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.