Old habits die hard. During his speech at the Golden Gate Kalyani opening ceremony, on Wednesday (25) President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sounded just as he had done years before when he was the Defence Secretary in the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. Emotions got the better of him when he digressed from the subject of development to counter criticisms from the Opposition.

Spelling out the unprecedented problems the country was facing due to the pandemic, and highlighting what he called his government had achieved amidst numerous challenges and difficulties, President Rajapaksa took a swipe at the yahapalana government. He got on his hobby horse—national security. When the Mahinda Rajapaksa government was ousted in January 2015, the economy had been robust and there had been no threats whatsoeverto national security, but the yahapalana government had debilitated the state intelligence agencies, and therefore the Easter Sunday attacks had come about, he said.


Attempt to frighten the Opposition

And, then the President sought to give the Opposition a scare, or at least he was seen to be doing so. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), appointed by the previous government to probe the Easter Sunday terror attacks, had found the yahapalana administration, including its Prime Minister and the President, responsible for the tragedy, President Rajapaksa pointed out, claiming that the task of serving justice had been left entirely to the judiciary, and his government did not interfere with the judicial process, at all. Opinion is divided on this claim, though.

The President was obviously responding to the Catholic Church, which has complained of what it considers an inordinate delay in having the culprits responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks punished. The process of meting out punishment could be expedited, if necessary, with the help of an Act of parliament, and those responsible for the tragedy deprived of their [civic] rights, the President said, noting that the government had a two-thirds majority for that purpose.

What the President said about the presidential probe findings is true; the PCoI has held the entire Yahapalana government accountable for the tragedy. It says (on page 471): “The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister is accountable for the tragedy.” Of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the PCoI has this to say (on page 276/77): “Upon a consideration of the evidence, it is the view of the COI that the lax approach of Mr. Wicrekemsinghe towards Islam extremism as the Prime Minister was one of the primary reasons for the failure on the part of the then government to take proactive steps towards Islam extremism. This facilitated the build-up of Islam extremism to the point of the Easter Sunday attacks.

The frontbenchers of the SJB, who are carrying out propaganda onslaughts on the President and the government were members of the yahapalana Cabinet. The President has apparently sought to remind them that they cannot absolve themselves of accountability for the tragedy.

But anyone who cherishes democracy and good governance will abhor the idea of civic rights disabilities as a means of expediting the process of dispensing justice.


Extremely bad precedent

Sadly, President Rajapaksa has threatened to follow an extremely bad precedent, which is antithetical to democracy, in a bid to frighten the Opposition into submission—the imposition of civic disabilities. One may recall that the late President J. R. Jayewardene used the findings of a presidential commission to deprive the then SLFP leader and former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike of her civic rights and thereby prevented her from running for President in 1982. He did not want to take chances as regards his re-election bid. The SLFP, including the Rajapaksas, condemned Jayewardene and the UNP for that dastardly act, which the UNP has not been able to live down.

All those responsible for the security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday tragedy must be brought to justice, but the due process has to be followed, and, above all, the government must not manipulate the law to neutralize its political opponents on the pretext of serving justice.

The current rulers should bear in mind the political fallout of President Jayewardene’s despicable action. They must read and reread the cogent arguments the then Opposition and campaigners for human rights put forth against the imposition of civic rights on Sirima Bandaranaike and others.

In a letter to President Jayewardene, the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe raised the following valid points in protest against the undemocratic government move:

(From a selection of writings by the late Right Reverend Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunegala, Chairman of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, published by CRM on Human Rights Day 10 December 1983.) 

1. The proceedings of the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry cannot be described as a fair and impartial judicial process. The reasons for saying so have been provided in the Statement issued by the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, of which I am Chairman for the time being. A copy of this Statement would have been sent to you.

In view of this, to proceed with the Resolution in Parliament so as to subject Mrs. Bandaranaike to civic disabilities such as depriving her of her seat in Parliament and of her right to contest the general elections in 1983 or before, will be to act in a way that is neither impartial nor fair.

In the Buddhist tradition the righteous ruler must govern with both impartiality and fair play, in addition to acting justly. Since you are a national leader who intends to build a righteous society based on Buddhist principles, the confidence many people have placed in you is at stake on this occasion.

2. Again, in view of what had been said about the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, to deprive your chief political opponentwho alone is able to muster an effective opposition to your party in this country at the present time, of her right to sit in Parliament and to contest the next general elections as leader of her party or a coalition of parties, is to undermine one of the basic foundations of a vibrant democracy. This foundation is the presence of an effective opposition party capable of forming an alternative government.

The people expect that a national leader of your stature and experience will not so act as to undermine such a basic foundation of real democracy.

3. If this action is proceeded with, it will deepen the divisions already existing within the nation, and especially among the Sinhala people. The spirit of bitterness and desire for revenge will be further aggravated. The kind of stability you require for implementing your development programme will be severely undermined. Dissent and opposition will seek expression in ways that are extra-parliamentary; and the increasing use of the security forces will be required to maintain an outward show of stability.

The prelate told Jayewardene in no uncertain terms:

“The cost to rapid development, a vibrant democracy and righteous society will far outweigh the temporary gain of proceeding with the Resolution now tabled in Parliament.”

The Bishop’s words were prophetic, and deserve to be heeded by the SLPP leaders.


Cause for concern

Times have changed, and hopefully lessons of history have been learnt. One hopes that the government is not mulling over the imposition of civic rights as an option in its desperate efforts to neutralize its political opponents. It must refrain from doing so for the sake of democracy as well as itself. Neither the JRJ government nor the countryrecovered from that abominable course of action in question, and the second term of President Jayewardene became a curse for the country as well as the UNP government.

The incumbent government had better stop entertaining the idea of emulating the previous governments which abused power and strove to further their interests at the expense of democracy, in trying to overcome problems it is beset with however difficult that task may be. Such ad hoc ‘solutions’ end up being problems themselves. This is the harsh reality the SLPP leaders must not lose sight of.    



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