hasn’t because Sri Lanka is not the same place it was in 2012 or 2013. We can still backslide into those bad old days when the president was king and his word was the law, but it hasn’t happened, yet. 

How democracy is killed

Maithripala Sirisena wants a second presidential term. He unleashed an anti-constitutional coup because the yearning for power robbed him of his senses. That was the subjective factor. At an objective level, his actions constitute an attempt to reclaim for the presidency the powers it lost with the 19th Amendment. If that attempt succeeds, it will render the presidency omnipotent again, and reduce the legislature and the judiciary into mere appendages of a sovereign president.

The saga of Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne is a microcosm of this battle by the executive to regain control over the other branches of the government. The way that saga ended indicates that there is hope of rolling back the presidency’s power-grab, and restoring a degree of balance between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary restored.

In their book, How Democracies Die, Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt focuses on how elected autocrats kill democracies. They point out that it is common for anti-democratic demagogues to inch close to power even in advanced democracies. The real test of survival is twofold. Can would-be authoritarians be kept out of power? Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?

In Sri Lanka, democracy is being undermined by a man who was elected and functioned for a while as a democrat. Now the question is can the legislature, the judiciary and society prevent him from strangling democracy to death, one measure at a time?

So far, there’s hope. The manner in which the sudden transfer of Inspector Nishantha Silva was thwarted is indicative of how the larger threat to democracy can be defeated. When IP Silva was given his lightning transfer out of the CID, the faux government did not expect a backlash. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Voices were raised, from media and society (notably Lastantha Wickremetunga’s daughter, Ahimsa). IP Silva made use of a key democratising structural change effected by the 19th Amendment – independent commissions. He complained to the Police Commission. The Police Commission wrote to the IGP, objecting to the transfer. In a stunning move, the IGP revoked the transfer. 

Abuse of power, absolute impunity, and overweening arrogance are integral to any presidential system, because its model is absolute monarchy. Kings don’t like to feel hemmed in. They appear sane, as long as they are allowed to have their unimpeded way. That changes at the first obstacle. When an executive presidency is installed in a country with an ontological memory of absolute monarchy, such as Sri Lanka, the danger of a president seeing himself/herself as an omnipotent and infallible sovereign is infinitely greater.

Power is the great corrupter. Possessing it or yearning for it can make even the most democratic and principled leader become the antithesis of his/her former self. This can even happen to leaders who through their commitment to democracy have achieved political beatification, such as Aung San Suu Kyi. If she can fail, what of Maithripala Sirisena – or Ranil Wickremesinghe or Sajith Premadasa?

“It takes a village to raise a child,” says an Igbo and Yoruba proverb. It takes a country of citizens to build and protect a democracy. That is why we need rules, regulations, separation of power, devolution of power, an independent judiciary, a depoliticised military, and above all, a citizenry unwilling to bow to power. 

In despairing and hopeful times

Emperor Caligula is said to have denounced the unpopular deeds of his predecessors in his first major speech to the Senate. The senators ruled that there should be an annual recitation of his speech. As Mary Beard points out, “It looked like a tribute to the new ruler’s oratory; in reality it was an attempt to hold him to his pledge of good behaviour.”(Confronting the Classics – Traditions, Adventures and Innovations.) The senatorial ploy failed abysmally, as history records.

When kings go back on their positive promises, the reason is not a genuine loss of memory, but the belief in monarchical infallibility. ‘King can do no wrong’ is part of the credo of monarchical absolutism. Whatever the king says and does is right, even if it is the antithesis of what he said and did yesterday. Similar tragic-comedies can ensue, when an executive president begins to see himself/herself as monarch.

There is plenty of recorded evidence proving that both Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa knew that post-19th Amendment, a president couldn’t dissolve parliament at will. Here is Mr. Sirisena celebrating that change and taking the credit for it in an interview with The Hindu: “Firstly I succeeded in getting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed in parliament… Earlier the president could dissolve the parliament after completion of one year of parliament, but now under the provision of the 19th Amendment it has been extended to four and a half years.” 

And here’s Mahinda Rajapaksa lamenting that change in a BBC interview soon agter his SLPP’s won the February 2018 LG poll. “We ask for a general election… There is a small problem in the Constitution. The President can’t do it. Because there is a clause preventing him from dissolving until after four and a half years. If the government gets together it can be changed.” (Translation mine – TG).

So both leaders violated and continue to violate the constitution in full knowledge of their crime.

Leaders who have neither shame nor justice can plummet to the lowest of depths, because for them everything is permitted. Today those leaders are Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Post-2020, it can be the next president, whoever he is. The battle is not about individuals. The battle is about soul of Sri Lanka. Do we want a country where the president is sovereign, monarch in all but name? Or do we want a country where no one holds absolute power; and neither the executive nor the legislature can debase the judiciary by turning it from the last refuge of the powerless to the first tool of the powerful? 

Do we want power run mad, or do we want the sanity that can come only with limits?

Mr. Sirisena constitutes a danger to Lankan democracy, but not the main danger. He is too weak politically, too ally-less. His failure to ensure protection for the Admiral will make other state employees think twice about obeying blatantly unconstitutional orders. His alliance with Mahinda Rajapaksa is tenuous at best. Within the SLFP, a rebellion is brewing against him. He is a man whose options are dwindling by the hour. 

Mr. Rajapaksa is another matter. He has a family and a party behind him, and a committed vote bank. He also has a key foreign ally in China. The decision to hastily approve two deals (with a combined worth exceeding 50 million dollars) with China to upgrade Colombo port is indicative of this strategic alliance. Since China has lost Maldives for now, greater importance would be accorded to the task of turning Sri Lanka into a total dependency (with the UNP, it will be only a partial dependency). In turn for accepting the rising hegemon’s tutelage, money is bound to flow into Rajapaksa coffers. 

Unlike Mr. Sirisena, Mr. Rajapaksa is yet to say that he will abide by court decision. He wants an immediate election, not to strengthen democracy but to end it. He believes that an immediate election (and one held under his control) will enable him to win a two-thirds majority. Then he can amend the constitution, contest the presidency in 2020, and be king again. 

What will he do, if those dreams are threatened by Maithripala Sirisena?

Already there are attempts to incite racism. Attempts are being made to depict the TNA’s valuable contribution in defence of the constitution and democracy as a national threat. Soon the Muslim parties will receive similar treatment. In the coming weeks, we might hear more of the farcical assassination attempt against Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. And there might be sudden outbursts of violence in the North or the East, the sort of incident which can be used to ignite minority phobia, addle Sinhala-Buddhist minds with fear and give credence to the perennial Rajapaksa slogan that ‘motherland is in danger’ and only Mahinda and Gotabhaya can save it. 

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Latest comments

  • 20

    Wonderful article. I believe MR knows well that Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism alone will not help because the Sinhalese Buddhists are not totally for MR. Quite many Sinhala Buddhists be it Urban or Rural are aware of MR’s antics of selling Sinhala Buddhist Patriotism and are vary about it and more so after the recent display of usurping power. MR with the dissolution of the Parliament until it was temporarily halted by Courts, MR started to sell the War and trying to instill fear about the Sinhalese Buddhist losing the country to the Tamils because the UNP had deals with the TNA to grant Federalism. Then obviously MR was shown the balance of the divided Sinhala Buddhist vote, MR quickly changed his game plan and have now started to woo the Tamils and the TNA.

    As a first step Sivajilingam who was arrested for trying to celebrate VP’s B’day was released in no time with a special order from the Prsedent’s office. This was followed by allowing the Nothern Public to openly celebrate VP’s B’day without any hindrance. Next they have released 105 suspected LTTE members and God forbid if the UNP had done this. I am happy for the release as they have been in incarceration without being indicted for a very long time. Like all other intrigue where MR is the source, be it the assassination attempt or the discovery of a supposed loophole in the Constitution to usurp power claiming that he has the majority support in Parliament, although unable to prove it, will, if in the event the Courts hold that the dissolution is legal to close the Camps in the North and release all land held by the Forces and promise autonomy to barter for the Tamil vote. This MR will do without any shame, because MR knows very well that he can not win with only a section of the Sinhala Buddhist vote, ignoring the minority vote.

    • 3

      TG I don’t want to waste time reading your diatribe, but here a couple of additions to your timeline
      April 1, 2015: Ranil Wickramasinghe and his Kabal sent the Supreme Court a version of the 19th amendment different from that was gazetted for people’s opinion. And in the said amendment the 33 (2)c was inserted so that Supreme Court will not object to the repeal of the article 70 on the ’78 constitution.
      April 28 2015 Hashed up 19th amendment was rushed through parliament shouting down P. Gunawardhana who wanted to debate the said repeal, and shouting down the members including Vasu who wanted the hashed up amendment gazetted, so that people can seek judicial review.
      C’mon TG whoever you are, don’t think we the people are idiots.

      • 8

        Hami from wanni you are not the “people”. You are vermin.
        (a collective name for wild animals that spread disease or generally cause a nuisance, especially rats and other rodents. )
        Also you represent the 2 legged knock-knees type that cause Leptospirosis. TG is brave to sign her real name. While you continue to cross dress inside your closet full of hang-ups.

        • 0

          Craig Craig Craig, tell me, my friend who is Tisaranee Gunesekare, show me a picture. Do google her and try to find out, I know more than I let know.

  • 7

    JR Jeyawardena made the judiciary pliable by locking out judges, Rajapakse was not second to JR as the author has outlined above.

    Sirisena/Rajapakse combo (two brains are better than one?) will try: If the price is right the judiciary might comply.

    This is how “Appeh Aanduwa” is progressing. God save Sri Lanka from these rascals.

  • 9

    I think that each Sri Lankan in this time of crisis must put the national interest above petty personal interest… No communism.. No party politics, no ethnicity, no religious hatred, no personal interest should be given priority in this time of crisis. This beautiful country with huge human potential to develop is put under unnecessary stress… Utterly man made problem.. MS did not have skills and talent to foresee this problem before he took actions… He sacked pm without anticipating consequences.. He dissolved Parliament without anticipating the consequences.. In short he misused his power at the expense of the national interest..
    How money millions we have lost by now.. Billions.. How many tourists cancelled their bookings. How much is lost for business. Above all Sri Lankan reputation as decent country with good high level of literacy .. Now all are gone by the action of a few politicians …
    When will these people be punished for people with lives of 22 millions.
    when will we put the country in order..
    when we will keep law and order ..
    God protect Lanka.

  • 7

    A well distilled article. The sequence of events leading up to the CJ’s illegal impeachment is horrifying.

    Many of us have forgotten that, “the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliamentary Select Committee set up by the then Speaker (and presidential sibling) Chamal Rajapaksa to conduct impeachment hearings against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was not properly constituted, and thus had no power to conduct an investigation against the CJ. Six days later the Appeal Court quashed the PSC’s findings”. But Rajapakse & Co ignored these court rulings and nobody dared to question them.

    • 5


      What about the Reports of the two Judges of the Commonwealth who were entrusted to report on the removal of CJ SB. Kamalaesh Sharma the Sec of the Commonwealth hid the reports obviously paid out by MR.

  • 2

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  • 6

    First the PEOPLE must understand that this “CRISIS” is not out of a “Natural Disaster” but a well “PLANNED” a “HATCHED PLOT” , in short a “JUNTA” operation. Don’t you remember, how this “MR & Co. Inc.” proclaimed a “CALENDAR” to establish a “Government” and kept on changing the dates from one “Poya” to another . For how long they have been doing it, since the start of the “Nugegoda Man” with the slogan “Bring Back Mahinda”. Leave aside the PEOPLE, the “DUMB” ruling “Yahapalanaya” “COALITION” led by MY3 & RW completely LOST their “Mission” and “Vision” and started a “Business Venture” completely ignoring all precepts of “Yahapalanaya” in handling the Governing functions. This “CLIMATE” and “ENVIRONMENT” provided a very fertile ground to sow the seed of “Bring Back Mahinda”. Unfortunately, but fortunately for the country, this “MR & Co.Inc.” driven by “Itchiness” to grab power got too smart to “Hatch a Plot” with MY3. This “MR & Co. Inc>” was very confident , but very wrong in thinking that things would be smooth sailing as was in February 2017. They little realized that the “environment” changes and today they themselves are entangled in a “CRISIS” of their own creation. This is the “POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT” the PEOPLE have to study, understand, and be ALIVE to take appropriate action when the time comes. Till then, let peace prevail. This PEACE must be made use of by the PEOPLE to forget all political shades, creed, caste and think of a way to make a CHANGE to steer the country to glory.

  • 4

    Tisaranee Gunasekara ~ “Crisis As Second Chance?”
    It is not a ‘crisis’. It is a coup d’état in progress. The Supreme Court cannot use these words. Quo Vadis?
    We have battered and bruised donkeys, dressed clumsily as horses, in the race.
    The owners will not let any real horses, mules or healthy donkeys to compete.
    Horse-trading of donkeys are held in Dubai and/or Singapore. The donkeys often fly there to find out the market trends.
    Where the hell are we?

  • 1

    Anglicans with Sinhal buddhist naems do not know it. Long before that, they wanted HARVARD Scholars to explain what democracy is, 2600 years of barberic and savage Sinhala people knew what even animal rights were and they offered sanctuary even to birds flying over the island. Now we want those HArvard Scholars to explain democracy to asian barbarians. In Sri lanka, the democratic pillars are Internatioal community, UNHCR, MCC, INGOs, NGOs like Dambara AMila, Sarath JaYASOORIYA AND 38 OF THEM PROBABLY INCLUDING TG.

  • 5

    Sirisena in 2015 ( and the UNP) made many promises. The most important among these was a pledge to abolish the executive presidency. After tasting the fruits of the Presidency, he not only forgot that promise but wanted another term. This was predicted by the wise Sobitha Thera and continued to warn us. Sirisena’s recent antics have now reduced him to a state when he cannot possibly become the President again.
    He can redeem himself, however, if he now takes steps to abolish or greatly reduce the powers of the Presidency. The UNP will have to go along or be shown up as hypocrites.

  • 0

    Madam, Thank You so much. You are one of the few left in whom we depend in telling the facts. What ever little sanity prevailing now is only because of journalist like you. Madam if you dont mind please send this personally to Laksiri , PhD in alternate facts.( FYI : He may need some help with reading.)

  • 0

    Wanni I pity you . Poor sod. Looks like you are the lone wolf. You must be so desperate to pick Vasu and Gunawardhana to make your case. Ask disheveled Vasu now and he may not even remember what he said the day you quoted. Tisaranee is well known to the Lankan public who are in search of real facts. There has been plenty of her essays published in news media.We well know who she is?? and how she looks like???? May be for a guy who watches only “MR media” (like Trump and fox news) and listens to Vasuuuuu, she may be a stranger. What about DJ and Laksiri who dosent reside in Lanka , you may be familiar with their names?????

  • 0

    ear TG ,
    Go back to what you said in before Jan 2015 and your dictum applies equally well
    The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,

    There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

    Time will say nothing but I told you so…”
    We said this in Jan 2015 but you were inveterately opposed to that
    But now you try to maintain that you are wise.
    This is the President people like you ushered in with all those hackneyed theories.

  • 0

    Dear friends, Please wait for the Supreme Court verdict. This is specially for Thisarinee.

  • 1

    Ravindra Wijegunaratne is not a war hero at all, but an economic assassin. He is an utter shame to real war heroes, who even does not have a good home to live their disabled life. Ravindra Wijegunaratne, whilst in the capacity of Chief of Defence Staff, without critically advising the President, whole heartedly backed in President’s proposal of purchasing of a Russian warship for double the price of its actual value, through a Rs. 20 billion deal, just get his extension granted as Commander of the Navy. This is despite three different committees that were appointed at three different instances and respectively headed by Rear Admiral Dharmendra Wattewa, Vice Admiral Sirimevan Ranasinghe (present Commander of the Navy) and Rear Admiral Neil Rosairo at different stages never approved to go ahead with the old and rusty and certainly would have been a ‘white elephant ship’.
    Ravindra Wijegunaratne took in favor of the procurement and his reason being, the requirement to protect foreign naval ships when they make a port of call. Could there have been a more idiotic justification from someone of his stature and rank unless have a personal interest in the deal? Doesn’t his bit of brain, at least understand that, we have more priorities than that in a third world country immersed in a never ending and huge loan trap. If his proposals was to allocate that much of huge money for a housing scheme for war heroes, that would have been quite reasonable.
    If the purchase of the Russian ship at US$ 195 million is a foregone conclusion, and if selling the Mattala Airport at around $ 200 million is what it takes to pay for the ship, would the future generation be kind enough when judging the handling of the economy by these responsible officers at the top ?

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