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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

An assault on the judiciary amid rising dissent

 Harim Peiris
 Last weekend, Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Secretary Manjula Tilakaratne was brutally assaulted by an armed gang outside S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavina, where he was waiting after dropping his son there for a sporting event. The assault occurred after Mr. Tilakaratne on the instruction of the JSC had issued a much publicized press statement, that there were attempts by the Executive to interfere in the independence and the work of the Judiciary. The statement itself followed a refusal by the JSC, comprising the Chief Justice and two senior judges of the Supreme Court to respond to presidential summons, supposedly to discuss budgetary allocations for judicial training.

 The attack on Mr. Tilakaratne was preceded by Cabinet level discussion his statement and pronouncements by government spokesmen that disciplinary action was being considered against him. Further the JSC and Mr. Tilakaratne was being vilified in sections of the State media and Mr. Tilakaratne publicly stated that following such state media vilification, he and his family’s personal safety was now at grave risk. Despite this obvious security risk, his security provided by the judicial security division (JSD) was allegedly withdrawn over the weekend, leaving him exposed as a sitting duck for the seemingly well planned and executed operation against him. The result was that many held the government responsible for this outrageous attack, notwithstanding the predictable condemnations of the same and the judiciary struck work for two days, closing down the Courts. The tensions between the judiciary and the government are clearly rising. The stoning of the Mannar Magistrate, the strong stand against the same by the Bar Association, now the assault on the JSC secretary, the state media campaign of vilification, all point to rising tensions between the judiciary and the executive. Where this will end is uncertain but for the government some caution and reflection will be in order.
FUTA and Increasing dissent

This is a government, which from its apex downwards, uses public popularity as its rationalization and legitimization of all its action, populism taken to its logical conclusion. There is certainly some theoretical justification for this, since democratic governments are required to draw their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. However, it is in such a context, that the government should pause and reflect on its current trajectory. The recent provincial polls demonstrated that despite a comfortable majority, the government had slipped noticeably in public support from its highs of the general elections of 2010. There is public discontent and dissent within the education system with the agitation by FUTA and for the sake of the young students and the next generations of Sri Lankans it is indeed welcome that the intervention of Minister Basil Rajapaksa has brought some temporary relief and the return of university teachers to their duties, but much needed reforms in the state education sector need to be implemented and the government seems unmindful of them at best.

The Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) raises, among others, the issue of state resource allocation for education, pointing out that Sri Lanka invests the least in education even among our peer group among the SAARC countries. This in a global economic environment, where the ‘knowledge economy’ is the emerging trend and workforce education, skills and knowledge base the competitive advantage and the real driver of success in the future. Unsaid by FUTA but implied is the reality that Sri Lanka spends more on defense in peace time than in war time, a mind boggling fact for South Asia’s most militarized society, with close upon half a million men under arms, counting all three arms of the services, auxiliaries, civil defense, the STF and the police. Post war Sri Lanka has not really been able to enjoy an economic and financial peace dividend. Some release of pent up demand and government investment in infrastructure pushed up economic growth, without particularly reducing unemployment. But, a sustained peace dividend through increased foreign and local direct investment is lacking.  A serious debate on these national priorities was also absent, until FUTA stirred up the debate.

A weak and ineffectual Opposition

The real political strength of the government is the hopelessly weak and ineffectual political opposition led by the UNP. Keeping an opposition divided is a primary political priority of any government and the Rajapaksa regime shows it is not second to the JR Jayewardene regime in keeping the Opposition in splinters. But, as the SLFP demonstrated from the late 80s onwards, there is a possibility to effectively challenge government policies and practices while working towards uniting the political Opposition. The initial signs of broader coalitions of forces, all determined to push back and challenge the government on the broad issues of governance and democracy are evident. It is in the government’s own interest to pause, reflect, engage with these forces and perhaps revisit, review and revise its own policies and practices rather than a head on confrontation with all those that disagree with it in various areas of policy.


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