Must Professionals dance to politicians’ tune ?

l by Shanie


“Out of a broken window
of a damaged car –
dead driver –
the radio…..unscathed
on a commercial break
a man’s pleasant voice announced
that big or small, insurance
protects them all.”

(February 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Vivimarie VanderPoorten, who teaches English at the Open University of Sri Lanka, is a sensitive poet who was awarded the Gratiaen Prize five years ago. Written in the aftermath of the Central Bank bombing, this last stanza of her poem captures the utter incongruity of the advertiser’s jingle on the radio extolling insurance protection amidst the mayhem and carnage around. It also perhaps epitomises the kind of warped values that prevail in our society. Amidst the reality of abject poverty and economic and social insecurity experienced by many throughout the country, including the war-displaced, we have many who go about leading extravagant lives and proclaiming that Sri Lanka is on the verge of becoming the wonder of Asia.
The challenge before the professionals and the civil society leadership today is to provide an apolitical and responsible perspective on issues of good governance. In recent years, under several regimes, political decisions have been made that undermined the rule of law and set back the economic and social development of the country. The professionals have either chosen to remain silent or shamelessly acquiesced with such political decisions. They need to have the strength of character and of their convictions to take an independent stand on issues within their areas of expertise. In many areas, we need a change of course if governance issues are not to lead the country to chaotic levels that we have seen in some other countries in recent times. Such a change can about only if the professionals who have the capacity to influence political decision-making are willing to put the national interests before personal ones. In the long term, taking a principled stand will not only enable them to stand tall but also ensure that the country moves away from a political, social and economic downward slide.
A Strong Bench and a Strong Bar
The newspapers this week have carried some significant opinion columns that focus on governance issues. Javed Yusuf, a respected educationist and civil society activist, castigates the legal professionals for failing to take a stand when the rule of law and the administration of justice were threatened by political action. He refers to J R Jayawardena’s UNP government, in the aftermath of a huge victory at the 1977 General Election enacting a new constitution the following year. Giving the excuse of a new constitution, senior Supreme Court and High Court Judges were sacked, promoted or demoted by the political authority. The Executive Committee of the Bar Association at that time, despite consisting largely of political supporters of the UNP (Mr H W Jayawardena, brother of JR) was elected President in 1975), passed a resolution condemning the political action affecting the independence of the Judiciary. Today, laments Yusuf who has been a long standing supporter of the SLFP, the Bar Association has been reduced to a shadow of its proud self. When the 18th Amendment with its wide ramification was presented in Parliament, the BASL made no analysis of the amendment to guide either the country or the government. Yusuf also laments that it was left to the LLRC to comment and make recommendations on human rights violations, the rule of law, disappearances, etc when it was the professional duty of the BASL to do so earlier.
The election of a new President to the BASL takes place next Wednesday. One of the candidates has quite rightly stated that ‘when grave violence is done to the Rule of Law, the Bar Association, which by reason of the commitment of its membership to uphold and defend the Constitution, must intervene and convert such issues into public interest litigation with all its implications, and, for this specific, the membership of the Bar Association must be as one, irrespective of political, ethnic, religious or other differences.’ We have no doubt that the other candidate, despite his political affiliations, will also agree. We hope that the BASL will restore their earlier pre-eminent and independent position as legal professionals. The same candidate at next week’s election quoted former Supreme Court Judge Das Edussuriya as having stated that ‘a strong Bar begets a strong bench’. Nothing could be truer. It is only a strong and independent Bar living up to its professional role that can stand by and encourage the independence of the Judiciary and the safeguarding of the rule of law.
Police and Political Interference
Another revealing article in the week-end newspapers was by the outspoken retired Senior Superintendent of Police Tassie Seneviratne. Today, political interference coupled with the sycophancy of some senior police officers has eroded the professionalism of our law enforcement authority. There have been instances in the past of Inspectors General of Police who refused to accede to political requests to do something unprofessional even when it came from the highest in the land. Seneviratne refers to the assassination of Vijaya Kumaratunga in 1988 during the southern insurgency. Despite the unsettled times, the sleuths of the Police Crime Detection Bureau had been able to crack the case and arrest the suspected assassin who had confessed to the murder not only of Vijaya Kumaratnga but also of several other including Colombo Vice Chancellor Professor Stanley Wijesundara. It was at this stage that the then Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne ordered the CDB’s SSP Gamini Perera who was handling the case to transfer the suspect to the CID. Perera pleaded with Ranjan Wijeratne to let him handle the case which was coming to a successful conclusion and he was confident of obtaining a court conviction. But to no avail. The accused was transferred to the CID. Frank de Silva, later IGP, was then senior DIG/CID and he was transferred out of the CID and replaced by a compliant DIG/CID. The upshot of this was that the accused in the Vijaya Kumaratunga murder simply disappeared. It was in keeping with the political policy then of insurgent suspects being extra-judicially killed. This, Seneviratne says, put paid to the professional manner in which the Police were conducting the investigations.
There was a sequel to this sordid tale. After the change of government in 1994, a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to probe the assassination of Vijaya Kumaratunga which, for known reasons, never came to trial. By then, Kumaratunga’s widow had become the President of Sri Lanka. The Commission comprising two Supreme Court and one High Court Judge implicated, contrary to the findings of the Police investigations, former President Premadasa and Minister Ranjan Wijeratne in the assassination. Justice Alles commented at that time that the findings of the Commission were ‘a concept completely alien to established principles of criminal law.’ Was that another case of the Judiciary sacrificing their independence to please the political leaders of that time?
Politics in the University System
Earlier, many of them protested about the orientation being given to new entrants at military camps. Many also protested when the University Grants Commission ordered that security services in the Universities be handed over to a newly set-up a security company under the Ministry of Defence, violating the provisions of the University Act. But sadly most of the Vice Chancellors chose to go along with the political decisions being made by the bureaucrats in the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Higher Education.
Higher education is another area where professionalism has been found wanting. Prior to the last Presidential Election in 2010, we had the disgraceful spectacle of the Chairman of the University Grants Commission and several Vice Chancellors appearing at a Press Conference and pledging support to one of the candidates, the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse. That was unpardonable and unprofessional. The only silver lining was that the Vice Chancellors of Peradeniya and Moratuwa, Professors S B Abeykoon and Malik Ranasinghe, refused to participate at this Press Conference, obviously not wanting to abuse their professional position. About twenty senior academics wrote an open letter condemning the collective participation of the Chairman of the UGC and the Vice Chancellors as a betrayal of the very raison d’etre of a University; and complimenting the Vice Chancellors who did not participate. But it is a pity that only twenty academics were brave enough to sign that letter. This was a matter of academic integrity and there should have been many more who should have signed that letter.
But it was encouraging to learn of the protests by the Peradeniya University Teachers’ Association to the heavy-handed response of the Police and Army to recent student agitation at the Galaha Road Junction. Earlier, many of them protested about the orientation being given to new entrants at military camps. Many also protested when the University Grants Commission ordered that security services in the Universities be handed over to a newly set-up a security company under the Ministry of Defence, violating the provisions of the University Act. But sadly most of the Vice Chancellors chose to go along with the political decisions being made by the bureaucrats in the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Higher Education. We do not wish to ascribe motives, but it is unfortunate that, for whatever reason, many of the Vice Chancellors choose to dance to the advertiser’s jingle in VanderPoorten’s poem (in this case the politician’s tune) while academic integrity, freedoms and rights are being violated under their very noses. The deterioration in academic standards in our Universities over the last few decades is directly related to political interference in the university system.
The true professional must stand by his conscience. He/She must not get trapped by the politics of our time, cajoled by politicians into action that is clearly wrong and violates their own conscience. Sri Lanka can move forward towards good governance and sustainable peace only when the professionals take a principled stand on these issues.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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