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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Ensuring the integrity of our public institutions and democratic freedoms

The country today desperately needs a vigorous civil society that will stand up and speak up for the preservation of our democratic freedoms. These freedoms include not only the freedom of speech and association and equality before the law but also economic and social freedoms as the right to work, to an adequate livelihood and the right to education.
by Shanie

“This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!”
“O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Shakespeare’s words, even after so many centuries and across several generations and cultures, still ring very apt and true. In the first quote from Hamlet, Polonius gives advice to his son who is leaving for France. In the second from Measure for Measure, Isabella utters these words to a Regent who has unfairly condemned her brother to death. In all his works, Shakespeare attaches great value to honour and integrity, to the need to have a conscience. Every person, particularly the leaders of society, must be able to look themselves in the mirror and not feel ashamed when they reflect on their words and actions.

But not many people seem able to look at themselves in the mirror and do any self-reflection. Years of conflict, terrorism and war appears to have taken something out of many people. Leaders in public life seem unconcerned about losing their credibility by their arrogance and unwillingness to understand and accommodate the ‘other’. Others, even holding senior positions, degrade themselves by becoming apologists and sycophants. They not only lose their own dignity but also that of the office they hold.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government came into power with enormous goodwill. They won the last election convincingly, even accounting for electoral malpractices. This was due both to its achievement in eliminating the LTTE from the Sri Lankan scene and also to an unconvincing opposition. The war victory presented an opportunity to bring about genuine peace and unity among all the people of Sri Lanka. But over two years later, genuine peace and unity seem as distant as it was before. The government, if it is sensitive to the people, should realise that it needs to listen to voices other than that of their sycophants. Authoritarian governments which silence the media have this difficulty of hearing independent voices. Believing their own propaganda, they think they can hold on to power for ever. Hitler thought that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years. The UNP government of the nineteen eighties, by manipulating the electoral system and intimidating the media and the opposition, thought their hold on power was unshakeable. But both, like authoritarian regimes everywhere, had a rude awakening to reality.

The Universities

Recent events show that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is moving in the direction of the then UNP government. It has and is continuing to mishandle the unrest in the universities. First it was their heavy handedness in dealing with student protests and now the trade union action by the university teachers. Issues must be resolved through dialogue and not by issuing threats or by attempts to intimidate the stakeholders. Dialogue and willingness to compromise are the surest way to retain the support and respect of the people. In the case of the university teachers, the government has been deliberately misrepresenting the demands of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations. The UGC which comprises senior academics who have served in universities in our country, and the Vice Chancellors and Directors of the tertiary institutions should be in the forefront to protect academic freedom and independence of our universities. Instead, these institutions have been so politicised that they have lost credibility and respect among the academic community. Some of them privately express their reservations but it is now time, in the interests of higher education in Sri Lanka, that they take a public stand. If all public institutions in our country succumb to politicisation, it is the country and the freedoms of our people that will suffer.

The Judiciary

Like the Universities, the Attorney General’s Department and the Judiciary should be resisting incursions into their independence by the politicians. The Judiciary during the authoritarian UNP regime of the eighties showed remarkable independence in upholding the law against arbitrary decisions and actions by the government and state officials. But over the years, the independence of our public institutions has gradually been eroded. The seventeenth amendment was unanimously enacted by the then Parliament to halt the process of politicisation that had been creeping into our public institutions for a long time, but accelerated during the UNP regime of the eighties. The mechanism of a Constitutional Council was set up to ensure, however inadequately, independence of key public institutions. The eighteenth amendment has scuttled all that. The Supreme Court sadly upheld the eighteenth amendment. The Judiciary, to retain its credibility in the eyes of the public, must not only be independent but also seen to be independent. That is why the acceptance of the office of Senior Advisor to the President by the recently retired Chief Justice has raised many eyebrows. Earlier, we had a sitting senior Supreme Judge accepting the offer of a key diplomatic appointment when he retired which was several months away. Now, we have questions being raised about a senior Supreme Court Judge whose spouse holds Presidential appointments in the corporation sector. This may not affect the integrity of the judicial rulings by the Judge concerned, but it will certainly create doubts about impartiality when it comes to the Judge sitting on the Bench in cases with political implications. Justice must not only be done but also seen to be done.

The Police and the Military

The eighteenth amendment has also done away with the National Police Commission. One result of it is shown in the recent promotions to the rank of Deputy Inspectors General of Police. Some of the senior Police Officers who have been bypassed or overlooked have gone to the Courts claiming a violation of their fundamental rights. There is no record of the Public Service Commission which recommended the promotions of having called for applications. The list for promotions must have been presented through the present or the recently retired IGP. Did they actually have a hand in the preparation of that list? The Supreme Court is now called upon to determine if that was done in terms of the established procedures for promotions in the Police Service.

In the North, there have been regular reports of increasing militarisation of civilian life. Recently, concern has been raised by reports about the military intruding into meetings organised and held by civilian organisations. First, was a function being held at St Charles’ School, the second was the meeting of the Noolaham Foundation (a private organisation of academics engaged in collecting and preserving historical documents and monuments) and the last a meeting of the Tamil National Alliance. It is facile to treat these intrusions as evidence of militarisation of life in the North. It is really a part of the overall plan of the political establishment to exercise total over civilian life, in the North, East, South and West, but using the military. The Police and the Army have been politicised over the past several months. The Army acting as they do in the North seem really to be following the orders of the political establishment. A local government election is due to take place North soon. It is only the North and East which have rejected in no uncertain terms the candidates of the ruling political alliance. So the political establishment seems to have decided that the only way to reverse that trend is to intimidate the voters into, at least refrain from exercising their franchise. This is the only explanation for the way this incident has been handled.

First reports stated that soldiers barged into the hall where the closed door meeting of the TNA was being held in the Tellipallai Police area. The soldiers were armed with poles and began to beat up the participants with an officer claiming that the meeting was illegal as military/police permission had not been obtained. It is possible that this was a genuine mistake and not a deliberate one; closed door meetings of political parties do not require any permission, unlike public meetings. But the violent attack was certainly pre-planned as the assailants came armed with poles, etc, unless we like to believe the Police spokesperson who had once stated that a mob led by a UPFA politician moving towards opposition demonstrators at Lipton’s Circus were carrying poles to possibly beat away dogs on the road! Anyway, at this meeting at Tellipallai, there were present some parliamentarians from the TNA along with their security personnel from the Police Ministerial Security Division. Among the parliamentarians was M. A. Sumanthiran, who had gone to the Tellipallai Police Station to make a complaint. An Army officer, named by Sumanthiran, had also arrived at the Police Station, apologised to Sumanthiran for the incident and prevailed on the latter not to lodge a complaint. However, later, another parliamentarian had lodged a complaint.

The next reports claimed that the Army‘s Northern Commander as having stated that the incident involving some persons in military uniform was being investigated. The implication was to distance the Army from the incident. The latest report refers to the President himself stating that there was no serious incident and accusing the TNA of exaggeration. The conduct of the personnel from the MSD was being investigated! The MSD personnel, despite the risk to themselves, had it appears courageously defended the parliamentarians whom they were assigned to defend and were beaten up in the process. An assault on a meeting of a political party is totally indefensible. If the President has been reported correctly, it is an astounding statement for him to make. It appears to indicate that the incident had the approval of the political establishment in Colombo. It is the same arrogance of power that J. R. Jayewardene showed during the eighties when he defended and encouraged guardians of the law to trample on the rights of the people. One remembers with horror Jayewardene promoting a young sub-inspector who had kicked with his boots Mrs Vivienne Gunawardene who was lying on the ground at the Kollupitiya Police Station. But we had an independent judiciary then which had found that sub-inspector guilty of violating Mrs Gunawardene’s rights.

The country today desperately needs a vigorous civil society that will stand up and speak up for the preservation of our democratic freedoms. These freedoms include not only the freedom of speech and association and equality before the law but also economic and social freedoms as the right to work, to an adequate livelihood and the right to education. A vigorous civil society must be concerned if these freedoms are taken away from any individual or any group, even if we do not share that individual’s or group’s ethnicity or political or religious beliefs.


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