Columns - FOCUS On Rights

Government pleads for a Fonseka pardon?

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Among the more ludicrous sights that one saw this week was one government politician after another pleading that Sri Lanka’s former Army Commander or a member of his family should ask for a pardon from President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The equal application of the law

The deafening volume of these calls had, at times, an air of wholly unflattering desperation about them. It is as if even those most enthusiastic of government propagandists had realized full well the magnificent irony of General Sarath Fonseka serving a jail sentence for the purported sin of violating tender procedures, the details of which are still not clear at all, even as fraudsters responsible for million rupee corruption scandals, including at the heart of the country’s premier tax collection agency, remain at large.
If, as the President declared, the law should take its course against the corrupt, we may be forgiven for being bewildered when the exact converse happens.

Reports of Presidential commissions into the same remain locked in drawers and damning findings by parliamentary oversight bodies against state institutions, public officials, ministers and parliamentarians are tossed into the dustbin with scarcely a second glance. So, if we are to take the President seriously at his word, is it not incumbent on us to call him to account on his promises? While it is easy to pin this responsibility onto the opposition, let us not forget that an equal responsibility rests on us, the people and the media in particular.

Political embarrassment and a stubborn stand

Meanwhile the desperation of these government spokesmen was only rivalled by opposition politicians equally desperate to prevail upon Prisoner No 022032 to ask for a pardon. These calls had various motivations ranging from a natural desire on the part of some to get rid of an embarrassing political problem to political jumpers now seeking to ingratiate themselves with the current leadership all over again.

One fact is however for certain. The possibility of Prisoner No 022032 appealing for a pardon is as remote as, to revert to a popular catch phrase, a snowball’s chances of survival in hell. And effectively the incarceration of the former Army Commander presents dilemmas not only for the government but also for the opposition and indeed, for the people at different levels.

Those supporting the court martial verdicts may argue that justice was done. But justice was manifestly and most troublingly not seen to be done to the extent that even those who deplored the former Army Commander’s rough and inept handling of his unfamiliar role as a politician during the January Presidential elections were compelled to sit up and take notice.

The flavour of vengeance and contrived results that dogged the court martial verdicts was too strong and spoke too eloquently to a system in which the rule of law played little part and where even the facade of justice had been abandoned.

Testing the integrity of the Sinhalese people

One may argue that such injustice takes place on a daily basis in Sri Lanka’s formal legal system, (let alone flawed court martial processes), and one may well be right. However, what takes this case out of the commonplace is the fact that this fate befell a military commander once lionized by a sizeable percentage of the people for militarily leading the war against the Wanni’s delusional Sun God.

To that extent, and take every other consideration out of the picture, the reactions of the Sinhalese people in particular to the sight of their former Army Commander in a common prisoner’s uniform, is an accurate measure of our individual and collective sense of profound shame. If we are willing to let this go, (with a minimum of protest and with mere grumblings in our homes or in chance conversations) in the name of Rajapaksa patronage and the illusionary El Dorado of a South Asian Singapore, this will only prove the accusations of degeneracy often flung at our heads by detractors down through the decades.

In that regard, the fate and condition of Prisoner No 022032 is a good reflection of this country itself and not only a reflection on a clearly ill motivated administration or of a pathetically lost opposition. It is little surprise therefore that some cacophonously loud nationalistic voices have now become muted while others have ceased almost completely. One can sympathize with their all too evident plight.

Resisting the government in the name of democracy

And then there are those who would appear to think that the present choices are either to support the former Army Commander wholeheartedly or to support the government wholeheartedly. Many who pursue this line also go on to lift their hands in horror at the conceivable possibility of a released General Fonseka returning to politics.

Yet to pose the choices in this way is to miss the point. Throughout South Asia, ordinary people, opinion makers and mobilizing forces in society such as the media, academics, professionals and trade unionists working in systems far worse than ours in the post war stage, repeatedly call their governments to order on a variety of issues.

Ultimately a government is restrained by popular resistance, not necessarily in the nature of armed movements but by other means of non violent protest which may be as mundane as writing a letter to a newspaper or as significantly more activist as formin networks of community affiliated non donor driven networks of democratic non political opposition across towns and villages.

Are these signs of a benevolent monarchy?

Some months back a reader of this column took exception to a particular column piece entitled ‘Raging against a monarchical mindset’ (see the Sunday Times of May 16 2010). This column, which quoted and borrowed from the inspiringly famous injunction to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ by Dylan Thomas, called upon democratic spirits in this country to protest against the dying of constitutional institutions in favour of near monarchical rule.

Obviously never having heard of Thomas and his injunction, which was to metaphorically fight for the good life, this reader thought quite mistakenly that the column was exhorting a call to arms and in a spirited (though patronizingly complimentary) response, published on the website of the Media Centre for National Security of the Ministry of Defence on June 3, 2010, called this columnist to task for inciting people to violence.

Quite apart from the rib-ticklingly funny misinterpretation of the classic Dylan Thomas phrase, the core thrust of his seven page long and oftentimes hopelessly convoluted rejoinder was that constitutional institutions are anyway run by individuals and that a monarchy is also run by an individual. So in effect, there cannot be much difference between the two. Consequently, as this reader reminded, benevolent monarchical rule in Sri Lanka may well be to the good.

My thoughts returned to this response this week in the light of the continuing repercussions from the Fonseka sentencing, which is perhaps one pointer to this ‘benevolent monarchical rule’ that was earlier so hopefully referred to and so eagerly sought to be justified in that reader’s response. A further pointer to such benevolence may also be the recent 18th Amendment to the Constitution which spelled the end of constitutional governance.

But this most irreverent sarcasm may be excused, irrepressible as it may be. Perhaps this reader and others like him may be referred to the teachings of the great religious leaders and of Jesus Christ and the Gautama Buddha in particular, who preached that earthy glories were but temporary, that tolerance is the greatest of all virtues and that vengeance is a self destructive path, particularly for a political leader to take.
Indeed these are fit times for us to remind ourselves of what these eternal truths are.

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