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Putting the country in harm’s way

What has the government to fear from publishing this report? Is it that planted propaganda in certain media as to what this report claims to say, would thereby be found to be false? Or is it to demonstrate its contempt for such bodies essentially set up to placate international opinion?

by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

(August 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Mindless sycophancy has been the bane of every administration in this country. It has also undermined governance at every level in Sri Lanka, be it political, administrative and judicial. Let us take some illustrative examples.

When the war in the North and East ended in May 2009, Sri Lanka’s official line should have been exactly what is emerging now; namely that in a conflict of such a brutal nature, civilian casualties were unavoidable. However, this sentence cannot be allowed to simply hang in the air. The matter does not end there. On the contrary, it was the duty of this government, (as democratically elected), to bring to justice, those responsible for the deliberate and intentional targeting of civilians. It was also the most grave duty of this government to return the country to a Rule of Law status quo.

Negativity rebounding on Sri Lanka

Instead, what did we have? First, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced grandiloquently in 2009 that there were zero civilian casualties and kept repeating this quite unconvincing mantra years later, linking this up to an equally farcical claim that the troops went into the war theatre with the gun in one hand and the Human Rights charter in the other.

Perhaps he may have been advised by his plethora of mind bogglingly incompetent advisors to this effect or it may have been his own stubborn insistence. Yet, if constituents in his own party, including the so called leftists who have now rendered themselves both pathetic and cringing in their abject sycophancy, had prevailed on him to follow a more honest and indeed a more strategic approach, perhaps the propaganda accrued to the LTTE lobby overseas may have been mitigated.

It is only now, after much loudly denunciatory water has flowed under the bridge, that we have had the official acknowledgement that civilian casualties were unavoidable. Yet, in the intervening period, we have not only had the Head of State being roundly embarrassed in the United Kingdom after embarking on unwise visits to address the Oxford Union but also charges of war crimes being lodged in foreign courts against the President and his brother.

An increasing number of the country’s diplomatic envoys with military backgrounds find themselves in the same unpleasant predicament. So if the government thought that the charges of war crimes would just fade away with time, they were mistaken.

Where is the force of public opinion?

But that is just part of this unfortunate post war environment that we find ourselves in. The other and no less gravely disturbing facet is this administration’s determination to use the war result, not to restore the Rule of Law but indeed, to undermine it in every way possible. We have seen this without a doubt, for close to two years after the ending of active conflict. Yet astoundingly there are those who try to justify this approach on various arguments, each theory being more ludicrous than the other.

For instance, there are professionals and academics who take the line that there is not much harm in a little ‘monarchic behaviour’ or the country being handed over to one political family for a period. Ostensibly this is justified owing to the immense national gratitude being the due of the Rajapaksa administration for having won the war and for having stood up to the ‘bullying west’.

This stupendous logic defies all description in every sense of the word. Apropos, many of these were the very same people who were singing hosannas to Sri Lanka’s former Army Commander only to turn on him consequent to his challenging the Rajapaksa administration. Disturbingly, these are educated men and women who descend to levels of sycophancy that would shame an ordinary semi literate villager.

Others maintain meanwhile that with all Sri Lanka’s myriad problems, it would not have been easy to tackle post war issues with an immediately democratic hand. This too, is an argument that is quite mystifying in its disingenuousness. It cannot explain away several manifest blunders that reveal this government’s anti-democratic hand. From whence for example, springs its most evident dislike for a Right to Information (RTI) law?

Even its most strident propagandists have not been able to link this denial up to questions of national security, that is, of course, barring those who have absolutely no credibility whatsoever in the public sphere but merely serve as obvious mouthpieces for their political masters.

So RTI remains a non-starter. And the fact that some relaxation is promised through gradual withdrawal of emergency regulations testifies only to stepped-up regional and international pressure rather than a genuine rethinking of government policies. Other aspects of current governance dilemmas are equally problematic. Responding to continued attacks on journalists, the Minister of Media was heard to say this week that he can only visit the injured in hospital. Such puerile remarks by a government spokesman would not have been sustained even for a minute in a truly thinking society.

They would be destroyed by the sheer weight of angry public opinion. And for all its very evident turbulence, Indian public opinion would not have allowed a Minister to survive if such a graceless and humourless remark had been made, for instance. But here, it is quite a different story. Verily, whom should we blame but ourselves? What is this democracy that Sri Lanka calls itself? What is this shameful state to which we have been reduced? For how much longer are we content to suffer these indignities?

Promoting ‘destroyers’ of the Rule of Law

The surreal nature of our dysfunctional identity (or rather, non-identity) as Sri Lankans also stem from our ability to tolerate and even venerate those who skillfully transform themselves from Rule of Law destroyers to pious preachers on good governance. In recent times, we have been repeatedly greeted with the spectacle of a former Head of State and a former Chief Justice extolling on the virtues of the Rule of Law and pinpointing the dastardly aspects of the Rajapaksa administration.

Their hypocrisy is monumental. Chandrika Kumaratunga, as Head of State, was primarily responsible for nearly single handedly destroying the country’s judiciary and legal systems in her insistence on appointing then Attorney General SN Silva as Chief Justice despite a pending judicial inquiry against him for abuse of office. Attorney General Silva, as Chief Justice, then went on for a ten year period to systematically undermine a once proud institution which could have held its own anywhere in the Commonwealth. The Bar was reduced to a collection of servile sycophants. In his period, the Court witnessed open politicization of its decisions and the strengthening of majoritarian hawkishness which now Kumaratunga bewails in her most insincere lamentations. It was also during this period that Sri Lanka threw aside adherence to international treaties that wiser intellects had signed onto and thereby attracted unnecessary international attention.

The hypocrisy of these individuals now craving limelight following the collapsing of their political ambitions stares us in our faces. But it is we who allow them to appear on public platforms and lecture to us on the Rule of Law. This reflects on us as a thinking society rather than on those individuals who should, in fact, be asked to publicly apologise for their past conduct before venturing to address the people. That does not happen. This is the nature of Sri Lankan society today.

Dangerously myopic approach to the discredit of the country

This month marks once again, the anniversary of a particularly horrific incident when seventeen aid workers were shot at point blank range in Mutur in 2006. Their fate and those of the hapless students who were executed in cold blood in Trincomalee just a few months earlier in that same year, exemplifies the concrete failures of this government to the Rule of Law. At times, we saw murmurings from government ranks, (at least in regard to the Trincomalee killings), that the killers would be apprehended and dealt with. Their identity was commonly known.

The crime was unconscionable. Yet the very Commission of Inquiry investigating these incidents was wound up unceremoniously and its report was not even published. What has the government to fear from publishing this report? Is it that planted propaganda in certain media as to what this report claims to say, would thereby be found to be false? Or is it to demonstrate its contempt for such bodies essentially set up to placate international opinion?

Whatever it may be, the dangerously myopic approach followed by this Presidency together with its sycophantic Ministers, to questions of accountability and justice for all Sri Lankans has been exceedingly harmful to this country in the post war period. Without significant course correction, it can only be more so in the months to come. It is not a question of avoiding war crimes in the international arena. It is a question of who we are, as a people, as a country and as a nation. These are difficult questions no doubt but questions that we should indeed, put to our own consciences.

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