By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Edited Extracts with regard to current political issues from the Leader’s Address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, delivered at the Annual Congress of the Liberal Party, December 16th 2012
The Liberal Party stands today in a very interesting position. To a great extent because of the enthusiasm of our Youth Wing, we have had very interesting workshops at two venues, in Hambantota and Kurunagala. At the former in particular we had remarkable input from youngsters, who are keenly interested in politics but miss the absence of a coherent philosophy in the political movements they have had experience of through elections.
Given the sophistication of these youngsters, who have a more adult view of politics than the rent seeking many people think is the main business of electoral politics, I think the commitment to principle of the Liberal Party will have increasing resonance in the coming months. In particular the position we have taken up with regard to the proposed impeachment of the Chief Justice will be recognized in time as the only balanced approach to an issue that seems to be tearing our society apart.
I refer not only to my own refusal to sign the impeachment resolution, but also to the thoughtful statements our Secretary General has issued on behalf of the party. Today in the newspapers there is reference to the impeachment of the Chief Justice that took place in the Philippines earlier this year, but it was our statement that, a couple of weeks ago, noted the differences between that incident and what is happening in Sri Lanka today. Though clearly there were political issues involved, that impeachment was through a process that was universally seen as fair.
Again, when the Parliamentary Select Committee delivered its report, it indicated that several of the charges made against the Chief Justice did not need to be investigated. In our second statement we had made it clear that we thought only a few of the charges were serious. Unfortunately, the general impression created by other commentators was either that the Chief Justice was a monster who was wrong on a multitude of counts, or else that she was a saint who was persecuted for no reason at all by a malign government. Both these positions are absurd.
But this oppositional politics, in which prejudice is privileged and balanced argument of no account, is what has characterized Sri Lankan politics for the last quarter of a century. In fact the reactions to our response bear this out. On the one hand, it is claimed that I have at last discovered how bad this government is, and therefore I should part company with it and resign at once from Parliament. On the other it is alleged that I am only critical of government on this count because I am upset that I have not been made a Minister, and that I will soon cease to be critical in order to curry favour.
But this type of malign interpretation, that refuses to look at facts, has dogged the Liberal Party from the start. In the eighties Chanaka Amaratunga was reviled for betraying the UNP which it was held had facilitated his education. It was only later that there was widespread appreciation of the seminal critiques he made of the appalling constitution President Jayewardene introduced, when previously the excesses of that authoritarian government had come only from a socialist perspective. Later that same elite Colombo dispensation, that had reveled in Jayawardene’s perversities, attacked Chanaka for supporting President Premadasa. And of course that outlook finds President Rajapaksa even more reprehensible than President Premadasa, given that he is at an even greater remove from Colombo and its interests.
The Liberal Party continues to believe that this is the best possible government for Sri Lanka at this stage, and we will continue to support it. This does not mean that we share the views of those elements in the government that uphold a more narrow view of Sri Lanka than we have. This is a problem Liberals all over the world face for, in presenting a balanced perspective, they need usually to work in coalition with others. Thus, recently, the Dutch Liberals were in coalition with conservatives who were more sympathetic than they should have been to a racist party that propped up the government. I know our friends in the Dutch Liberal Party were not happy about this, and about measures that seemed in line with the politics of that extreme party, but they had to endure, and do what they could to prevent unacceptable measures.
When the coalition proved impossible to maintain, there was another election, and now they are in government with more moderate forces. But I don’t think any of us thought that they had betrayed their principles when they had to work with extremist forces. The point is, they would accept compromises that did not go against their principles, even though this meant they could not implement measures they thought ideal. However, what they would not do was go against essential principles, and that is precisely our position in the current context.
I should add that I see no reason to assume that on the principle issues we need fear extremism. And we will not forget the achievements of this government which have made possible a return to democracy all over the country. Though the Liberal Party has always believed that problems were caused by majoritarian measures, and we need to do more to ensure that the minorities in Sri Lanka feel they are equal citizens of the country, we have also been categorical in our opposition to terrorism. The fact that this government was able to put a stop to terrorism after so many decades is something we should always keep in mind. Of course we now need also to win the peace, and for that there is much more to do. But the very fact that discourse and debate are not in the shadow of violence gives us much to be thankful for.
With regard to the proposed impeachment of the Chief Justice, it is profoundly ironical that the only member on the government side who has been pointing out problems with the Judiciary is now the only one being criticized for not signing the impeachment resolution. But I suppose this is understandable in a political dispensation that waits for problems to come to a head before any attempt is made to solve them. And that in turn will lead to concentration on what are in fact symptoms of problems rather than root causes.
I have been arguing that there should be no interference with the independence of the judiciary as regards the decisions it makes, and I fear that the manner in which the impeachment process has been conducted will give the impression that it is that independence that is under attack. But what should be changed is the notion that the Judiciary is independent as regards the processes it follows. On the contrary, it must follow the law of the land and, where there is scope for interpretation, it must formulate rules so that there is consistency on which citizens brought before the Judiciary can rely. And surely we should realize that, if there is too much ambiguity in the law, it leaves the field open for a range of interpretations, which is why the legislature must amend confusing laws in accordance with the basic principles laid down in the Constitution.
I have no idea how the present drama will work itself out. But I hope that, without relying on what seem ad hominem solutions, dealing with individuals rather than issues, we move instead to looking at the issues that must be resolved, to make our judicial system more reliable and more efficient. Impeaching the Chief Justice will not solve the real problems this country faces. That requires reflection and analysis on the basis of principle, as the Liberal Party has advocated since its inception.