Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
The distinguishing feature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and indeed, at the same time the cause for concern with regard to him, is that he was never elected to any office until he won the presidency. He was a military man first and then the all-powerful bureaucrat as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence – a soldier as opposed to a politician, elected in November 2019 to do a politicians job. What this means is the ability to accommodate, to reach consensus, to compromise when necessary and to unite the diverse groups that make up the country. To be able to design and shape policy, not just implement it, as a politician in a position of authority would expect of a soldier.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not really have a solid and undisputed constituency, which he can call entirely his own and rely upon to back him through thick and thin other than his former colleagues and current officers of the tri –forces and perhaps the Police. His Viyath Magaand Eliya in contrast to the Sri Lanka Podujana Party or SLPP of his very politically savvy and matured brothers, is not, -early days of his administration notwithstanding – proving to be that rich resource pool of talent and competence the people who elected Gotabaya to the presidency, expect.
Beyond the obvious fact of his training and the trust he has in the forces, his gut reactionwhen in doubt or without a perceivable option, of giving it to the forces or ex-service personnel to do, has not yielded great results. On the face of it, their management of the Covid 19 pandemic appears to have contained the spread and virulence of the virus to an extent. However, there is more information to be had on this and time yet for the post-mortem on policy.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has little time for the niceties and conventions of parliamentary democracy unless of course that too can be sewn up to further buttress his regime – hence the unseemly haste to go to the polls in a general election and win a two-thirds majority to underpin the dismantling of the checks and balances to the exercise of executive power and authority. In its infinite wisdom the Supreme Court has held with him dismissing all the petitions filed in respect of the dissolution of parliament and the date of the election. Mr Rajapaksa can and is governing therefore without parliament – one of the key arms of the state along with the executive and judiciary in any functioning parliamentary democracy- until a new one is elected. This could be mid –August at the earliest.
On the heels of the Supreme Court decision on the dissolution of Parliament and elections, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed two Presidential Task Forces to deal with creating “a virtuous, disciplined and lawful society” and for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, respectively. Both are to be chaired by Major General (Retired) Kamal Guneratne, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. The service and intelligence chiefs, the acting Inspector General of Police and two Deputy Inspector Generals of Police as well as other ex-officers from the services whonow hold positions of considerable power and authority in the executive, dominate the first of these two Presidential Task Forces. The second is pan – Sinhalese – the first would have been too if not for the inclusion of Major General Suresh Sally, recently appointed Director of State Intelligence Service -and comprises two Buddhist priests, one of whom is the Chief Priest of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Neither of the two Task Forces has any women nor even makes a pretense of representing the unique diversity of the Sri Lankan population.
Are they needed and if so, why is membership past or present of the forces and Police a sine qua non for membership of either of the Task Forces. There is apparently a vacancy in the civil society membership of the Constitutional Council and another in the Human Rights Commission. Are we to have retired Major Generals dusted off and brought back in the saddle as a member of the Constitutional Council and the Human Rights Commission respectively? After all, somewhere in the upper echelons of decision making in this country, someone has determined that a military background is a prerequisite for creating a “virtuous, disciplined and lawful society”. One wonders, what the families of the disappeared have to say about this. Some of the members of this Presidential Task Force after all are alleged to be responsible for war crimes!
As I write this, the horrendous situation in the United States dominates the news. Social media is full of information about the horror of the killing of George Floyd and the systematic racism in the United States. There is a certain triumphalism and arrogance in some of the tweets and posts about how much better our armed forces were in 2009 liberating poor Tamil civilians in a historic humanitarian operation. Am I alone in asking the question as to why what happened to George Floyd is not transposed next to Sergeant Ratnayake slitting the throats of innocent Tamil civilians, including that of a five- year old kid? After all Trump and Rajapaksa’ response to the two atrocities is not qualitatively different. Perhaps Trump is too much the politician not to pardon if the need arises!
Many of a certain ilk and persuasion bemoan the drop in standards today, the lack of integrity and morals and the general decay of public life. Few in that category and too few in any other, are willing to do anything about it. What has been of particular surprise, disappointment and deep concern to me is that there is very little understanding of the pivotal importance of Parliament – no taxation without representation and all that which, is of fundamental importance to parliamentary democracy. Granted, the last Parliament was so wanting in any number of respects that it has contributed to the general disdain and disgust of the legislature – full of sound and fury and with apologies to the Bard, epitomizing sleaze. We need however to decide and decide clearly as to whether we want to be a democracy, a parliamentary democracy and clean up the process of choice and change to lead to truly representative, just and efficient governance and government. Or else we are and will be populist, majoritarian and authoritarian, with much more than just the pomp and the tamasha of the military, past and present.
To begin with, let us ensure that the next Parliament holds on to the checks and balances on executive authority and power that exist and firmly consolidates them within our body politic. Sound parliamentary democracy needs a sound opposition and a strong counter-narrative to keep dissent and fundamental freedoms alive and thriving.
And with respect to checks and balances, there are new ones too, that should be introduced.