Dr. Jehan Perera emphasises the need to counter resentment and extremism

Mobilising people’s emotions – whether by religion or ethnic nationalism – to gain and retain power is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind, with the marginalised and disempowered invariably paying the larger share of the price.

In the aftermath of the brutal killing of a Sri Lankan citizen in Pakistan, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the government expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime – and demanded justice. Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged justice and referred to the ‘day of shame’ for Pakistan.

But before waxing eloquent and indignant about this atrocity, it is necessary for Sri Lankans to be introspective about ourselves.

We need to be mindful about what happened in our nation during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection and 1983 riots; and more recently in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala. In these instances, there was a measure of state complicity or inaction, which is worse than a mob’s savage deeds as the state represents a nation’s civilisation.

There are disturbing signs of state failure becoming more serious in Sri Lanka. Former Governor Azath Salley was released after being remanded for eight months on charges that the court said weren’t sustainable. All charges against him were dismissed as they lacked merit.

The injustice done to him and his family, as well as the loss of eight months of his life (and his reputation), require reparations that may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.

In addition, there have been several killings of prisoners in police custody who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their weapons stores, in crossfire or by suicide.

The inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the end of the 26 year war, Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019, bond scandal, sugar tax scandal, Yugadanavi Power Station issue or recent explosion of cooking gas cylinders, which led to deaths and people’s homes burning down.

None of these investigations have led to the masterminds being found and justice meted out. With time, these cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers could get away with their crimes.

In a decision regarding the use of captured elephants as social trophies that can have far-reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and system of checks and balances – and is wisely less politically controversial – the Supreme Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the British courts.

He said: “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large, the attorney general is the guardian of the public interest. Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment. He must act independently of any external pressure from whatever quarter it may come.”

The court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.” Notably, the respondents were the prime minister and minister of wildlife.

If such positions are to be filled by persons who will make decisions in line with this judgement, they should have integrity and competence. They also need the space to work without political interference.

To achieve this objective, two different governments headed by two leaders from two political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th Amendments in 2001 and 2015. These amendments had the common feature of reducing the president’s powers and seeking to increase state institutions’ independence from political interference.

A police force that is independent of political influencers acting behind the scenes is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the growing level of impunity in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance, and end the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it, which breeds impunity and resentment – and fuels extremism.

And the political space should be kept secular, and free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases.

Reintroducing the scheme of appointing higher state officials through a multi-partisan constitutional council comprising members of the government, the opposition and civil society would lead to better appointments than the president alone doing so.

It would select the most appropriate persons to high offices to insulate them from politically motivated interference.