Columns - FOCUS On Rights

The barbarians at the gates

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

In terms of democratic freedoms, are Sri Lankans worse off now than they were before the war ended?
This is perhaps a most crucial question in the current post war phrase. When the danger of oneself or one's loved ones being blown to bits on any given day is no longer a threat, answering the above question may seem ludicrously easy. But we owe it to ourselves to venture beyond a superficial answer and examine the tremendously complex problem as to who we are, post war, as individuals, as communities, as a society and as a nation.

Ethnic and religious fundamentalism

Certainly, religious and ethnic intolerance in Sri Lankan society is on the increase. Politicization of religious festivals, the firm stamping of a majority religious mark on state activities and the entrenching of language as a divider rather than a unifier is far more obvious now than in the past, at least in this columnist's lifetime.

The fundamentalist enhancing of religious identity has not been on the part of one community either. Religious victimization of teenage girls allegedly for violating Islamic tenets is increasingly being evidenced in the East.

One particularly worrying instance this week concerned two young Muslim girls accused of looking at pornographic material when accessing the internet in a café. Going by reports, they were publicly accused through an announcement by the local mosque in Kattankudy and thereafter badly assaulted by a mob.

Where is the law in all this? In this particular example, the law had, in fact, intervened as a result of fortuitous press reports highlighting the incident.

The mosque in question was compelled to broadcast that the two girls had not been guilty of a crime. But for every one incident such as this, there is the danger of several other similar incidents where very different outcomes may be the case.

Mob justice in a lawless society

Other examples predominate. Where a bus driver mows down a mother and a child in the act of crossing the road, the culprit is not caught and handed over to the nearest police station to be dealt with according to law but is instead lynched summarily. Too many instances of mob justice have been meted out in recent times to believe that what is in issue is here are just one or two exceptional situations. Rather, mob justice now appears to be the rule rather than the exception. Has Sri Lanka become a lawless society where mob rule prevails?

Indeed, as raised on many occasions in these column spaces, the primary law enforcement authority, namely the police, is also part of this same lawlessness, whether in regard to summarily shooting unarmed criminals (allegedly) taken into custody or in mercilessly assaulting and firing upon protestors at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone.

The premature retirement or resignation of an Inspector General of Police, who thereafter accepts a high ranking diplomatic appointment, does not address this problem. It merely trivializes what is now seriously wrong with our society and its governance structures.

The ridiculous defeat of an RTI Bill

Such trivialization is evident at all levels. So, for example, a Right to Information (RTI) Bill tabled by an opposition parliamentarian is defeated by the government on the spurious explanation that a far better draft would be put in its place.

Yet days later, we are informed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa with his customary verve and vigour at a meeting of the country's editors, that the country does not need a Right to Information law and that he himself was prepared to disclose any information to anybody except what was protected by the Official Secrets Act.

Presciently, this columnist warned last week that national security would be trotted out by the government and its propagandists as to why the RTI Bill was defeated in the House.

It was also detailed as to why this logic is sublimely ridiculous given that there are definitive safeguards preventing the release of material looked upon as being harmful to national security in the relevant draft that was approved by a different Cabinet some years back. Further, the juxtaposition of Sri Lanka's decades old Official Secrets Act alongside a RTI law makes little sense.

This is a statute based on archaic British law and has been roundly critiqued in the United Kingdom as allowing a 'breeding ground of abuse' by one eminent British jurist (see Wade, Administrative Law, 7th Ed at page 65). Efforts have been to revise the British law. Its Sri Lankan counterpart has however seen little reform since its enactment in 1955 even though it uses vague and imprecise language that is out of date with modern jurisprudence. Using it to justify keeping information secret as a matter of government policy as articulated this week is therefore far from reassuring.

Public accountability and corruption

At another level of the sublimely ridiculous, we see the relevant Government Minister's explanation as to the defeat of the RTI Bill in Parliament being impliedly if not expressly contradicted just days later by the Head of State who says that the country does not need a RTI law. So now it is not that we should look forward to a 'better' Bill to be presented by the government but rather, no Bill at all. Surely at a minimum, the government owes it to the public to be logically consistent with the reasons as to why it so ruthlessly discards good governance measures. Or have we reached the point of arrogance at which even explanations do not really matter? Where is public accountability, one may well ask?

Furthermore, the airy Presidential rejoinder that an RTI law is not necessary to battle corruption and that the Bribery and Corruption Commission would suffice in this regard is disconcerting. Perhaps this rejoinder may have sounded more convincing if the Commission, (in all the varied periods of its long and turbulent existence), had done more than, in the main, catch sprats such as in the form of bribe taking grama niladharis and school principals. Even where it had tried to catch grander prey, it had been peremptorily checked through political interference in relevant prosecutorial, legal and judicial processes. So, in all good faith, how could public confidence be reposed in the efficacy of such a body?

Living in a military autocracy

Denial of information is one sure attribute of a military autocracy. In sum, have we become a military society even without the excuse of an ongoing war? The answer to this question is unequivocally in the positive with attendant warnings posed to the liberal and secular society that Sri Lanka once was, despite all its historically periodic eruptions of ethnic and community violence propelled by power hungry politicians.

Post war, the enhanced expenditure on defence, the centralization of much power under the Ministry of Defence, the crippling of Parliament and the judiciary, are obvious warning signals. Others may seek refuge in the justification that the impact of decades of militarization as a result of several conflicts cannot be shrugged off in one year or even two years. Regardless, there is little doubt that what is evidenced now is deeply disturbing.

In the midst of this, we see profound absurdities such as the recent proposal to change the police uniform.

What the police need is not new uniforms, (or for that matter, more training), but transformation from a military style counter terrorism force to a legitimate and publicly respected law enforcement authority that is firmly divorced from military authority and moreover, is able to operate free from political interference. This is where public demand should lie.

Is this our future?

When law and order breaks down, the barbarians are, literally, at the gates. Doubtless, the sanctity of Sri Lanka's justice and legal institutions has suffered immeasurably in the recent decade. Those from the economically or politically powerful segments of both the majority and the minority communities are able to get away with, literally, blue murder.

Good examples in recent times is the immunity afforded to top LTTE propagandists as well as the Attorney General's most distinctive liberality in withdrawing murder charges against a politician from government ranks with the recent result that a mere suspended sentence was imposed for unlawful assembly.

Is this the country in which we want to live?

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