Kishali Pinto – Jayawardene
The New Year that beckons in less than a month will not be happy for Sri Lankans.
Leaving the land
As the unprecedented migration of skilled professionals from medical, legal, information technology and accounting fields gathers strength with financial privations becoming steadily worse for the middle class, a perfect storm of repression also quickens apace.
The more naive among us may be inclined to dismiss President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent gun-happy quips on the floor of the House regarding his ‘Hitler image,’ entirely inappropriate verbal onslaughts against protestors and his critics and ridiculous warnings that there cannot be ‘protests without permits,’ as mere verbose theatrics.
But that is to seriously miss the point. This is not idle chatter. What the President’s strategically aimed barbs against institutions statutorily tasked with protecting citizens’ rights such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, portend is in effect, the Government girding its military and law enforcement loins so to speak, against public uprisings next year. That is anticipated in the nature of what took place from May 2022 in Colombo’s public spaces and across the country.
Probably, a far worse scenario of protests is expected and with good reason since warnings are now growing on the ground, of impending long power cuts, of even more increases in utility bills relating to electricity and water and heavy tax increases. The Government may complain that it has no option as the country’s debt must be made sustainable for relief to come from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But who made that debt unsustainable in the first place? Finally, it is the people who are being made to pay for the manifold sins of greedy, corrupt and ignorant politicians. It is as simple as that.
Gross corruption remains unchecked
For the underlying reasons for Sri Lanka’s financial crisis which lie at the root of gross political corruption, have not yet been addressed. Proposed anti-corruption laws are just more papering over the cracks. What we need to see are not more new laws but effective deterrent on the ground in respect of prosecutions and punishments. That will however, never happen, we can be sure of that. So the modus operandi for Sri Lanka’s rulers appear to continue on their own merry way while keeping the citizenry in a suspended state of acute repression.
Certainly where protests are concerned, no one can say that fair warnings were not given by the political establishment. Its determination to crack down on citizens’ agitations is now pronounced. That determination will undoubtedly act as an encouragement for law enforcement to engage in the silliest of inflammatory action, inciting people to revolt. A classic example of this was the totally unwarranted arrest of two women who were walking from Panadura to Kalutara wearing placards to protest against the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) against student protestors.
In fact, it is a question whether the President’s misguided thinking on ‘permits to protest’ which is contrary to a myriad decisions of the Supreme Court, informed the mindset of the arresting officers who seemed to think that walking on a public road, wearing a placard critical of the Government violated some obscure legal provision.
Both Sri Lanka’s politicians and the police need a quick tutorial on the legal right to protest peacefully, by the Court, it appears. In midst of that fracas, the ‘manhandling’ of two policewomen by a senior police officer spun on itself as another surreal side event. Indeed, the absurdity of all of this beggars belief.
Ridiculous damage control
In damage control efforts, the police thought it fit to obtain statements from female officers claiming that they had no problem being ‘manhandled.’ But Where does this circus stop? Regardless of what politicians say when drunk on power, it behoves the Inspector General of Police to rein in his men so that they act strictly on the law rather than invite public fury which finally, it is the police themselves who will be on the firing lines, to control. No police force or the tri-services can control the rage of people.
For the problem is that the political establishment refuses to amend its corrupt ways even in the grip of an existential fight for survival of the democratic state. This fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of each action taken by those in power. While taxes and the price of essential utilities are exponentially increased, pulverizing the middle class and beggaring the already poverty stricken segments of Sri Lankan society, tax collection from politically aligned ‘favourite’ corporates remains abysmal. So too are the privileged in the public sector who grant themselves fat commissions even while rapaciously feeding off the populace.
These are the fatcats who profit off misery, whose corruption feeds the political class, this forging a deadly nexus which keeps the country poor while a few get stupendously rich. Into this terrible mix and as if our woes were not enough, we now have uncertainty over the continued delaying of local government elections, scheduled to be held in the first quarter of next year after various postponements. Apparently a select committee of Parliament has been proposed, to consider amendments to election laws which election monitors warn, is a ruse to postpone the upcoming polls.
Attempts to postpone elections
On its part, the Elections Commission has been dithering, initially announcing its intention to hold the polls as scheduled and later, muttering about it being a ‘transitional body’ in the wake of the recent 21st Amendment to the Constitution which prescribed new members to be appointed.
This has been hotly contested by critics of any planned postponement of the polls, on the basis that in the past, elections were held under similar ‘transitional or interim arrangements.’ Their point that, even during situations of active war and the global pandemic, the electoral process went on unimpeded is unquestionably valid.
In fact, the Court’s pronouncements on the importance of adhering to scheduled elections is engraved into our jurisprudence. When former President Chandrika Kumaratunge postponed elections to five Provincial Councils in 1999 by emergency regulation, that was summarily struck down as unconstitutional, (Karunatilake and another v. Dayananda Dissanayake, Commissioner of Elections and Others, 1999) 1 Sri LR. 157). The Elections Commissioner’s failure to exercise his independent mind to fix a new date for elections after the original date had passed, was censured by the Court. He was reminded that the Constitution assures him independence.
That is with the purpose of fearlessly insisting on due compliance with the law in regard to elections, ‘even, if necessary, by instituting appropriate legal proceedings in order to obtain judicial orders.’ The right to vote was articulated to be an integral part of Article 14 (1) (a) protecting the freedom of speech and expression. We may remind ourselves of the judges’ most poignant warning that, ‘the silent and secret expression of a citizen’s preference as between one candidate and another by casting his vote is no less an exercise of the freedom of speech and expression, than the most eloquent speech from a political platform.’
Warning to the politicians
In sum, without citizens being allowed to exercise the right to vote, there is little point in legal gymnastics including a draft law on limiting campaign finances that the Wickremesinghe Presidency has, very cannily, brought before the public now. We remember a shameful point during the ‘yahapalanaya’ regime when, with the connivance of its coalition sympathiser, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an innocent legislative amendment to secure female representation in provincial polls was used to postpone polls. Such games will not work this time.
Let President Wickremesinghe, raining down fire and brimstone on the heads of Sri Lanka’s protestors, be sufficiently apprised of that fact.