by Rajan Philips.
Sri Lanka, the chosen land of Buddhism, has been home to the world’s four major religions for centuries. The four faiths have co-existed without strife until recent years. Part of the current good governance reforms is to see the end of those who orchestrate religious strife for political gains. Every religion has its political messages. Messages of inclusion and tolerance enhance the meaning that religion has in the lives of people, while messages of hate and intolerance bandied in the name of religions only betray the bigotry of those who should have no license to speak for any religion. On Thursday, in Kenya, religious fanaticism led to the killing of 150 students in a university college dormitory. The next day in Sri Lanka, Good Friday and April’s full moon day, Christians retraced the Way of the Cross, while Buddhists observed Bak Poya commemorating Buddha’s second visit to the island to reconcile two local chiefs feuding over a throne. A timely metaphorical reminder, that Sri Lanka needs more reconciliation than rhetoric to avoid elemental passions and hatred getting out of control.
In the political interpretations of Easter, Pontius Pilate is a metaphor for failed leadership. He was the Roman Governor of Judea and Samaria, who washed his hands and handed over Jesus of Nazareth to his tormentors for torture and crucifixion. There were no white vans then, or suicide bombers, or shootings in cathedrals. But there was torture and punishment by death for political dissent and defiance. The horde that wanted Jesus crucified and Barabbas freed was the forerunner to future mobs that will be let loose by state as well as non-state establishments, in every country and in every generation, against those who want to change the order of things for justice and fairness. The high priests who wanted Jesus killed cited the law to justify judicial murder, anticipating generations of religious dignitaries and legal luminaries who would do just the same at other times, in other places, and in other forms.
But Jesus would not become a metaphor for keeping quiet or minding one’s own business. He rode into town on a donkey’s back to start the last week of his life. In Jerusalem, he stormed the great temple and whipped and drove away the merchants and money lenders scolding them for turning his father’s shrine into a den of thieves. The temple tantrum became a metaphor for fighting corruption and hoarding in religion, in government and in business, not only in their respective departments but also in their obvious as well as opaque interconnections. Jesus showed his frailty when he caused a fig tree to die for not bearing fruit, when he wanted one to feed his hunger, even though he knew it was off season for the tree to bear fruit. That evening, he broke bread and shared wine with his disciples in what would be his last supper, creating the tradition of the Eucharist for Christian congregations, that has lasted for over two millennia. After supper, he broke down in Gethsemane torn by the moral dilemma between action and inaction. He was soon betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas, for a handful of silver, and Judas has since been the metaphor for betrayal. That same night he was thrice disowned by another disciple, the chosen Peter. But Peter would go on to become the first pontiff of the new faith and one of its early martyrs. Only the women stayed with the Son of man to the end on the mound in Calvary because they were not frightened of being harmed by the Roman soldiers. Women were also the first to see Jesus rise from the dead because they were more trusting than men. The spiritual meaning of resurrection is a matter of Christian faith, but it has also become a powerful metaphor for political liberation in its many dimensions.
Metaphorically speaking: One troika and too many Pilates
If Bak Poya Day could be a reminder of the importance of national reconciliation, the metaphors of Easter bring to mind the crises and challenges faced by the good governance project. One area where the present government has made significant difference from its predecessor is in the area of national reconciliation. I have in an earlier article criticized the apparent lack of a designated champion for promoting national reconciliation. In fact, there are three and at the highest level, championing a new dialogue among communities. While they are being (not altogether unfairly) named as the ‘troika’ (not a complimentary term given its Russian political roots under Stalin) of current Sri Lankan politics, President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga should be commended for giving high profile impetus to the task of national reconciliation. Their visits to Jaffna, even the slow start of the long overdue process of returning lands to their rightful owners, and the setting up of a Presidential Task Force on reconciliation headed by the former President, are a sea change from the approach of inflexibility and intransigence of the Rajapaksa government.
But much more needs to be done to translate the evident political desire for national reconciliation, at the centre, into institutionalized delivery mechanisms in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The role of the Provincial Councils should be central to reconciliation. Hopefully, the Northern Provincial Council has learnt from the blunder of passing the resolution on genocide and is now ready to direct its resources away from hot air rhetoric and target them towards fixing problems on the ground. The Council has a plate full of problems to deal with and should have no time for rhetorical distractions. In addition to the fallouts from the war, there is growing concern about the contamination of groundwater resources due to human activities. In its fledgling stages, institutional growth requires purposive co-operation and collaboration between individual leaders at the centre and in the province, especially between the country’s Prime Minister and Provincial Chief Ministers. The reported standoff, therefore, between Ranil Wickremasinghe and CV Wigneswaran does not look good on either of the two men, each well into his sixties and seventies, respectively. President Sirisena has enough Colombo parliamentarians that he needs to mediate between, and he would do well without having to mediate between another pair of quarrelling adults in Colombo and in Jaffna.
Let me get back to the Easter metaphors that I listed earlier. There is no denying that the project of good governance is suffering from a crisis of leadership. Metaphorically, there are too many Pontius Pilates who are failing in the roles that they are supposed to be playing in the new government. Even the troika is showing more capacity for manipulation than for leadership. Throughout the election campaign, the common opposition lampooned and libelled the Rajapaksas for the size of their cabinet of ministers, the allocation of jobs and positions to family and friends, and the extent of corruption that they presided over especially during the second term after 2010. Now, for the new government, the size of the cabinet has become immaterial to the purposes of good governance. In fact, bigger the cabinet better the chances of achieving good governance; and so the cabinet can be increased to whatever size needed to obtain the votes in parliament for passing the Nineteenth Amendment. This is ministerial bribery of parliamentarians and not providing principled leadership in implementing the mandate of January 8.
Come to think of it, the UNP started the rut by forming a new cabinet as if the party has just won a majority victory in a parliamentary election, while at the same time insisting within the party and outside that the current parliament cannot go one day past the self-imposed April 23 deadline for dissolution. One would have thought that Ranil Wickremesinghe, having become Prime Minister on the back of President Maithripala Sirisena’s January election victory, would settle for a lean caretaker cabinet to run day to day government operations, while channelling the energies of parliament to the twin purposes of implementing the promised constitutional changes, on the one hand, and a systematic investigation of the corrupt practices of the previous government, on the other. As it has turned out, instead of a lean cabinet we have a bloated cabinet and a prodigality of appointments to state institutions starting with the controversial appointment of the Governor of the Central Bank. In these respects, there is little that separates the ‘Wickremesinghe government’ from the government of the Rajapaksas.
On the other hand, the whole system of government has become so corrupt in the last five years of the Rajapaksa presidency that it is said to be difficult for the new government to determine whom to trust and whom not to among government officials at the highest levels. But in replacing the old reprobates with the new elect, the new government should be extra careful to avoid any perception of impropriety, jobbery, or favouritism. But that has not been the case, and where the government has been found to be wanting, it is not good enough for the Prime Minister to assert that things were far worse during the Rajapaksa regime. The whole purpose of good governance is to create and follow higher ethical standards and not to govern based on the pseudo ethical premise that we are better than the Rajapaksas.
The good, the bad and the ugly
In a wide-ranging media interview, the prime mover of the movement for abolishing the presidential system and for good governance, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, has been kinder to the new government than many of its constructive critics are. He is even reconciled to the fact that totally abolishing the presidential system will take more than one fell swoop of a constitutional amendment. He has also commented on the invariably mixed record of the new government, which one might say includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Where the government leadership is failing in dealing with the bad and the ugly, it is up to concerned citizens to step up and call the government to order. This is not the time to be quiet and to be minding one’s business. The petitioners to the Supreme Court asking for the apex court to order an inquiry into the Central Bank bond scandal is an example of what concerned citizens can and must do to hold the government feet to the yahapalanaya fire. It was again public pressure that forced the government to rethink the Port City project.
That concerned citizens now have the space and opportunity to fearlessly criticise the new government in the media and challenge its actions in the courts. This is in itself a major victory for good governance. Ironically, there are more criticisms of the present government in the media than there were during the ten year rule of the Rajapaksa government. Not many lawyers went to the Supreme Court to challenge the passage of 18th Amendment, or the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, but quite a few of them are on their feet in the Supreme Court arguing the constitutional propriety of the 19th Amendment, and specifically arguing in support of retaining the presidential system in its current form by invoking the referendum requirement that the Jayewardene constitution has imposed on the country.
The government almost paid the price for talking too much and doing too little about corruption investigation, for more than 50 of its self-imposed 100-day mandate. However, the rigour and investigative focus have shown a marked improvement during the last few weeks. It is easy to condemn corruption, but it is quite an arduous task to systematically investigate, punish and ultimately prevent corruption, especially since corruption has become highly systemic in emerging economies under globalization. In the case of Sri Lanka, it is difficult to determine where ‘the buck stopped’, when sole sourcing of contracts and non-indictments for crimes became not the exception but the norm during the last five years. And it becomes virtually impossible to determine anything when those in the new government start protecting those alleged of corruption in the previous government. The insider-protection process, involving some high ranking UNPers, became quite evident during the first fifty days of the new government. It was again public exposure and pressure that ruptured the corruption network cutting across party lines.
Given the obvious informal networks intimately connecting several members of the UNP and the emerging factions of the SLFP, not to mention the chronic breakdown of the whole system of government over the last several years, it is silly for the likes of GL Peiris to cavil at the apparent breakdown of parliamentary conventions caused by the double-acting role of the SLFP parliamentary group in being part of both the cabinet and the opposition. In fact, there is a third group of SLFP MPs who want their defeated hero, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to be enlisted as the SLFP candidate for Prime Minister at the next parliamentary election. There is no convention, by the way, for designating someone as candidate for Prime Minister in a parliamentary election. That is a matter for political parties and their leaderships. And some among those who want Mr. Rajapaksa to return as Prime Minister, also want the executive presidential system retained in its present form. To add to the confusion over conventions, a group of parliamentarians has petitioned the Speaker of Parliament to determine who should be the Leader of the Opposition. The only way out of this welter of confusions and collective parliamentary incompetence, is to dissolve parliament and let the people decide which lot should be in and which lot should be out, to work with the President they elected on January 8, a lot sooner than some of us thought it would really be necessary.