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Monday, February 26, 2024

Sri Lanka: Taking Back the Space of Legitimate Public Dissent – Kishali Pinto Jayawaradena,

The regular posturing by the so-called Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition calling for the upholding of democratic rights in Sri Lanka must be treated with the rightful contempt that it deserves.

Condemning hypocritical posturing
Even as sanctimonious hypocrisy drips off the tongues of these worthies when they speak with fervor on multifarious topics, ranging from the appointments of the Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police to contemplated tax increases, let us remind them of some salient home truths.

In truth, these are individuals who do not have even a smidgen of honesty or integrity to critique the performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, as problematic as that has become. These were the same hypocrites who stood idly by even as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa literally destroyed the remnants of institutional independence in this unfortunate country, rendering public officers and judges quivering like jellies as they responded to the crack of the Medamulana whip.

When the ugly tentacles of political and family patronage, the likes of which the public had never seen before, reached out to every nook and cranny and public funds were spent with impunity on Rajapaksa-projects that were monumentally useless, engineering much of the current economic crisis that we face, did these characters ever utter a whimper of protest?

A larger question that is relevant
Now in their dotage, the once seemingly ‘leftist’ patrons of this oppositional movement look more than extraordinarily ridiculous in the public eye as they bellow forth on the need to observe the Rule of Law. Was the Rule of Law observed when they virtually kicked a Chief Justice out of office with less ceremony than that afforded to a common criminal? Lest we forget, one leftist worthy in that motley crowd referred to the Chief Justice on the floor of the House in disparaging tones more fit to be used by a street cleaner.

No doubt, now that the roles have been reversed, judicial independence would be spoken of in the same unctuous manner as is used by the flag bearers of the Joint Opposition towards other matters. As Sri Lanka’s media, more used to sound bites and quotable quotes rather than engaging in probing investigative journalism, rush to give these individuals airtime, viewers can only ask wonderingly if they take the people of this country to be fools.

But there is a larger question that is relevant here. The capturing of the legitimate space of public dissent by the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition should worry those genuinely concerned with Sri Lanka’s governance. This is the unfortunate result of the absence of forceful and independent voices who professed their commitment to restoring Sri Lanka’s democratic culture during the January 2015 change.

Storm clouds of public anger
As citizens look on in profound skepticism at the theatrics of the Joint Opposition, cynicism in regard to the very terms ‘Rule of Law’ and good governance or ‘yahapalanaya’ increases in an insidious tidal wave of apathy throughout the country. This is heightened by the many missteps of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition Government. In the South, its apathy on moving against gross corruption allegations against the frontliners of the previous regime has become more and more pronounced. It is becoming clear that easy excuses that the legal process is complex and takes time will not do. The effect of show arrests and publicity circuses are also dwindling. In the North and East, there is extreme unease about the process of reconciliation and justice held out by the Government which has so far, been limited to rhetoric.

So sixteen months into a dimming Rainbow Presidency, we have storm clouds of furious public questioning directed at this Government at several levels. Worse, there is unseemly crowing by the very individuals implicated in abuse of public finds about the tardiness of the authorities in taking action against them. Disillusionment and withdrawal of the citizenry from public engagement with the process of governance is exceedingly more dangerous than outright oppression. As history of this nation itself shows us, repression only leads to a critical mass of anger which builds up over time and releases itself in a catastrophic reaction against those who repress. This is exactly what happened last year.

However, in our critical questioning of the distasteful deterioration of the January 2015 democratic movement to ‘politics as usual,’ we may acknowledge some basic facts. The political drivers of this movement had only one aim in mind, namely regime change and the expulsion of the Rajapaksas for political gain. The grand rhetoric of good governance was merely a cover for a much more pedestrian grab for power. This is a conclusion that seems inevitable, given the singular inability of the coalition administration to bring about structural reforms, even in terms of small essential steps.

Conformity to due process needed
Thus, there are certain questions that this Government should be asked to answer. First and foremost is its commitment to constitutional governance. Essentially, should Sri Lanka be plunged into suspenseful disquiet each and every time that the Constitutional Council sits to determine its primary function under the 19th Amendment, which is of approving or recommending nominees to key positions and bodies? Public controversy over the appointments of the Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police were bad enough. Are we to see this process repeated, for example, in the case of appointments to the appellate courts? This would bring about a farcical situation indeed.

The process thereto needs therefore to be clarified and made publicly accountable. Individuals who have a clear conflict of interest in the making of relevant decisions by the Council should be compelled by law not to participate in the decision making. This is an obvious principle of caution that any first year law student would be familiar with. In the appointment of the IGP therefore, it was against all norms that a Minister who was under investigation by the police should have sat in and deliberated on the Council.

What was in issue then and now is conformity to due process. This is what the popular vote in January 2015 underscored. This must preoccupy critical minds in regard to the functioning of this Government, quite apart from the Joint Opposition’s laughable lecturing on governance, casually shrugging off its disgraceful history with nary an apology.

Even at this rather muddled state that we are, a turn-around is still possible.

– Sunday Times


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