By Sumanasiri Liyanage
Why do we need laws? If all of us are law-abiding citizens, laws may become redundant. Someone has remarked that laws are needed to restrict and limit the actions of the heartless people.
Thomas Hobbs believed that men were inherently ‘solitary, nasty, brutish, and short’ and such men were made civilised citizens because of the presence of the State and the laws executed by it. Now, it is clear that in Sri Lanka, even the State and its laws cannot make those ‘solitary, nasty, brutish, and short’ men civilised.
Has the State failed in Sri Lanka at least in Kelaniya? Deputy minister of highways, who is ironically deputy to the President, who happens to be the Minister of highways, suggested in a TV programme the other day that that a Samurdi Niladhri had been tied to a tree because of his absence to anti-dengue programme in Kelaniya without prior notice.
When the deputy minister had the Samurdhi officer tied up, two police officers who are supposed to maintain law and order and protect the rights of the individual from unlawful actions were present at the scene but they were totally inactive. If the police officers behaved in this manner in all the other places, what would happen to the ordinary citizens and ordinary public servants?
In this context, I was so pleased when I saw over TV that the Samurdhi Niladharis in the Gampaha District stage a protest against that inhumane action and police inaction. In responding to the Opposition MPs protest, in Parliament, the deputy minister turned the story upside down claiming that he had, in fact, untied the Samurdhi officer, who got himself tied to a tree as a kind of self-imposed punishment for not having attended a dengue eradication programme in Kelaniya.
Let me confess. I have a personal reason to raise this issue. The university teachers are having negotiations with the government over a salary issue and they are planning to take trade union action if the government fails to respond positively to their demands. As a member of a trade union, I am worried that my colleagues in the University of Kelaniya may face a similar problem at the hands of the same deputy minister. If the government politicians emulate their Kelaniya colleague, all public servants may face the same inhumane treatment.
Mervyn Silva’s action affected not only an individual public officer but also Minister in charge of Samurdhi, the President and the Secretary of Defence! As far as I know, his action was criticised by only two members of the governmental coalition, Minister Champika Ranawaka and Namal Rajapaksa. Media Minister and Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella at the weekly Cabinet press briefing tried to avoid the issue by saying there had been no complaint from the victim.
Let me ask a question. If a corpse is found on the roadside, do the authorities protecting the law and order need a complaint to investigate it? The entire country saw on TV what actually happened in Kelaniya, and do the government and the police need an official complaint? Will the Opposition bring a no confidence motion against the deputy minister if he refuses to make a public apology as the Samurdhi officers’ trade union has demanded?
The Kelaniya incident runs counter to the principle of democratic governance. The country does not need the European Union, Robert O Blake or Ban Ki-moon to advise it on these issues. Principles of democratic and representative governance were grossly violated by Deputy Minister Silva, known as a person close to the President. The protest by the trade union of Samurdhi officers is sufficient for the government to take action against the deputy minister without further delay.
However, the question is whether we can expect the government to take action against him. He behaved in the same way some time back at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation. The government said action would be taken against him after the conclusion of a party disciplinary inquiry. What happened to the party internal inquiry?
President has reiterated many a time that law will be applied equally to everyone irrespective his or her position and power. Does the same principle apply to his deputy minister? Can the Minister of Samurdhi protect his officers against unlawful harassment by his colleagues? These are some crucial issues that the citizens of this country, not the so-called international community, should raise.
This takes us to a fundamental constitutional issue. Independence of the public service and the police was lost following the enactment of the first Republican Constitution in 1972. Instead of correcting that mistake, the same was given legal validity in the Second Republican Constitution. The 17th Amendment enacted in 2000 to give a semblance of independence to the public service, police service etc has yet to be implemented.
Unless and until the appointments, transfers, promotions and disciplinary action in the public service etc are vested in the hands of independent commissions, incidents such as what happened in Kelaniya recently cannot be avoided. And there will not be proper protection for the public servants to perform their duties without fear or favour so long as political interference is permitted. Does the Kelaniya incident demonstrate that the country is moving towards authoritarianism? Well, maybe yes. There are two kinds of authoritarianism: Authoritarianism of modern type and authoritarianism under feudal monarchical set-up. While the actions of authoritarianism of the first kind may be predictable, those of the second kind are not.
Hence, I submit that we the people should demand immediate action against Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva as well as the police officers who were present at the incident. People, irrespective of their political affinities—let me make it clear that I am, in the broad sense, a supporter of the UPFA—should wholeheartedly support and be identified with the struggle of the Samurdhi officers against the action of the deputy minister.
If Minister Champika Ranawaka thinks that it is a punishable offence, he and other ministers who share his view, should take up the matter at Cabinet level and press for necessary corrective action. In the lone run, it is imperative that the process that began in 1972 with the first Republican Constitution be reversed and the independence of public service, police service etc., re-established through the Constitution.
(The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya)