Protests by the youth for ‘system change have not had much impact so far except for the changing of one set of ministerial crooks for another set of crooks while the political establishment consolidates itself!


Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

When questioned as to why Sri Lanka’s law works to its most ferocious extent against anti-government protestors, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s answer was typically slick.

‘The police have also arrested Members of Parliament…it is the magistrates who decide on remand’, he said. This was during one of multiple regional and global media interviews indulged in freely as the nation’s citizenry struggles in the death throes of decades of gross unchecked political corruption by Presidents and Prime Ministers of all shades and sizes.

Meanwhile allegations abound that citizens who have not committed violence are being hauled in for questioning, the latest being a Catholic nun. Premier Wickremesinghe peppered his remarks with references to the Bar Association’s role in working with state agencies to prevent abuse.

In passing, it must also be said that the Prime Minister’s co-opting of the Bar’s statements to bolster ‘his’ Government’s various positions, including the departure of the President which is a core demand of the protestors, is becoming uncomfortably frequent, to say the least.

The Bar’s denial, through a statement issued by its Executive Committee on Thursday, of the Prime Minister’s reported assertion that it ‘agreed’ to a quid-pro-quo with President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa that he could remain if the Executive Presidency is abolished, is a case in point.

The President himself asserted recently that he will continue in office and that he cannot go out as a ‘failed President.’ This testifies to the fact that the pressure which erupted as a result of the country-wide protests have now been, in the Government’s thinking at least, ‘managed’ with the well planned advent of Premier Wickremesinghe. The President and the Prime Minister may both be nastily wrong in that assessment, despite a present lull as it were. From village to city, Sri Lankans are growing increasingly desperate as families starve.

Patent unequality of the law

With desperation comes fury as evidenced on May 9th apart from the fact that some attacks on offices and residences of politicians were well orchestrated by intra-party rivalries and other hidden sinister hands. Renewed violence may well be far worse than this, the result of a political leadership that goes on its merry way with scarce a thought for the consequences, even when we are well and truly in the abyss. But to return to the Prime Ministerial explanation in regard to the unequal working of the law in regard to the present turmoil, this is both disingenuous and plainly incorrect.

The alarming lack of balance with which the law operates against pro-Government and anti-Government supporters is clear. This week, officers of the Attorney General’s Department submitted to court that former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and ‘several others’ including two former Ministers have not yet submitted their passports to court following a travel ban imposed on them in connection with instigation of the May 9th assaults on peaceful protestors at Galle face Green. Former Minister Johnston Fernando was hiding in ‘plain sight’ of the law as they say, for several weeks before he surrendered.

On the other hand, youth protestors are liberally arrested or questioned by the police with a view to intimidation. That is the inequality of the law that the young interviewer questioning the Prime Minister was focussing on.

The clever parry and thrust of the answers that she received did not detract from that stark truth. In fact, this partiality and discrimination reflected in police arrests of protestors was pointed to in a recent letter of the Bar Association addressed to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), drawing serious concern to arrests of citizens being carried out solely on lists submitted by politicians.

Begging for money while crooks serve as Ministers

Among other allegations of partiality was the use of lapsed Emergency Regulations to keep persons in custody. Rightly, the admission by the IGP himself that the command structure of the police has broken down due to political appointments to the police force, was emphasized. That inequality continues to be manifested at various other levels.

On Monday leading headlines in international news media announced the conviction of former Minister Prasanna Ranatunga on charges of extorting money from a businessman.

For two coruscating news reports on this, see ‘Sri Lanka’s urban development minister convicted of extortion’, Straits Times, June 6th and ‘Sri Lankan cricketer Ranatunga’s brother sentenced to two years imprisonment for extortion’ Times of India carrying a Press Trust of India story of the same date).

Commensurate with that, we have the Government quick-fire response to the effect that the conviction will not affect this worthy’s parliamentary seat or his ministerial portfolio. True, Article 91 read with Article 89 of the Constitution does not encompass parliamentarians on whom suspended sentences have been imposed, within its legal remit.

Incidentally, it may be high time that we look at amendment of these constitutional provisions to take out the condition that the disqualification to be elected/serve in Parliament applies only to those who are ordered to serve the sentence.

Quite apart from that, the legal rationale for imposing a suspended sentence on an offender goes to an assessment that criminal behaviour will not be repeated. Is that a given with our politicians, we may well ask?

Regardless, even more than the law, the issue is the chutzpah with which the Government greets the fact that a criminal continues not only to be in Parliament but holds his portfolio.

Recognition of Sri Lanka’s governance failures

So when the President and the Prime Minister beg the world to give money to bail the Government out of the mess that is wholly their own doing, do they not recognize the grand irony thereto?

Or as is probably the case, do they simply stake their begging on one more toss of the political coin?

If so, they must be educated that world opinion links these developments in no uncertain terms. For example, many global news reports looked at the conviction of this Minister in the context of the country’s financial meltdown. How much more do we have to fall down the Rabbit Hole for the political leadership to understand this?

At least, should not the (Ministerial) convict be stripped of his portfolio? That he has appealed against the conviction does not make an iota of a difference. Rogues at high places and rogues at low places continues to bedevil Sri Lanka. The latest is a financial ‘high flyer’ known for messy public controversies but approved to be ‘parachuted’ to Parliament through the National List in record quick time. Is this what the Government parades as a nod for month long protests by the youth for ‘system change’?

These protests have not had impact except for the changing of ministerial crooks for another set of crooks while the political establishment consolidates itself. Even basic foundations of institutional independence are discarded. A classic example was when President Rajapaksa assured the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) some weeks ago that he will not ‘interfere’ with the CBSL.

But the autonomy and independence of the CBSL and the Monetary Board is not a gift to be granted on Presidential magnanimity. As with all institutions, independence must be secured by law as well as acted upon in practice by men and women of integrity and expertise. Sri Lanka has spectacularly failed in that regard. Political sycophants in these positions have led Sri Lanka to the crisis that is now upon us.

We would do well to recognise this fact.

Courtesy:Sunday Times