| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

( May 11, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Classical Greek mythology beautifully dramatizes the high price extracted by the goddesses of justice or the three Furies on kings and princes who through extreme hubris, mocked at the Gods themselves. Poetically, this is the nemesis which visits rulers who believe that their power is unassailable and perpetrate profound injustices.

Somewhat aptly moreover, nemesis is cast in the female form, giving justice where it is due. Its modern-day portrayal of a terrifying hand of vengeance is somewhat irritatingly misplaced. The important point here is about the measured quality of justice, meting out exactly what is deserved, neither less or more.

Experiencing hubris in a collective sense

The unhappy fates of past Executive Presidents of Sri Lanka who mistakenly acted as if they were invincible are recorded history. True, we did not then have a ruling family cabal replacing a functional government and displacing a multiparty party system in the cold afterglow of a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The public service, the judiciary and the diplomatic service were not laid so ruthlessly to waste as is the case now. 

Yet even given all these powerfully destabilizing post-war factors, the notion of (absolute) power exercised by an (absolutely) powerful Executive Presidency with clear dynastic tendencies cannot sustain itself for long in the absence of essential balancing factors. Lessons will be taught by the poor who have to face at first hand, the terrifying injustices brought about by uncontrolled power. There was a foretaste of this during the recent provincial council elections when ministers looked more ridiculous than usual in attempting to justify the government’s unexpected electoral retreats. The fact that these unmistakable reversals took place despite a decimated opposition and the regime’s utilization of all state resources and some sections of the private media, were significant.

The monstrosity of absolute power

Bur what must be questioned head on is the apparent complacency with which some educated and professional Sri Lankans accept the monstrosity of absolute power. This does not appall us anymore. Or virtually everyone is too tired to care.

At the highest level of the Supreme Court, appointments made unilaterally by the President are not tested even notionally against accepted judicial standards. And while salutary pronouncements articulating the value of the Rule of Law by the Bar are welcome, stopping at mere pontification is not what is exactly expected from the premier body tasked with mobilizing the legal community. Yet one can hardly be surprised given the decades-long erosion of judicial standards, with little substantial resistance.

Certainly erudite Sri Lankan judges of yore whose reputations were respected in the Commonwealth, many of whom have thankfully passed away, would have literally shuddered in seeing the degenerate levels that a once jealously guarded judicial appointment process has been reduced to.

Part of one calamitous process

As this column spaces have oft emphasized, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the (later) witch-hunt impeachment of the very Chief Justice who had presided over the Bench which approved that dangerously subversive Amendment, were all part of one calamitous process.

Highly vocal cheerleaders of this regime who later fell out of political favour and now appear to be hibernating, furiously criticized the 17th Amendment as being constitutionally unworkable and seriously flawed. The push was however not to fine-tune the 17th Amendment and iron out any perceived or real problems. Instead, this was to lend weight towards a complete jettisoning of that Amendment.

This very same Amendment is now being hailed regularly by editorialists as one of our best constitutional efforts. What greater irony than this? If a united and collective front had been pushed against the whittling down of the 17th Amendment, we would not have to face our present travails.

State practice aimed at nullifying the law

In sum, a crucial difference that distinguishes this regime from its predecessors is not mere mis-governance but deliberate state practice aimed at nullifying the law. Under political blessings at the highest level, one nefarious activity succeeds another as the public watch in helpless fascination. This week’s headlines focused on a well organized racket in capturing elephants and selling them sans licences, the separation of calves by shooting the mothers dead and the illegal selling of the babies. What atrocities prevail in a country which parades itself as being the guardian of the Buddhist Dhamma? Are people who are decent and good practitioners of the precepts not outraged by what they hear and what they see?

In Parliament, the responsible Minister blustered and roared when opposition parliamentarians asked as to why these crimes are not being stopped forthwith. Amazingly we had a senior judicial officer explaining in public that he had a licence for the elephant that he was apparently keeping. These stories belong more in rich musings of the most surreal nature than in actual life. The surreal has now become the normal for Sri Lankans.

Denial overlapped by silence

The institutional toleration of religious extremists ranting and raving against minority religions is part of this same pattern of collective denial overlapped by silence. Post-war there is no visible reconciliation process excepting accelerated ‘development’ through a casino culture while the poor are ruthlessly evicted from the North to the South. Wholesale degradation of the environment has become the norm with officials warning of catastrophic results. But as to what policy action should follow to stop these illegal activities remains unanswered. Law and policy have been reduced to a meaningless jumble. 

Instead, what we have is a culture of abject sycophancy as witnessed this week by the nauseating sight of a female minister completely prostrating herself on the ground before President Mahinda Rajapaksa while others around her leered. From the local to the international, it is this Government which committed error upon error, making conditions ripe for the 2014 Resolution of the United Nations calling for an international inquiry on questions of war time accountability.

When will we stop castigating outsiders for double standards and look deep within ourselves as a country and as a people as to the reasons for our own evident degeneration?

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