By Romesh Abeywickrema – Photo by Thusitha Kumara in Kataragama
On Friday, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka celebrated its 63rd year of independence from Britain. But if one were to critically look back on these past 63 years of so called freedom, the record isn’t anything worthy of celebration.
During this relatively brief period of 63 years of freedom in a country that boasts of a documented history of 2500 years, there have been dozens of assassinations of the country’s leaders beginning with Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike in 1956. There have been riots – both racial and others at regular intervals, there have been two bloody insurgencies, a failed coup, a civil war that dragged on for 30 years and general mayhem and chaos thrust on a docile people by unscrupulous politicians.
With such a horrendous background, this is as good a time as any to analyse our collective ‘freedom balance sheet’ – to see whether we, the ordinary people, are better off today ‘freedom-wise’ as opposed to February 3, 1948.
Five cornerstones of any modern democracy are freedom to vote for a candidate of your choice, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, transparency in governance, and rule of law. Lets us now analyse how 63 years of independence have impacted on these.
Freedom to vote for a candidate of your choice
Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in Asia to receive adult franchise, way back in 1931. Pre Independence elections were fairytale affairs compared to the murder and mayhem that are ingrained in present day elections. Sri Lanka’s saving grace has been the conduct of elections ‘on time,’ save for two instances – Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s infamous ‘extension’ in 1975 and J.R. Jayewardene’s equally infamous referendum of 1982.
Although on paper the conducting of elections may seem well and good, a closer look at elections conducted after 1994 leaves much to be desired. At every subsequent election — the Wayamba provincial poll of 1999 comes to mind in a flash – the people have been systematically robbed of their right to vote for a candidate of their choice.
Every election since this notorious episode – there have been four general elections, three presidential elections and numerous provincial and local government elections – has been tainted with allegations of vote rigging. This never happened pre-independence. If it did the perpetrators would have had to pay dearly, with an unforgiving public insisting on the highest standards being maintained.
Today it is the opposite. Those who resort to thuggery and manipulation end up the winners and call the shots. Today we have an Elections Commissioner who hates his job and couldn’t care less, having wanted to retire almost a decade ago but prevented from doing so by a President who though he solemnly pledged to send him on retirement in 2005, has not done so for reasons best known to him.
Under the earlier 17th Amendment and now the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, an Independent Elections Commission should be overseeing elections in this country, but the President has persistently prevented the setting up of this Commission, and elections continue to be flawed with election laws openly flouted.
Today we have a scenario where even ministers exhort the public not to vote for ‘rogues.’
Senior Minister D.E.W. Gunasekara last week noted that he finds it intriguing that candidates spend millions on campaigns to get elected to earn a salary of Rs. 25,000 – an ‘investment’ they could never recover in the five year term. Pre 1948 such spending would have resulted in a police investigation as to the source of income. Today the police are part of the problem.
So in the final analysis when it comes to the freedom to vote for a candidate of your choice, we were much better off pre independence than today. Let’s debit our freedom balance sheet.
Freedom of expression
The last five years under President Mahinda Rajapaksa have been the darkest period for journalists in this country. Post independence journalists have periodically been at the receiving end and even had to pay the supreme price, but never on the scale and intensity we witness today.
It would not be incorrect to say that freedom of expression has been dealt a fatal blow and is now on life support, waiting for the inevitable. Journalists are societies’ eyes and ears. When these eyes and ears are shut society is ‘disabled.’ Today we have a disabled society, which due to mortal fear also censors itself. No one will say anything uncomplimentary about the government in public without first looking over his shoulder and telling the listener, ‘don’t tell anyone I said this….’
Pre independence the media was the vibrant forum where the war for independence was fought, not on any battlefield. No one died and no one got hurt when this war ended on February 4, 1948 except for a few bruised egos. In addition election battles also took place within the pages of the then Lake House publications, The Times of Ceylon, etc., but they were cultured, civilised battles where all parties in the fray gave as they got and there was space for all. No one complained.
Can one by any stretch of the imagination say the same today? Leave alone journalists, can an ordinary man today speak out against the government, let’s say at Galle Face, and expect not to be taken to the fourth floor of the CID?
As such, when it comes to freedom of expression, we were much better off pre independence than today. Let’s debit our freedom balance sheet again.
Freedom of movement
Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was one big playground for children and adults alike in the carefree pre-independence era. Children could wander along the lanes they lived without the fear of being abducted or abused. There were hardly any boundary walls and the gates were always open. People could travel from one corner of the island to the other without a second thought. Politicians could be seen traveling with the ordinary people in buses and trains. Roads were never closed unless for maintenance purposes.
Let’s fast forward to today. No parent with his/her mental faculties in a proper state will allow their children out of the gate unsupervised. Where there were no walls, today there are walls. Where there were walls, today there are higher walls. Gates are never left open, but are double locked with security cameras installed. One cannot travel from one corner of the island to the other without proper ID documents as per the ethnicity. In addition there is many a security barrier to pass through.
Politicians using public transport is today consigned to distant history. Present day politicians instead of using public transport, use public money to buy themselves the most luxurious vehicles free of duty and close down roads so that they can cruise unhindered in ultimate comfort, with a convoy of ‘security vehicles’ in hot pursuit. Even the most unheard of minister among the hundred at present, resorts to this ‘security’ excuse to travel in a luxury convoy when no terrorist would think of wasting even a catapult ‘bullet’ on these wannabes.
Besides, despite the end of the war almost two years ago, many parts remain no go zones for ordinary citizens.
So, when it comes to freedom of movement, we were much better off pre independence than today. Let’s debit our freedom balance sheet again.
Transparency in governance
Today transparency in governance is limited to wishful thinking. In the pre independence era an ordinary citizen could write to a head of department and then expect a reply in his post box in less than a week. No issue was too big and no issue was too small. The reply would be in the mailbox and the promised action would actually be carried out. Bribes were unheard of. If bribes were offered the bribe giver would land in jail in no time.
Public accounts were just that, public. Any citizen could check and query anything he wanted to.
Today we have a Public Accounts Committee that is confined to a name board. Accounts of public entities remain unaudited for years. No one cares and no one bothers. If someone does care, a white van will take care of him. The government goes with the flow. No one is pulled up for dereliction of duty.
If a citizen were to write to a department head today the chances of a reply are extremely thin. He would have to follow up his letter with repeat visits to the department concerned until he realises only a bribe could get his job done. And to add insult to injury if he chooses to report the matter to the Bribery Commission he would indeed be in for a ruder shock because this commission is no longer in operation.
Since the President has not appointed the Parliamentary Committee that recommends names to both this and the Elections Commission these vital public sector organs remain dysfunctional.
Today we see multi-billion dollar projects on commercial loans being handed out to Chinese contractors without any tender procedures. These are proclaimed as great projects for the benefit of the nation.
But when former army commander Sarath Fonseka ordered binoculars without resorting to a tender due to the urgency of the requirement he was subjected to a court martial and jailed. The value of that is a fraction of the Chinese projects. So where does transparency come in to the equation in these two instances?
This transparency is also blurred when it comes to the application of the law. How is it that the second biggest terrorist after Prabhakaran, KP is now a government VVIP after he was ‘arrested,’ and the man who fought his deadly terrorist organisation, Sarath Fonseka was grabbed by his neck from his office, dragged along the road and thrown into jail where he still remains? How does one explain this selective application of the law? Would D.S. Senanayake have presided over such a paradox? Would Senanayake have had among his ministers one who tied public officials to trees? How does one explain local elections being called, and a week later, flouting all rules, a pay hike is granted for grama niladaris? Isn’t this plain and simple bribery?
The rot is plain to see but Sri Lankans now with their eyes forced shut have chosen not to see. None after all are as blind as those who do not wish to see but when it’s your life that’s on the line it’s always better not to see. And so, the degeneration goes on, and transparency? What was that again? Let’s just say we were much better off pre independence than today. Let’s debit out freedom balance sheet, again.
Rule of law
The cornerstone of any democracy, it goes without saying, is the rule of law. The law is equal to all and most importantly, applies to all. A quirk in our constitution is that the president is immune from being prosecuted in a court of law during his/her tenure of office. The 18th Amendment was supposed to correct that but it never happened. Instead, things that were never promised like extending the presidential term, happened.
Today there are two sets of laws, one for the ordinary people and one for the politicians and their cronies, which is why everybody wants to be some politician’s crony.
A startling example of the selective application of the law is highlighted by lawyers in Hulftsdorp last week petitioning the Chief Justice on the recent Supreme Court interpretation on the constitutionality of Sarath Fonseka’s courts martial. They contend that the interpretation ‘is far beyond a constitutional development and was politically motivated.’
Adding fuel to this fire are the persistent rumours doing the rounds about the Chief Justice tendering his resignation. Up-to-date though everyone and someone have had press conferences and announced that there was no truth to it, the CJ himself has chosen not to utter a word about the matter.
Over a dozen journalists have been killed or abducted in the last few years but not even in one instance have the perpetrators been caught. Meanwhile KP in faraway Malaysia was caught. Such selective application of the law was unthinkable pre independence. That then is another debit on the freedom balance sheet.
With the final score five to nothing on these five important counts we cannot help but wonder what exactly there is to celebrate on the fourth of February other than politicians celebrating the people’s dependence on them, something that they have systematically worked on since independence 63 years ago.