12 December, 2019

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Recognising Ourselves As Our Worst Enemies

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena –

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

With a foreign policy in tatters, the judiciary and the legal system in deep crisis and the state of the economy looking more perilous with each monumentally wasteful government extravaganza, the seasonal call of the koha heralding the Sinhala and Tamil New Year sounds more eerily mocking than musical.

Racist extremism has no boundaries

On the domestic front, a superficial bubble of postwar development waits in suspense as it were, to be pricked by the sharp pin of anti-minority extremism at the hands of militant Sinhala Buddhist forces implicitly protected by powerful government figures. The latest target of such extremist forces is the Muslim community. If Muslim politicians, professionals and business leaders believed that they would be spared from the tide of racist extremism evidenced against the Tamil community, this was the year of reckoning.

It was, of course, sheer foolishness to believe that extremism will rage against one minority and stop short at the boundaries of another. The rationale that Muslim nations supported Sri Lanka even against a West (as is sought to be told by the government’s favourite storytellers) intent on taking revenge against the country and that therefore, the Muslim community within the country would be spared the evils of extremist violence, was soon proved to be quite wrong.

On the international front meanwhile, Sri Lanka is more isolated than at any other point since independence, with this government placing excellent weapons of attack into the hands of the pro-LTTE diaspora. In sum, not a happy recipe, one would reckon for New Year cheers.

Do we realise the importance of institutions?

Yet now more than at any other point, as Christians celebrate Easter and Sinhalese along with Tamils prepare themselves for the traditional Avurudu, thoughtful introspection is needed. This process involves the far more difficult task of shifting the target of criticism away from Sri Lanka’s political leaders towards ourselves. This column has (for a decade and a half) been consistently focusing on the importance of protecting institutions from the illintentioned attacks of politicians temporarily in power. Yet it is a pertinent question as to whether the sanctity of institutions are actually recognised or acknowledged in the public perception as vital to the functioning of the country.

The judicial institution of Sri Lanka is a case in point. This week, the report of a remote mission of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association was released roundly condemning the impeachment of the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka and calling upon Sri Lanka to reverse the process.

This is the third report of the IBAHRI conducted by remote mission due to the refusal of visas to its members as contrasted to its earlier missions conducted in response to allegations of abuse of judicial power during the Sarath Silva Court (1999-2009). The severity of the report, justified as this is by the severity of the ousting of a sitting Chief Justice by military muscle, will lend its own weight to Sri Lanka’s exponentially growing international isolation.

The importance of a ‘non-politicised’ focus

That said, some positive signs do appear despite the gloom. This coming month, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) will embark on a new term under the Presidency of Upul Jayasuriya who, (unlike many other lawyers suddenly possessing a conscience only from December 2012), was as outspoken during that unsettling decade of the Silva Court as he is now.

His address on Saturday to the legal community took detailed note of the tremendous challenges before the BASL, reflected on public criticisms made thereto and promised strong and consistent ‘non-politicised activism’ in response. And the gauntlet was thrown down in no uncertain terms by the fact that an invitation was not issued to the 44th Chief Justice to attend the convocation as Chief Guest and indeed by the attendance of the 43rd Chief Justice at the ceremony.

Substantively, the emphasis on a ‘non-politicised’ focus in the BASL convocation address is immeasurably important. The struggle needs to be against political fronts of whatever colour. The manner in which Sri Lanka’s judicial institution was reduced to a pale shadow of a once proud precedent setting body respected in the Commonwealth is a clear illustration.

The sins committed by the administrations of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa in respect to the country’s judiciary are well understood in the public mind. Yet a lesser known question is why the United National Front (UNF) administration did not live up to campaign promises during its brief tenure in office (2001-2003) in regard to correction of the (alleged) abuse of judicial power by an incumbent Chief Justice?

The answer to that question is simple. The UNF fell into the beguiling trap of believing that a Chief Justice amenable to a government in power would be useful rather than a Chief Justice who would fearlessly stand up for the rule of law against any government. In that sense, the late Justice Mark Fernando, known as one of Sri Lanka’s most erudite and honest judges, was disliked if not feared by both the UPFA of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the UNP/UNF of Ranil Wickremesinghe. We hearken back therefore to the importance of the struggle to preserve institutions against politicians of all colour.

Failing ourselves and vicious personal attacks

Indeed neither was this process owing only to the peccadilloes of politicians. Rather, the lack of courage of Sri Lanka’s legal community to speak out at that time sealed the fate of the Sri Lankan judiciary and years later, led to a sitting Chief Justice being abused by politicians. If not for our abject failures then, we would not have had to suffer such a calamitous fate now. The BASL faces therefore a formidable task in reversing the cumulative effect of this decade long slide into disaster.

Another case in point is the equally beleaguered state of university administration in Sri Lanka. While space prevents a detailed exploration of the relevant issues, it is an apt reflection that when measured critiques are made in the specific context of heavily contested appointments to the office of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo (see ‘The Collapse of Institutions’, Savitri Goonesekere, Colombo Telegraph, March 17, 2013), these critiques are met with vicious personal attacks.

What are we as a nation?

One would fairly question whether the fault lies verily not in our politicians but in ourselves as a people? True enough, politicians take deservedly a great deal of the blame for our current sorry state. But a larger question needs to be directed to ourselves; are our politicians and our political culture not a reflection of ourselves? If so, what does that say for us as a nation? Is there indeed, any entity that truly can be called a Sri Lankan nation?

These are good questions for those of us at least possessing a degree of objectivity and basic decency to ask each other.

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Latest comments

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    I only have two words for these mushroom reporters and columnist
    Where you were in 2009?

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      I have a few words for you sir! Where are you now? Are you blind to racial killings and discrimination’s happening. It was racist monks and racist people who attacked fashion bug! This is quite similar to the 1983 riots which led to the creation of the LTTE. So please dont ask about 2009. There were many factors which led to LTTE. Another riot may assume this time againts innocent muslim brothers. I am a buddhist and i hope and urge this will not happen.

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    This is an eye opener if one has eyes to open.Most articles blame some one else for our predicament specially the politicians.This article focuses our attention on the passivity of the citizen for allowing the degredation of Institutions.However these articles rarely catch the imagination of people as they are fed with lies and more lies.

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    Dear Kishali, Thanks, another good and courageous piece once again! Keep it up!
    One small point: It is Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers and their joint military-business dictatorship “development model” that is the ENEMY WITHIN THE SICK AND AILING SRI LANKAN BODY POLITIC.
    We are not our own enemy, NOR are the minorities (Tamils, Muslims, Christiants, and Veddahs to whom the country really belongs) are NOT the enemy.
    The Rajapakse family that is corrupt and looting the public wealth while in-debting the country and destroying democratic institutions is the enemy within Sri Lanka. Their end game is DIVIDE, DISTRACT, DESTROY THE SOCIAL FABRIC OF THE COUNTRY in order to RULE. Our only option is to work for REGIME CHANGE!

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    Having got over the war against the LTTE the nation is now slippng into an ever increasing spiral of crisis.

    The crisis in the North continues with implications internationally and in India our giant neighbour.
    In the south a new religous conflict seems to be developing instigated by extreme groups with state patronage.
    Another governance and constitutional crisis remains in the background with the executive presidiency and autocratic rajapakse family rule.
    A crisis in the judiciary and rule of law following the usurpation of the legal CJ by a flawed process of impeachment.
    Overall the economy has been slipping and we are heading for a debt crisis in the future with no means of paying back borrowings.

    Various other crisis education, law and order, power etc All these indicate the failure of the regimes policies and plans. A complete revamp or transformation seems to be required. Maybe a National Govt and Constitutional reform is what is required.

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    Kishali asks “What are we as a nation?

    One would fairly question whether the fault lies verily not in our politicians but in ourselves as a people? True enough, politicians take deservedly a great deal of the blame for our current sorry state. But a larger question needs to be directed to ourselves; are our politicians and our political culture not a reflection of ourselves? If so, what does that say for us as a nation? Is there indeed, any entity that truly can be called a Sri Lankan nation?

    These are good questions for those of us at least possessing a degree of objectivity and basic decency to ask each other.”

    Right on the money! We as a nation, as citizens, have not shown the courage required to have a deep look at ourselves in the mirror.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
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    Dear Kishali,

    Thanks for your article.
    It is always easy to shoot the messenger and not recognise the message.
    Your entry and that of Priyanshathi Jaysekera of yesterday are as much a commentary of contemporary Sri Lanka as they are impassioned pleas about the state of SL and the future before it.
    Another article recently about the destruction of SL institutions should worry everyone who is a true patriot.
    Heavy going as it is, I nevertheless find Dayan Jayatillake’s (DJ)recent book ‘Long War, Cold Peace’a necessary read for anyone who wishes to appreciate the state that SL was and still is in. The sentiments alluded to in the book were eloquently expressed by a writer, N.K.Menon, in an essay in SL Defence Journal in the aftermath of the war in 2009 – ‘Where do we go from here’.
    Hasn’t SL squandered the tremendous goodwill it earned at the end of the war? DJ articulates again the need of the moment, in this SL’s second independence. Are Sri Lankans always going to be the people who ‘ never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’. Are we again missing the bus as we have done since independence.
    The flames of communalism that are being stoked by BBS or whoever else are creating the conditions for further conflict. We are going to become ‘poor SL’ all over again.
    Politics is too important to be left to politicians. Why is it difficult to institute the rule of law and a meritocracy in SL? This is the burning question of the time. Politicians in SL have been in power and exercise power. They have forgotten to govern and ignored the need for leadership. Where has there been any attempt to create a Sri Lankan identity – as opposed to a Sinhala or Tamil or Muslim or any other identity. The latter encourages division rather than cohesion. It is impossible to destroy an idea!
    Priyashanthi’s article should move every Sri Lankan. Your paper, madam, should cause a pardigm shift away from blaming others and beginning to look inwards. SL needs to take stock – the world will not wait.
    Elara did not know, when he was defeated, that there would be battlefield weapons other than sticks and stones, bows and arrows.
    Please Sl, wake up and hear the clarion calls of your long suffering citizens.

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      Mr.Medoza,

      I sympathise with you and share your sorrow and ponder what could have been. The seeds of our current crisis was sewn soon after independance when successive Sinhalese Governments failed to address the Tamil issue. This was more or less due to lack of any interest and reluctance to grant the Tamils equal rights under Federal System because anything short would not have been accepatble to the minority Tamil community.If the Sinhalese politicians who had the power at their disposal had the vision and settled the Tamil issue we would have been the envy of the World and on par with Singapore. Instead of resolving the Tamil issue the Sinhalese politicians in an attempt to gain power whipped up hatred which resulted in thousands of innocent Tamils being slaughtered.
      For me the change of heart is not going to come from within witout oustside intervention and the only nation which can make it happen is our big brother India.
      Whether the Sinhalese diehearts like it or not India has total jurisdiction over Sri Lanka. Why else do you think even the mighty America had to consult India before submitting the resoution at UNHCR for vetting.
      But the current regime which also has blood on its hand is not prepared to upset the applecart.
      But change will come when we have a change of Government either this year ( sooner the better )or next year in India in the form Mr.Modi and Miss.Jeyaram and we have all seen what the iron lady will do and she has made her intentions clear which should be taken as a warning by the current Sri Lankan Leaders but sdaly it is not in their gene. I was in India during which there were 4 by elections and Corgress was decimated.
      We cannot have Reconciliation without Accountablity and that simply means those who pressided over the Genocide should be brought to books. We cannot apportion blame equally as one expects a much higher standard from elected representatives and the current rulers failed the test by a long way.
      Even the Sinhalse are now crying out for help and I hope we can change Sri Lanka for the better but there has to be a recognition that we are two different peolpe with seperate language and Religion and can only unite under federal arrangement.
      UNITED ( as one nation without a federal system ) we fall and DIVIDED ( as one nation under a federal system ) we stand and that is the choice before us. Difficult though it may be but inevitable.

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