By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“It is society that is dying so the tyrants can live”
Irène Némirovsky, (Suite Française)
A magistrate is not a displaced Tamil, a Sinhala worker or a university student; a magistrate is not even a journalist or a Samurdhi official. A magistrate is a far more august personage; the representative of an institution which is an indispensable pillar of any functioning democracy. But neither magistrates nor the judiciary are safe in a country with a power-elite habituated into trampling underfoot anyone or anything standing in its marauding way.
When Rishad Bathiudeen allegedly threatened the Mannar magistrate for refusing to change a judicial decision displeasing to his ministerial-palate, he was not breaking new territory; he was merely taking the next logical step forward in a well-worn path of lawlessness crafted by his political masters.
In a country where dissent is a de facto crime, even dissenting judges cannot be safe. And whenever the judiciary ceases to play by the Rulers’ rules, it may have to suffer the consequences of non-compliance, like all lesser institutions/individuals.
Sri Lanka owes thanks to Minister Bathiudeen for revealing these truths in stark hues.
Reflected in the Bathiudeen-mirror is a ruling elite addicted to power and impunity. Reflected in the Bathiudeen-mirror are a people sunk in a torpor of cowardice and indifference. Reflected in the Bathiudeen-mirror is the extent of our present degradation and our future danger.
In his comments on the Mannar incident, President Rajapaksa did not criticise Minister Bathiudeen. He said that he “regretted the doubts entertained by the Courts…pertaining to a member of his Cabinet” (Daily News – 23.7.2012). He did not say he was outraged by the alleged activities of his minister which caused these doubts. The tattered clichés he used about an independent judiciary served to cover his total lack of condemnation of the alleged attack on judicial independence by his ministerial-henchman.
Constitutionally only the President is above the law. In reality the law cannot touch members of the Rajapaksa clan or key Rajapaksa acolytes. The police are yet to question Nishantha Wickremsinghe, Presidential brother-in-law and Chairman of SriLankan Airlines, who in his interview with The Sunday Leader admitted that his son brought a hoard of undeclared foreign currency into the country (an activity also known as smuggling) and that he stashed this hoard at his home. Presidential offspring and parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa became a lawyer in a manner which caused serious doubts in the public mind about the conduct of the Law College.
When Samurdi officials united to protest the crime committed against a colleague, the President took away Mervyn Silva’s Deputy Ministership and ordered a SLFP and police inquiry. But, in the end, matters were so arranged that the victim said he tied himself to a tree and not a single eyewitness could be found to testify against Mervyn Silva. So Mr. Silva was declared innocent and made a Minister.
If the regime is allowed to have its way, the Mannar inquiry will either exculpate Minister Bathiudeen – as happened with the Mervyn Silva vs. Samurdhi official inquiry; or its (adverse) report will be interred forever in the Presidential safe-box – as happened with the Roshain Chanaka inquiry. Left to their own devices, the Ruling Siblings will not allow Minister Bathiudeen to suffer the legal consequences of his alleged misdeeds. As long as he remains a loyal acolyte, they will protect him, just as they protect Mervyn Silva or Duminda Silva.
The only way the Mannar outrage can have a different ending is if the judiciary and the public insist on a free and fair inquiry which enables the law to take its proper course, leading to the punishment of all the guilty, if any, irrespective of rank and connections.
Last week the UPFA, bowing to public pressure, removed the Chairman of the Akuressa PS, currently in detention for child rape, and appointed the Deputy Chairman in his stead. Within hours, the media revealed that the Deputy Chairman had been charged with rape in 2010. Since the PS polls were held in 2011, those who gave this man nomination and at least some of those who voted for him would have known that they were empowering an alleged rapist.
The Rajapaksas bear the lion-share of guilt for the sad state of Sri Lanka; but that does not mean that we, voters and citizens, are guiltless.
We, the people, bear some responsibility for what befalls us governmentally, even in a semi-democracy in transition to an autocracy. Even the most dictatorial rulers are sensitive to sustained and public pressure from their core-support groups. For instance, faced with protests from their base, the Nazis ended the gassing of the mentally-ill and postponed the deportation of Jewish spouses of ‘Aryan’ Berliners.
In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, protest matters, because it has an occasional chance of success. The protest by private sector workers compelled the regime to withdraw its kleptocratic pension-plan. Resistance has so far saved Colombo’s poor from being evicted from their homes, en masse. The regime has reportedly abandoned a plan to construct two airports in the hill-country, due to public outcries.
So there is an alternative to silence and inaction, to wringing hands and asking, rhetorically, ‘but what can we do?’ Because our collective voices can still prevent, delay, alleviate and mitigate some of the worst excesses of the regime, some of the time. True, resistance is a risky business; the struggle against the private pension rip-off cost a young life. But the alternative is equally unpalatable – allowing the Siblings and their kith and kin to turn Sri Lanka into a dysfunctional, lawless unliveable place.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s megalomania or Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lingua franca is not the greatest of problems facing Sri Lanka. The steady undermining of every public institution and service should concern all Lankans of every political hue and none. The ongoing Z-Score fiasco is emblematic of this general crisis. Sri Lanka has been having public examinations with remarkable efficacy until the Rajapaksas came in and placed education in the hands of the incomparable Bandula Gunawardene and the inimitable S. B. Dissanayake. Today AL Exams have become a veritable labyrinth of horror. The colossal damage done to the education system and other public institutions should concern even avid Rajapaksa supporters because, unlike the absence of a political solution or white-vanning, it affects every Lankan, directly or indirectly.
The Rajapaksas cannot be dislodged until the ‘hunger in the belly and hunger to be free’ (Grayling) coincide – and that can take a while. If it is possible to oust the Rajapaksas at the next election, there would be no urgent need to resist them in the interim. Unfortunately, thanks to the 18th Amendment (enabled by a pliant Supreme Court), the Rajapaksas will rule hard and rule long, barring a fluke. This is precisely why the worst Rajapaksa excesses must be resisted in between elections, even by Rajapaksa supporters. There is no other way to prevent Sri Lanka from becoming an unliveable land; or to ensure that the country is in a salvageable state on the day the Rajapaksas are finally dislodged.
The Bathiudeen-mirror has shown us what the future will be, if we fail to resist.