Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As Sri Lanka’s farmers abandon their rice fields, burning effigies of politicians and shouting their agonies to the heavens over the deprivation of fertiliser, elsewhere a desperate man breaks into the government-run Sathosa to steal three packets of milk doubtless for his family. These vistas of desperation have not been seen in the country, even at the height of numerous civil and ethnic conflicts, let it be said.
Cruel travesty of the law
Layers of misgovernance, thievery and the open abuse of the law are so pervasive that it seems there is little point in talking of the law at all. Perhaps that is the very idea, we dare say. There are those who are appointed as vice chancellors of universities in an open subversion of the spirit and the law of the Universities Act. The Government has shown little remorse over the appointment of a politically controversial monk to head a presidential Task Force to oversee law reform with the aim of bringing about ‘one country, one law’ in a cruel travesty of those very terms.
Murmurs of dissent from within its ranks, including the Minister of Justice who has been placed in the incredulous situation of having reforms proposed by the Ministry being ‘supervised’ by this Task Force have not resulted in any noticeable impact. And all this while indictments are withdrawn willy nilly by the Attorney General against the politically (and militarily) powerful with little more than a cursory explanation as to why criminal charges lodged with substantial material at one point are suddenly not found to be relevant any more.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson of the Catholic Church who raised questions regarding the role of the intelligence services in respect of the 2019 Easter Sunday jihadist attacks have been summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on a complaint of the Director General of the State Intelligence Services that he had been criminally defamed. The fact that criminal defamation no longer exists in Sri Lanka’s statute books is apparently besides the point. So it seems, is the call for justice to victims of one of the most heinous attacks on Sri Lankan soil and asking questions regarding failures in our intelligence apparatus as well as more searching queries as to how and why these attacks happened.
Marking a litany of farces
Essentially, what we have here is one farce on top of another. In truth, it is a litany of farces. Nothing more, nothing less. At each and every turn, it is the law, the courts and the justice process that is being undermined. And all this while the politically powerful openly commit thievery of public funds. The latest distraction on offer is a parade of ‘whistleblowers’ serving in high state offices who come to the fore exposing massive corruption in the state sector, saying that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had given them permission to speak in public about the frauds.
Initially the executive director of the Consumer Affairs Authority outlined details of garlic, sugar and rice scams at Sathosa, naming names in the nepotism that surrounds the Trade Ministry and detailing payments made by state entities to a ministerial fund under cover of engaging in corporate social responsibility.
This allegation was, on cue, promptly denied by the minister concerned. Then, hot on the heels of that exposure came accusations a few days ago by officials heading one of the companies entrusted with gas supplies to the nation saying that they are powerless to redress the acute shortage of gas in the market due to ‘crooked racketeers’ This worthy also said that, the President had advised him to speak out.
But the core point here is as to why this all powerful Presidency and Government with its overwhelming mandate and numbers in the House cannot do more than institute inquiries that lead nowhere? Surely this is a question that even a child must ask. So when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa urges his Podujana party members to hone their public relations skills with their electorates at the fifth anniversary of the party this week, it must be said that this nightmare that the Sri Lankan people face, goes far beyond superficial responses.
Facing frighteningly existential realities
In fact, these frighteningly existential realities underline several important acknowledgements. First, our chorus of laments as to why the Government is blind, deaf and dumb to the chaos on display must stop forthwith. For there is far more to this literal upending of life as we know it than gross political inefficiency, pandemic challenges, deals of politicians and monumental mistakes in policy making such as the decision to abruptly switch from chemical fertiliser to so-called organic fertiliser.
This is quite apart from the fact that the shiploads or planeloads of organic fertiliser on its way to the country are apparently not organic at all as agricultural experts warn in an increasingly shrill chorus of voices. Throwing up our hands at the agricultural disaster and other disasters masks an exceedingly uncomfortable truth. In other words, there is sleek calculation in this undermining of even the remnants of institutional democracy.
So one must not be surprised at the tone deaf indifference with which ruling politicians and their acolytes treat the now grovelling and despairing electorate which installed them in power. We have long crossed that familiar point where the expectation is that politicians in power will not aggravate their electorates beyond a point due to fear that they will meet with a rude reckoning at the polls. True, much of this same indifference to the public was evidenced during the later years of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition which resulted in the country’s two oldest parties being summarily tossed out by their ears on the electoral map.
Deliberate discordance in governance
But this colossal indifference is something far more than noisily quarrelling leaders with competing egos and equal incompetence as it were. Rather, quite deliberate discordance in governance is best reflected in the incredible explanation of the Trade Minister’s fellow traveler, his State Minister, that if twenty amendments can be brought to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, then the Government can scarcely be blamed for issuing (and then withdrawing) so many gazettes to control (and then fail) to monitor prices of essential food items.
If this is a Government that cannot distinguish between the Constitution and gazettes to rein in errant traders, we rest our case. So too, the belief on the part of some that a new Constitution will solve Sri Lanka’s ills. While the need for the wholesale rejection of the 20th Amendment’s installing of a political monarchy is self-evident, this faith in a constitutional document speaks to a creature caught in quicksand proverbially clutching at straws. Even if the most impeccable of procedures are followed in drafting the constitutional text, that will not suffice. Sri Lanka has gone far beyond the idealistic dream of looking at a Constitution to correct governance ills.
Our unfortunate merry-go-round constitutional history of the 17th, the 18th, the 19th and 20th Amendments teach us that lesson only too well. This time, the catharsis must be deeper, must go to the roots of who we are and what is so manifestly wrong with us, as a society, a community and a culture.