Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Could right-thinking people of Sri Lanka be blamed for asking themselves as to whether no one will rid us of these troublesome politicians following this week’s depraved fisticuffs on the floor of the House? Is this where the ‘Sovereignty of the People’ resides, as mandated by Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution?
As national legislators assaulted each other, (some unpardonably boasting about this later) and shouted obscenities with others fainting in the well of the House, two questions become paramount.
Why indeed are citizens trooping to the polls to elect members to local government bodies in a few weeks when the apex legislative assembly conducts itself in such an ugly manner? Of what use are massive public funds extracted from taxpayers being expended to maintain these assemblies, central, provincial and local when minimum decency cannot be observed in their deliberations?
A country’s collective shame
Certainly this is not to echo in quite the same way or expect the same consequences as what followed that medieval cry “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” commonly attributed to King Henry II after being angered by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This resulted in one of history’s greatest infamies when, consequential to the King’s frustrated complaint, the Archbishop was killed by several of the King’s knights at the altar of the Canterbury Cathedral.
But even with a definitive caveat regarding the absence of a murderous intent as it were, it is a matter of the utmost disgust that the Parliamentary debate on Central Bank treasury bond scandal which should have been conducted with the greatest propriety and solemnity as befitting its gravity, disgracefully dwindled to a typical circus sideshow. For that, the members of the self-styled Joint Opposition (JO) and those in the ranks of the ruling United National Party must be fairly and squarely blamed.
As shouts of ‘hora, hora’ (rogue, rogue) reverberated in the chamber, it was to this country’s collective shame that a former President and an incumbent Prime Minister’s names were interchangeably used by each group of rowdy shouters to their advantage. Meanwhile Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s loud call of ‘kowda hora?’,(who is the rogue?), while broadly smiling and flinging his hands up in the air was far from reassuring.
Who casts the first stone?
The jeering on the opposing side of the House may have been aggravating to the Prime Minister as he read out a statement during a debate most idiotically called for by the Joint Opposition, even though the report of the Commission of Inquiry on the treasury bond scam had not yet been released to Parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena. Regardless, this was not the opportune response on the Premier’s part, if one is to understate the matter.
Denunciations came thick and fast. Leading the charge was President Maithripala Sirisena who remarked in a public speech on the same day that the brawl in Parliament reminded him of the proverbial story in regard to the robber who snatches a wallet and runs through the crowd screaming ‘thief, thief’ even as his unfortunate victim runs in hot pursuit after the robber, also screaming ‘thief, thief.’ But rhetoric cannot absolve the President of his own responsibilities. To put the matter bluntly, the image of being ‘cleaner than the others’ sought to be portrayed to the public by the President and his faction in the SLFP begs the question as to why that principle is not demonstrated in practice.
Later in the week, the President stated that he would not allow any local government member elected under his wing to commit wrongdoings and stressed the importance of electing ‘decent candidates.’ But the question is if these injunctions have been followed in the SLFP’s appointment of organisers and candidates? In mid-October last year for example, a provincial councilor of the North-Western Province who had been handed down a suspended jail term in 2014 after being found guilty of forcing a school teacher to kneel before him, was appointed as the organiser for Anamaduwa by the President.
Resigning ourselves to legislative depravity
In fact, there appears to be an uncommonly peculiar predilection on the part of politicians in wanting teachers to kneel before them. Just a few days ago, it was reported that the Uva Provincial Council was in turmoil due to allegations that the Chief Minister of the Uva Province had threatened and forced a principal of a Tamil girls’ school in Badulla to kneel in this same way.
Perhaps it is time that civil society organisations throw away all their demonstrably useless Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) entered into with politicians on lofty principles of good governance and the like. Instead, they may be better advised to enter into a national campaign to compel all politicians to kneel down at Parliament if not Galle Face Green or their respective provincial/local assembly grounds, firstly in meditation on the temporal nature of political power and secondly in pledging their allegiance to actually serve the public as they are meant to do.
But the likelihood of that scenario is as remote as the possibility that no ugly fisticuffs will erupt in Parliament again. Indeed, these are spectacles that we may need to resign ourselves to seeing on a daily basis. It is reported that a record number of candidates with dubious backgrounds have come forward to contest the forthcoming local government polls where the numbers in the councils have also significantly increased. This is an irony of the cruelest kind. What will happen in these councils once the elections are over is anybody’s guess. It is safe to predict however that local government, from efficient disposal of garbage to local administration will not be on the minds of a majority of the newly minted councilors.
Dramatics cannot take the place of substance
In any event, this careful choreographing of various political dramas as the local government elections draws near is so transparent as to be ridiculous. Legal consequences must be visited on politicians having the necessary accountability as well as the public servants who collaborated in a grave fraud involving Sri Lanka’s premier financial institution as detailed in the Commission of Inquiry report.
Measured steps are necessary in accordance with the caution that hasty disciplinary action taken against public servants consequent to findings of Commissions of Inquiry have been struck down by the superior courts on the basis that fundamental principles of natural justice have been violated. That does not mean however that the uproar over this Commission report must last only the length of the pre-election period, to be quietly shelved thereafter, with the culprits escaping scot-free.
Indeed, that would be absolutely unacceptable.