Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Chants of the Joint Opposition and its enthusiasts that anarchy has been let loose upon the land as a result of foibles of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government bear an uncanny resemblance to the ancient cackling of ‘double, double toil and trouble, parties burn and nonsense bubble’ by Shakespeare’s three witches immortalized in Macbeth.
The political nonsense that bubbles
Politically correct critics may well object to this ancient rendering of witches as evil. Quite rightly chroniclers must be blamed for ascribing the downfall of kings, princes and generals to temptresses rather than acknowledging that their own follies, power and greed were to blame rather than any other external temptations. But the modern-day incarnations of doomsday voices at least in Sri Lanka are certainly not of the feminine gender though the Joint Opposition’s portents of impending chaos do sound unkindly like the shrill squawking of those witches of old.
Let us separate the wheat from the chaff and see if anarchy really stalks the country. True, it must be said that the ‘nonsense that bubbles’ on the part of those in power has led to far more confusion than what is warranted. It is inconceivable for one that appointments such as the President’s Chief of Staff could have taken place without thorough vetting of the credentials of the selected persons.
It is even more inconceivable that, even after the Chairman of the Timber Corporation was arrested along with the President’s Chief of Staff after getting caught in an act of bribery in flagrante delicto, (to put a racy spin on that term) recently, the appointment of an individual who had been prosecuted for a financial crime as the next head of the Timber Corporation was stopped only at the eleventh hour.
Is the impact of public pressure enough?
What do these astounding lapses speak to? Certainly on the scale of things, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka treasury bond imbroglio and the safeguarding of the then Governor Arjuna Mahendran by many in the United National Party is not comparable to the netting of the two giant whales by the Bribery and Corruption Commission though attempts are being made to equate the two in that regard.
As has been repeatedly said in these column spaces, it was not only the fact of the treasury bond scandals themselves but the way that they were sought to be exempted from public scrutiny through one devious tactic or the other by many in the top rungs of the UNP despite manifest public fury, which called for the strongest opprobrium. Here in contrast, the sting operation of the Bribery and Corruption Commission proceeded without calls from those in the seats of power halting the process and the interdiction of both officials came soon after.
But does this suffice? Is the fact that public pressure can change the Government from a disastrous appointment that should not have been contemplated in the first place enough to feel warm and safe inside in thinking that things have really changed. It is said that a drowning man or woman clutches for any straws that he or she can find. And that is very true even where the Rule of Law is concerned in a country where the minimum has become something to be glad for. In the Rajapaksa decade, appointments of notoriously corrupt people were made with impunity and the very idea of a sting operation by the Bribery and Corruption Commission would have been laughed off as a cruel joke. Misappropriation of state funds was a given. Their cackling now is therefore even more of a joke.
Monstrous growth in Sri Lankan public life
But three years since this National Unity Government came into power in 2015, we have been taught, if nothing else, the manner in which tentacles of corruption have sunk into every aspect of the public service and bureaucracy, academic and professional life and the judiciary. And to its credit, at least now, some light is being shone on the alarming extent to which this monstrous growth has sapped the functioning of Sri Lanka’s governance processes.
At another level, growing public concern regarding the functioning of legal and justice institutions cannot be ignored, however much one may try. Unlike the conventional media subjected to restraints of civil critique, social media which has no such niceties has ripped the mask off the face of these institutions, subjecting all to a merciless beating that makes no distinctions between the honourable and the dis-honourable. Indeed as a long-time critic of the travails of Sri Lanka’s justice system, I must confess to being appalled myself at the deeply disturbing level to which social criticism has now reached, where the judiciary and the legal profession is concerned. But this was inevitable.
As two eminent judges of the Supreme Court, the late Justices MDH Fernando and ARB Amerasinghe warned repeatedly in several judgments relating to criticism of Government one and a half decades ago, if justifiable criticism is not allowed to flourish, that gives room for destructive criticism. This was said of the Government. But that is true in another sense as well. And indeed this is what has happened to the very institution to which both judges were once proud to belong to, during a very different time. It does not require much imagination to vision the supreme disdain with which respected judges of old would have shown in response to the crassness and the crudity that now prevails in the legal profession.
Containing public anger sensibly and constructively
So the questions that arise deserve more probing than the wild flailing of the Bar Association which appears to be labouring under the misapprehension that threatening all and sundry with contempt of court will be the answer to the problem. What is the role of the Bar in disciplining its members who engage in corrupt practices? How many of these characters have in fact, been dis-enrolled or otherwise dealt with?
It is common knowledge for example, that some of the prime miscreants in effecting fraudulent land transactions throughout the length and breadth of Sri Lanka are lawyers themselves. But how many of these rogues have been brought to book? Without playing politics one way or the other (ie with whoever is in power or out of power as the case may be) and without having innumerable conferences on Good Governance and the Law, the Bar should look to itself in cleaning up its own house.
Else, public anger which is raw and visceral and emanating from years of pent-up fury by suffering that ordinary people have had undergone in the face of the denial of justice may well become unstoppable. That will be the true anarchy, not the nonsensical burblings of the Joint Opposition.