By Rajan Philips –
The government is reportedly preparing a new amendment (19A) to the Constitution to confer legal power to Standing Orders and limit the term of office of Chief Justice to three years. After removing the term limit on the presidency which is fundamental to constitutional democracy through 18A, the government seems now set to enact 19A to limit the tenure of the Chief Justice which is fundamental to judicial independence. The new amendment will also put to rest the Supreme Court’s recent determination that laws and Standing Orders are not the same in exercising judicial power.
Whatever else it may be lacking the present regime is quite resourceful in trickery and cunning. It knows it cannot fool all the people all the time but it has mastered the art of fooling those who matter at times when they matter. The government has fooled Ranil Wickremasinghe into supine silence by showing him how the 1978 Constitution could be manipulated even more perversely than it was manipulated by Ranil’s own UNP some thirty years ago, and making him hope that he could benefit from all these manipulations when his turn finally comes to be President. So fooled, the Leader of the Opposition is aiding and abetting the government’s every misdoing instead of exposing the misdoings and rallying opposition to them.
More importantly, the government has fooled everyone who bravely opposed the UNP’s constitutional machinations in times past to fall into silence, submission or cynical indifference at this time. The President himself and a good number of government parliamentarians were diehard opponents of everything the UNP did between 1977 and 1994, and it was their solemn promise under the victorious People’s Alliance banner in 1994 to clean up the mess created by the UNP. They even brought forward an alternative constitution bill in 2000 for that very purpose. Now they have fooled themselves into believing that the People’s Alliance was wrong in 1994 and 2000, and JR Jayewardene and the UNP were right in 1978. Not just right, but Just and Right; remember “Dharmista Society”, it is now finally in sight! Mahinda Rajapaksa is doing the last lap in the constitutional relay started by JR Jayewardene.
The UPFA government members are now the biggest defenders of the letter and the spirit of the 1978 UNP Constitution. They swore by the spirit of that constitution to fire Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, and they rose on their hind legs in parliament to defend the indefensible by insisting on the letter of that selfsame constitution. The courts got it wrong, they said, in showing the difference between law and Standing Orders; the judges missed that little conjunction ‘OR’ between law and Standing Orders, they said; and the judges may not have been among his better pupils piped GL Peiris – the former Dean of Law now turned chief parliamentary philistine. And now to prove their point and to entrench it further, the government is preparing the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. How clever, how cunning, how innovative!
The Bodu Bala Sena
Apart from constitutional amendments, the other favourite implement of the government to plough its way through mud is the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). The President has many uses for the PSC although he has no use for Parliament’s intended role in the Constitution. He has used PSC as the stock excuse for his government’s action and inaction in regard to finding the elusive ‘political solution’ or the ever receding ‘national reconciliation.’
In one instance, the PSC would be the government’s line of exclusion so as to avoid any meaningful direct discussion with the TNA. In other instances, as in the treatment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, the PSC could be the hired gun to blast away every known norm and process, legal as well as conventional, to achieve the government’s goal. And yet in another instance, the PSC could become the inclusive red carpet to welcome and celebrate political stormtroopers such as the Bodu Bala Sena.
In a revealing exchange in parliament, when the Buddha Sasana Deputy Minister (one of several DMs appointed by the President) rejected an Opposition Parliamentarian’s concern over the ‘rise in religious fundamentalism in the country’, senior minister Nimal Siripala de Silva promptly contradicted the dumb DM and clarified the government’s position on the matter: “The President and the Government are concerned. We must put aside political differences and address this issue promptly.” The good minister then pulled one from the President’s hat: “a special Parliamentary Select Committee would be set up to address growing concerns on the rise in racial intolerance and religious fundamentalism in the country”.
But in this instance the President could not wait for the PSC circus. Bodu Bala Sena is apparently more important to the President than the TNA, and more precious to him than a Chief Justice. So the leaders of Bodu Bala Sena were invited to a special presidential audience at the Temple Trees. Accompanying the President were Basil Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Udaya Gammanpila of the Jathika Hela Urumuya and President’s Secretary, Lalith Weerathunge. Nimal Siripala de Silva who spoke for the government in parliament did not make the cut to Temple Trees.
“We have come through the vicissitudes of a thirty year old conflict. Now we must move to live together as one nation” the President reportedly reminded the Bodu Bala Sena representatives. It is like asking predators to spare their victims from harm. The President is not promoting national reconciliation by giving national prominence to an organization seen by many as the principal instigator of the campaign of violence against Muslims in various parts of the country. If at all the Sena would view the meeting with the President as a sign of presidential endorsement and encouragement of the Sena’s activities, and not as an invitation to join him in achieving reconciliation with the Tamils and the Muslims.
The truth of the matter is that the government has learnt nothing politically from what led to the war that ended with the defeat of the LTTE four years ago. It has also forgotten everything that the country went through during the war. It would be too much to expect this government to learn anything from the very relevant and contrasting experiences in India. India offers the progressive experience of constitutional and political secularism, as well as the communal antitheses stirred by Hindu fundamentalist organizations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the Shiv Sena.
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) are local Buddhist variants of the Indian Hindu fundamentalist prototypes. No major political party in India other than the BJP would have any truck with the two fundamentalist organizations. In Sri Lanka, the two main political parties are falling over each other to curry favour with the likes of JHU and BBS. For the government, the JHU and BBS are political stormtroopers to mobilize local support against pressures from the international community over the government’s record over human rights, postwar failure to achieve a political solution, and now the sacking of the Chief Justice.
Just as the government has emasculated and neutralized the UNP opposition locally, it has also mastered the art of playing the national population against the international community. Come March and the government will weather the storm at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva not by making a fool of itself by endlessly arguing as it did last time, but by simply agreeing with whatever it is told in Geneva and later doing nothing about it. The government has not only grown a thick hide, as a national editor recently remarked, it has also two powerful armours in JHU and BBS to protect its backside.
The Jaffna Public Library
For the government, the defeated LTTE is not quite dead. The government sees a tiger in everyone who criticizes it over any of its actions. One does not have to be a Tamil to be a tiger in the government’s eyes. Even Shirani Bandaranayke was accused of being a tiger lover because she had a Tamil lawyer. In that sense, the government has achieved reconciliation of sorts, the wag might argue. Recently, the government received an unexpected shot in the arm for its tiger paranoia with a revisionist attribution of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library to the LTTE.
Through the genre of a memoir a retired police officer has leaked for the first time what must have been the best-kept police secret for thirty two years: that it was the LTTE that burnt the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. The revisionist revelation has moved the emotionally vulnerable to fire-walk down memory lane with flailing arms and chanting mea culpa. There is no need for those of us who lived through that period and contributed to the recording of the sad events of that time by organizations such as MIRJE and CRM, to bother with exposing the spuriousness of a belated police leak. My purpose, rather my question, is something else. What hope in hell could there be for any kind of reconciliation, when even long gone events are revisited for the purpose of falsifying without any sensitivity at all to the hurt and humiliation that it will cause to those who suffered those events and have survived the war?