SRI LANKA :On Mad Monks and Chaotic Government

Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

Several wickedly problematic tragi-comedies are playing on Sri Lanka’s political stage right now, none of which are to the benefit of the country.

Why was no deterrent action taken earlier?

The spectacle of mad monks running amok in the Homagama Magistrate’s Court abusing the magistrate, the lawyers and the wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda during an ongoing court hearing this week was unprecedented, assessed even by the abysmal non-governance that prevailed during the Rajapaksa decade. No doubt, this was a well orchestrated drama. But the question remains as to why the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition did not take steps last year to bring the monks of the BoduBalaSena (BBS) and their unruly leader to heel?

This would have been perfectly possible given their notorious history of incitement to racial hatred, including during the Aluthgama communal disturbances in 2014. The Government did not need new laws for this purpose. As pointed out previously in these column spaces, the Penal Code and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act (ICCPR Act, 2007) sufficed. But without actually employing what was available to send a clear message to saboteurs, wholly unwarranted amendments were sought to be made to existing laws. The amendments were then postponed on the floor of the House in considerable disarray after public protests that the clauses replicated provisions of the dreaded anti-terrorism laws.

In the meantime, a Presidential audience was granted to the BBS monks who thereafter became emboldened enough to cause a stir in the Homagama court premises. And therein hangs the tale of what exactly ails the ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) administration that was so bravely voted in by determined Sri Lankans last year. True, the paralysis of basic administration is no doubt deliberate in some respects, fuelled by saboteurs of the previous regime. But along with dangerous tolerance shown to rampaging monks, incoherent leadership prevails across the board, from limping anti-corruption efforts to a reconciliation initiative which remains mired in confusion worse confounded.

Glimpsing a worrying obduracy

In recent days moreover, President Maithripala Sirisena’s responses to Sri Lanka’s democratic dilemmas appear to have become obdurate. In interviews given to overseas news channels (BBC and Al Jazeera) the President indulges in rhetoric which is eerily reminiscent of his predecessor in presidential office. Quite apart from the categorical rejection of a ‘hybrid’ war crimes tribunal which is unsurprising, he sidesteps the question of crimes committed during the end stages of the war. And in dismissing allegations by Ekneligoda’s widow that officers of the army high command were obstructing investigations into the disappearance, he asserts therein that even charges leveled by the court in this regard were ‘wrong.’ Certainly if an ordinary citizen had made these claims in public, it would have amounted to an affront to the court.

Meanwhile, brushing aside charges of nepotism, the explanation is that his brother’s appointment as Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom did not amount an exercise of state power, that other relatives had (only) been appointed to ‘insignificant’ posts and that his son sitting as a member of the Sri Lanka delegation inside the hall of the United Nations General Assembly was unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Given the singular nature of the Rajapaksa Presidency which threw basic governance to the four winds during its decade in power, it was inevitable that some lingering traces of the disease would remain. But President Sirisena’s carefully rehearsed excuses in this regard strike a discordant note, quite apart from being astoundingly asinine in their basic logic or lack thereof.

Concrete action needed, not allegations

Neither are there any reassurances forthcoming from President Sirisena’s partner in governance. Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe engaged in his own theatrical dramatics in Parliament on Thursday with scorching criticism directed at Sri Lanka’s mainstream media. True to previous such outbursts, the Prime Minister named and shamed some journalists of having a racist agenda and being ‘collaborators’ with the Rajapaksa regime.

In principle, the Prime Minister’s concerns may be valid. There is undoubtedly much that is wrong where the integrity of the Sri Lankan media is concerned. However the same is true of the judiciary, lawyers, academics and professionals. We must not forget that the media is but a reflection of society itself. Thus, the degeneration that all sectors of Sri Lanka have been subjected to during previous decades has been profound.

That said and while noting a regrettable loss of decorum on the part of the Prime Minister in naming individuals of little repute who must be delighted at being so honoured, the use of parliamentary privilege for these ends is not a good precedent. Even more seriously, he alleged that an editor had intervened during the previous administration to ‘silence’ a journalistic colleague. The Prime Minister is duty bound to identify the editor concerned rather than make allegations under the cloak of privilege.

Distinctive fault lines becoming clearer

In any event, we may justifiably look askance at politicians lecturing the media on integrity. The Prime Minister faulted the media for not having stood up for judicial independence. He may well be right. But what did his 2002-2003 UNF government do in response to the scandalous allegations against the Sarath Silva Court when they came into power? Despite making this one of their campaign promises, they miserably reneged on that promise and played political games until the very last moment when they filed an impeachment motion which was adroitly foiled by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Predictably, former President Mahinda Rajapakse and his supporters have cried foul that the Prime Minister’s outburst is a threat to free media. This is rich coming from those who took the state of the media to a new low during their decade of darkness. We may disregard this with the contempt that it deserves.

But in sum, it seems as if the ‘we are with the people’ veneer is wearing somewhat thin on the part of those in power who look increasingly besieged by their own ambitious promises. The signs are not propitious as we face daunting challenges ahead. The fault lines of the Government in dealing with these challenges are becoming distinctively clearer.
This must remain a matter of intense public concern.