Wijith DeChickera marks the emergence of a bulwark to buttress the bastion of a popular sovereignty-based citizens’ movement of late

The stars come out at night. In Sri Lanka’s dark days – when the country gazed into the abyss of bankruptcy; and beyond it, at the very real possibility of anarchy – a galaxy of those shone like bright beacons to light up hope… and our collective way past that Stygian apocalypse.

Some of them blazed a trail that was nothing short of meteoric. Others glowed with world-beating achievements and performances, in many arenas and spheres. One of these stood out for rising to its zenith – time and again, over and over – each and every time his nation at large needed him to stand up for it… And needed him to stand in the legal and constitutional gaps he did.

Even as an authoritarian state cracked down (often illegally, usually unconstitutionally) to suppress a largely apolitical citizens’ movement – in the early weeks at least – that brought the notion of popular sovereignty to the fore.

This was in a polity where the mechanism of political recall (through petition, referendum or representation) of elected representatives who no longer served – or had abused or misused – their mandates was available as a democratic recourse to a disillusioned electorate.

In a time when the true north of the nation state seemed to have gone askew and off its azimuth, the quiet magnetism of the man and the machine that stood with him steadied the ship of state – especially from the perspective of the people who needed a champion to shoulder arms on their behalf.

So who precisely is Saliya Pieris – that all his admirers commend him so highly in the aftermath of the most intensely active, visible stages of the erstwhile aragalaya?

A précis of his biographical background would not be amiss before any attempt to undertake an evaluation and analysis of his more recent stalwart contributions in the field of legal championship for the common good…

THE MAN This legal eagle President’s Counsel hails from what people are pleased to call ‘a political family’ – not in a pejorative sense as applied in today’s sickeningly partisan milieu perhaps; but rather, as a reflection of stemming from stock that actively applies its principles.

His mother’s relatives for instance, had been stalwarts of the left among whose number was Kalutara MP Cholomondeley Goonewardene. On the other hand, his father Harold – the then Editor of the Observer – was a staunch advocate of right-wing politics.

As a matter of principle however, he had criticised President J. R. Jayewardene for stripping former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights, as well as the 1982 referendum, which both he and his wife (Saliya’s mother) opposed on the grounds that it was undemocratic, preferring a general election instead.

As for the the young Saliya, his memories are of a courtroom atmosphere in his childhood. He has revealed “we always had lively debates at home. It doesn’t mean we stuck to one position; but each of us defended what we stood for the way we could.”

That DNA – of standing up tall, quiet and strong – for what one believes in steadfastly has been this attorney’s boon companion on his journey of advocacy.

Saliya Pieris is an ‘Old Joe’ and was head prefect of St. Joseph’s College. At the Sri Lanka Law College where he qualified as an attorney-at-law, he was President of the Law Students’ Union.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree in law from the Open University of Sri Lanka and went on to hold a master’s in international business law from the University of London.

THE MACHINE Pieris commenced his career as a prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Department. He presently heads his own chambers, practising in the spheres of criminal and public law, as well as fundamental rights, in the original and appellate courts.

Between October 2015 and March 2018, he was a member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL).

In February 2018, Pieris was appointed as the country’s first Chairman of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), which was a national body set up to expedite the process of transitional justice in a country that had long been beleaguered by a state of civil war tainted with violent ‘ethnic conflict’ throughout.

Pieris was the Deputy President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) from 2015 to 2017, during which time he was a staunch advocate for the strengthening of human rights in the country, and the establishment of an independent bar and bench, consistently championing the rule of law and order in the land.

A lecturer in law as much as a practitioner of it, he contributed many learned and scholarly pieces as a writer, on legal practice in Sri Lanka and its nexus with the political praxis of our age.

Once upon a time, he played a prominent part in the legal community’s role in the impeachment of controversial former chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

On 24th February 2021, this avid quizzer (Dulux Do-You-Know contest, 1984) and an Eisenhower Fellow was elected the 26th President of the BASL, handsomely defeating his opponent by securing 5,162 of the 7,969 votes cast.

And it is in this role that the stellar aspects of the man’s character have come to stand out – to benefit his homeland and bless his fellow countrypersons in their direst times of need… of a legal mind with a crusader’s heart.

THE MOVEMENT Pieris and the BASL were active on many fronts. Their principal agency was pointing out to a plethora of state actors the need to follow a proper and transparent process, in maintaining law and order.

For example, in June – when the fires of the people’s protest burned brightly (not literally of course, simply metaphorically) – the combine of a man and his machinery wrote to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) expressing concern about allegations of indiscriminate arrests by his agents.

From March to May, Pieris – underwritten by the BASL – signed off on a host of letters, statements, tweets, interviews and so on, in which he and his association challenged, critiqued and cautioned.

And even after the events of May and July, man and machine were at the forefront of ensuring accountability and transparency in the manner state actors responded to the activism of civic-minded citizens.

Of paramount concern to Pieris et al. was that police action be “independent and impartial,” as well as “free from unlawful interferences.”

“Bias against the law enforcement authorities will lead to a serious loss of public confidence, and will worsen the law and order situation in the country,” the BASL’s leading light cautioned the IGP.

It was to ensure that “moves to restore political, economic and social stability in Sri Lanka” were not compromised that Pieris’ watchful eyes hovered over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka throughout the people’s protracted and often painful struggle.

In the firing line were arbitrary detention and often wrongly so of peaceful protestors exercising their constitutionally enshrined and guaranteed rights; arrests made without verification or substantiated by credible proof; rigged identification parades; and so on.

For this among other yeoman services rendered to the hapless people of Sri Lanka facing an unprecedented crisis in the country’s sociopolitical life, the champion of the law on behalf of the masses received recognition at home and in the region.

The Chennai-based Hindu newspaper, India’s journal with the second largest circulation, described the Bar Association of Sri Lanka as being ‘a voice of reason’ during the state’s recent challenges.

And the publication went on to praise its president: “Under his leadership since 2021, the BASL’s public profile has drawn attention, for being resolute. Devoid of ambiguity and political rhetoric, its statements speak to immediate and specific concerns, basing itself on constitutional freedoms, national laws and leading judgements.”

THE MONUMENT Other facets of his instrumentality on behalf of the people in turbulent 2022 include writing through the BASL and asking then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to “forthwith explain to the people the reasons as to why he has declared the state of emergency” (on 6 May).

He also called upon the overreaching chief executive to revoke the proclamation declaring such an egregious state, which was retweeted multiple hundreds of times. And he messaged the IGP and army commander to pre-empt “the unnecessary use of brute force” against protestors.

So much so that the mere presence of this legal eagle in the background was a significant deterrent to the ethos of authoritarianism and arbitrariness that characterised the executive’s exercise – use, abuse and misuse – of its power and prerogatives in the year under review.

In a year where once revered personalities were shown up to be straw men and the establishments charged with protecting the civic liberties of people they represent crumbled in the face of political chicanery – by fallen figures desperate to safeguard their fragile credibility in the wake of being exposed by their deeds, which fell far short of their former words – “I feel the real change has to be with institutions,” he said, in a mid-2022 interview.

Yes, the stars come out at night. And the bright pulsar of Saliya Pieris in the constellation of the BASL outshone them all in a year overshadowed by tension and uncertainty, for a once sunny and unclouded land.

For that series of sterling ‘showings up’ – stepping up to the plate time and again, backed by the BASL aegis and its agency – in a dark, seemingly hopeless season in the fortunes of Sri Lanka, Saliya Pieris is LMD’s ‘Sri Lankan Of The Year’ for 2022… the best and worst of years in a chequered islander history.

One brightened in no small measure by a sterling man and his stalwart movement.

“The Chennai-based Hindu newspaper, India’s journal with the second largest circulation, described the Bar Association of Sri Lanka as being ‘a voice of reason’”