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The land belongs to the people; thou art only the guardian of it

by Shanie

"You would probably have noticed that there is no statue of any political leader, no road, school, hall, new buildings named after persons in office. No photographs or profiles on stamps or currency. The only pictures allowed in offices or hospitals are those of the constitutional Head of State, not the Head of Government who is elected and, therefore, part of the competition between political parties. Other newly independent countries cannot resist this temptation to build a whole panoply of weapons of psychological domination in the minds of their illiterate followers."

(August 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dharmasiri Pieris was one of our outstanding civil servants of the ‘old school’ – men (sadly no women were selected to the Ceylon Civil Service) who were very professional, efficient and apolitical in the discharge of their duties as public servants. He served as Secretary to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike for many years but, because of his professionalism, enjoyed the confidence of successive governments of all political parties. After retirement, his memoirs ‘In the Pursuit of Governance’ were published in 2002. The memoirs make interesting reading for the general public but could also be treated as a manual of work and ethic for a professional public service. Pieris recalls several instances when he took a stand against incorrect decisions made by his political bosses (including the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike). But obviously because he was respected for his professionalism and impartiality, the politician usually yielded to his advice.

The final chapter of Pieris’ memoirs is titled ‘A Retrospect’ where he examines broad issues of governance and the international experience on these issues. The above citation is where Pieris quotes Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, as illustrative of the responsible, work-oriented, non-superficial, non-adulatory and grown-up political culture of Singapore. This is something that we in Sri Lanka should emulate. The desire for politicians in office to have their picture on billboards, cut-outs, buildings and stadiums tto carry their name, etc has reached obscene proportions. Despite an authoritarian streak he had in him, Lee Kuan Yew had the maturity and wisdom not to have his profile exhibited in public places. That is why he was able to command the respect of his people until he gracefully retired from office. Those enjoying power need both knowledge and competence and also ‘a developed moral sense and a high sense of values’.

Pieris says good governance requires the leaders of a country to rise above the temporary and the petty and have a sense of trusteeship, of guardianship to be exercised over their people. He refers to a dissenting judgement by our own jurist Professor C. G. Weeramantry in a case in the International Court of Justice in Hague, where he quoted from the sermon preached by Arahat Mahinda to King Devanampiya Tissa: ‘O great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou. The land belongs to the the people and all living beings; thou art only the guardian of it.’ In dealing with the politicians’ lust for power, Pieris quotes Thomas Jefferson: ‘Whenever man has cast a longing eye on office, a rottenness begins in his conduct.’ Pieris adds that this is perhaps why the world has produced so few statespersons. It is also perhaps why the world, by and large, has been suspicious, dissatisfied and even cynical about their politicians. This, he says, is not a recent phenomenon. Over the years, many have fulminated against the quality of governance that they have had to endure.

The need for a sense of values

Pieirs, as a professional administrator, was speaking about good governance in apolitical terms. Although written nearly ten years ago, his thoughts still have great relevance to Sri Lanka today. We need a moral sense and a sense of values as never before. It is not just the superficial self-adulatory culture where politicians show a desire to have their pictures exhibited at every turn; and sycophants duly humouring them by doing so. The tradition of not having the picture of any living person holding elected office on stamps and currency notes which Lee Kuan Yew spoke about may be western one and therefore are values, according to the exponents of the current Mahinda Chinthanaya, we should not emulate. But these are values for all time and what our politicians should practice in relation to the people.

Since January, the government has been having talks with the TNA in finding a solution to the many issues faced by the Tamil people. One of the issues was to find a sustainable political solution to the National Question and to ensure self-government to the people of the different regions throughout the country. All party talks have been held over the past decade or so; the first of these resulted in the constitutional proposals presented in Parliament by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 2000. The LTTE understandably opposed these proposals, which would have ensured an elected regional legislature for the North and East. Facing the prospect of losing power to elected representatives would not have been a pleasing one to their late leader. But the opposition of the UNP to a political solution which they had themselves helped to fashion showed the utter irresponsibility of the party and its parliamentary leadership. They obviously felt that quibbling about transitional arrangements for the abolition of the Executive Presidency was more important than finding a solution to the National Question or to the abolition of the extraordinary powers vested in the Executive Presidency. Anyway, those proposals arrived at by consensus sadly fell by the wayside.

Commissions and Committees

The second all party proposals were those formulated by the APRC under the chairpersonship of Tissa Vitarana. This was an all-party committee appointed by President Mahinda Rajapakse. The committee obtained the assistance of an expert panel, and presented a report to the President. That was before the military defeat of the LTTE. The country has heard nothing from the President about the APRC report, going by his current thinking on all contentious reports, is perhaps for his eyes only. The APRC report is as good as buried although its Chairperson bravely carries on as a ‘senior cabinet minister’, whatever that may mean.

The next was the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, widely touted among the international community to announce that the government was serious about post-war accountability and reconciliation. The Commission sat for several months, heard evidence, and issued an interim report. With much fanfare, the government announced that a sub-committee headed by the Attorney General had been appointed to implement the interim recommendations of the LLRC. That was the last that the public and reportedly the LLRC itself had heard about the implementation of the interim recommendations. No doubt the Attorney General has pressing issues on his hands, including the discharge of political figures charged with rape and murder. But it will be in the interests of his Department, which once enjoyed respect for its professionalism, for him to let the people of this country know what progress his committee has made in implementing the interim LLRC recommendations.

Now the latest proposal from the government is the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to report on the same issues that have already been reported to the President by the Commissions and committees that he has appointed. President Rajapaksa’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose mind and actions many think are followed by the President, has just stated publicly that the National Question is already a settled matter and no further action is required on it. This is also the position of the hardline Sinhala nationalists. So the Parliamentary Select Committee can be expected to reflect this thinking in its report, at least in its majority report if the opposition somehow participates in it. It appears as if it is the government’s position that commissions and committees are to be appointed and their reports received (for the President’s eyes only) until a committee finally reports reflecting the Gotabaya Rajapakse thinking.

Police Investigations

The Police have had very able investigative officers in the past who have been able to solve many complex cases. No doubt there still are officers with the same ability. But the big difference between then and now is that Police hierarchy then did not meekly submit to political interference. Now, political crimes do not appear to be vigorously pursued. The killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge took place in January 2009. For several months, the only arrest made was of a bystander who had pinched Wickrematunge’s mobile phone from his car in the confusion following the killing. After Sarath Fonseka contested the Presidency and became the political public enemy No 1, his former associates in the military are now under arrest over the killing.

Now, the latest "breakthrough" made by the Police is with regard to the brutal assault on the elderly news editor of a local newspaper in Jaffna. The Police have arrested a man who admitted himself for treatment at the Kalubowila Hospital. The residents of Jaffna claim to know this man as a common criminal who has been guilty of several thefts in the area. Recently, he had been caught in the act of stealing and beaten up by the residents in the neighbourhood. It is injuries sustained in this beating-up for which he had sought treatment at Kalubowila. The people of Jaffna seem to take a cynical view of police claims that this was the man involved in the assault on journalist Kuhanthan. They seem to have no doubt that the assault on Kuhamnthan was a pure case of political intimidation. The journalists from this newspaper, which has taken a strong stand against the actions of a prominent political figure in Jaffna, have been subject to similar intimidation in the past. Indeed, it is reported that Kuhathasan himself had been subject to intimidation on earlier occasions. The Police need to make a more convincing case on this.

Police officers and public servants, in general, will realise that in the long run it is the upright individual who does not yield to political pressure who will earn the respect and esteem of both their peers as well as of the general public. Justice Saleem Marsoof in a contribution to a collection of essays in honour of K C Kamalasabayson, one of the most respected of Attorney Generals of recent times, says that there were numerous occasions when Kamalasabayson refused to defend public officers who had acted with corrupt or sinister motives or who had yielded to political pressure in the discharge of their duties. Marsoof says that Kamalasabayson admired public servants of the calibre of Dharmasiri Pieris.

Perhaps it is worth ending this column this week with what Kamalasabayson stated about Dharmasiri Pieris’ memoirs when they were first released: "The writer with great thoroughness and keen analysis discloses the trials and tribulations faced by a responsible public servant in a political sensitive system. He conveys an important message to the present day public servant, viz that it is not difficult for a public servant to be fearless and independent and at the same time, discharge his duties and functions efficiently. He also strikes a warning note to those public servants who serve their political masters for political gain. To the writer the public service was a pilgrimage, in the course of which he was given the noble task of serving the public."

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