By Harim Peiris –
Sacking a CJ with minimal domestic political fuss or costs
Hats off to the Rajapaksa regime, the Machiavelli of Medamulane has pulled it off. Sacking a Chief Justice and getting away with it is no easy task and few governments succeed. The Fijian generals who periodically overthrow that tortured nation’s democratic governments usually follow up by sacking judges, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has found it necessary to curb an independent judiciary, the list is not long. Now Sri Lanka joins this group, where the government has successfully got rid of a Chief Justice who became in a very limited manner, an inconvenient obstacle to the executive’s wishes.
The effort was not without its nay Sayers. The Sunday Times of 20th January in its political column perhaps best sums up the concerns of those opposed to the impeachment when it states “The week’s historic events (almost) close the chapter on one of the darkest periods in Sri Lankan politics. The force of the police and the security forces, the new weapons they have acquired to fight a terrorist enemy now no more, have been used to keep away a Chief Justice from walking into her own office, not to sit and work but to take away her personal belongings. For the same reason, hired goons have taken to clubs, poles and knuckle dusters. The same lethal force has been used to ensconce a new Chief Justice. Those who used their democratic right to express dissenting views and help throw light on gross injustice have become terrorists and traitors. They face intimidation and death threats. A judiciary has been silenced. A new dark chapter begins now. If one is not deaf or dumb the need to desist saying anything that displeases the ruling establishment, is the message. Otherwise it would be invitation to disaster. That is Sri Lanka today, once a tranquil paradise isle and now the land of the might”.
Internationally the Sri Lankan government’s hasty and rash assault on the judiciary has gone down very badly. The expressions of concerns and in fact even calls to reinstate Chief Justice Bandaranayake came from a host of nations and internationals actors including the US, UK, Canada, the UN and the Commonwealth. Canada has already referred Sri Lanka to the Ministerial Action Group (MAG) of the Commonwealth, which will now have to examine the issue, casting a serious shadow over Sri Lanka’s hosting of the CHOGAM later this year. Further at the UNHRC in March, a review on the resolution calling on Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations is due and the country’s already weak record of implementing the LLRC recommendations would be compounded by what is seen internationally as an undemocratic and authoritarian assault on the judiciary, unhelpful to and running counter to national reconciliation.
But the Rajapaksa regime primarily focuses not just on the domestic Sri Lankan polity but on its own key constituency of the Southern Sinhala base and here it succeeded in wrapping the impeachment debate in the garb of good governance, financial and moral integrity and succeeded in sacking the CJ with its constituency basically holding. Though a few cracks and chinks in the armour appeared. The traditional left parties, the CP and LSSP finally demonstrated some political backbone and publicly opposed and then at least abstained from the impeachment vote as did the Liberal Party’s lone national list MP, the maverick Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe. More publicly influential, the senior most religious leaders in the country, the venerable Maha Nayake Theros of the four main Nikaya’s, all unanimously requested the President to desist from impeaching the CJ. So did the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Christian Council. These requests were ignored.
The real rabbit the Regime pulled out of its hat though was the basic acquiescence of the main opposition party the UNP. Disunited to the point of impotency and lacking the political confidence to take on the government, the UNP have become bystanders and observers of political developments in Sri Lanka, completely unwilling and unable to be a check and balance on the government’s uses and abuses of power. Impeaching the Chief Justice being a good case in point. The Rajapaksa regime does back off from political pressure from the Sinhala polity. The private pension plan with EPF funds, private universities as an alternative to adequate funding for the state universities all resulted in the government backing off with the Free Trade Zone worker strike and the FUTA strike. In all instances the UNP were bystanders of serious antigovernment protests. One almost suspects that the UNP leader, now himself ensconced in that position for six more long years, is convinced that being the sole alternative to the sole representative of the Sinhala people, is all that is required to win power in a future election in some distant date when this government will collapse under its own weight, which is really pretty wishful thinking. Probably without the UNP’s tacit support the impeachment would not have succeeded. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka offered token resistance. The chief contribution of its President, UNP MP Wijeydasa Rajapakshe, was similar to that of his party leader and successfully dampened the sheer outrage of its membership to a mere protesting whimper.
Pakistan with none of the democratic credentials, traditions and history showed how a polity should respond when Chief Justice Chowdry was impeached. The Courts shut down, judges refused to work, the political opposition organised protests and the impeachment was unsuccessful. Sri Lanka is almost back to business as usual, then and now, except there is nothing usual in a politicized judiciary. Especially when placed on top of a politicized bureaucracy and a politicized police force.