BY Dr. A. C. Visvalingam
Newspaper reports about the recent meeting between President Rajapakse and the media has given encouragement to those who value freedom of expression. The President had apparently said that he does not resent any criticism that is directed against him in the media but the latter should not in any way encourage ethnic or religious friction.
The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) believes that all wise citizens will have no qualms about supporting the President’s stand. Nonetheless, one should necessarily keep in mind that the latitude allowed for the free expression of dissent should not be exploited in bad faith to criticise the President – or, for that matter, anyone else or any institution.
In truth, during the past few years, we at CIMOGG have had occasion to express concern, always in good faith, about some of the Government’s policies and actions as well as deficiencies in governance. This being so, we are relieved to learn that, in the spirit of true democracy, the President has indicated that he has no wish to suppress non-partisan views such as ours.
A goodly proportion of CIMOGG contributions to the Press over the past five years and more have stressed the importance of all our citizens’ responsibility to think as Sri Lankans rather than as members of particular ethnic or religious groupings. Consequently, all members of CIMOGG are delighted to express their support to the President in his appeal to the media not to exacerbate inter-group differences.
We need no convincing that the media of all three national languages have a paramount duty to pay heed to the President’s call. As we move into the future, there should be less space and headlined prominence given to extreme or overly partial views on ethnicity, religion and similar factors and more space dedicated to the creation of a single national identity which embraces the pluralistic nature of our society.
It is also relevant to recall that the President had indicated a few weeks back that he had intended to reveal his plans for solving the National Question when he was in the UK. However, this did not happen. While he may have had his reasons for having wished to disclose these plans on foreign soil, CIMOGG is obliged to remind him that it is the executive powers that belong to the People of Sri Lanka which have been delegated to him and that it would only be right and proper for him, even belatedly, to take the grantors of those powers into his confidence and share with the Nation at least the particulars of the plans that he says he has for solving our most vexed problem, which, if not solved properly, will continue to have a negative effect on peace, security, development, our international standing, the creation of a sustainable common Sri Lankan identity, and other very important challenges.
The inescapable fact is that, if the President had made known his plans on the day on which he had originally intended to do so, we and the whole world would have become aware of them several weeks ago. Why then should his plans continue to remain a secret now? There is no question that it is high time for the President to apprise the People of his intentions in this regard.
CIMOGG reiterates its position that the National Question should not be treated as a rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, with the Muslims getting caught up in the middle. It has always been our position that most of the problems faced by the citizens of this country have little or nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. The majority of Sri Lankans, irrespective of which subgroup they belong to, need to feel secure and free, to have a roof over their heads, a basic supply of food for their children and themselves, permanent employment, easy access to moderately good schools, inexpensive transport, low cost health facilities, a multilingual administration and other fundamental requirements.
Once these are provided in an equitable manner to all Sri Lankans, the only thing that the existing subgroups would want separately for themselves is sufficient clear space to preserve and develop their own religious and cultural heritages. Much of these spaces are already there and what is needed is a formal enhancement of these within some rational and distinctly specified boundaries.
Equally important is that the Police and Judiciary should carry out their duties in such an apolitical and humane manner that the steady erosion of the Rule of Law will be brought to a halt and the public can begin to rebuild its respect for these institutions which were held in very high regard at the time that Sri Lanka gained its independence.
As long as the 18th Amendment is not improved to bring it line with the thinking behind the original drafts of the 17th Amendment (rather different from what was passed by Parliament in 2001), the Police will too often be coerced by selfish interests to act in such a way as to cause them (the Police) to be looked down upon by the public, who will not fail to take note of the myriad examples of the increasing discrepancy between the arbitrary manner in which the Police carry out their duties and what the law requires.
As for the Judiciary, it is up to the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court and the Judicial Services Commission to look inwards and see what it is that they and their predecessors have done or omitted to do that have led to the public losing faith in the Courts as a reliable mechanism for dispensing justice. Failure to carry out this introspection and to take appropriate corrective measures will cause future generations to wonder how such a deplorable loss of trust and respect came about, and will no doubt enable them eventually to trace the blame to where it belongs.
The President has to set the standard for all his Ministers and State employees as regards accountability to the People and also create the appropriate machinery to monitor and enforce compliance. This step will be difficult to implement with the 18th Amendment in place and will get more and more difficult with time, so much so that by the time that President Rajapakse "hands over the baton" to his successor, the whole machinery of State would, in our view, have become seriously flawed and unmanageable.
Blind reliance on the popularity and leadership qualities of the present incumbent will place the whole Nation in a highly vulnerable position if his successor fails to measure up satisfactorily. Based on the past history of all nations, it is extremely rarely that honest leaders with ability and charisma appear on the scene. Indeed, it is because of this low probability of the continuity of good governance that most of the powers of the People are usually trifurcated, separated to the maximum practicable extent, and then delegated within such a constitutional framework that the three legatees (Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary) will be able to act independently in exercising the specific powers given to each of them.
It is, therefore, the duty of all Members of Parliament, especially those in the Opposition, not to sit back and say "There is no point in trying to improve anything because we would only be hitting our heads against a brick wall" but to keep on chipping away to put right what is illogical, ineffective or downright wrong.