Columns - FOCUS On Rights

What would be worthy of celebration?

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

In the inevitable passing of time and despite whatever elections are held, it is safe to conclude that the plight of ordinary people in this country will not change. It will also be safe to conclude that new extremities will beset the economy and that, once the war drums gradually cease to be beaten so cacophonously, this administration will remain incapable of good governance.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution will be ceremoniously cast once and for all to the proverbial dustbin and the Rajapaksa Presidency will be carried aloft on its war cry to the extent that even the remaining liberties may possibly be at stake. It is also safe to conclude that the opposition will remain incapable of showing even the minimum of effective resistance to what is poised to become a monolithic government force.

Achieving our own reverse democratization

The extent of what this means to us in terms not only of grandiose constitutional concepts such as the traditional separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary but also in much simpler terms of expecting basic institutions to function properly is devastating.

It is true that by their very definition, politicians cannot be expected to look out for the people. Though the basis of their political mandate is precisely to serve the people whom they govern, that ethic was true, if at all in this country, only in a different and gentler era. However, the political ethos in this country has taken this hypocrisy to dizzying heights. In this century, Sri Lanka has won for herself a name that has equal ranking along with the worst trouble spots in the world. And though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is blamed for most of these ills, we must recall that this deterioration has come not only in terms of the conflict itself. On the contrary, the insidious politicisation of our public administration, our police and finally our very ethos of living has come about quite independently of a terrorist foe. We have achieved this quite creditably all by ourselves.

Demonstrating the minimum of resistance

What is perhaps most agonizing is that this has happened with the minimum of outrage and the singular absence of a vibrantly angry public constituency. This was the single most reason as to why the 17th Amendment was destined to fail and as to why we continue to tolerate thinly disguised racist objections to the currently proposed members to the Constitutional Council.

And insofar as the Provincial Council elections are concerned, we may be certain only of the buffeting of the people from one set of rogues as opposed to the other. In that regard, the Sri Lankan citizenry has all the characteristics of a ball of uncertain shape and colour being haplessly tossed from one hand to the other. We have spectacularly failed to create forces of accountability that consistently oppose this buffeting process irrespective of whichever party is in power. And for this, history will hold us primarily responsible, not our politicians. We do indeed get the misgovernance that we deserve.

Other parallel processes as contrasted

Contrast however the position in India and the parallel elections process presided over by its elections officials with all their strength, as opposed to the fact that Sri Lanka yet does not have an Elections Commission and our Elections Commissioner is but a pale reflection of what such a body should be and should do. India's vibrancy has been fashioned through a variety of forces including not only the media but her intellectuals, professionals, judiciary and civil rights activists. Their combined and collective strength has restrained India's politicians up to a certain point and vested her people with a strong sense of civic identity despite their teeming problems.

In contrast, this level of awareness and social consciousness is something that we have failed to show. Instead, we deceive ourselves into asserting that nothing is really that wrong with the system, that things could get a lot worse and that all our problems are due to the conflict. This is how we accept flawed governance processes, the increasing brutalisation of our society and the deifying of our politicians. And this is also how we have accepted, with nary a murmur, the desperate fate of the hapless civilians caught veritably between the Tiger and the government forces, on the basis that collateral damage is inevitable in a war situation.

The extent to which we have permitted our governments to interfere with the judiciary is again a fine example of this phenomenon. We have forgotten the art of non political non partisan pressure by which the judiciary is compelled to hold the balance between the citizen and the State. This is not to notch up political brownie points whether for or against the government at various points of time depending on the ebb and flow of judicial ambition but to fulfill the judiciary's constitutional role. We can see no perceptible change in the future in this regard either, except an even greater, (though perhaps more sophisticated), rush down the Gadarene slope.

Daydreaming to dispel the silence

And if one is allowed to daydream for just a while, it would be good to say that what would be actually worthy of celebration is a consensus of opinion across the country of all those who together constitute the leading social, scientific, professional and intellectual voices of the day in Sri Lanka, as to basic issues such as what a peace process should actually entail and in what manner our democratic systems should be allowed to breathe. This should come about spontaneously and not as a result of lunch packets at one level or sumptuous five star buffets at another level provided by the so called 'civil society czars.'

We should hear from them an equal condemnation of the vacillations of the opposition as well as the excesses of the government. The absence of such voices is deafening. It is this silence that will be judged harshly in time to come by future generations of Sri Lankans and not the miserable deeds and antics of our politicians.

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