By Kumar David –
Though this point has been festering in my mind what kick-started this para was Shyamon Jayasinghe’s (‘Similarities of Political Culture between Trump and post-war SL’) in Colombo Telegraph, 20 Jan 2021, Jo-Kamala inauguration day. This is not a reply to SJ, his topic is political morality mine is somewhat different, but he is to blame for giving me a push. The similarity that I want to reflect upon is that presidents and prime ministers of Lanka since the 1990s-incumbents have mostly if not entirely been crooked. That is, persons engaged in monetary fraud; in addition nearly all are guilty of other forms of misconduct – violation of the constitution, alleged murder, torture of political opponents or critics, and gross nepotism. I will not stop to quote examples as my paper will run out and my Editor is not kind enough to double by word-count quota. In any case it’s not necessary; most readers are better informed than I am on these matters.
No ex- president, prime minister, defence secretary or other Cabinet Minister of Sri Lanka has been prosecuted after his side lost an election – or maybe there were just one or two, forgive my ageing memory. Do you recall the blood curdling threats that the 2015 winners issued about crucifying oodles of thieves and gangsters of the previous regime Rajapaksa? Do you remember how the 2019-20 winners swore during the elections that they would prosecute and crucify yahapalana bond-bandits and a nefarious assortment of yahapalana crooks? Nothing happened! Not one rouge who pocketed countless millions spent one day behind bars. Actually there was one, poor Lalith Weeratunga played forlorn Sydney Carton to his boss’s Charles Draney.
I am in the US at the moment and the vaccination mess that Trump left behind is bedlam. Vaccinations were quite rightly initially restricted to healthcare workers and essential personnel but the next stage was for over-65s. It was chaos! You need an appointment but the website is only usable by someone with a PhD in software, imagine some half-blind little old lady trying to find a slot. The site gives you oodles of useless information but how to make an appointment is hidden away behind a machinegun load of clicks and when you finally reach it IT’S FULL! “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”. If you get an appointment and roll up in a car (the good part is its drive through vaccination) the line of cars is 3 to 5 km long. At Dodger Stadium, the main site (of 5 in LA County) it takes six hours in line but only six seconds to get the jab. And it gets worse; folks need two shots 21 days apart if its Pfizer or 28 days apart for the Moderna (the CDC says a two or three week delay is ok), but imagine going through it all to get another appointment and the waiting in line!
Now why blame Trump you may ask; isn’t it all to do with the crush of getting things done! No; the answer is no in so far as the cock-up in pre-planning and executing procedures is concerned. Trump as president neglected, I would say obstructed, putting in place procedures to administer the vaccination programme when the vaccine rolled out. At of this moment of writing about 40 million doses have come off the manufacturing line, not even half the number has found its way into people’s arms. Trump is guilty of criminal negligence but here’s my punch line. Though he is a crooked businessman and continued to be so during his presidency, though he has violated the constitution and he has acted in palpable bad faith, I am prepared to offer my usual wager, a litre bottle of single-malt that he will not face criminal prosecution, nor will he be imprisoned for a large platter of crimes though he deserves to be. My pessimistic conjecture is that he will get away with a light rap on the knuckles.
It behoves us to ask why this is so. The Sri Lankan specific practice of ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ is not generalizable. A popular theory and one which I subscribe to his that the big clans and families will not go out on a limb to harm the other. It is assumed that Mahinda as President protected Ranil from arrest or worse and in recognition thereof Ranil did not allow prosecution of MR, GR and Basil for corruption and MR’s sons for more serious allegations including murder. There is now a stifling silence about the bond-scam which was a headline during the elections. It is said that during the Chandrika and Mahinda presidencies some similar code of honour among thieves prevailed. The only time when this cosy arrangement was flouted was when JR wrongfully revoked Mrs B’s civil rights in a fit of vengeance; so you see the one instance in which a former national leader was condemned by the state, was done wrongfully. Furthermore Nihal Jayawickrama, an honourable man was likewise wronged simply for association with Mrs B.
Be all this as it may I ask again, leaving aside unusual setups like Sri Lanka, why is it that gross and criminal leaders and ministers are not brought to book when they leave office? A few are, as in the case of Sarkozy or if there is concerted international pressure, Slobodan Milosevic for example. But seen alongside the sea of crimes that military-gorilla regimes in South and Central America, Burma and Central Asia have been responsible, or the systematic abuses of power, mechanisms of torture, violations of the constitution and robbery on a giant scale that leaders have been up to, not even the tip pf the iceberg has been touched. Even that mighty robber Marcos and his accomplice-wife Imelda, Malaysia’s serial robber Najib Razak and many others still walk free, or did so till the Great Reaper settled the score.
I have no universal answer to this question but one part of the answer is obvious. In times of yore the masters of the manor did as they pleased and were not held to account. “The history of all hitherto existing society” we might say is the story of how rulers were never held to account. And then in modern times, in modern liberal democratic times, this has undergone a little twist – the insolence of law. Great bodies of complex law have been enacted, great and leaned men in wigs have debated them and the rest of society came into the courtroom and the chambers and out they went “by the same door as in they came”. The law is the same for the rich and the poor or as Anatole France remarked “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. Great PCs, QCs and R for rotten Cs, are available to the humblest citizen if he could afford the fee. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, the 2012 police murders of Rodney King, and the accused in the forthcoming trial of “I can’t breathe” murder of Eric Garner have or will will be decided by the majesty of the law in accordance with the fee of vital counsel.
Miscarriages of justice and sheer disregard for the law are increasingly commonplace in Sri Lanka in recent decades. But time is of the essence in all things; it will determine the outcome in the US and it will decide in Lanka. Ahimsas and Sandayas and thousands of widows, mothers and daughters wait. They knit and they wait, and wait and knit. They knit and knit and wait and wait, as did Madame Defarge, for that day which will surly come.