Last Sunday’s perceptive editorial in this newspaper on President Sirisena’s sudden and unexpected critique of some independent commissions and its implications might have touched many a raw nerve. The fact is that however annoyed or disturbed they may be that editorial which also provided interesting background to the wielding of political power, spoke some home [...]


Independent commissions and all the brouhaha


Last Sunday’s perceptive editorial in this newspaper on President Sirisena’s sudden and unexpected critique of some independent commissions and its implications might have touched many a raw nerve. The fact is that however annoyed or disturbed they may be that editorial which also provided interesting background to the wielding of political power, spoke some home truths.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s sudden and unexpected critique of some independent commissions have touched a raw nerve.

Obviously the President himself and those around him, especially some who have been in many a camp and are now trying to cozy up to the new leader, were quick to realise the damage done. That is why the government sounded the retreat before long though it covered itself with a thick layer of camouflage either by blaming the media for misreporting the President’s remarks or by trying to re-interpret the presidential comments in a light more amenable and less critical than they clearly were.

President Sirisena’s outburst- as many media have called his performance at the SLFI- had neither the torment and rage of Shakespeare’s King Lear or the puns and double entendres of Donne’s metaphysical poetry that requires incisive analysis. He said what he said and there is little need to hold a semantic autopsy.
What has perhaps been underplayed by those who have commented on what is considered by many as a serious presidential faux pas is where and to whom he actually addressed his remarks. The audience consisted of ex or serving security forces personnel or their relatives who were receiving deeds to houses or other benefits granted to them and senior officers of the services.

But the presidential anger was directed more at politicians and officials outside the immediate audience. It was surely the ideal platform from which to hoist the flag in the defence of Sri Lanka’s military heroes. Whether President Sirisena intended all along to say what he did or was carried away by the occasion we do not know.

But the immediate reaction of those in uniform would have been a mighty hurrah even if not publicly expressed. What the president said at the time-on the basis of media reports on the same day or the next – seemed to convey one thought. Senior service personnel should not have been hauled up before the judiciary as were the three former navy commanders who had served the country in times of need.

Whether the name of former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who was also summoned to court in connection with the same case – the Avant Garde affair- was mentioned in the course of that speech I do not know. Even if it was not what seemed to have caused some consternation was a photograph of a wedding reception hosted by a Sirisena sibling that showed Gotabhaya being shown by the Sirisena sibling to the table already occupied by the President and the Prime Minister.

As they still say a picture is worth a thousand words and this was and reactions of the three could convey different meanings to different people – Gotabhaya smiling broadly, the President with a smile on his face looking at the standing Rajapaksa and the Prime Minister rather glum and staring ahead.
Besides the accusation that some officials in independent commissions were working to a political agenda – whose agenda was not mentioned – the President also criticized investigators for holding certain military intelligence officers accused of involvement in the murder or the disappearance of journalists in custody for an extended period.

Another presidential grouse was that he is not kept informed of the state of investigations in bribery and corruption cases. His argument was that since he appointed high officials to these independent commissions he should be privy to what is going on. Such arguments make the president an easy target. One must readily concede that President Sirisena shortly after coming to power worked hard to get the 19th Amendment to the constitution passed in parliament. It needed deft handling and political negotiations. It was under this amendment that the independent commissions were re-established having been dropped during the Rajapaksa administration.

As British Prime Minister Theresa May famously said about what her country’s decision to leave the EU entailed, “Brexit means Brexit”. Maithripala Sirisena who promised during the presidential campaign to restore the independent commissions and did so under the 19th amendment should have said “independent commission means independent commission”.

If an independent commission is to remain independent as one was made to believe during the election campaign then they should be left untouched by political diktat and interference. The fact that the President appoints the officials to these bodies does not mean he has a divine right to intervene or interfere in their working. It is not like the president appointing a secretary to a ministry. The fact that they are called independent commissions gives them far more leeway to pursue their allotted tasks without external meddling unless they deviate sharply or exceed their mandate.

To extend the presidential logic that since he appoints officials he should be kept informed, it is also true the President is elected by the people. Voters could demand the right to be informed of what the government is doing or intends to do. Obviously governments cannot function that way without ending up in a right royal mess (FRCS).

It should apply to independent commissions as well unless the word independent is merely a sop to fool foreign busy bodies as well as the local people who voted for change only to find it has been just an exchange. I am not quite certain whether the President meant to say that investigators delving into various allegations including murder and corruption against security forces personnel should wear kid-gloves and deal with them as gently as with a new born child.
Again I cannot be certain that there was a presidential hint that senior armed forces personnel should be left untouched as they had fought for the unity and integrity of the country and should therefore be safeguarded.

Some consider this a presidential move to have his cake and eat it. If it is so it will call for a particular brand of political gymnastics. When the common candidate and his bandwagon of supporters promised genuine democracy based on the rule of law and a corruption-free, clean society, people believed it. His victory in the elections last year partly testifies to that.

But one cannot promise the return of the rule of law and also encourage, as it were, selective justice that places some in society above the rule of law. It is true, and it cannot be denied, that the armed forces fought to eliminate the threat of secession and terrorism.

But just as a doctor picks up a stethoscope, a lawyer the civil procedure code, the soldier picks up his weapon. That is the tool of his trade or vocation. The soldier is chosen to fight an enemy and is taught to do so. This is not to denigrate the armed forces but a simple fact of life-each person according to his profession.
If soldiers and officers, in service or out, blatantly not accidentally or without meaning to, violate the law they must be held accountable, accountability being also what was promised to the voter.

Those military personnel who were questioned and even held in custody were with regard to civilian killings, nothing to do with the duties of a soldier unless such duties include killing and physically assaulting journalists. If any military personnel are proved guilty are they to be exonerated or will those preliminary investigations end before it reaches the courts.

Not to be outdone by some other ministerial colleagues who try to explain away that initial presidential speech that made yahapalanaya supporters sit up holding their heads, Sri Lanka’s man for all seasons who some call Matara Mangala and still others Mantra Mangala (why I don’t know), also got his oar stuck into the muddy waters.

Briefing the media on an issue relevant to his ministry, the minister was asked about the controversial presidential remarks.
Drawing from his depleting reservoir of pearls of wisdom Samaraweera advised the media to judge the government by its actions and not by its statements.
So there you are. In one fell swoop he pressed the delete button and wiped out millions of words uttered by the leaders of the present government, its ministers, officials and sundry hangers-on, all those statements put out by the presidential media division and some newly set up state institution that is also to issue statements on government activities lest an ignorant and illiterate media get it all wrong.

Some might say he was doing a service but not for the same reason that others wanted to see all that rubbish disappear into cyber space or end up in dear Hilary Clinton’s computer. I doubt that Mangala Samaraweera will ever play Portia. But he seems to be telling us, as Portia did “How far that little candle throws it light/ So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

But looking for all those good deeds, now that’s a different matter. Perhaps we buy ourselves stocks of candles-with VAT of course.

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