Many, quite rightly, bewail the constant chaos bedeviling the United National Party (UNP) which has become so ludicrous now that the whole country is witness to an unseemly tug of war between supporters of party seniors as to who should claim credit for the Right to Information (RTI) Bill.
A tragedy of epic proportions
Such dogged insistence on scoring brownie points in regard to a draft that has (ironically) remained stuck in the House for years is equaled only by the grim determination of the government not to push through the Bill for reasons that can only be justified as wanting to have the freedom to rob the country blind. This deadlock may have been cause for some mirth in different times. However, in the present circumstances, it is a tragedy of epic proportions to see the main opposition mired in dolorous internal conflict while a ruling cabal takes Sri Lanka literally to the cleaners, domestically and internationally.
That said, as much as the UNP and the JVP appear to be grappling with themselves, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has fared no better as a political party, though its stamp is (theoretically) on the ruling administration. A coterie of yes-men and yes-women who prostrate themselves in unquestioning obeisance to a ruling cabal cannot be called a political party after all. And the hapless impotence of SLFP party seniors is well seen in their angry powerlessness over the uncouth antics of Mervyn de Silvas and the like. Pronouncements by the government that the SLFP will be reorganized as a prelude to the upcoming premature Provincial elections, passes a specific message of encouragement to the party ranks. This message however, has little meaning in regard to resuscitating a democratic structure as internal party discipline will not be enforced (except in regard to those who incur displeasure on the part of the cabal) and the crux of familial power around the Executive Presidency will not change despite magnanimous crumbs thrown to the crawling sycophants.
The futility of the law
Democracy, good governance and the Rule of Law have always been empty words for political parties, to be used in justification when in opposition and to be openly mocked at when in government. But this administration is particularly culpable in this regard for the state of the law had never reached such degenerate levels even during previous most difficult decades. The law has become irrelevant now not only in respect of violations which occurred during the end stages of the conflict in 2009 or indeed, post war incidents of torture, enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings but also in regard to the ‘ordinary’ functioning of our society .
The laments of those whose houses and lands are taken from them by force or trickery, range from city dwellers in Colombo and the suburbs to Sinhalese villagers in the deep South and Tamil and Muslim villagers trying to make what they can of their shattered lives in the formerly war torn areas in the North and East. Evicted in the name of development but without adequate and just compensation, their plight is profound. In the interior of Uva where state land is being appropriated in whole by politicians from the Centre down to the very local government councilor and then sold for profits, one serving senior public servant lamented the insidious politicization of rural communities where prostrating oneself before a politician is imperative for every little matter. Recourse to the courts for a perceived injustice is looked upon as being faintly ridiculous if not useless. The police remain highly politicized and it is almost a certainty that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendation for the Department of the Police to be delinked from the Ministry of Defence will not see the light of day.
In this environment where the law has lost all meaning, monumental corruption and wheeler dealing can only flourish, whether it is the recently exposed hugely suspect share market deal engaged in by the National Savings Bank (no resignations have yet been evidenced) or the now almost routine pilfering of massive public funds by state institutions. Parliamentary institutions such as COPE continue to be powerless.
A discussion uniquely marked by good sense
Yet, in times where even religion has been shamefully appropriated by politicians and the clergy of all faiths appear to be adept at putting on a political garb, this columnist was held riveted by a chance discussion on television this week in regard to the organized raids now being carried out on ancient temples by treasure hunters. Two Buddhist monks and a professional participated in this discussion which was uniquely marked by moderation and good sense, both qualities that are sadly lacking generally in Sri Lanka’s public life.
Indeed, the nature of the discussion was in stark contrast to the mayhem in Dambulla several weeks ago when monks of a very different character led a virtual public assault on a mosque. But reverting to this instant discussion, the relevance of the law in Sri Lanka today was central to the discussion conducted in Sinhala and Tamil. Enacting amendments to laws in place, imposing heavier fines and so were said, very soundly by the discussants, to be of no use, when the very law itself is powerless against such rackets. It was pointed out by one of the participatory monks that these highly organized treasure hunts, ( different to the ad hoc variety that we saw in previous years), were similar in their appearance and disappearance to the much feared ‘grease yaka’ phenomenon of not so long ago.
A faint and flickering flame of moderate beliefs
One apt remark which was striking by and of itself in these times when hate and anger predominates, was this monk’s observance that when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam held the Northern peninsula under their control, they did not seek to destroy Sinhala-Buddhist religious sites with preconceived malice and intention. An example referred to was the ancient Kantharodi site, a few kilometers away from Jaffn town, which remained intact even during the height of hostilities.
This was a pertinent and quite correct observation. As this columnist recalls on a visit to that site two years ago, one complaint of the temple custodians however, was that the temple lands had been encroached on by villagers throughout the decades. This is however a natural development seen in regard to temple lands in other parts of the country as well. Apropos to the topic of that television discussion, it was also observed by these participatory monks that the Sinhalese people have much to learn from the traditional simple and frugal life of many Tamil villagers even today, whose respect for their religious sites is unswerving.
Flickering and faint as it may be, the flame of wisely moderate beliefs, barring religious, ethnic and social prejudices, still burns in Sri Lanka and in the hearts of some Sri Lankans who have not succumbed to triumphalist post war vainglory. Perhaps an unfair generalization but there is reason indeed to believe that this flame burns more in the homes of ordinary people rather than the elite, among those possessing simple direct minds rather than the supposedly intellectually erudite.
Some genuinely believe that simple changes in the country’s Constitution will work miracles in political accountability, that law reforms will afford relief to the helpless and that if justice systems and judges work properly, much of Sri Lanka’s problems will be solved. This may have been true of our society a decade ago. However, such naïve beliefs do not hold good any longer. The damage done to the relevance of the law, ironically more in the post conflict years, will take generations to repair, if ever this can indeed be repaired.
This is an essential reality which, ugly as it is, needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. For the moment, let us be glad that some sane voices continue to be heard, even if those voices may be muted and isolated in the general tumult.