By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“What’s the point of all this hoax?
Is it the chicken and the egg time or are just yolks?”
(Monty Python’s The Meaning of life)
The signs proliferate. After the announcement of an early budget with a pared down debate came the reduction in gas prices. The President himself proclaimed the reduction, as if it was his ‘personal’ gift to the consumers.
There will have to be an election soon, so that the regime can jack up prices again.
Even a short term price reduction, especially in such essentials as electricity, fuel and gas, is nothing to scoff at. But the sheer blatancy of the tactic demonstrates, yet again, how the Rajapaksas regard the electorate – an unintelligent and immature mass which can be manipulated into any collective idiocy. In Rajapaksa eyes Lankan society, from the top to the bottom, possesses almost no safeguards against lies and deception. So there is no need to bother with subtle and clever; the gross will do, with a rudimentary packaging, such as patriotism or international conspiracy.
The supposed investigation into the reported assault is not yet over (has it even begun?) but Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has already given the verdict. No one was assaulted; only a heated argument happened. Ergo, Dr. Nonis is lying. In any case, Dr. Nonis should not have been at that party. He was not invited; he gate-crashed: “It was a private party and Dr. Nonis had not bee invited…..” In this official version, if anyone is at fault, it was Dr. Nonis; if he did not go where he was not invited, if he did not get inebriated, nothing would have happened. He would still be our High Commissioner in London, defending the Rajapaksas to the hilt, assuring the world that in Sri Lanka the rule of law and justice flourish.
Minister Rambukwella also admonished the media for getting worked up about a mere miscellany: “If this incident happened during an official function it will be a matter of concern for the people, the Government and the media. There is no need to be agitated as it was a private matter that took place at a private residence.”[i]
If Dr. Nonis departs silently, perhaps he will be left in peace. But if he seeks justice, more falsehoods will be fabricated, including about his past and present activities. Witnesses will be found willing to testify that Dr. Nonis was the slanderer and the boor and Monitoring MP Gunawardena was being a veritable Sir Galahad, gallantly defending the fair name of a lady. And if the Rajapaksas win another term, by whatever means necessary, there might even be witnesses willing to swear that they saw Dr. Nonis mercilessly assaulting MP Gunawardena!
At the annual convention of the British Conservative Party, British Foreign Secretary reportedly told Dr. Nonis, “Now you understand why we are pushing against Sri Lanka over human rights violations”[ii].
Will Dr. Nonis remember the innumerable Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala victims of Rajapaksa injustice? Will he realise at least now that abuse and impunity breed greater abuse and greater impunity, until general insecurity becomes the norm?
Last week, the government blocked MP Wijedasa Rajapakhse from bringing a private member’s motion, mandating 80% pictorial-warnings on cigarette packets.
A Bill to the effect was approved by the parliament unanimously, some time back. But then the Ceylon Tobacco Company went to courts. The courts overturned the parliamentary decision and decided on 60% pictorial-warning.
When Wijedasa Rajapakshe tried to introduce the motion on 80% pictorial-warning, the regime maintained that the last word should belong to the judiciary. “Acting Health Minister Lalith Dissanayake said there was a court ruling in this regard and therefore, as a mark of respect for the judiciary, this bill could not be passed into law in the House.”[iii]
This of course is the polar opposite of what the regime said during Impeachment Days. Then, UPFA ministers and parliamentarians took up arms to defend parliamentary supremacy. No one is above the parliament, they insisted, time and again. The judiciary has no right to interfere in parliamentary matters or override parliamentary decisions.
So the parliament is supreme when the Rajapaksas want the parliament to be supreme; the judiciary is supreme when the Rajapaksas want the judiciary to be supreme. What matters is not constitution or law or tradition, but familial wants, needs and interests.
The Tribe rules.
Tribal economics is a necessary corollary of tribal politics. As Roger Owen pointed out, monarchical republics based on ‘personalised presidential power’ cannot be sustained without certain fundamental changes in the existing power-structures[iv]. These include control over the economy, the judiciary and the army. In Sri Lanka many of these preconditions are being realised. If the Rajapaksas win the presidential election, the slide will become unstoppable.
In 2012, even as the Impeachment Crisis was heading towards its nadir, the Rajapaksas introduced several clauses via the Appropriations Bill, tailor-made to undermine parliamentary control over Finances. One clause gave the President a veritable carte blanche to obtain loans up to Rs.1,295 billion in 2013. Another clause empowered the Finance Minister (i.e. the President) to withdraw funds allocated for specific purposes in the Budget or from the Consolidation Fund, without parliamentary approval; all he had to do was to get his decisions rubber-stamped by the cabinet.
The 1978 Constitution is very clear on the matter – the parliament and not the president controls finances. It was one of the few balancing provisions in a constitution which gave the executive too many powers. So the Rajapaksas, in their conscious pursuit of absolute power, sought to remove this democratic leaven, not constitutionally, but via a sleight of hand.
When this attempt was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled that some clauses were indeed unconstitutional and that “the 2013 Appropriations Bill should be amended to make parliamentary approval necessary for securing loans”. In other words, the judiciary tried to uphold parliamentary supremacy in matters of finance. But the Rajapaksas ignored the ruling, with the full backing of the UPFA majority in parliament. The government introduced an amendment to the clause which protected the presidential carte blanche. It merely stated that the president should give a report to parliament, once the loans are obtained. When the Opposition protested, the government said that it was acting according to the AG’s interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling. Thus the AG was placed above the parliament, the courts and the constitution. Since the AG functions under the President (a change wrought by the Rajapaksas in 2010), this effectively meant making the president supreme[v].
When a modern democracy succumbs to tribal rule, grotesqueries become the norm.
Tribal politics, tribal economic and tribal justice will be our fate if Rajapaksa rule continues. They think we are too inane to understand what is happening, too lost even to enlightened self-interest to care. Are they right? Will we do collectively what Chris Nonis did individually – empower and enable the hand, which will strike us down someday?
[ii] President Going Ahead with January Poll, Questions over Pope’s Visit – The Sunday Times – 12.10.2014
[iii] The Daily Mirror – 11.10.2014
[iv] The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life