By Ravi Perera –
The efficacy of their systems, progress and occasional hiccups reflect in a fundamental way the culture, the intelligence and even the sensibilities of a people. One simply cannot for instance have an evolved parliamentary system among a group of barbarians. Neither can we have a credible public /judicial service in a corrupt culture. The former would have no use for the niceties of democratic principles while the latter will invariably subvert the public/judicial service with corruption. On the other hand, we have the example of Great Britain functioning as a stable and prosperous democracy without even a document which could be referred to as the Constitution. Acts of Parliament, case law, precedents, traditions etc give sufficient cohesion to that society and system, still looked up to as a leading nation on many indicators, noticeably on constitutional and legal aspects. Even our infamous hedging case has now ended up in a British court for adjudication.
A people are a sum of their ideas, attitudes and sensibilities. Whatever happens in a given society will ultimately progress along lines set by that particular people. The on-going impeachment motion against the Chief Justice is no different. Its definition, evolution and the final act can in a larger sense only reflect the quality of a people.
Of course in a large society there is not just one opinion, attitude or sensibility, although we can often discern general directions therein. Events that happen around us, including the impeachment motion happen in a certain context. As writers we can only report what we see and hear. It is for the reader to interpret their meaning. We recount here some of the opinions expressed by different persons in recent days. They were not recorded and are reproduced only to the best of our recollection. Due to space limitations we have condensed the conversations considerably. Some of the opinions expressed may not be directly referable to the impeachment motion but we think are representative of general attitudes and categories of thinking common in Sri Lanka
Two views of past
A few days back I happened to be in on a Sinhalese radio channel where I heard the following narration of the harrowing events of that distant day in 1959 when the Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated. I got in only mid-way in the radio programme and could not catch the name of the narrator. It went like this “That time there were many foreign conspiracies afoot to destabilize the country. The CIA was very involved. On the day the Prime Minister was shot, the American Ambassador was an early morning visitor to the Bandaranayake residence. After their meeting the Prime Minister walked the Ambassador to his car. He then noticed two Buddhist priests seated on the Verandah. It was one of them who later shot him. As to how that pistol was smuggled in to the Prime Minister’s residence remains a mystery. Because of that assassination not only did America get rid of an undesirable leader but also saw the public wrath turning on the clergy consequently.” The not so subtle suggestion of the narrator was that the US Ambassador is a possible suspect on the question of the smuggling in of the murder weapon to the prime Minister’s residence. It was clear that the narrator had no appreciation of the casual approach to security in that era and could view the past only through the vision of the paranoid security arrangements of the present. The narrator’s opinion of the range of activities suspected of Western Ambassadors may not be as isolated as one may think.
The second “history “was related to us by a Science Graduate of the Colombo University .He is now a very successful entrepreneur, with businesses in several countries. This story was something he had heard from a third party but offered it to us as a plausible narration of a recent event of historical interest. His source was a present day Sri Lankan Ambassador in an Asian country. In the relevant period this man was apparently a confidant of President Premadasa. The story had been told him by President Premadasa, making it double here-say. However my science graduate friend could find no reason to doubt its veracity and it was evident that most of the listeners that day thought it had a ring of truth to it.
“Late one night the then president JR Jayewardene summoned Prime Minister Premadasa to his residence. Somewhat apprehensive (he thought he might be arrested) the Prime Minister yet made his way to Ward Place, where the President lived. There he found the octogenarian President with Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. A notoriously “political” Police Officer (who later died in a bomb blast) then turned up there dragging Chief Justice Neville Samarakone by the collar of his shirt. (Like now, then too the Executive president was at logger heads with the Chief Justice) The President gave the unfortunate Chief Justice a slap across his face and ordered haughtily that he be removed from his presence.”
Three views of the present
It is said that analytical skills are essential for success in the legal profession. I looked forward to the spate of cocktail parties hosted by newly appointed President’s Counsel which offered an opportunity to meet up with several lawyers with whom I had not crossed paths for quite some time. Given their wits and analytical skills, such gatherings of lawyers are extremely interesting.
A lawyer , a dabbler in various NGO causes while they remain popular, but whose professional integrity I didn’t think much of, greeted me superciliously “ I read your pieces in the papers and enjoy its criticism but why don’t you offer an alternative, a solution ?” he challenged. The simplicity of his mind-set, that to critique something was to have an alternative, a solution, saw things only two dimensionally, the good versus the bad scenario. To criticize corruption for example, the writer must have a solution to this problem which has been with us ever since man became a social being. To that way of thinking every article, magazine or book exploring human foibles should contain a wise solution. For example, when the Time magazine does a story on the Arab spring, an explosion of long festering wounds of that old complex culture, the magazine must also carry the solutions thereto within its glossy covers.
The next day I met a senior lawyer who is an active member of the Lawyers association, a simple man with a benevolent spirit and a decent attitude. He has had a few, and spoke more voluminously than usual. When I mentioned the hot topic of the impeachment of the Chief Justice he confided “how would you feel, if you feed a person, clothe him, give him a good appointment and then he turns around and says –I want to be independent! Won’t you go wild?”
On my way out I bumped into a high up government lawyer, a man well known for his pedantic mentality and the talent to maneuver his way up. He sounded quite disturbed about the impeachment motion, which he described as abominable. I asked him whether he intends doing anything about it. “Don’t be silly. Public servants will have to consider their families. But the people are fed up. They will soon act”. By the way, this man, now in his fifties is a bachelor. It is said that he is in line for a higher appointment soon.
A view of a possible future
At the next cocktail I met a veteran UNP supporter. A more cultivated man than the senior lawyer I met earlier, but with a certain reticence and a cultural uncertainty about him. I raised the question that has now become an intractable dilemma of the UNP, the proverbial party in waiting. In Ranil Wickramasinghe the UNP seems to be stuck with a leader unable to win popular endorsement but whose hold on the party’s apex body apparently remains strong.
“When will Ranil’s luck turn?” I asked him
“The tide is turning now. In another one and half years the government will collapse. Ranil will come back strongly” I asked him whether there are no other leaders in the party who will be able to lead them.
“No, Ranil is very intelligent. He is the man to lead us”
This comment brought out the playful in me, and I teased him “Is he more intelligent than you and I?”
He paused at the invitation to self- deprecate, then laughed doubtfully. “Yes, he is more intelligent than us”
He laughed again, this time with less restrain.
Outside, a cool November wind was blowing. I thought it would soon rain.