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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Secretive Government Decision-making Makes the Pending RTI Law a Cruel Joke

(Matters are no different elsewhere. The destruction of the Wattala jogging track is a clear instance.)

The ‘Ides of April’ and the absence of governance by Kishali Pinto Jaywardene

Sri Lankans were blithely reassured this week by President Maithripala Sirisena that they need not fear the Ides of March anymore, taking into account the annual critical focus on the country by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

But in truth, this claim is unduly optimistic.

Reducing of the ‘yahapalanaya’ brand
If the concerns of the Wanni’s war afflicted are not prioritized in transitional justice initiatives and the end result contemplates superficially attractive ‘packages’ stamped with the ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) seal, international scrutiny may return, albeit in a different form.

More ominously, disaffection in the North will simmer. This will only allow unscrupulous politicians to take advantage if and when the occasion so presents itself. Our ill-omened history surely teaches us this. The Government’s record so far is not reassuring. One recent example is the housing project in the former war theatre caught up in a tug of war for profits between competing political interests and corporate interests. This has left displaced people (the unfortunate would-be occupiers) out in the cold, with the possibility of having to settle for sub-standard housing units.

Matters are no different elsewhere. The destruction of the Wattala jogging track is a clear instance. Government agencies pass responsibility to each other for this wanton destroying of public property while law enforcement authorities are rendered impotent. What has the ‘yahapalanya’ brand been reduced to? Is the law activated for fraud and corruption only against the Rajapaksas?

Justifying the unjustifiable
If the late Venerable Madulwawe Sobitha had been alive today, he would have been most vociferous in respect of these profound indignities. Unfortunately, those who aspire to wear his mantle are but waxen imitations of this firebrand personality.

Indeed, these pretentious moralists adopting various ‘yahapalanaya’ labels must be told that their public legitimacy cannot be salvaged by a sanctimonious speech or two in front of television cameras or through proffering excuses for failures in governance. Rather, they must engage in relentless pressure on this Government.

But we see the contrary. In fact, some ‘yahapalanaya’ activists justify the unjustifiable, such as the recent increase of allowances for parliamentarians at the very same time that the public was asked to accept enhanced taxes. True, this proposal was withdrawn when sanity dawned a trifle late but ruling party politicians do not deserve credit for the withdrawal. Such an astoundingly ill-judged decision should surely never have been made in the first place. Even now, some Ministers trumpet that they deserve these incentives. For what, one may well ask?

Potentially more perilous threats
Meanwhile, familiar March rhetoric on war time accountability has been replaced by potentially perilous threats amounting to a veritable ‘Ides of April.’ Thus, unannounced power cuts and looming water cuts are accompanied by intimidating new taxes apparently coming into effect from the 1st of the month. The knavishly clever humor customarily attendant on that day surfaced when the Inland Revenue Department withdrew a circular on future tax increases issued the day before with no satisfactory explanation. Yet this was manifestly no April Fool’s joke. One can only pity public servants who look ludicrous in the public eye due to the ineptitude of politicians.

Now we have been told to expect a host of finance bills before Parliament mid month with no clear idea as to their contents. Worse, if taxes are directed to operate retrospectively, what will be the position of individuals and entities who have taken steps meanwhile in relation to their personal affairs and business deals? Without certainty in tax policy, how can the polity function with any measure of stability? Is this not a basic question that the Government must answer?

To be clear, the point is not only about the worrisome state of Sri Lanka’s economy. Unsettlingly, this is also about indecisive and secretive government decision-making which makes the pending Right to Information (RTI) law a cruel joke.

A singular absence of clarity
Generally in past years, trepidation over the UNHRC scrutiny in March was tepidly viewed by some as propaganda. Many would have been hard put to identify what the UNHRC does or where it is based. In contrast, the current absence of clarity on the economy with different factions of the Government pulling in different ways has dire immediate attendant consequences.

Other questions remain. Why should ordinary citizens literally pay for the sins of former rulers gone mad? Was it not enough that the people suffered so acutely during the past decade even as the political classes collaborated with each other, notwithstanding their ferocious snarls in public? Further, it was precisely because the (then) opposition did not perform its role properly that the Rajapaksa Presidency plunged Sri Lanka into such a calamitous chasm.

Now the UNP prides and preens itself on being brought into power on a ‘yahapalanaya’ wave. Suffice it to be said that whilst this wave is fast receding, it was not its stellar performance that topped the Presidency in 2015. Mahinda Rajapaksa accomplished that all by himself, by his colossal arrogance and thirst for absolute power through a racist ideology. On his own part, President Sirisena was supposed to act as a commonsensical restraint on elitist UNP power brokers. But that is far from the case. What is this dark magic of this Executive Presidency which can negatively transform the most pedestrian individual?

The ‘withdrawing’ syndrome
In sum, incoherence in government cannot be denied any longer. The Inland Revenue Department issues and withdraws circulars. The Ceylon Electricity Board issues and withdraws notifications of power cuts. The Government issues and withdraws Bills. This is not simply a case of a faulty communications strategy or of Rajapaksa saboteurs per se. In addition, there is a significantly growing disconnect within the Government itself as well as between the political leadership and the people.

If these twin disconnects are not properly addressed, airy boasts by the President and the Prime Minister that their alliance cannot be dislodged will count for little. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa rabble rousers wait salivating in the wings rubbing their hands in glee at the formidable Gordian knot now entangling this Government.

Caught between these two patently uninspiring forces, can enlightened Sri Lankans from the North to the South once again summon their revolutionary spirit of one year ago? This is a question anxiously awaiting an answer.

– Courtesy The Sunday Times


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