By Rajan Philips –
June 24 was Poson Poya Day. The Daily Mirror and the Daily News editorially reminded Sri Lankans of the significance of Poson, the most important Buddhist festival after Vesak. It was on this day, 2300 years ago, King Devanampiya Tissa encountered Emperor Ashoka’s son Arahat Mahinda in the jungles of Mihintale. Their encounter led to Sri Lanka’s first formal religious conversion of the King himself and ministered by the missionary prince from India.
The Daily Mirror editorial called on its readers “to contemplate on the teachings of the Buddha,” as Sri Lankans struggle through all the horrors of 2021, and tried to end on a calypso note that Sri Lankans today should do their part so that future generations can proudly sing (with Harry Belafonte) – “Oh, island in the sun; Willed to us by our fathers’ hands; All our days we will sing in praise; Of your forests, waters and your shining sand.” The Daily News was more solemn, drawing attention to the symbiosis between Buddhist ethos and the protection of the environment, and calling on Sri Lankans to not only protect their much blessed island but also save the accursed planet.
Poya Day Pardons
Presumably unbeknownst to either newspaper, Sri Lanka’s President was thinking of his own contribution to mark Poson in this year of horrors. The President chose to pardon and free Duminda Silva from the life sentence he was serving for murder. Albeit Mr. Silva was one of 93 prisoners who were pardoned that day including 16 LTTE detainees. But his pardon, although not unexpected, came as national shock given its daring and its timing. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) lost no time in requesting the President to confirm if due process had been followed in the granting of pardon, including a report by High Court Trial Judges, the Attorney General’s opinion, and the recommendation of the Minister of Justice.
It was left to Sumana Premachandra to strike a personal and religious note and reprove the “injustice” of granting presidential pardon “on the most auspicious day of ‘Poson Poya’.” Sumana Premachandra is the widow of former SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra who was killed by gunfire during the Local Government election on 8 October 2011. Duminda Silva and four others were convicted of that crime and given life sentences by the Colombo High Court in 2016, which was convincingly upheld by the Supreme Court two years later in a landmark ruling on election violence including murder.
This is the second pardon given by the current President in less than two years. The first, was in March 2020 at the onset of Covid-19, when he pardoned the former Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians, including three children, in Mirusuvil in April 2000. That conviction and death sentence were also affirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court in 2019. Unlike Sergeant Ratnayake, Duminda Silva is wealthy with influential family connections. He is also a Catholic, just like Jude Jayamaha whom President Sirisena pardoned in November 2019, in his last days in office.
Jayamaha was facing death sentence for brutally murdering a Swedish-Sri Lankan teenage girl, and his conviction and sentence were also affirmed by the Supreme Court. There was national outrage then, and Sirisena made it worse by clumsily lying that a Catholic Bishop had pleaded on Jayamaha’s behalf. This time, a Catholic excuse is unlikely, so the reason for pardon will likely be Poson compassion. But what about mercy and compassion for others, the four convicted and sentenced along with Duminda Silva, not to mention hundreds of others who have no one to pull any strings for them?
What is shocking is the impudence behind this pardon. Perhaps, it should not be shocking. Clearly, the President gives far greater weight to his personal IOUs than what he owes the country. It may be that to his mind, it is the country that owes him everything, not the other way around. After all, he gave up his US citizenship for the sake of hapless Sri Lankans. And issuing any and all pardons is a key part of presidential powers. That was the short-lived Trump Doctrine in America and it is finding application in Sri Lanka. Institutionally, it is possible that the government has been shaken by recent court rulings that went against the government, and wanted to get Duminda’s pardon out of the way before new insurmountable roadblocks came up.
The Supreme Court delivered politely wrapped strictures on the Port City legislation, after government lawyers made fools of themselves trying to defend the indefensible. And the government was forced to backtrack on the Bill. More damning was the ruling of the Court of Appeal in granting bail to former CID Chief Shani Abeysekera, after rejecting the Attorney General’s spurious excuses which had been shamefully marshalled to please political masters. A month earlier, on May 21, the Supreme Court had delivered another broadside against police brutality and custodial killing in its ruling on the fundamental rights case of 17 year old Sandun Malinga who was fatally beaten while in police custody in May 2014.
The government could not have missed the judicial writing on the wall. It must have realized that the recommendation by the wayward Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimisation directing the Attorney General to reappeal to the Supreme Court for a review of Duminda Silva’s conviction, is not a serious proposition and will only backfire, given the current trend of court rulings. The surer way to fulfill the President’s personal IOU is to issue a presidential pardon on the Poson Poya Day. ‘Look before you leap’ has never been this government’s maxim. Leap first and see later is its modus operandi. Even Poya days are not spared from its leaps.
If you remember the pre-poya/poya holidays of old, you would have noticed that it was on pre-Poson day, Wednesday, June 23, that Ranil Wickremesinghe returned to parliament as the UNP’s sole National List MP, nearly one year after his and his Party’s electoral rout. If Mr. Wickremesinghe and his followers were thinking that returning to parliament on the day before Poson was a sublimely auspicious political omen, they must surely feel let down by what the President did the very next day of Poson Poya.
Before being overshadowed by Duminda Silva’s presidential pardon, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return to parliament has been generating quite a number of mixed reactions. There have been welcoming anticipations which have been followed by positive comments on his first day speech (inaptly called by some as ‘maiden speech’ – there is nothing maiden about him after 40 years as MP). Those who welcome him believe that RW has the experience and the wisdom to contribute positively to help the country steer the way out of the dystopic mess that the present government has created. The same charitable voices carry no small amount of caution that Mr. Wickremesinghe should stay away from his old games, short or long, and help parliament to collectively do its job of checking and balancing – not only executive power, but also executive incompetence and inaction.
On the other hand, there have been cynical commentaries and suspicions that RW is returning to parliament to become Leader of the Opposition again in connivance with his longtime and convenient political foil, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current Prime Minister without any 19A powers. And there have also been strong and justifiable political criticisms that his return to parliament will only disrupt the Opposition, that it is intended to divide the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) by poaching SJB MPs to rejoin the old UNP, and will ultimately make matters easier than they should be for the government.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Wickremesinghe, whose last job was as Prime Minister under the 19th Amendment, contended that “the (current) Prime Minister and the cabinet should take over the responsibility of controlling the pandemic.” There was no reference to the President or the 20th Amendment in the speech. Whether it is the typical RW snub of someone who used to call him “Sir” in the past and has since become President, or whether he was making a constitutional point, is irrelevant given the grave situation the country is in.
Yet, as table talk goes, there are two Sri Lankan Presidents, Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who used to address Ranil Wickremesinghe as “Sir”, before they became Presidents. That RW was unable to work with (let alone ‘manage’) the former is much of the sad story of yahapalanaya. What he is going to do with the latter, in his new role as a lone ranger for the grand old party, was getting to be table talk in the Colombo political circles. That was until the President sprang the Duminda pardon, under a full moon, on an unsuspecting country.
If the presidential pardon has been a shocking experience to whatever moral sensibilities there are still in the country, the return of Ranil Wickremesinghe is a fitting anticlimax to the degenerative state of the country’s politics. Politics today has no pleasing prospect and is full of swarming dullards. Sri Lanka’s post-independence history is replete with missed opportunities by some very capable political leaders. But never before has there been an instance when an entire government was without competence on any of its files.
It is a tall order to expect anyone, however old, wise and experienced, to change the current state of affairs merely by being a lone MP in parliament. At the least, Mr. Wickremesinghe should try to disprove the cynical predictions of his many critics – that he has come back to play the same game with the Rajapaksas for himself, and for them. On the other hand, RW’s presence in parliament should, hopefully, put pressure on Sajith Premadasa and the SJB to demonstrate not only that they are an effective opposition in parliament, but also that they are capable of getting serious political traction in the country. As for the TNA and the JVP, perhaps more so for the TNA, they have been bitten before by their uncritical association with Ranil Wickremesinghe. They should think twice, if not ten times, before starting any new games with Mr. Wickremesinghe in parliament.