Sri Lanka: Justice Must Also Be Seen To Be Done
COLOMBO: The common cause of the National Unity Government to tackle the corruption of the past and to put an end to it in the present seemed to come apart at the seams when President Maithripala Sirisena made an angry critique of the way in which the investigations into corruption was taking place. The resignation of Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe was prompted by the President’s remarks on CIABOC and on the police investigative agencies in the wake of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and three retired Navy commanders, being brought before courts. The President criticized the investigative bodies of launching politically motivated probes which led to the senior officials being put behind bars during the proceedings in court.
Ms Wickramasinghe was doing a difficult job with more energy than anyone in recent history who has held that post. The investigation of those who held high positions in the former and present government is bound to be controversial. Choices have to be made in terms of which case to take up first and which to take up later. After her resignation the former Director General said that there were as many as 90 cases of politicians that her office was investigating. Those of different political persuasions may prefer some cases to be taken up before others. The choices made can be seen by those who are at the receiving end to be politically motivated. Anyone in the position of investigator would come under criticism for taking up one case rather than another. The resignation of the Ms Wickramasinghe who was generally seen as doing a difficult job with a sense of mission would be a setback to the fight against corruption.
After calling a meeting with the members of the eight independent commissions, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya informed them that neither President Maithripala Sirisena nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had negative attitudes towards any of the commissions. He had also informed the commissions that the attitude of the President and the Prime Minister did not differ. Civil society groups, such as Purawesi Balaya which was once led by the Ven Maduluwave Sobitha and now by Prof Sarath Wijesooriya and led the civil society campaign against corruption came out strongly in support of the independence of the commissions. This laid to rest the speculations, fears and hopes of different groups with political motivations of a break up of the National Unity Government. The hope of those who would wish to see the return of the old regime is that the working relationship between the President and Prime Minister is sundered.
The National Unity Government is vulnerable to internal fissures for the reason it is composed of the two major political parties that have traditionally been rivals and have engaged only in win-lose politics. With the sole exception of the present period, the UNP and SLFP have always sought to form governments on their own or in coalition with other parties but against their main rival. The pressure to break free of the other and to rule the country alone, and enjoy the power to decide by themselves without being constrained by the other, continues to be powerful within the UNP and SLFP. Those who work closely with either the President or Prime Minister, but lack their vision, would not be able to see the win-win dimension of their partnership to the two parties and its contribution to the stability and development of the country as a whole.
The aspect of governance in which Sri Lanka has historically been least successful is in terms of power sharing. Where there is power sharing decisions are taken after consultation, and with the participation of other parties who have a stake in the outcome. An important area of for joint decisionmaking is the appointment of key officials who will head departments that deal with controversial issues. These positions would include the executive head of the Bribery and Corruption commission. It is to be hoped that the successor to Ms Wickramasinghe will be the consensual choice of both the President and Prime Minister. This same principle of power sharing needs employed in dealing with the most intractable conflict that Sri Lanka has experienced. The root of the ethnic conflict and the three decade long war that destroyed over a hundred thousand lives and denuded the North and East of its infrastructure and also lost for Sri Lanka its competitive edge in the global marketplace was due to the absence of inter-ethnic power sharing.
The importance of deciding together rather than unilaterally has surfaced in the North in a tragic manner following the deaths by shooting of two university students. They were killed when they failed to stop at a police checkpoint late at night and the police opened fire at them. Such tragic incidents have occurred in other parts of the country as well. The famous actor Nihal Silva, who acted as Sergeant Nallathambi in days gone by was killed at a military checkpoint when he did not stop his vehicle. But in the context of the unresolved ethnic conflict, where a mutually acceptable political solution is yet to be found, incidents are seen through ethnic lenses. Emotions are presently at a high in the North and against the police. Students and businesses in Jaffna have planned public protests. There are suspicions voiced in the North that this was a planned incident to deliberately create tensions which would justify a continued strong military presence. In a context in which the North (and East) of the country continue to remain militarized, with large contingents of military personnel in the two provinces, such incidents are also bound to contribute to a spiral of negative sentiment.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s swift order to the police to conduct an investigation of this incident and to order compensation to the bereaved families is to be appreciated. However, there is a need for an impartial investigation that will be seen to be impartial in addition to being impartial. Justice needs to be seen to be done, in addition to being done. There is a massive trust deficit at the present time due to the lack of normalcy in the affairs of the North. The fact that the initial report filed by the police stated that the deaths were caused by a traffic accident will do nothing to improve the trust and confidence of the Northern people in the police or in the government. On the other hand, the fact that five police personnel have been arrested is a positive indication of the efficacy of independent commissions (including the Police Commission) and of the law taking its course.
In the longer term, the need is for the restoration of normalcy to the lives of the people of the North and East. The government’s emphasis in terms of post-war peacebuilding is to engage in constitutional reform with the political parties represented in Parliament and to implement the pledges it has made in Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council. In addition, in restoring normalcy to the North and East of the country, where most of the three decade long war was fought, it is necessary for the government to work with the elected authorities to ensure that law and order prevails in a manner so that the people feel confidence.
At the present time the government is engrossed in a constitutional reform exercise that involves the whole parliament but whose outcome is not certain. The government has stated that the draft constitution will be placed before Parliament in the coming month and before the budget. However, there is still no indication of consensus on the details of the changes that need to be made. Instead of waiting an indefinite period for this constitutional reform process to be finalized, the government can implement the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which exists as the supreme law of the land, and devolve police powers to the provincial councils. This type of power sharing can lead to the Northern Provincial Council working with the government in a spirit of partnership to develop the province, rather than championing the cause of Tamil nationalism which rouses the suspicions of the people in the plans of the government.