Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his two term tenure as the President thought he was above the law. Now, his acolytes are trying to perpetuate that fallacy.
They brought the proceedings at the House of Parliament to a halt, orchestrated protests before the Bribery Commission and laid a virtual siege at the airport (BIA) to welcome Basil Rajapaksa, who was returning from his sojourn in the US and was duly arrested by the Police, later over the allegations of misappropriation of funds allocated for the Divineguma project.
The Bribery Commission has summoned the ex-president to obtain a statement over the allegations of bribery in the cross-over of the former UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and the appointment of the latter as the Health Minister.
Ministerial appointments are the prerogative of the President. It is perfectly legitimate even if the President appoints his barber to a coveted portfolio, having nominated the individual to Parliament through the National List.
However, that millions of rupees (According to some accounts, around 300 million rupees), changed hands when Mr. Attanayake’s crossed over, was whispered in the political circles during those days.
It is within the purview of the Bribery Commission to investigate those allegations, when a complaint is lodged with the Commission. The complaint to that effect was lodged during the run up to the Presidential Election. By launching an investigation, the Commission is exercising its mandate.
Again, the President enjoys immunity for actions he undertakes in his capacity as the President, but, whether that privilege applies after he leaves the office is a moot point. However, there is a judicial precedent to the effect that it does not. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was fined three million rupees for the transfer of public land to a private golf course. And, in Mr, Rajapaksa’s case, by any account, he does not enjoy immunity for the allegations of misappropriation of tsunami funds in 2004, in the case known as Helping Hambantota. Investigations into the case were earlier abandoned after he was elected President.
A fresh investigation is likely to be launched after a complaint was lodged with the Bribery Commission last week. However, the acolytes of the Rajapaksas think the ex- president and the former first family are above the law. That misplaced thinking triggered recent developments in the form of orchestrated protests as well as a witch-hunt of the Secretary General of the Bribery Commission hatched by a coterie of Parliamentarians, whose only political capital lay with their slavish loyalty to the former strongman and his family.
What Sri Lanka is witnessing right now is a sinister and well coordinated strategy by the Rajapaksas and their coterie to ensure their survival at the expense of the future of millions of Sri Lankans.
They rely on disinformation and expect people who had been indoctrinated by the State orchestrated propaganda throughout the past decade to fall prey to them. That is a practical strategy. If it succeeds, we will soon see the zombified protestors wielding adulterated national flags (Like those that were in display at the protest held before the Bribery Commission) blocking every junction.
However, the good news is that a vast majority of Sri Lankans have shown a good sense of judgment. Save the usual protestors who show up in exchange for the bottle of arrack and pocket money, Sri Lankans, at large, are ambivalent towards the Rajapaksa- BBS version of the on-going bribery investigations.
But, the Rajapaksa coterie can still do the damage. They have threatened to hijack the 19th Amendment which is to be taken up for vote this week, after two days of Parliament debate, which begins today.
Their proposed changes to the amendment, such as confining the composition of the Constitutional Council only to the members of Parliament would weaken the amendment which envisaged depoliticising our institutions. However, professors with Oxford PhDs who denigrated themselves to become the nannies of Rajapaksa offspring, and drafted the infamous 18th Amendment (And now mooting those changes) have a different objective.
That is simply to scuttle the process and deny the new administration the credit of ushering by far the most progressive constitutional amendment in the 1978 constitution.
Is the Bribery Commission biased?
The acolytes of the ex-president say the Bribery Commission, especially its Secretary General, has launched a ‘witch-hunt’ against the Rajapaksas and their ilk. Such allegations resonate well with the average Sri Lankans, who tend to view those institutions with a healthy dose of cynism during the last ten years, or even before, perhaps since Sarath N. Silva’s tenure as Chief Justice.
It is hard to expect such institutions which had been politicized for decades, to be resurrected, if ever, in a matter of months. However, a careful observer would find that the recent investigations and their timing as challenging that notion.
The recent summoning of the Raajapaksas by the Commission on the eve of the scheduled Parliament debate on the 19th Amendment has proved to be politically inconvenient to the government.
Timing is also inopportune to president Sirisena, who is struggling to unify his political party, SLFP and the political alliance, UPFA ahead of the forthcoming general elections. If it is anything, it tells something important about the transformation of those independent institutions during the past several months.
These institutions, be it the Judiciary, or the Bribery Commission are now acting on their own within their Constitutional mandate.
That is exactly what the independent institutions are meant to be. Rajapaksa during his Presidency made them do his bidding; to lock up the former Army chief turned his Presidential contender, sack the former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and jail dissenting journalists.
We also have servile State officials who bend backward to cater to the whims and fancies of the Rajapaksas. (After sentencing a journalist for 20 years in prison, the sentencing judge, reportedly bragged with her staff, and asked ‘how is my verdict.’ One sycophant in her chamber replied, “Madam should have given more”.)
Also, in the past, a series of court cases were withdrawn by the Attorney General, effectively freeing, rapists and child molesters among many other politically connected individuals.
Now, at last, our independent institutions are acting independently. Take for example the opinion of the Supreme Court on the 19th Amendment, which is not to the likening of the UNP and shattered Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dream of concentrating powers at the hands of an Executive Prime Minister.
Had it been during the Rajapaksa era, Chief Justice Sripavan should now be bracing for an impeachment motion. His lawful predecessor was impeached at the behest of Rajapaksa after the court delivered an opinion unfavourable to the then regime on the Divi Neguma Bill.
Recent investigations undertaken by the Bribery Commission and the rulings of the Judiciary vindicate the success of institution building exercise undertaken by the new administration.
That process needs to be sustained. However, our failure to duly acknowledge this initial success and the government’s failure to communicate it to the public could well prove to be a costly mistake in the long run. Such a failure only emboldens the forces that have ganged up to roll back the democratic reforms.
Also what is clear is that the success of the institution building process is propped up by the very division of powers between the Presidency and the legislature.
Had not there been a President with a full range of Executive Powers, and also one who has not tempted to abuse them (unlike his predecessors), there is no guarantee that the UNP leadership would not pick the phone to tell the Commissioners of the Bribery Commission to drop the case against Rajapaksa brothers, opting to a grand bargain to incorporate its designs in to the 19th Amendment. (That also highlights the danger of weakening the powers of the Presidency beyond the proper equation of the separation of powers)
Rajapaksas and their stooges prefer a court that kowtow to the President; a Bribery Commission that would do the biddings of the President or the Prime Minister.
Such a court would free the swindlers of millions of rupees of public money, while innocent commoners, like the poor Sigiriya girl are languishing in jail. In theory, all citizens are equal. However, under the Rajapaksas, Rajapaksas and their coterie were more than equal. Rajapaksas and their zombified supporters want to perpetuate that system.
We should not let them succeed.