By Ameer Ali –
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the Scottish polymath, rendered in English what Louis XIV of France reported to have said, “L’ Etat, c’est moi”, as “The State? I am the State”. In the current political situation in Sri Lanka, one may rephrase Carlyle’s rendering into, “What rule of Law? I am the Law”, and attribute it to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR). His pardoning and release from prison the convicted murderer, Duminda Silva, has created an uproar within the Bar Council and wider community at home, and set to worsen an already deteriorating relationship with democratic regimes abroad. GR must have expected this reaction and to soften criticism he also pardoned and released at the same time sixteen Tamil prisoners among others, many of whom were convicted under the draconian PTA.
This was not the first time that GR has overridden decisions and powers of the judiciary. In March 2020, he pardoned Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, who was sentenced to death in 2015 for murdering eight Tamil Internally Displaced Persons in Mirusuvil, Jaffna in 2000. While he pardons murderers and allow them go free, he throws into prison, under PTA, human rights lawyers like Hejaaz Hisbullah and poets like Ahnaf Jazeem, and expects his security forces to look for evidence to justify his action. So was the case of Muslim parliamentarian, Rishard Bathiudeen. On top of these is the shocking incarceration and release on court orders, Shani Abeyasekera, a dedicated and honest CID officer, who was prepared to go all out to investigate and uncover the whole gamut of atrocities committed when GR was Defence Secretary during MR’s Presidency. All this clearly demonstrate the extent to which President GR is prepared to go to rule out Rule of law. Under the current political regime, the President has virtually become the Law. It was also this arrogation of judicial power that prompted him a few months back to warn administrators that his circulars should be taken as orders, and asked those unwilling to do so to leave. Given this state of affairs, isn’t it a joke to talk of Rule of Law in Sri Lanka?
One should not forget in this context that it was J. R. Jayewardene, the architect of the current executive presidency, who said that under his constitution he could do anything except to turn a man into woman and vice versa. Such a dangerous and dictatorial position was whittled away somewhat by the 19A Amendment introduced during yahapalana regime, perhaps the only good thing happened during that period. However, those powers and more were restored by the 20A amendment passed in October 2020, thanks to the eight Muslim turncoats, who apparently sold their votes for money. As a result, parliament has lost its powers and turned into a “post office”, as former speaker Karu Jayasuriya described. Parliamentarians who exposed hidden agendas of rulers were thrown into prison. Journalists dared to dig into scams, frauds and abuse of power were dubbed as “third rate journalists”, attacked by hired thugs, thrown into jail and have even disappeared without trace. Social media is under strict surveillance. There are no checks and balances to what the President and his cabal can do. All state institutions have been turned into compliant agencies rubber stamping decisions by the President. In short, there is an environment of fear that rules the country at the moment and GR is virtually behaving like a dictator.
Yet, there is one sector that stubbornly refuses to obey his commands and defies all measures of direction and diktats, and that sector is the national economy. It continues to remain enemy number one to his regime. The failure of erratic decisions emanating from thought bubbles and absence of a comprehensive plan to tackle not only the economy but also other sectors like public health, education, environment and so on including foreign policy have resulted in widespread hunger and misery, and to blame the pandemic for this calamity, as he did in his latest pre-recorded public address, is pointless. True, the pandemic has caused worldwide disaster. However, while several countries and their governments have followed the advice of health experts and managed to minimize the damage caused, President GR has ignored such advice, militarized its management and failed miserably at the end. Economic misery and the pandemic are jointly adding to the death toll, and the double failure has driven the masses to the brink of revolt. In passing, one feels pity on the Governor of the Central Bank, who is trying his best to calm down the escalating panic within the business community and general public, with his statements of confidence on the resilience of the economy.
It is in the context of the twin disaster of an emerging political dictatorship and a crumbling economy that one should assess the weight of pressures arising from the failure of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. This failure has pushed the country towards a triple disaster.
Nowhere did the foreign policy disaster demonstrate more unequivocally than in the amateurish handling of developments in Geneva in September last year. Since the passing of the UNHCR Resolution, the regime has reluctantly come to terms with one unpalatable truth, and that is, the regime’s departure from the country’s historic non-alignment and India First policy, and moving too close to China, especially at a time of an emerging cold war between the West and its new challenger from the Pacific, has jeopardized the chances of a quick economic recovery even if the pandemic disappears soon. The threat from the European Community to withdraw its GSP+ is a reflection of this foreign policy failure. Although the reasons for this threat is couched in terms of Sri Lanka’s continuous violations of human rights, reluctance to reform the draconian PTA, oppressive policies towards minorities and suppression of democracy and rule of law, the real reason seems to be the country’s pro-Chinese foreign policy. Because, frankly speaking the Western bloc is more interested in its own geo-politics than over human rights and sympathy for minorities. The bloody history of Western imperialism and colonization has ample evidence to prove this point.
In this widening chasm between the Western powers and Rajapaksa Regime however, diaspora Sri Lankans have also found an opportunity to get their anti-regime voice heard along the corridors of world powers. UNHCR resolution on human rights and US Congress resolution to recognize the North and East of Sri Lanka as Traditional Tamil Homeland bear testimony to diaspora’s input. Diaspora influence is certainly not a decisive factor but a contributory element in moving the West to bring pressure upon the local regime.
The threat from EU is a serious one when Sri Lanka’s economy is virtually facing bankruptcy. State Minister Cabraal as usual is shouting empty bravado claiming that there is a plan to confront that eventuality, and the Governor of Central Bank may also go along with him. But many small and medium size industries whose exports have preferential treatment in the EU market would be driven to the wall if they are forced to compete on a level playing field. Given the fact that EU is the second largest destination to Sri Lankan exports, where in the world could the country find an equivalent substitute to recompence the loss?
Behind the scene however, the regime seems to take Western reaction more seriously. In actual fact, it was that factor which prompted GR to call TNA for talks. Although it was cancelled indefinitely, there are signs that it may eventuate sooner than later. There is no alternative. One should hope that the talks succeed and other remedial measures follow. But what would happen if it fails? The regime would obviously blame the other party, and the government-controlled media would go all out with scandalous anti-minority propaganda to whip up communalism. Historically, such propaganda had been the lifeblood for power hungry governments and oppositions in the past. This is the danger that is lurking in the background and should be tackled effectively by civil society movements.
Of the two minorities, Muslims in particular are in a vulnerable position after the 2019 Easter massacre. It is up to its community leaders, both secular and religious, and intelligentsia to join hands with civilian groups from other communities and form a united front to prevent the situation escalating into another communal convulsion in which Muslims are bound to lose heavily. In the final analysis what the country needs is not simply a regime change, which is a must, but a radical shift towards a secular and pluralist democracy with a new and comprehensive agenda for domestic development and foreign friendship.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia