By Chrishmal Warnasuriya
G’day from down-under:
Our customary few lines that usually accompany my New Year’s wish-list this time comes from the land of Skippy the Kangaroo and boxing day MCG cricket (sans the sand-paper of course); hence the slight delay in reaching you, my apologies! Our extensive travels and the chance to look at things from a more abstract perspective, away from the local body-politik, did once again contribute much to the thought process that preceded these words; reflecting upon the unprecedented roller-coaster ride we went through last year in our socio-political life and the resultant eerie silence that we’re experiencing at present, with almost a fear of not knowing what new surprise awaits us at the next turn.
Looking back at the whirlwind Judicial-Legislative-Executive activity particularly over the last couple of months of last year makes us pose the question “why”? Beyond the obvious political self-interests of all concerned parties in this equation which are self-evident to even a novice in the science of politics, a more cogent question to me is why did the system break down? What happened to the so called “yaha paalana” regime that many of us risked life & limb to install and put in place? When I visit this question critically, I am simultaneously alerted to the fact that this year we commemorate for the 10th consecutive time, the brutal slaying of our one time learned friend and better known journalist par excellence Lasantha Wickramatunge (the twain not mutually exclusive nor far divorced from one another in fact, as what happened to yaha paalana has very much to do with what was not delivered as assured); thus with your permission I’d like to dedicate a few paragraphs in his honour, hoping at least this year we’ll set out to rest some of our “ghosts of the past” to final rest!
What is happening with “Lasantha”?
My mind runs back to that fateful day in January 2009. We too had recently returned from England with a young family to a country with heightened military operations against the LTTE amidst internal political turmoil, having been away for several years and despite many invitations (and opportunities) to remain there; as we felt that our professional presence “at home” was needed more than the selfish demands of greener pastures elsewhere. Almost immediately on returning to Hulftsdorp I was active again in initiatives driven primarily by “legal quarters” aimed at upholding democratic values and the Rule of Law. That day having just returned from Court, I received a telephone call with the dreadful news and being close to the Kalubowila hospital I remember rushing there with another colleague at the Bar (Prasad). The sorry sight of our slain colleague being rolled on the stretcher in front of our eyes and the news that followed almost immediately that “the freedom of the pen” had been killed was too much to take.
I still remember that sombre walk home, climbing up the staircase and my kids Kiara & Chrishen vividly recall how I took them down to the yard where I had recently taught them how to put up a flag-pole, toggle a knot and raise the national flag; we took the flag down to half-mast and I uttered these words to them – “puthe (daughter/son), today is the day we killed freedom to speak in our country“!
What happened thereafter, our protests and struggles are very much recorded history which is freely available online so I don’t need to repeat it but what is important is that we gave leadership to a movement of the People, a resurgence to demand for what we felt was rightfully our sovereign entitlement; a government subject to the Rule of Law and principles of democracy, which we finally thought we attained in January 2015, coincidentally also on the 8th day of the month! What have we done thereafter? Have those persons that we installed in office delivered our desired results or are they so overcome with self-indulgence, having tasted state power after many years, that other than their own pursuits of fast accumulating personal wealth and basically enjoying a jolly gay-life with their merry men, there is nothing much that we the People have secured after all that struggle?
For instance do any of them who shouted with us for “justice for Lasantha” on the streets prior to the election (or even Thajudeen & Ekneligoda for that matter) even know what is happening to those cases or prosecutions; or have we once again been taken for a ride and these poor souls not being allowed to rest peacefully even now, after all that struggle? Isn’t that (coupled with many other broken promises) the reason for the yaha paalana regime to face their Waterloo, as they did in November/December last year?
Judicial Independence – Sovereign Power of the People:
Many a battle over the last few months between the Executive & Legislative arms of government were fought before the Judicial arm; I daresay there’s many more to come over the following months looking from here at the way tides are moving in Colombo. I’ve stated this publicly before, that this very fact of judicial intervention is an endorsement that our “system” actually works, not to be taken lightly or be subject to ridicule or contempt as a failed state, as some local and foreign players (with manifestly vested interests) would happily castigate us to be. However is this prompt action to hear and dispose cases within matters of hours or days where larger matters of state are involved enough? Shouldn’t this same judicial activism extend to even settling other (perhaps seen as more unimportant) matters of ordinary citizens as well; as for instance the long-prolonged case of Lasantha’s murder? After all is it not the Judicial Power “of the People” at play, as held in several judgments of the apex court and in that backdrop, is it only politically expedient cases of the day that deserve prominence?
These are questions perhaps that those of us engaged in exercising the Judicial Power of the People ought to ask ourselves in the coming year, so that at least we clean up our act before we criticise the other two organs of government. Whilst here I’ve had occasion to discuss both the State & Federal judicial systems in Australia with many practitioners and there is much that we can learn to expedite our system of administering justice, to make it more user-friendly; that holds as paramount the interests of the citizen seeking assistance at the pure fountains of justice rather than archaic and pompous procedure and rules that only stand to restrict access to the institution itself.
Whither 2019 – Is enough really enough?
One tends to ponder when travelling through cities where the “system works” as to when we will ever get there? These systems are capable of cushioning the effects of even severe economic downfall and negative growth, the resident is yet assured some basic standard of life and personal freedom. In the state of Victoria the city council goes to the extent of ensuring not only that there is at least 15% of greenery within the city limits, with parks and playing fields etc; but also that there are sufficient barbecue grills fully equipped with gas supply so that residents may come and enjoy their leisure with their family and friends, all provided by their government structure. So how do we get “our system” from the hand-to-mouth economy that we are at now to that level where the sovereign Sri Lankan citizen enjoys at least the same perks as their elected representatives do (at the poor tax-payers expense)?
We have in our present Constitution (1978) given a limited mandate, in Public Trust that it will not be breached to three institutions to govern us; Article 4 (a) Legislature or Parliament (b) Executive including the President & Cabinet and (c) Judiciary. May I repeat a passage from a New Year’s message a few years ago – “… If this is the quality of life we as a People deserve after almost 70 years as an independent nation, then why do we need governments and spend so much time and energy on elections? We may as well keep our sovereignty intact but contract out the everyday management of our resources to some other country with a proven track-record (thus reduce all the wastage in jumbo sized Cabinets etc) and see if we can get a better deal…”. In my humble opinion education is the key. The great Madiba (Nelson Mandela) set out to change the liberated South Africa with the vision that “education is the weapon with which we can change”; I say it is also true for Sri Lanka.
As things are progressing this year or definitely by next year we will be given another opportunity to wield that most potent of weapons in a democratic system; our freedom of franchise. Let us see whether the disappointments of the past have taught us anything at all, whether we will still run behind proven non-performers in our party-system and elect the same majority of self-indulgent, self-centred ego-maniacs who have nothing but their own personal gain at heart or will we at least now, lay to rest the mistakes of our past and progress along a pathway to a new Sri Lanka.
Power to the People! Subha Aluth Avuruddak Weva!