By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Appropriately for Independence Day, I just completed reading the letter of a young student who had gone abroad to pursue her postgraduate studies after benefiting from the country’s free education systems and then returned home in the expectation of making up her mind whether to stay or return overseas. What prompted my interest was that the letter was written with feeling and with emotion. These were not deep esoteric meanderings. This was clearly not a person who had tracked political developments in Sri Lanka or had participated in debates on the 13th Amendment plus or minus as the case may be. It was also not written with any particular sensitivity for those whom we refer to as the minorities. Nevertheless, it was a letter written with great pain of mind by a young person who felt that she had to ‘give back’ to Sri Lanka but was struggling to come to terms with what Sri Lanka had become, in her own mind.
Reflections devoid of adult cynicism
So while appreciating the clean streets of the city of Colombo, the writer went beyond to question, among other things, the failure of basic systems of administration, the most recent of which were the most colossal blunders in releasing the Advanced Level examination results. Who shouldered the blame for this debacle among many others? Where is the notion of accountability in government? And ultimately, in deciding not to stay, it was apparent that there was much conflict internalized by this young letter writer amidst a realization that this amounted to ‘rejecting’ Sri Lanka.
Why do I say that this letter is appropriate for Independence Day? It was not written certainly with that objective in mind and I read it on that day purely coincidentally. However its relevance is inescapable. The independence of a nation is about the pride of its youth. When young persons with obvious conscience decide in this way, after considerable agonizing that is devoid of adult cynicism, this is a direct reflection on the country’s political leadership and what remains, (which is precious little), of its intellectual leadership.
Moreover, celebrating independence is about standing tall in the world, not merely in vanquishing an enemy but in showing magnanimity in victory. It is in its people feeling safe and secure in the equality of the functioning of their institutions, in showing confidence in government and in administration. A country’s pride does not lie in labels or in constitutional or legal provisions, however important these may be. Rather, it is in the practice of government. Today, not a single house down the street I live showed the Sri Lankan flag fluttering in the breeze. Surely these are extremely appropriate reflections for Sri Lanka’s President, his family, the heads of the services, the police and the judiciary as they take part in independence day ‘celebrations’ that are as bombastic as they are an exercise in unseemly self glorification, Mahawamsa and all?
Accountability of government, of public office and of citizenship
This year, Sri Lanka faces increased national, regional and international pressure in regard to its Rule of Law crisis which encompasses the notion of accountability of government. Accountability is a lamentably misused term. By some, particularly of the pro-LTTE diaspora, it is used purely in relation to the abuses that occurred during the last stages of the war. However, the idea of accountability is infinitely broader than this. Accountability is the responsibility of government towards its citizens, majority and minority. When a young person of obviously Sinhalese ethnicity decides that it is impossible to live in Sri Lanka, how should a young person of Tamil ethnicity feel, with all the myriad and the manifold problems attached to his or her very fact of existence here? This is a good question.
This week, we had a Commissioner of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission stating publicly that he could not continue further in the post, due to what was quaintly termed as unfolding circumstances as reported in the daily newspapers. We would like to know what exactly these unfolding circumstances are. Several years back and under a different administration, ‘reasons of conscience’ prompted two members of the Judicial Service Commission, (counting also the sitting Chief Justice), to tender their resignations from the body presided over then by former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva. At that time, even speculating on these ‘reasons of conscience’ evoked the fear of contempt of court though these reasons were very much an open secret in Hulfsdorp.
It is a poignant memory that the Bar Association newsletter at that time carried a stinging reflection on the background to the resignations solely through the determined efforts of the late Mr Desmond Fernando, PC who published it at his own cost since the usual publisher refused to have anything to do with it. This is a personally validated fact by this columnist who was a member of the editorial committee and was fully aware of the circumstances in which that particular newsletter was published. The point however is that judicial or public servants cannot plead unfolding circumstances or reasons of conscience as their defence when stepping down from their positions. They owe it to the public to explain further, as much as that young letter writer explained on her own terms as to why she does not wish to live in Sri Lanka. This is the notion of the responsibility or accountability of public office as well as of citizenship which is as important as the accountability of government.
Complete absence of sincerity in implementing the LLRC’s recommendations
At another level, the government’s claim that it will implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and its parading of a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) that is substantially flawed in many respects continues to be at odds with reality. The deficiencies of the NHRAP remain to be dealt with on another occasion. However, the trend of events post the LLRC report all speaks to the complete absence of sincerity on the part of the government in carrying out its frequently voiced reassurances that it will implement its recommendations. This column wrote last week on the ‘whitewash’ of the LLRC’s recommendations. There appears to be no reason at all to change this view. It has been frequently observed in these column spaces that even if the Commission report defied its critics and produced a reasonably good report, the effort would come to nothing if the government is permitted to use that report as a mere delaying tactic to fend off highly justified criticism on its lack of accountability towards all Sri Lankans. What we are seeing now bears out these predictions in all their severity.
The resignation of a Commissioner from the Human Rights Commission, which assuredly is not an appointment that any right thinking person should have accepted in the first place, is a mere footnote. What contradicts banal official assurances that governance processes would be set to rights post LLRC extends to a far more disturbing reality than that. When something as fundamental as a protest demonstration by the media gets hijacked by pro government protestors numbering thugs holding clubs and three wheeler drivers who defy a court order that the planned demonstrations should not disturb traffic movement, we have reached the veritable nadir.
Quite apart from the enactment of a right to information law which this column focused on last week, the LLRC emphasized the fact that media freedom should be enhanced in keeping with democratic principles and relevant fundamental rights obligations. It affirmed that harassment and attacks on media personnel should be prevented, cases should be properly investigated and prosecuted as well as deterrent punishments imposed.
Judgment descended to brutish beasts
But is last week’s government approved hijacking of a legitimate media protest in line with the overall thrust of improving media freedoms as recommended by the LLRC? Government propagandists may engage in the tired refrain of violations of media freedoms by predecessor administrations. It may also be legitimately said that opposition politicians who scarcely have clean records themselves, should not be given the opportunity to hold forth on media freedoms at these protest meetings. However, holding a protest demonstration within the law (with or without opposition politicians) is a clearly legitimate expression of freedoms of speech, information and assembly.
This right has been unequivocally upheld by the Supreme Court in beautifully reasoned judgments in the past. It appears however that these legal precedents are of no impact now. Judgment appears, quite literally, to have descended to brutish beasts.
Without engaging in spin doctoring and sending propaganda teams to the Western capitals or for that matter, engaging Western public relations agencies at huge expense to the tax payer, this government and this Presidency would be better advised to substantially implement the LLRC’s recommendations. This would immeasurably benefit not only this country but ensure the democratic longevity of this administration. It may even persuade young letter writers bitterly disillusioned with Sri Lanka to think seriously of coming back to home soil.