by Sanjana Hattotuwa
For a few interested in and used to confirmation hearings or congressional sessions into individual or institutional activities in the US, the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) hearings in Sri Lanka, at first broadcast live, is something of a novelty.
Videos featuring Kamala Harris or Mazie Hirono questioning Brett Kavanaugh, Dianne Feinstein questioning Willian Barr or the now more frequent clips of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning federal employees including high-ranking FBI officials and CEOs have gone viral even in Sri Lankafor a variety of reasons. One, it is an entirely alien political culture for us. Even with a puerile, offensive Commander in Chief and Executive Branch, other sections of government in the US hold accountable public institutions and public officials in ways we don’t even have constitutional provisions for, or the political imagination to construct and enact.
There is something ennobling about the proceedings – of public officials and industry giants being questioned on policies and practices. We are unused to this scrutiny and questioning, given a political culture unaccountable to voters once in power and Parliament. Two Cs – commissions and committees – defying both decency and democracy, define and draw outrageous political impunity in Sri Lanka, for decades. The most egregious abuse of power, negligence of public duty, corruption and nepotism, carry on with impunity even after very public announcements into their investigation through mechanisms that invariably fade into oblivion.
Dare we hope to believe that the PSC in to the Easter Sunday terrorism marks a change from this?
The live broadcast of the proceedings as well as questioning of the State Intelligence Services (SIS) by the PSC has already upset the Executive. This is a good thing. The office of the Executive in Sri Lanka is too powerful to be left in comfort and happiness. Till there is meaningful constitutional redress, the incumbent and any who follow must be made as uncomfortable as possible and the exercise of Executive power – only mildly checked by the 19th Amendment – as difficult as possible.
The PSC isn’t perfect. Tellingly, there is not a single woman on it. This matters in a context where Muslim women have suffered the brunt of misguided official policies and practicesafter Easter Sunday. Late March, around three weeks prior to Easter Sunday, the Speaker of Parliament who constituted the PSC unveiled a poster of Sirimavo Bandaranaike at an event organised by the Women Parliamentarian Caucus. The speech by him on this occasion underscored the vital role and relevance of women in public and parliamentary life. Compare and contrast what he said then with what the PSC looks and sounds like today.
The live broadcasts were decried by some who said that intelligence gathering operations were placed at risk. It is unclear how much of a problem this really was, given that those called upon to give testimony could ask for the cameras to be switched off when discussing such matters, or refuse to answer the PSC’s questions based on national security considerations. Ultimately, what transpired was political drama new to Sri Lankans, and this is saying something. Unscripted, broadcast or recorded live and entirely unrehearsed, the PSC’s questions placed the subjects in positions they had never before been subject to.
Given the nature of the revelations, untempered and unedited, it is entirely unsurprising that our President, not known for adulting, immediately went into tantrums and was last heard noting that he would ban allcarpentry sheds, chainsaws and timber mills. As a close friend of mine opined on social media, it is unclear whether this pronouncement – especially in the context of the PSC proceedings – was a manifestation of madness or character.
Lest we forget, it was during the constitutional crisis engineered and enacted by the President late last year that many, this columnist included, championed impeachment. Calls for impeachment were strongly and publicly resisted not by the SLPP or SLFP, but by the Deputy Leader of the UNP. Major media and TV networks, through terrestrial broadcast, SMS alerts and their significant capture of social media audiences, continue to support this unholy duo, including by shifting public focus to other, more trivial matters and not covering PSC proceedings to the degree and depth it merits. The degree to which this is happening isn’t well-known (and that’s the point), but its continuation has major implications for electoral contests in the future.
On Twitter, those associated with the SLPP including Namal Rajapaksa have since Easter Sunday been increasingly and openly critical of the Executive. What is conveniently forgotten in tweets by them that now generate a lot of engagement – given much how they speak to and reflect larger public sentiment – is what happened on the night of 26th October 2018, where overnight, the President turned from pariah to patron and sinner to saviour. But principles aren’t what either of the two Ps in SLPP stand for, so this hypocrisy is entirely expected of charlatans no better than the Executive they now find useful to deride.
But why didn’t the UNP more robustly pursue accountability for what the President did late 2018? If multiple subjects brought before the PSC today reveal that the incredible disarray of the intelligence community and systemic failures in prevention and response were the result of and anchored to the constitutional crisis, it is clear that the impunity the President enjoyed contributed to the loss of hundreds of lives. Well before Easter Sunday, those who rallied behind the UNP and the PM entirely independent of partisan loyalty late last year called for a complete overhaul of the country’s political culture. The PM promised much by way of internal party reform as well as a new political culture. Nothing has happened. Nothing.
The PSC’s revelations in this regard resonate far beyond holding the Executive accountable. Officials now complaining they were left out were part of a system that failed. Where does ultimate command and control, and political accountability, reside? If for months on end, one was part of a vital institutional framework that was clearly dysfunctional, does it take the catastrophic loss of life to come out in public against it? What did the PM know about the issues now in the public domain? Will he be questioned robustly?
Sri Lanka’s worst communal riots, the violence against and on-going stigmatisation of the Muslim community, hundreds dead, hundreds more injured, countless more struggling for their livelihoods, innocents arrested, the ICCPR abused, the law unevenly applied – these are much more colour the government’s response to terrorism. So it’s not just the President to blame. Those with and around him, those who secured his power after last year, those that want to see him continue in office and opposed impeachment, foreign governments who directly support the President through technologies that place all citizens at greater risk, politicians and party cadre who instigate hate and violence – let’s call them all out for what they are. Murderers. Enemies of the state. Racists. Individuals unfit to lead. Individuals unfit to hold public office.
The PSC is anchored to a single event but is more than just about a single individual or institution. The proceedings last week shed light on the awful nature of a public service we have allowed to grow under successive governments and Presidents, overwhelmingly in the service of political paymasters. The proceedings may see the start of a movement towards reform. They may not. But at the end of it all, we cannot say we were ignorant of what the status quo has brought and wrought.
Scientiapontetia est. Knowledge is power. The PSC’s proceedings give us a power we didn’t have before. We must now choose if and how to exercise it.