By Jehan Perera –
I had Ambition, by which sin , The angels fell; I climbed and, step by step, O Lord, Ascended into Hell—W H Davies
Sri Lanka comes to the close of 2012 waist-deep in problems, not least those caused by extensive flooding in large parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people in the central and north eastern parts of the country have been badly affected by the flood waters caused by incessant rains. The misallocation of economic resources is made stark by reports of tax exemptions granted to night races. In the midst of the social and economic catastrophe to the lives of a vast multitude of people, the government is also boasting that it will send a Sri Lankan astronaut into space in the next seven years with Chinese support, and the country has also in recent time launched a satellite. These projects do little to redeem the image of an over-concentration of power and the potential for abuses that arises therefrom, in the presidential system.
But even more ominous from an overall governance perspective are the multiple political crises that have grabbed attention not only locally but also internationally. The main crisis is the one that has pitted the judiciary against the government. But also significant are the ones that concern the effective closure of Jaffna University and the prospect of repeal of the 13th Amendment that devolved power to the provinces as a remedy against the over-centralisation of power in Colombo. All three of these cases have not only led to domestic outrage amongst different sections of the population. They have also attracted international attention that will not be favourable to the country. As the year comes to a close there is no sign of a positive resolution to any of these crises, which bodes ill for the country in the New Year.
So far the position of the government is that the impeachment of the Chief Justice will proceed according to its interpretation of parliamentary powers. However, the courts have said the judgment of the Parliamentary Select Committee that the Chief Justice is guilty of three charges leveled against her falls within the competence of the judiciary to review. If the government refuses to accept this judicial pronouncement the Rule of Law would itself be in question. A government that deems itself to be beyond the control of the judiciary would be a government that is out of control. With much of the parliamentary opposition sitting with the government, the only remaining option would be people’s power which is a recipe for chaos. The basic principles of good governance, in which there is a separation of the judiciary, executive and legislature would be negated and with it the Rule of Law and the prospect of justice itself.
The problem that has arisen over the arrest of Tamil university students in Jaffna is also a very serious one that is damaging to the prospects for inter ethnic reconciliation and national unity in facing the coming economic and international challenges in the New Year. Over 40 families have complained to the Human Rights Commission that their children haven arrested by the security forces. There are reports that more than double that number may have been arrested. They are suspected of being former LTTE cadre or sympathizers who were involved in lighting lamps of remembrance on LTTE Heroes Day. Some of them have reportedly been sent for rehabilitation in camps meant for former LTTE cadre and the duration of their effective imprisonment therein is not known. The Human Rights Commission spokesperson in Jaffna has said that these arrests are legal since the families of those arrested have been provided with receipts that acknowledge the arrest. But whether such arrests are within the spirit of the Rule of Law is the question.
In a replay of what happened over fifty years ago, there are non-violent demonstrations, or satyagrahas, taking place in Jaffna, which are being obstructed as occurred in the past. It was the failure of peaceful protests against injustice to the Tamil people that led to support for violent insurrection. The beginnings of a new vicious cycle can be seen at the close of the old year. The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission established by the government to ensure that there would be no repetition of the past recommended that there should be a political solution that included the devolution of power to the provinces. However, in an apparent rejection of this recommendation the government is proposing to abolish the 13th Amendment that devolved power to the provinces. Instead of implementing the 13th Amendment to permit a measure of self-rule to the Tamil people, the government is recentralizing power in Colombo and in particular, in the Presidency. As a result, little of what the government needs to do in terms of inter ethnic reconciliation can be seen to be happening.
The spirit of the LLRC report is also not at all visible. More than actions, the LLRC commissioners wanted the spirit of reconciliation, of mutual understanding and of humility to be the key underlying themes of the government’s implementation of their report. The failure by the government to implement the LLRC report can have long lasting international repercussions in the New Year, particularly in March 2013, when the UN Human Rights Council meets again in Geneva. The Council members will undoubtedly look into the implementation of the LLRC report, which they mandated by a special vote in March 2012 over the Sri Lankan government’s strenuous objections. There is the possibility of a stronger resolution being passed next year that might give a mandate to the UN itself to investigate what happened at war’s end and make recommendations, rather than to accept the LLRC version that is not being implemented.
The common element that ties together the multiple crises in the country is that of the over-centralisation of power. The political root of the conflict between the government and judiciary is the government’s unwillingness to accept the judiciary’s decisions that obstructed its plans for the future of the country. The government leadership may have a belief that their total military victory over the LTTE, over the opposition and disbelief of others, can be replicated in other spheres of life. They may also believe that their feat in ridding the country of the LTTE entitles them to run the country as they think fit. However, political and decision making power in a democracy cannot be monopolized by a small group, even if they are the most capable people in the entire world. Power in democracy has to be shared between several institutions and devolved to decentralized authorities. The judicial review of legislation, and checks and balances, are a part and parcel of democratic governance.
The struggle to prevent too much power being taken by any one person or institution is an ancient one. In the Christian tradition, this can be traced back to the very beginning of time when, it is said, only the angels existed and the most beloved of them was Lucifer. But Lucifer let his pride get the best of him, believed in his abilities and intelligence and tried to become God, and was cast out of Heaven together with those angels who followed him. He suffered from the sin of hubris or pride. By way of contrast, the birth of Jesus, which is celebrated at Christmas, is meant to be the celebration of humility. Born in a manger where his companions were animals, his last journey was on a donkey into the capital city of Jerusalem, and not even on a horse (the elite mode of transport of that time). His life was devoted to teaching and healing people by serving them and not by ruling over them.
A few days ago I attended a meeting called by the Conference of Major Religious Superiors where the situation of the country was discussed. Some of the proposals made to improve it were to inspire those who could influence national policy to respect the laws and live according to democratic values, to love and forgive those who were considered as enemies, to teach children the problems faced by others, to learn more about the constitution of the country and to remember all who died in the war that ended three years ago. If these are done in the spirit of the LLRC report, and adopted by the government and the political leadership of the country, there will be no cause for lamentations in the New Year in any sort of manner that echoes the biblical story of the fall from grace of the once great angel: “How are you fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how are you cut down to the ground, which did weaken the nations!” Isaiah 14:12