Old wine

President Sirisena is clearly unhappy. When UPFA MP Kumara Welgama’s house was raided last week in search of two state-owned vehicles, President Sirisena said it was an “immature” act. Especially since of late, the President has taken some effort to demonstrate by example what political immaturity is, we have to take him at his word. This unhappiness is likely the result of being increasingly isolated in office, pressured on the one hand by voices from within the SLFP calling for electoral gain and partisan advancement, yet on the other being unable to do so given the nature of coalition politics as they stand, with the PM and UNP in charge of most affairs. This is then a question of competing visions. The PM and his political, socio-economic ideals, along with attendant constitutional reforms, is supported by a concert of civil society, bi-lateral, multi-lateral, domestic and foreign actors. The President is surrounded more by inward looking domestic gatekeepers and actors, more closely aligned to the security apparatus. The adulation and adoration enjoyed by the President, as a beacon of hope on the evening of 9th January 2015 at Independence Square, has now eroded into a Presidency searching for relevance and legacy. Sirisena feels alone.

Meanwhile, our PM was in Belgium making chocolate. That in the middle of Sri Lanka’s most serious political crisis since the 8th of January 2015, the PM’s media team saw it fit to release photographs of him in a kitchen playing with cocoa clearly indicates, amongst other things and not for the first time, an appalling media strategy of the UNP and a remarkable inability to read the public mood. Upon his return the PM assured us that the GSP Plus trade concessions from the EU would come on tap early next year. But tied to this, what the PM has not commented on is the draft Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which comes soon after the current Minister of Justice strongly and unapologetically advocated for terrible amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code that had the Human Rights Commission, the Bar Association, several civil society organisations, leading columnists, journalists and ultimately the EU in Sri Lanka itself over Twitter, aghast or deeply concerned.

So while the President’s statements have generated the most attention and censure, the proposed CTA is far more outrageous. Even in draft form, it suggests the outlook of this government is not in fact very far removed from the Rajapaksa-regime’s dangerous fixation on national security, a siege mentality and the silencing of dissent. A brief test then, to support my point by flagging three paragraphs, spanning 37 years.

  1. The intention of causing harm to the unity, territorial integrity or sovereignty of Sri Lanka, or the peaceful coexistence of the people of Sri Lanka, by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, causes or intends to cause, the commission of acts of violence between different communities or racial or religious groups (is a terrorism related offence).
  2. Whoever, by the use of words spoken, written or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, intends to cause or attempts to instigate acts of violence, or to create religious, racial or communal disharmony, or feelings of ill-will or hostility, between communities or different racial or religious groups, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term exceeding two years.
  3. Any person who by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups has committed an offence… is on conviction liable to imprisonment of either description for a period not less than five years but not exceeding twenty years.

One of these excerpts is from the heinous Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, Section 2(1)(h). The other is from an amendment to the Penal Code proposed in December 2015, introduced also by this government ostensibly with a view to curtailing the rise of hate speech. The third is an excerpt from the leaked draft of the CTA, as published by mainstream media recently. Damningly, there is no discernible difference. It doesn’t require a degree in law to immediately understand why it is so deeply ironical, and indeed, both distressing and violent, that a government telling the world they are interested in human rights, is in fact, domestically rehashing, at every given opportunity, the same spirit and form of vile legislation that has been used to murder, torture, imprison unjustly, censor, silence and raise anxiety. The spirit, if not enduring form of the UNP around Black July 1983 clearly casts a long shadow, and is why it is jarring to read that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, unhesitatingly supports the restoration of GSP Plus to Sri Lanka.

Let’s ignore all this. When in 2013, the Rajapaksa regime tried to push through a ‘Code for Media Ethics’ prepared by the Media and Information Ministry, the pushback – domestic and international – was immediate and sustained. The ‘Ethics Code’ proposed at the time banned any publication that contained information which could ‘mislead the public’ or ‘promote anti-national attitudes’. The ban on content extended to “anything amounting to contempt of court’ as well as ‘materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature’ and, incredibly, ‘criticism that affects foreign relations’ – whatever that meant. The draft CTA’s clauses are much more worrying, and extend well beyond the media. And yet, the EU, US, UN and others, including sections of civil society still living in January 2015, have failed to condemn it.

Sadly, we do not really deserve any longer the praise we continue to so easily generate internationally. Course correction is possible and in the opposition to the CTA, may come about despite government. It is however important to recognise that the President’s statements and the fallout, coupled with the leaked CTA draft, set the new baseline to assess the state of democracy in Sri Lanka. Into this new equation we must also plug the UNP’s unwillingness to meaningfully investigate multi-billion rupee corruption scandals, which now result in defamation lawsuits against media for exposing the degree to which the rot has taken root.

And so the circus goes on.

What can ‘ordinary citizens’ do? Name. Shame. Warmly welcome the opportunity, as the New York Times did with Trump’s fatuous threats of legal action, to take matters to court, where judicial proceedings will bring to light the full extent of nepotism, corruption, insider trading, favouritism and money trails. Remain vigilant. Remind those in power points from their election manifestos they may want to now forget. Speak out, in ways, on platforms and over media the government can no longer contain, control or censor. Continue to be proud of the 8th of January, knowing that citizens, not an army with weapons, brought about a change thought impossible. Refuse to live in the 8th of January, when so much continues to be so wrong. Remind those in government – they are our servants. They bend, to our will. And as the Royalists in government must surely know, one either learns this, or departs.

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