By Malinda Seneviratne –
Americans of the United States are familiar with the term ‘Pleading the fifth’. It refers to the 5th Amendment to the Constitution which, in popular understanding, gives witnesses the right to desist responding to questions if it was felt that the answer would contribute to self-incrimination. It has been used so often, in and out of court, that ‘pleading the fifth’ in common understanding in fact yields what it was designed to hide: incrimination.
Now in US courts it is standard practice for witnesses to place hand on Bible or whatever religious text that goes with the individual’s faith and pledge to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (“So help me God!”). That said, the ‘fifth’ really doesn’t make any sense for its reference clearly wrecks the ‘whole truth’ part of the pledge. For whatever reason, US courts (and of course constitution and amendment architects) don’t seem to mind.
Practice, however, has made that plea meaningless for juries do take note of that which is said and do reflect on reluctance to respond. People take note too.
Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. Perhaps it is habit, having used ‘the fifth’ to get away with anything (should we say ‘to get away with murder’?) that prompts its ready use by citizens of that country who are stationed as diplomats in other parts of the world when tough questions are thrown at them. Perhaps it is nothing more than taking a leaf out of the President’s handbook for dealing with the uncomfortable (Barack Obama once said, ‘Please don’t ask us about that’). Whatever it is ‘No comment’ seems to be the top response scripted for whoever has to answer the phone at the US Embassy in Colombo (and elsewhere too).
It is strange indeed that the loudest mouth, so to speak, in the international community, that not only spits out threats and indulges in nauseating justification for countless crimes against humanity, cannot respond to a simple question for which the answer could be an equally simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Last week it was alleged that an USAID official had promised to fund an opposition election campaign. This was after the organization took an ad calling ‘civil society organizations’ to submit proposals for a voter education project. The United States has support various election-related projects over the years. Voter education is a patently joke-subject in a country that has enjoyed universal adult franchise for over 80 years, much longer than the USA which, even today, selects and does not elect its president and which on one occasion experienced a hilarious situation where the president was selected by a vote by a panel of judges! What these voter education projects seek to obtain is therefore matter for suspicion, not least of all given the credentials of the outfits that have benefited from US largesse (see ‘Is an election a “village tank” to monitors and donors’ and ‘On making valid points and fudging critical issues’ for details of how the US was either swindled by prominent NGOs or else knowingly propped up dodgy outfits engaged in equally dodgy projects). .
That project has since been canceled and that is telling! But never mind all that. When the question is put, ‘was such an offer made?’ or if clarification is sought on the allegation, the US Embassy says ‘no comment’. Pleading the fifth, essentially.
As of now, to be fair to the opposition, no one has come up with any solid proof to substantiate the contention that such a meeting did take place and such an offer was indeed made. The US does not help the opposition by pleading the fifth because conclusions can and will be drawn. Given the long history of political interference outside stated mandate by USAID (the outfit was hoofed out of Russia), the Government has every right to summon officials for explanation. Saying ‘I will come only if my momma accompanies me’ (momma being US Ambassador Michele Sison of course) doesn’t help un-cloud the picture. It only gives credence to allegation.
The Loudest Mouth in the World can do better than plead the fifth. And if it fears conversation then it is laughable that it wants to educate voters because democracy is about debate and discussion, not silence and shy-making.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com