Replacing sycophancy with a culture of criticism by Kishali Pinto Jayawardena.
One year into the appealing rhetoric of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, it is heartening to see Sri Lanka’s artistes and scholars, whose peoples’ movements were pivotal to the change of power last year, becoming increasingly stern in their tone and tenor.
Critical voices to be heard
This critical approach must not be limited to optics or to a few dramatic speeches for public consumption. Instead, politicians who protest that they are upholding good governance but act completely in contrast must be berated on public stages to street corners and teashops.
True, our politicians are seldom ashamed. This is illustrated by the audacity with which former President Chandrika Kumaratunga holds forth on judicial integrity despite the stubborn fact that the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka commenced its venture into the ‘political thicket’ with her connivance if not complicity at the time. Executive decisions were taken quite deliberately by that Presidency to ‘tame’ courageous judges and reward others who eagerly responded to the crack of the political whip. The Rajapaksas only developed this further, stamping their distinctive mark of crudity on the process. So when a critique is made of the judiciary, the accusatory finger must be turned inwards. The issue is very much systemic rather than limited to a particular Presidency, Jayawardene, Kumaratunga or Rajapaksa as the case may be.
But there is little expectation of this. Blatant hypocrisy has been the ruling marker of our degenerated political class and its sycophants. Those who sang hosannas to the Rajapaksa regime now write fervently in praise of new faces in town. Others accept government positions even as they discard with alacrity, the very search for justice that they swore by not so long ago. These aberrations aside however, there are many decent and ordinary citizens who withstood Rajapaksa blandishments and voted for a change only to look in understandable consternation at the status quo. These are the voices which should be heard, in greater force.
Addressing impunity at its core
And as much as street dramas highlighted Rajapaksa atrocities leading to artistes being assaulted during the January 2015 presidential poll campaign, this practice of dissent must continue. A culture of criticism must replace the culture of political sycophancy which Sri Lankans are generally familiar with.
At least the fear of assault in response thereto is not as high as before, even though this phenomenon is a many headed hydra as students sitting for the Higher National Diploma in Accountancy discovered to their cost when they were brutally assaulted by the police recently. A purported new era of governance notwithstanding, the National Police Commission hemmed and hawed, finally deciding that ‘higher police officials’ could not be censured. Instead, it reportedly ‘ordered’ the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to take ‘necessary disciplinary action’ against six errant police officers.
The National Human Rights Commission handed down a more rigorously reasoned order on the incident but what were the practical consequences thereafter? A few policemen were transferred out and reportedly one was suspended. Both bodies recommended those aggrieved must be compensated. But is this sufficient to address systemic impunity that prevails?
Indeed, not much time lapsed before police brutality took place at Embilipitiya when local area policemen demanded that residents of the area who were having a private event at a home, give them free liquor. Upon refusal to do so, the scuffle turned deadly resulting in the death of the homeowner. The consequent fury of area residents led to the Special Task Force being called to the area to prevent further escalation of tensions. Here too, the solution (reportedly) has been to transfer the policemen out. This appears to be the stock answer to such situations. But does this actually solve the problem?
What hope does accountability have?
To add insult to injury, provincial journalists covering the magisterial proceedings into the Embilipitiya death were manhandled by the police and their notebooks removed by force. Apparently the court sergeant had been acting under orders from a ‘higher authority.’ Under what provision of the law do the police act in this manner, absent a direction by the presiding judge? Who institutes inquiry into such a clear abuse of power?
These are salutary lessons for optimists who believed that the mere establishing of independent ‘constitutional commissions’ would correct systemic abuses. As we saw under the 17th Amendment and see now as well, this scarcely disturbs the surface of Sri Lanka’s impunity crisis, merely creating slight ripples that are disregarded with ease by the political establishment. Where ordinary law enforcement is not attended with the political will to ensure accountability, what hope can minority Tamils have in expecting justice for war-time abuses? When the existing law is not properly implemented, what hope does a new Constitution have? These are questions that must justifiably be asked in the spirit of constructive inquiry.
Rejecting a policy of appeasement
Some entertain the fear that criticism of the fragile coalition Government might pave the way for the return of the Rajapaksas. There is a curious analogy at play here. This is the same policy of appeasement which was touted during the 2002-2003 peace talks between the Wickremesinghe government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Despite notorious abuses committed by the LTTE against the Tamil people, even the faintest whisper of condemnation attracted anxious pleas to abstain lest the LTTE leave the ceasefire process altogether. In fact, those who did raise concerns were ostracized and labeled as spoilers.
In retrospect of course, that policy was naïve if not foolish. Quite apart from what turned out to be a farcical peace process, this led to many otherwise rational Sri Lankans being convinced that this hands-off criticism policy was an unforgivable betrayal of the nation. This was the start of an ultra-nationalist backlash which later brought in a Rajapaksa ‘monarchy’ under which the end of war brought no relief and Sri Lanka’s remaining democratic freedoms were ruthlessly suppressed. Unfortunately we never seem to learn from history.
Indeed, the silence of critical voices at this stage is exactly what will prevent a Rajapaksa-return. It is as simple as that. Our entire effort must be to prevent such a monstrous eventuality with all its communalistic and racial undertones, pushing Sri Lanka back into even worse regression than what we have seen thus far.
– Courtesy Sunday Times