Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
An ongoing war of words between President Maithripala Sirisena and prominent Ministers in the United National Party (UNP) sums up in a nutshell what’s wrong with the seeming ‘unity’ alliance. Perturbingly, the ‘unity’ part is looking increasingly tattered as we go along.
Public anger regarding dysfunctional law enforcement
In one sense, the President was both right and wrong in expressing his considerable annoyance this week. Conveying dissatisfaction with the work record of the Law and Order Ministry, as well as the Department of the Attorney General, he remarked that if he took those institutions under his control, many of the delayed and long pending corruption and murder cases implicating prominent politicians of the previous regime would be dealt with in record time.
And therein lies the rub. Certainly where the first claim is concerned, there would be overwhelming public support. Regardless of protests of Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake following the President’s remarks, there is little doubt that the dysfunction of the Ministry and the Department of the Police has been a primary focus of deep public anger.
Indeed, the Minister’s protestations contrast oddly with the fact that not so long ago, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) was captured on television cameras assuring the Minister that a ‘protected’ person of the former regime would not be arrested.
Apart from the bovine stupidity of allowing a conversation as combustive as this to be televised nationally, the substantive issue of political interference in police investigations stands proven without any measure of doubt. That simple incident well illustrates Sri Lanka’s perennial problem with the lack of integrity and independence of its law enforcement machinery without pointing to a long winded thesis on the matter. The same concerns apply to the state prosecutor.
The helplessness of the police
While it is the most convenient tactic to direct pubic ire against the police or for that matter, prosecutors for not doing their job properly, the point is that many public officials are themselves helpless in the face of direct political interference. This has become a potent factor in the breakdown of the command structure in the state service. In other words, a superior is often countermanded by a junior in the ranks acting under political protection.
If the incident concerning the Minister and the IGP is reverted to again as an example the absence of any action taken thereafter against the IGP or the Minister concerned was equally concerning. Instead, the police force was asked to engage in meditation. The absurdity of the situation requires no labored explanations. Strident civil society voices called for the head of the IGP but bypassed the fact that the Minister’s actions were equally if not more culpable.
Acknowledging these realities, the problem however is the President’s claim that the situation would improve if he exercised direct control over the institutions in question. In principle, there is an obvious issue with the suggestion given the inevitable aggrandizement of powers in the office of the Executive Presidency if the two main institutions responsible for justice, the police and the prosecutors are brought under it.
From a theoretical standpoint, this was the precise critique that was ferociously leveled against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa when he attempted to exercise direct control over these institutions. And taken as a principled objection, the singular difference between the two Presidential personas cannot, of course, be of any relevance.
Getting trapped in a hostage dilemma
This is not a suggestion that will be easily acceptable therefore, despite the empathy that many people may feel when the President complains with more than a trace of bitterness, that the law is not being enforced, that he will be blamed for it and that the consequences of a potential change in governmental power will be visited upon him and the members of his family. All these sentiments certainly have more than a modicum of truth in them.
But while putting the highly problematic records of the (UNP) Ministries of Justice and Law and Order in issue, the President’s appointments of Ministers from his own party are not without their share of blame. While President Sirisena has found himself in a typical catch-22 conundrum in trying to find support within party ranks, his mandate in 2015 was to bring a difference in the political environment.
It was not to allow himself to be taken virtually hostage between the crooks in his own party and the crooks in the other party. That has occasioned extreme public disappointment. Addressing this will not be easy on the President’s part. Indeed, one would need to be a modern day Diogenes (also known as the Cynic), the Greek philosopher of old who carried a lamp in the daytime, looking for an honest man.
Political war of words but no substantive action
But as President Sirisena engages in a war of words with his Ministers, the primary problem of severe institutional dysfunction is left by the wayside. The Sri Lankan public is not interested in the blame game or who is responsible for what. Its interest is in making sure that public institutions which are run on public money are properly functional.
And in that regard, I can only laugh outright at Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake’s preposterous defence that the allegations (presumably leveled by the President) at the Department of the Police were ‘unsubstantiated.’
The Minister had apparently been concerned about his ‘self-respect.’ But in all fairness, it must be warned that such concerns went out of the window at the very point that the IGP was captured on television abjectly assuring the Minister that the law will not be enforced against a political favourite of the previous regime. Was this what the Minister meant in his self-glorifying justifications that he would not interfere in police investigations? Do Ministers of this Government think that Sri Lankan citizens are akin to freshly emerged chicks looking bemused and wide eyed at the world?
They must be sternly apprised of their palpable misapprehensions.