If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then,
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try..
from I May, I Might, I Must, Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
Fifteen months ago, when the year 2011 was drawing to a close, the political climate in Sri Lanka was such that the position of President Rajapakse and his government seemed stable and secure. The majority of Sri Lankans were still in a state of euphoria following the defeat of the Liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. The President and his coalition easily won the Elections held soon after. The ethnic issue was still not resolved and there was pressure from the international community to ensure a solution that was acceptable to the major communities in the country. There was also pressure to meet allegations of human rights violations in the closing stages of the fight against the LTTE. Responding to these pressures, the President appointed the Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation. The LLRC presented its report to the President in November 2011. The government was tardy in releasing the report for public circulation but it had to be tabled in Parliament. The contents of the report confounded both its supporters as well as its sceptics. The Commission had listened sympathetically to the cries of many whose sons and daughters had been killed, maimed or just disappeared. The Commission refused to white-wash crimes committed by any party nor did it lay the blame on any. They felt an independent and impartial investigation was necessary. They also came up with a set of balanced recommendations to promote reconciliation among the different communities in the country.
At the sessions held soon after, the United Nations Human Rights Council urged the Government of Sri Lanka to draw up a Plan of Action to implement the LLRC recommendations. Again, following pressure from the international community, a Plan of Action was drawn up and presented to the then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton when she visited Sri Lanka. The action plan had ignored many of the recommendations but it at least signified that the government was committed to implementing the LLRC recommendations.
But the troubles for the government began then. Obviously, there was no political will to implement the letter or the spirit of recommendations, nor did it seem in a mood for reconciliation with the minorities and the political opposition. Up to then, its position had seemed stable and secure. But, as in Lord Acton’s well quoted comment, power can corrupt and absolute power can corrupt absolutely. Much earlier, William Pitt the Elder, a former Prime Minister of Britain, said much the same thing, ‘Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.’ History has shown that political leaders, both dictators as well as who are elected at democratic elections, and who possess unlimited power soon lose their sense of judgement, become unpopular and find themselves driven out of office, sometimes by a political revolt and sometimes at a democratic election. In Asia, Marcos of Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia and a succession of Pakistani Heads of State are among them. Even the charismatic Indira Gandhi was trounced at the General Election held soon after she had usurped and abused Emergency powers, though she was voted back to power some years later. Last year’s Arab Spring saw many rulers overthrown in West Asia.
Unlimited power corrupts
In Sri Lanka in 1977, J R Jayawardena had won a four-fifths majority at the General Election. Under the new proportional system of election, such majorities are no longer going to be possible. So the Rajapakse government did what it has proved so adept at. It manoeuvred, by fair means or foul, for large numbers of opposition parliamentarians to defect and so ensured for itself a comfortable three-fourths majority. Using this majority, the Constitution was amended to give the President virtually dictatorial powers. J R Jayawardene used his majority to re-write the Constitution to create an Executive Presidency with wide powers. Mahinda Rajapakse has gone better to give himself even wider authoritarian powers. Executive Presidents have generally not hesitated to use their authoritarian powers for personal or partisan gain. But none so blatantly as the first and the current holders of that office. The most blatant use (or rather misuse) of these powers came with the impeachment of the sitting Chief Justice. J R Jayawardena also did attempt to impeach the then sitting Chief Justice but he was wise enough to realise his folly and found an honourable way to drop the impeachment proceedings. But Mahinda Rajapakse appears to have had no qualms of conscience in proceeding against Shirani Bandaranayake.
Perverting the course of justice
When the gods wish to destroy someone, it is said that they ensure that that person behaves and acts in an irrational way. We do not know how the minds of the gods work but we certainly know that when politicians are given extraordinary powers, they tend to lose touch with reality, to lose touch with the needs of the ordinary masses. It is self-defeating when politicians dismiss all opposition as the work of misguided persons or of conspirators with a sinister agenda.
It is not only the manner in which the impeachment process was handled that led to a massive loss of goodwill both at home as well as abroad. Following the 18th Amendment, the President brought the Attorney General’s Department under him. But even before that, the Department had lost its independence. Prosecutions were based on political considerations. Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra who was shot dead at Mulleriyawa was a long-standing loyal SLFP supporter. But the gang that allegedly killed him were led by another politician who had closer links to the political establishment. That probably explains why the Police and the Attorney General’s department have been tardy about prosecuting the gang allegedly responsible for the killing. The same goes for the killing of British Red Cross worker Khuram Shaikh at Tangalle over a year ago. The killing was done openly in the presence of the hotel staff and guests present there on Christmas eve. Yet various excuses have been given by the Police for failure to indict the killers. It is well known that the leader of the gang that allegedly killed Shaikh was a prominent local politician who, as in the case of the Mulleriyawa killing, was close to the political establishment. It is such blatantly obvious perversions of the investigative processes and allowing politically well connected criminals to escape justice that have damaged the image that Mahinda Rajapakse once had as a champion of human rights.
On the other hand, those who have fallen foul of the political establishment are being persecuted with scant regard for the rule of law. The cases of Sarath Fonseka and Shirani Bandaranayake, and even of her husband, are prominent instances of this. Some of those cases are stiil being pursued by the Bribery Commission. But we have seen the charges and the explanations given by those charged and all we can say at this stage is that it will be difficult for any judicial court, going by the rule of law, to convict them on the evidence presented. We can only presume that the charges and the publicity being given to them is purely to create an impression of misconduct in the minds of the public. It is also sad to know that the Bribery Commission comprises members who one held responsible positions in the country’s law-enforcement and judicial services. Of course, they were appointed by the President under the 18th Amendment.
Another issue that has affected the popularity of the government has been that of urban displacement. It is true that our cities needed a clean-up but is the beautification programme that is being undertaken the priority for development. The upper and upper middle classes are no doubt thrilled that we have beautiful parks with separate tracks for walking and jogging. But the ordinary citizen, already burdened by high costs of living, now with an unconscionable increase in electricity tariffs being introduced as a further burden, would not be convinced that the provision of recreational facilities, however laudable, should have priority over easing the economic burdens he or she has to face.
The country is now facing another problem, a grave one at that, with an organisation that calls itself a religious one, promoting hate and violence against minority communities. Mr M W H de Silva, Queen’s Counsel, was a confidant of S W R D Bandarainaike, and served for three years as the Minister of Justice in the 1956 Government. He is reported to have related an incident that took place in the 1956 Election Campaign. He and SWRD were returning by car from Polonnaruwa when MWH referring to SWRD’s speech at the Polonnaruwa meeting had said something to the effect that SWRD may have raised passions that may be difficult to contain. SWRD’s response was that that he would control that when it came to crossing that bridge. Unfortunately, SWRD was unable to contain the passions aroused and his assassination was planned by a group close to him.
Arousing communal passions
We quote this incident to show that there can be no short cuts to popularity. A leader has to live by certain principles and never compromise on them. It appears to many people that the political establishment courting the Bodhu Bala Sena is not because they support their ideology but as a means of using (or misusing) religious passions to restore their waning popularity. Rousing communal passions will not only harm the country but will ultimately consume the people responsible for rousing such passions. President Rajapakse, religious leaders, the media and civil society must take a stand to expose those charlatans who promote hatred even among young school children.
From around the country, there are reports of harassment of Muslim traders, of Muslim women and men for the distinctive Islamic dress they wear, of defacement and threats to Muslim places of worship and hate messages on the mobile phone networks. These should have been nipped in the bud at the very early stages. But it is never too late. All our communities and all our people have equal rights. One war has ended and we do not need any more wars. We must stand as one to fight hatred. It will cost the country dearly if the Police are not allowed to enforce the rule of law and instead protect those who break the law. We cannot allow short-sighted men and women to destroy the country for their personal gain.