President Mahinda Rajapaksa earned a vast measure of goodwill in May 2009 by defeating the LTTE, and went on to accumulate even more public approbation thereafter by employing his exceptional public relations skills. In marked contrast, a number of his hangers-on have conducted themselves, from even earlier on, with an almost total disregard for public opinion and the President’s good name. Their despicable behaviour has been increasingly eroding away the goodwill attached personally to the President. In this situation, President Rajapaksa should be wary of thinking that the People of Sri Lanka will put up eternally with the arrogant and corrupt misbehaviour of those who are seen to be close to him. Once a reaction sets in, even the most draconian of laws will not help to restore the status quo. It mystifies the People as to why President Rajapaksa does not consider putting a stop to the lawless acts of the sycophants who surround him and thereby eliminate unwanted speculation as to why they are permitted to go their wayward ways.
The seeds of the destruction of the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka were sown by President Jayewardene’s writing of the 1978 Constitution, which provides for an apparently omnipotent President who is immune against legal suit. In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled that, whilst the President could not be summoned before a Court, there was no bar to his actions being challenged when they were in conflict with the Constitution or the Law. Nevertheless, for various reasons, it has not been feasible to have this ruling consolidated.
Sri Lanka’s politicians’ and administrators’ increasing contempt for the law accelerated many-fold when President Kumaratunga, during her second term, insisted on going against the recommendation made by the Constitutional Council, under the 17th Amendment, to appoint a particular retired Judge to the post of Chairman of the Elections Commission. Had she then acted in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, the People’s rights would have been safeguarded and her stature in the Country enhanced significantly. Collaterally, she would not be so openly denied the respect that is customarily shown to retired Presidents and Prime Ministers.
Her nominee and successor as President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost no time in destroying the 17th Amendment altogether. He employed his acknowledged political dexterity and his brother MP Basil Rajapaksa’s renowned negotiating expertise to disembowel the UNP, figuratively speaking, and swallow its innards! With MPs of various colours abandoning the platforms on which they were elected to Parliament so as to savour the irresistible flavours of the Rajapaksa gravy train, the President was able secure and control a two-thirds majority in Parliament without much further ado. It did not take long for the monstrously destructive 18th Amendment to be passed by a captive group of MPs in Parliament, who meekly surrendered their independence to the will of the President. Not a single MP of the ruling party had the courage to stand for principle and try to protect the People from what can safely be described as a suicidal journey into despotism.
The 18th Amendment has vested the Executive with the power to act with impunity, without regard to accountability or the welfare and rights of the People. The consequent deterioration of the body politic must be viewed with the greatest foreboding. A few examples should suffice to make this point.
We see an unceasing succession of reports in the media about a much-despised politician. He is reliably believed to have physically attacked the genitals of a monk MP in Parliament. He was given a rough time by the employees of Rupavahini for having got an underworld character to assault a senior employee of Rupavahini. He has snatched and damaged valuable cameras and equipment employed by the media to cover events of public interest. The whole Country knows how this man violated the human rights and dignity of a Samurdhi officer by “persuading” this State employee to allow himself to be tied to a tree for having been unable to attend a meeting called by this obnoxious character. He had stated in a TV programme, seen by the general public and thousands of children, that he would like to suckle at the breasts of a well-known actress. More recently, this cowardly thug, backed by an intimidating contingent of bodyguards, was shown on TV grabbing the shirt of a defenceless parent and slapping him for exercising the right to protest against a forcible money-collecting lottery exercise initiated by a school. Some time ago he was reported to have escorted an underworld character through the VIP lounge at the Katunayake Airport. The list of his nauseous exploits and threats against anyone daring to cross his path is virtually endless. He has repeatedly claimed that he is the one and only authority who decides what can be done in Kelaniya – even if not in the Peliyagoda Fish Market. The incomprehensible part of this saga is that this opportunistic and shameless groveller is seen on TV constantly loitering around President Rajapaksa. Could anyone seriously believe that the public could be anaesthetised into accepting President Rajapaksa’s close association with a man whose background is a perpetual exercise in foul and dishonest behaviour?
We have also seen pictures of a club-wielding mob near Vihara Maha Devi Park. The excuse given by a senior Police officer regarding this phenomenon was that these clubs may have been necessary to keep aggressive dogs at bay! The person who was responsible for this demonstration of underworld power was no doubt encouraged by this kind of official support to confirm his own perception that he was above the law. The confidence that he could act with impunity and not fear any legal consequences must surely have been behind a subsequent assault on the wife of an election candidate whom he did not like and, worse still, the murder thereafter of a prominent politician and several others. Who actually pulled the triggers of the multitude of weapons which were carried during the recent deadly confrontation between the well-known UPFA stalwarts is not the point at issue here. What is relevant is that more than two years after the end of the 30-years of the large-scale armed hostilities in our homeland, the Government has made no effort worth talking about to recover the tens of thousands of small arms in the hands of professional and amateur criminals, among whom there are undoubtedly a large number of politicians in power.
There are dozens of other lower-profile characters in public office who are robbing the People blind and are engaged in nefarious activities of every conceivable description. They hide away from the open glare of the media but operate without fear in the confidence that any unlawful act of theirs, if exposed, can be “fixed” by remaining close to certain VVIPs.
The key point that concerns us is whether the President wishes to be remembered as a national hero and statesman or as a shortsighted politician who allowed the Rule of Law to be flouted and good governance relegated to the waste paper basket. It is true that, by violating the public trust, an imperial lifestyle can be enjoyed for years just as Bokassa, the Duvaliers, Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Marcos, Mubarrak, Suharto and others did. But what happened to them in the end? How do their fellow citizens remember them? How do they compare with the exemplary Mandela and the reverence with which the whole world views him? The lessons are there waiting to be learnt; it is only the will that appears to be lacking.
The People of Sri Lanka would undoubtedly want President Rajapaksa to distance himself from the rogues and criminals who are so much in evidence these days. How he deals with them will decide how history will remember him.