Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As we enter upon a New Year pregnant with hope and foreboding in equal parts, the inglorious epitaph of the past twelve months qualifies to be none other than the adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
A tug-of-war between the old and the new
Certainly the signs of the establishment resisting the pressure of people-power for change in the January 2015 vote for a new Executive President of Sri Lanka were evidenced very early on in that year itself.
As this tug-of-war went back and forth in the years that followed, it was during the past year that battle lines solidified and a once inspiring impetus for reform lost its way in the darkness of disillusionment.
It became increasingly ridiculous to protest that ‘well, this is anyway better off than what we had during the Rajapaksas’. The fact of the matter was that that the Rajapaksas were never a measure of reasonable comparison. That decade represented the nadir of Sri Lanka’s decades-old Rule of Law crisis. Yet in significant ways, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe unity alliance lapsed into the old ways of its predecessor regime, even conceding variations on the extent and nature of that lapse. And as the divide between the urban privileged and the desperately marginalised became starker with economic disparities at the core, law and order floundered and the United National Party became mired in an unsettling tangle of bond scam allegations and corrupt ministerial types et al.
What justice for crimes?
Meanwhile, the unity alliance did not demonstrate the famous Rajapaksa airiness with which ‘war crimes’ allegations were dealt with. But the hard question remained as to what precise concrete steps were taken towards ensuring state accountability. Appealing rhetoric and stuttering steps taken towards establishing an Office of Missing Persons during the past year did not quite fit that demand.
Legal processes in respect of long standing atrocities such as the killing of aid workers in Mutur or the executions of innocent students in Trincomalee long before the war reached its deadly climax in the Wanni in 2009 still dragged on. In both these cases, the loss of integrity in the investigative process, the breaking of the chain of custody in respect of important forensic items was clear. What measure of justice can be expected for far more contested crimes, one may ask?
This is an illustration of the generality of such investigations, whether in the North in relation to conflict atrocities or in the South where ‘ordinary’ torture is concerned. In some instances, proceedings have been going on for more than ten years after the date of the incident with the threatening of witnesses resulting in cases being dropped by the wayside in most instances. The Rule of Law continues to be heavily challenged in practice, whatever may be the theory in place.
The nature of Presidential interventions
So even as the turbulence of a change in political power only signified the cementing of the status quo in relation to heavily controversial matters, the same remained true of far more mundane issues. This week, President Maithripala Sirisena thundered that it was on his personal request that the Government of Pakistan had agreed to send supplies of fertiliser to meet the fertiliser shortage which had farmers across the length and breadth of the country protesting in fury.
Does it require Presidential intervention to handle a fertiliser shortage? On the contrary, does not the emergence of essential failures in mundane matters of supply and demand requiring a plea from one head of state to another speak to the breakdown of the systems of government? Much the same problem was evidenced when there was a fuel shortage some months ago.
And to forestall those who might chuckle in glee at this display of consternation, let it be said that this is not a feature of the current administration alone.
During the previous Presidency, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was fond of projecting himself as the man of all action, be it in regard to reducing the price of coconuts, managing the elephant-human conflict or rectifying bad sanitation disposal at housing schemes. Indeed, this was the same President who said that the country did not need a Right to Information Act as anyone could apply for information on any matter to him. If so, as was forcefully said at the time, Sri Lanka could dispense altogether with the Constitution and deposit the entire process of governance in the accommodative if not monarchical lap of the Executive Presidency.
Spurning hypocritical distinctions on ‘good’ and ‘bad’
To his credit, the incumbent in the office of the Presidency had markedly abstained from indulging in such boastful idiocies since he came into power close to three years ago. Indeed, he had been accused of weakness and inability to rein in a runaway collation partner in government precisely for that reason.
That duly acknowledged, it must be devoutly hoped that 2018 will not herald a President who aims to position himself as the one salvation for the country in the year ahead, be it in the arena of anti-corruption or breakdowns in essential services as the case may. There are disturbing tendencies reflecting such sentiments in statements made by President Sirisena in recent weeks.
Empathy is certainly called for in regard to the difficult position in which he finds himself, given the mire in which the UNP struggles in respect of a once appealing promise of technocratic governance. But the solution for this is not to be found in projecting the office of the Presidency as the fount of all authority. Apart from this sitting oddly with his campaign pledge that he would abolish the Executive Presidency if he is elected, common sense should inform him that this is not the way to go by any means, given the disasters that befell his predecessors who laboured under the same misapprehensions.
Sri Lanka does not need a flamboyantly black and white characterisation of what is good and what is bad for the country. It has seen these hypocritical distinctions sought to be made by politicians and has rejected such attempts with contempt, seeing all politicians as tarred by the same brush more or less. It also does not need saviours, Presidential or otherwise. Rather, what is required in the New Year unfolding before us is a simple standard of commonsense and integrity to be observed by those in political power, from the highest to the lowest.
Absent that hope, this country’s future will be dismal in every sense of the word.