Kishali Pinto -Jayawardene
Parliamentarians draping shawls supposedly in sympathy for the plight of the people of Gaza while deaf, dumb and blind to the fate of their own constituents and exchanging tiringly customary allegations across the floor of the House as to who is ‘more corrupt’ and ‘who is more communalist’ underlines the growing irrelevance of Sri Lanka’s Parliament in the public perception.
A House disconnected from the people
Evidently, the Centre cannot hold. Perhaps this was inevitable post the unprecedented ‘Aragalaya’ (mass protests) of 2022. Sri Lanka’s young had demanded a transformative cleansing of the State in their thousands on Colombo’s streets. Instead of that transformation that may have put a kinder face on the nation’s discontent, old crude games of power politics prevailed.
So, what we have now is a transitional interval where, under a Wickremesinghe Presidency and a Rajapaksa House, the foci of both executive and legislative authority have become alarmingly disconnected from the people.
That is true of both the Government and the main Opposition, content to hurl barbs at each other while disregarding weighty matters that are in the public interest. The signal focus of the House during the budget debates should be as to how Sri Lanka’s ‘recovery’ from bankruptcy can be ‘engineered’ to shield the most vulnerable segments of the populace from literal starvation.
Yet this is far from the case, apart from the Government’s handing out of ‘favours’ be it deeds to land and houses or bolstering the country’s political patronage system in other familiar ways.
There is little sight of intent to trim a bloated state sector apart from selling off prized and historically valuable state assets. Governance reforms that would put the country on a new path are sadly lacking despite a plethora of new laws.
Gross political corrupters remain in the Cabinet despite the President waxing eloquent on debt sustainability and a new anti-corruption law. Other rude contradictions abound. On the one hand, reliance is placed on brutish force reinforced by a raft of Bills on anti-terrorism and ‘controlling’ the media.
Who has confidence in these measures?
These Bills have as their clear object, the purpose of repressing large scale dissent despite history (both in this land and elsewhere) demonstrating how impossible if not unsustainable that is. Meanwhile state law enforcement and security agencies refuse to permit men and women of the North and East to mourn their dead killed in war and continue to arrest protestors under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
On the other hand, the President unblushingly moots a new Commission on Truth and Reconciliation to be established by statute.
Whose truth? Whose reconciliation? If we look at other prongs of the transitional justice mechanism proposed by the Wickremesinghe led government during 2015-2019, pessimistic predictions of their uselessness made at the time are now entirely borne out.
For instance, what have been the signal outcomes of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) paraded with such enthusiasm in Colombo? Absent any significant power to enable the moving of investigations to the first step of enforcing criminal accountability when significant evidence is collected regarding penal responsibility for the crime of ‘enforced disappearances’, the OMP was foretold to end up as a travesty.
Seven years later, this is unfortunately the case, more or less. The seeds of that negation of the promise of the OMP were evident at the start, quite apart from the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition collapsing in an ugly tangle of bickering in 2019.
Other so-called ‘prongs’ of that grandly touted effort fared no better. It stands to reason that, doling out Reparations for victims does not need an ‘Office’ as such.
This same task was done to that same extent by other mechanisms earlier, as much as investigations into ‘disappearances’ were accomplished with much greater public support by the several Commissions on Enforced Disappearances in the 1990’s.
Constitutional tussles sapping governance
Currently, who has confidence in these efforts absent a clear genuineness on the part of the Government to dismantle abusive state structures? And the absurdities roll on. Sri Lanka’s Department of Police, now in the tender hands of an Acting Inspector General of Police with an alleged record of politically partisan behaviour, sprung into action some days ago by ruthlessly water-cannoning female opposition activists including a female parliamentarian of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP ) led coalition. Ironically, the women were protesting the unbearable cost of living outside Parliament on the same day as the budget vote of the relevant Ministry was due to be taken up.
If ever an incident demonstrated the nonsensical excess of our law enforcement zeal, this would be it. Were these activists such a formidable threat to the sanctity of the House that they had to be treated so churlishly?
Meanwhile constitutional tussles have reached absurd heights with the centre of the controversy being the Constitutional Council (CC) which the President mis-characterised recently as being ‘part of the executive.’ On its own part, the CC did little favours to itself by first writing to the Chief Justice asking for information on the two judges recommended to be appointed to the Supreme Court and as President of the Court of Appeal and later, apparently ‘withdrawing’ the written communications.
This was in the face of a reported negative response by the Chief Justice. Equally unwise was the CC’s attempt to ‘place before the House,’ the rules relating to the performance and discharge of its functions before gazetting the same.
This is contrary to the enabling constitutional provision (Article 41 G(3). At a different level, the inability of the House to bring in the tenth (and remaining) member of the CC supposed to represent the political party other than those of the Government or the Leader of the Opposition, beggars the proverbial imagination. That tenth member has to be chosen by ‘agreement of the Members of Parliament’ (Article 41A (f)).
Creating conditions for violent discontent
Apart from various parliamentarians offering excuses as to why this failure to fully constitute the CC is not their fault, there seems to be little movement forward on either side of the floor. Needless to say, such multiple governance failures breed fertile conditions for violent discontent.
That is primarily being optimised to the maximum by the JVP which clearly does not consider it a priority to engage the House except in the most cursory manner. Rather, their campaign by way of fiery rhetoric is to appeal to an angry nation looking for revenge from the ‘elite’ while falling short of clear policies and plans.
All in all, a perfect storm of disasters portend in 2024 with the only miserable certainty being the exponential rise of taxes pushing more segments of the desperate populace to the margins while a grossly corrupt few reap fat profits. As we said last week, it is time that the President stopped talking of climate justice let alone establishing a climate university and floated down to earth.
As a first step, he may well address large scale deforestation in Sri Lanka at the hands of politicians and their rapacious armies of patronage supporters.
At least that will be a start. But we may well h
ope that pigs will fly, as the simple though inelegant saying goes.