SRI LANKA : Looking Askance at this Sweetly Phased ‘National Government’

Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

One might easily be lulled into a sense of complacency for having kept the barbarians at bay, first in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls in January this year and then most decisively in last month’s general elections.

Striking a cautious note

Heartening signs are certainly evident such as the assumption of the United National Party’s Karu Jayasuriya to the office of the Speaker. This was one lone voice unceasingly speaking of the need for the Rule of Law and stubbornly upholding the 17th Amendment to the Constitution when most were hibernating during the arid democratic desert of the past decade. Similarly propitious is the appointment of the veteran Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan as Leader of the Opposition.

Heavy responsibilities lie on the shoulders of both these individuals. Where the office of the Speaker is concerned, duties inherent in that office must be exercised devoid of party politics. On its own part, the TNA needs to strategically build alliances in the democratic South to arrive at just redress for the Tamil people rather than provide ammunition for the ultra-nationalistic lingo beloved of the Mahinda Rajapaksa support bloc, wounded presently but with a dangerous propensity to strike back.

Equally to the point, a cautious note must be struck in response to sweet honey-talk of a ‘National Government’ by Sri Lanka’s two major parties given their historic record in undermining the democratic process. This government grouping resembles a coalition of the convenient, (if not the expedient), rather than an actually representative national front. The most striking result is a preposterously large Cabinet with attendant wastage of public funds. This is precisely what the Rajapaksa Presidency was accused of at a time.

Rhetoric contrasting with the reality

Indeed the rhetoric sits oddly with the reality at times. Uncomfortably, President Maithripala Sirisena himself is not free from such contradictions. His problematic decision to take in defeated candidates to the House through the National List mechanism was one issue. Another equally troubling fact is that many politicians appointed as Ministers from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were one time Rajapaksa front-rankers implicated in massive financial scandals.

Paradoxically, these scandals featured prominently in the election campaign of Maithripala Sirisena as the Presidential contender to Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015. So are we to presume that these worthies have been miraculously washed of their sins so to speak, in order to be welcomed into the privileged inner circle? Where has this ritualistic cleansing taken place? Certainly not in the public forum and in accordance with the Rule of Law, one might clarify. These are disquieting trends of the past eight months that we see being carried forward.

On its own part, the UNP’s doling out of ministerships has raised concerned eyebrows. Where the pivotal issue of law and order is concerned, will there be more of the unseemly waffling evident during the past eight months in regard to major corruption cases? Will phone calls be freely given to judicial officers to release passports of powerful political personalities? Will the snarling tangle of words between competing politicians be conducted only for the cameras while they reach mutually agreeable deals behind wide smiles on political stages? Will outstanding cases of the disappeared and the extra-judicially executed be properly investigated without being limited to media circuses? And despite President Sirisena’s promise to constitute a committee to independently ‘vet’ appointments to state positions including banks and corporations, will the interim government’s practice of bestowing favours on political loyalists continue? We all know from past experience what these ‘committees’ are ultimately reduced to.

Recognizing the challenges ahead

Complacency at this time therefore glosses over the very real challenges that we face in slowly fostering an institutional culture that is stubbornly independent of the whims and fancies of a Sirisena, a Rajapaksa or a Wickremesinghe as the case may be. A simplistic limitation of the issue to one of individual accountability would be fallacious. This is why the veritable demonization of the Rajapaksas must now yield to a soberer understanding of the political culture which made such a complete ravaging of our democratic process possible. True, such objectivity becomes exceedingly difficult when faced with the fundamental crudity and rank communalism which still typifies the Rajapaksa lobby. Yet this remains essential.

Take the judiciary for example. The degeneration in Sri Lanka’s judicial institution was accomplished long before the Rajapaksas took over the reins of government. Today as lawyers in the District Court for example, complain that simple legal arguments are not understood by those sitting on the Bench, that blame cannot be laid at the door of the Rajapaksa Presidency. Indeed, the blame for this is vested with the Kumaratunga Presidency more than any other in hastening the political control of the Supreme Court.

It is heartening however to see some judges of the Court reverting to progressive constitutional precedent as reflected in the recent decision upholding the rights of several non-ranking officers of the Sri Lanka Army who had supported former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka during the 2010 presidential polls. These officers had been assaulted and detained for more than two months under spurious charges of conspiring to kill former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Despite these encouraging signs of sanity returning to the judicial branch, a long struggle remains to recover that even limited integrity which the judicial system possessed fifteen years ago. A thorough accounting needs to be done of that profound systemic collapse.

Healthy skepticism needed

So this soothing talk of a National Government must not detract from the fact that governments will be governments and people will be people with ‘ne’er the twain meeting,’ to borrow and rephrase rather unforgivably from Rudyard Kipling’s immortalized ballad.

In that instance, Kipling pointed to the exception to that rule, where the meeting of minds may defeat even the artificial divisions of race and of Empire. In the ruder context of Sri Lanka’s political fray, the meeting of minds on principle may always be possible but there must not be a false lulling of critical senses.

Healthy skepticism rather than naïve euphoria should be the order of the day