Snippets of news have reached the British media about Sri Lanka impeaching and then dismissing its chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, on various charges of impropriety (having secret bank accounts and the like).
However, it is a fact that ever since the threat of impeachment began several weeks ago, Ms Bandaranayake’s fellow lawyers have been up in arms, going on strike and protesting at interference by the government in the judicial process. Had the Chief Justice really been caught out on the take, it is inconceivable that she would have generated such mass support among legal professionals. Naturally, therefore, one is curious as to what really lies behind these events.
It seems that the heart of the problem centres round a piece of proposed legislation that the Supreme Court, with the Chief Justice presiding, pronounced to be contrary to Sri Lanka’s constitution. The legislation in question was the Divi Neguma Bill.
On the face of it, the bill merely sought to rationalise administration of a fund designed to bring assistance to the rural poor. Instead of being under the purview of three different regional authorities, its administration was to be centralised under a government ministry. However, the ministry concerned is headed by one of the four brothers of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, all of whom have been given cushy and powerful posts in the Rajapaksa government.
Added to this is a general conviction that the Rajapaksa family is unashamedly kleptocratic, if, that is, a WikiLeaks revelation of October 2011 is to be believed:
“In a leaked diplomatic cable released by whistleblower site WikiLeaks, US Ambassador in Colombo Patricia Butenis says 85 percent of Sri Lankans voted in an opinion poll saw Rajapaksa family as corrupt and 80 percent saw the president himself as corrupt.” (SLNews.com, 6 October 2011)
As one journalist’s website points out: “To understand the Divineguma Bill, ignore the rhetoric and study the budgetary figures. Ministry of Defence and Urban Development (under Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) will get the biggest financial chunk in 2013 as well. Currently, only Rs 88.9bn is allocated to Brother Basil’s Ministry of Economic Development. Once the Divineguma Bill is through, the new mega-Divineguma Department will be given Rs 80bn. This massive financial-injection will make Brother Basil’s fiefdom second only to Brother Gotabaya’s, in terms of budgetary allocations.” (‘Divineguma bill tells the Tamils that the regime is hell-bent on obliterating devolution’ by Tisaranee Gunasekara, dbsjeyaraj.com, 6 Oct 2012)
Quite apart from suspicions of money being diverted from its intended purpose of helping the poor into at very least purchasing electoral support for the Rajapaksas, or even perhaps simply diverted into the pockets of the Rajapaksa family to satisfy their kleptomania, this centralisation of power militates heavily against Sri Lanka’s project of reconciliation between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, a major cornerstone of which is to give Tamils more regional autonomy. Various provisions in the bill certainly give rise to suspicion: for example, all employees of the Fund are to be required to swear an oath of secrecy, and the fund is to be exempted from supervision by the central bank.
Moreover, it is also suspected that this move is but the thin end of the wedge:
“If the Bill becomes law, it will open the anti-democratic floodgates. Other Rajapaksa-strengthening measures will follow, such as the bill to subordinate the CMC and several other councils to a mammoth ‘corporation’ under Gotabaya Rajapaksa; and the amendment to empower the regime to acquire any land by declaring it of religious/economic import.” (Ibid)
In the light of Rajapaksa’s track record, these fears would seem to be far from baseless:
“His foes accuse Mahinda Rajapaksa of many sins during his seven years as Sri Lanka’s president … They bridle at how he has carved up the government among his brothers, like a thriving family-run conglomerate. They resent the amendment of the constitution pushed through in 2010 to remove the limit on his tenure of two six-year terms, and to give himself legal immunity and the final say in appointments to the civil service, the judiciary and the police. And they suspect his regime of connivance in the beatings, disappearances and murders that have been used to intimidate critics in the press and elsewhere.” (‘Sri Lanka shuffles further down the path to dictatorship’ by Banyan, Economist, 19 January 2013)
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that even Sri Lanka’s rather subservient judiciary felt that this went a step too far and declared the bill to be unconstitutional.
Since Shirani was originally a Rajapaksa appointee and protégée, who, as an academic lacking any practical experience, could never have become chief justice without the president’s manoeuvring, not to say bulldozing, on her behalf, one can quite see that her ingratitude would enrage him.
“Constitutionally, the legislature has the power to impeach the chief justice. That it did so is partly the fault of the Supreme Court itself. After the 2010 election, it ruled that an opposition party could not sack members who had crossed the floor of Parliament to join the government coalition. Since Sri Lanka has a system of proportional representation, this seemed perverse. But it gave the government the two-thirds parliamentary majority it needed to ram through its objectionable constitutional amendments – and to impeach the chief justice.” (Ibid)
Well, it seems that Shirani was herself very much instrumental in assisting Rajapaksa consolidate his power by means of this ‘perverse’ interpretation of the Sri Lankan constitution and now finds herself hoist by if not exactly her own petard, at least a petard that she was instrumental in assembling. But still, if, for whatever reason, she has come round to the side of democracy and justice, and/or has had her illusions shattered in the Rajapaksa cause, this is no time to bear a grudge.
It was perhaps disappointing that she accepted her dismissal and has not tried to assert her right to remain as chief justice, despite the strong support she has received from the legal profession. It would seem, however, that, despite a widespread understanding of Rajapaksa’s essential cupidity, many Sri Lankans believe that he is a good leader:
“The president still basks in the popularity of a man who won the war and ended the fighting. Concerns about the way he did so are seen as squeamish foreign bleats. And the economy is forecast to grow by nearly 7 percent in each of the next five years. The lawyers who this week flew black flags and blew out symbolic candles will lack supporters in Sri Lanka’s villages.” (Ibid)
Herein lies one of the paradoxes of Rajapaksa’s situation. He inclines towards China rather than western imperialism, which both helps to explain his country’s relative economic success, despite the world recession, and why the imperialist media are all tut-tutting loudly at his unconstitutional behaviour!