Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As agonizing suspense finally ends with the dissolving of the 14th Parliament of Sri Lanka, unlamented and unsung as well it ought to be, a palpable sigh of relief palpitates through the land.
Hypocrisy at its height
This was a House that had far outlived its time, even as school children nervously balked from visiting its galleries with unprecedentedly crude verbiage echoing in its chambers. This was moreover an assembly where a majority stamped its infamy by insulting a sitting Chief Justice in thinly veiled filth during a farcical impeachment process.
Heinously, this Parliament willingly oversaw its own decline with its groveling subservience to the Rajapaksa Presidency. Financial oversight and legislative leadership was thrown to the wayside. Instead, we had the 18th Amendment, manifestly Sri Lanka’s most obscene post-independence constitutional amendment with a compliant Court obediently approving it.
This was under the direction of the very judge who later, as that wrongly impeached Chief Justice, had to face the ugliness which surfaces when judges play games of political chance. Now we endure an erstwhile Professor of Law turned Minister turned agile political opportunist who once applauded that process preaching on the Rule of Law from the opposition benches.
This is hypocrisy at its height, equaled only by the antics of ‘yahapalanaya’ advocates who have unflinchingly profited in the post January 2015 government, regardless of compromising the struggle itself. We saw this sorry spectacle in 1994 when the members of the democracy movement who swept Chandrika Kumaratunga into power were co-opted into office thus losing their credibility and (more importantly) leaving a dangerous vacuum when the Kumaratunga Presidency lost its way.
Caught like a nut between two crackers
But this is to digress. All in all, very few Sri Lankans would be sorry to see the end of this particular legislative assembly. Yet what will its successor be like? The possibilities are dolorous. From the South comes the Rajapaksa force once again, capitalizing on the mistakes made by its opponents, fiercely embittered at its humiliation and with little genuine contrition for the grievous harm that it has done to the country. Instead, there is only determination to take back power by hook or by crook, even if it means stirring up racial and communal hatreds, the hallmarks of that Presidency.
On the other side, there are the voluble peacocks of the current government, basking in the reflected glory of the Sirisena win. Caught like the proverbial nut between these two crackers, (the apposite Sinhala idiom not lending itself very well to translation), the majority electorate need to have little doubt about its option of choice, warts and all. Certainly to bring back the Rajapaksas so soon after their defeat and with so much yet undone would be the makings of a disaster, let us be clear about that.
Correcting the post January 2015 missteps
But there will not be a repetition of that same rapturous enthusiasm which captured the national mood in the Presidential election where the son of a Polonnaruwa farmer, ridiculed as being unremarkable and mediocre, unseated the Medamulana family cabal gone mad with power.
There was a clean edge to that opposition campaign and a quiet resolve about the challenger which was impressive precisely because it was understated and in complete contrast to the strutting arrogance of the then incumbent. That gloss has worn off, not so much in a personal sense as the new President has tripped over himself only infrequently though this criticism may become more unforgiving as time lapses. Yet the same cannot be said about the immediate missteps of the partner United National Party Government and the tinsel performances of its once strident good governance voices.
The latest frivolity is the ad hoc appointing of committees to probe irregularities of the previous regimes. Thus must be distinguished from the appointment of Commissions of Inquiry under a particular law with specific guarantees of fairness in inquiry. These are not idle safeguards. For example, disappearances commissions of the 1990s referred the names of those implicated under confidential cover to the government for further investigation without subjecting them to media trials. That nothing happened thereafter spoke to the absence of political will, not to the absence of legal legitimacy of those bodies.
A small measure of justice
This week, two legal victories are celebrated. First is the sentencing of the murderers of Gerald Perera, an unassuming cook at the Colombo Dockyard who was arrested by the police after being mistaken for a known thief and subjected to torture. Angered thereafter by a successful legal battle in the Supreme Court, which had not yet undergone the terrible convulsions that would grip it in later years, the perpetrators then killed him days before he was due to give evidence at the High Court trial under the Anti-Torture Act. This columnist was personally involved with the legal struggle to bring Gerald Perera’s murderers to account and must acknowledge the jubilation that arises at this outcome.
Second was the conviction and death sentence given to a Sinhala soldier for the brutal killing of Tamil civilians in Mirusovil fifteen years ago. In both instances, while the result is a small measure of justice, the process is testimony of the frailty of our Rule of Law systems. This is a question that will be dealt with in more detail later in these column spaces, given its fundamental importance.
For now, it needs to be said that the proper working of the investigative, the prosecutorial and the judicial agencies should have been the first task of the new government. Failure to do this has remained its most spectacular lapse. For instance, what has happened to the findings of the investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department into that alleged constitutional coup in January 2015? We are told that this has been referred to the Department of the Attorney General but the silence on the matter is deafening.
Undoubtedly these are questions that will be exploited to the full in the coming election campaign even as the unprepossessing circus of panting hopefuls impatiently waiting for their chance in the political sun comes to town again.