The Arrogance of Power

| by Jayantha Dhanapala and Professor Savitri Goonesekere

( July 25, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The story of a plane, a pilot and a puppy would not ordinarily interest the average Sunday newspaper reader. Add to this an account of an angry and vicious outburst by a powerful public official and you have an explosion which raises issues that should concern all citizens of this country.

The reported response of the Secretary of Defence Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a telephone conversation with the editor of the Sunday Leader, Frederica Jansz, is, we believe, unprecedented.

Frederica Jansz had her story, and maybe she did not have to make a second call. However, the tirade of abuse that follows was utterly deplorable, coming from a senior public servant.

No other senior public servant has to our knowledge used such vituperative threatening and obscene language in interaction with a member of the public or a journalist. Public servants are governed by an Establishments Code which contains the norms and standards of conduct set by the Public Service Commission. They are required by an oath of office to conform and abide by the Constitution of this country.

A violation of these norms and standards of behaviour calls for explanations, disciplinary procedures, interdiction, resignation or termination. Legitimising such violations by excuses such as “provocation” and “harassment” by media personnel, only reinforces the idea that public servants exercising significant powers are not accountable under the law of the land for their conduct, and that the public have no right to question abuse of authority and intimidating behaviour by those who hold high office.

We are all aware that there has been an incremental decline in the standards of public life, including the standards of conduct of some public servants. Many politicians are increasingly ignoring the law, and encouraging public servants to violate laws and regulations through questionable politicised decision making. We now have a senior public servant who is a close kinsman of the President, behaving with a politician’s arrogance and disrespect for the norms and standards that should be followed in public service and in administrative decision making. This is setting a dangerous new trend that can culminate in another level of abuse of authority, also encouraging the public to break the law.

It is ironical that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an interview given to another newspaper last Sunday seeks to justify the use of obscenities and expletives in anger, by saying that these words are used “Commonly in American (USA) in normal usage”. (Lakbima News ; July 15 2012 P.05). His Excellency the President and persons in public life have frequently exhorted us all to reject Western values, and be guided by our “traditional” and “home grown” cultural values. If the language used by Mr. Rajapaksa was used by a public servant in a Sinhala or Tamil translation, there would be a reaction of shock, anger and disgust.

Statements made in the interview with Ms Jansz that have received publicity, indicating disrespect for law and the Courts of Law, and ignorance of the constitutional norms on freedom of expression and information, present a frightening scenario of the capacity of a person in high office in Sri Lanka to exercise unlimited power. The threatening language used is a chilling reminder that death and violence await anyone who dares to question the exercise of these unlimited powers. Sri Lanka is due to present its report at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Human Rights Council in a few months. The government’s poor record on media freedom and protection has been already challenged in many national regional and international fora. Mr Rajapaksa’s angry outburst only reinforces allegations of the growing culture of violence against the media, and the suppression of media freedom, and the almost entrenched culture of impunity for this violence.

If the government is serious in its recent claims that it will not tolerate impunity for violence and abuse of power, it must now “walk the talk”.

The public has a right to ask whether it is acceptable for His Excellency the President to continue to keep in high office a person who demonstrates an incapacity to control his temper, and responds violently when he is angry and under pressure. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role in ending a thirty year brutal armed conflict cannot be taken to mean that he can hold office as a public servant and not conform to the norms and standards that regulate the conduct of public servants. Legitimising erosion of values in public administration by condoning such conduct is certainly not good governance in the public interest.

Friday Forum, the Group of Concerned Citizens
Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala, Professor Savitri Goonesekere, Rt. Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare, Mr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, Mr. Lanka Nesiah, Mr. J.C. Weliamuna, Dr. A. C. Visvalingam, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Dr. Camena Guneratne, Dr. Deepika Udagama, Ms. Anne Abeysekera Ms. Sithie Tiruchelvam, Ms, Dhamaris Wickremesekera, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Professor. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Tissa Jayatilaka, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Dr. G Usvatte-Aratchi, Professor. Gananath Obeyesekere, Mr. Ranjit Fernando, Mr. Daneshan Casiechetty, Mr. Mahen Dayananda, Rev Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Ms. Suriya Wickramasinghe, Mr. Chandra Jayaratne