Several countries in the last century moved from being “tinpot dictatorships” to flourishing democracies. Sri Lanka has plummeted, since its independence in 1948, from a flourishing democracy to the status of a “tinpot dictatorship” today.
Last friday saw the sealing of the final nail in the coffin of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. Politicians of the ruling regime voted to impeach the Chief Justice, in total disregard of the judicial decision by the country’s two highest courts- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal – that the entire process was seriously flawed and unconstitutional. We thus have a legislature that has lost all legitimacy, having shredded the Constitution that it was elected and sworn to uphold.
There has been a rapidly deteriorating political and human rights situation in Sri Lanka in recent years. Three years ago, I lamented the terrible carnage that was being inflicted by both sides in the final months of the war. There was much euphoria when the 30-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, and great hopes were entertained of national reconciliation, an end to militarism and the recovery of the economy. However, those of us who knew the nature of the ruling regime, and watched with dismay the chauvinist jingoism that attended the President’s boast that he had won “the war on terror”, had no such hopes. Predictably, what we feared has unfolded- the obstinate refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the army, and the legitimate grievances that led to the war in the first place; the repression of the media and the manipulation of electoral politics; the appointment of the President’s family members and cronies to key positions in government and the economy; and the systematic elimination of dissent and the continuation of militarisation under the pretext of preventing terrorism from rising again.
Predictable it may have been; but not the speed at which it has all happened. What is most shocking is the way not only business leaders but highly educated academics and other professional men and women meekly capitulated and acquiesced in the nepotism, corruption and outright deceit that has become a regular feature of public life in Sri Lanka today. Whether through bribery, intimidation, or sheer apathy, people have chosen to remain silent and passively follow orders. It reflects badly on the nation’s educational system, let alone religious institutions- of which Sri Lankans have always boasted.
What has become stark is the division today between men and women in public life who are governed by a moral sensibility and those opportunists who are driven only by self-gain. This division is more fundamental than differences on policy or of political affiliation. The President’s loyal members of parliament are all either gangsters or otherwise intelligent men who have sacrificed their moral scruples for the intoxications of power or the material benefits that flow from being close to power.
I am happy to report that the 3 committed Christians in parliament (only 3 out of 225 members) have not compromised their moral integrity in discharging their political responsibilities. On the contrary, they have been the most well-informed, articulate and outspoken critics of the ruling regime. As a result they attract venomous abuse in the state media. Two of them are personal friends, and I am full of admiration for their moral courage.
Moral courage is not what comes to mind when one thinks of the Chief Justice. It is another political irony that, having been widely perceived as a “stooge” of the President, she should now become the nation’s principal political martyr! When a couple of recent Supreme Court rulings went against the President’s party, she became the target of a scurrilous media campaign and false charges of corruption were leveled against her.
We can only hope that more “stooges” will eventually rebel. The famous words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, in the context of the Nazi tyranny, echo throughout history:
“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”
Speaking out is not easy in the face of political thuggery and restraints on the media. Also, as a young law student from the University of Colombo wrote to me yesterday: “An unfortunate thing about most political analysis today is that it makes the problems we face seem so huge that even those who want to change things, feel nothing is possible. I was wondering what sort of suggestions one might give people about how to use our individual spheres to help change society. Conversations on these issues with those we meet is one thing. Being informed, knowing our history is another. challenging minor injustices is another. But are there any other ideas you have on this? And, do you know if there is literature on this? I am sure social activists have struggled with, and written about, how individuals can make a difference for the good, in the small spheres of influence they have. Any thoughts?”
How should I answer him? We are eager to learn from those who have lived under similar political regimes and have seen justice and freedom restored, even in part.
Dr Ramachandra lives in Sri Lanka with his Danish wife, Karin, whom he married in 1998. She is a trained counsellor and Bible teacher. Dr Ramachandra has been involved for many years with the Civil Rights Movement in Sri Lanka, as well as with the global Micah Network and A Rocha (a world-wide biodiversity conservation organization). He is the author of several essays and books of which the most recent is Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues that Shape Our World (2008).