‘From the sidelines’ : Democracy finally comes of age | Sunday Observer

‘From the sidelines’ : Democracy finally comes of age

That politics makes strange bedfellows is now very much a cliché. This week, we saw that yet again. It was after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe gave evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the sale of Central Bank bonds.

Praise for the Prime Minister came from an unexpected quarter: former President and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s erstwhile political rival, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

In what is described as a personal message, Kumaratunga said: “Dear Prime Minister, Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! My homage to you for taking the brave decision to testify before the Presidential Commission. This is the beginning of free and democratic governance”.

Kumaratunga goes on to say: “My unstinted support is with you in this most challenging task. You and I will remain till the end of our days in two opposing political parties, but there can be no disagreement when the vision is to build a better country for all Sri Lankans, a country where freedom, human decency and honest, pro-people governance will reign supreme. Wish you much strength and courage!”

Kumaratunga’s critics- and there are many of them- would say that what she says always has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Even so, coming from Kumaratunga, this is high praise. There is a reason for us to say that.

Few people would remember the dates, September 3 and 4 1997, more than twenty years ago but perhaps Prime MinisterWickremesinghe would. In fact, when he appeared before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry last Monday, he must have had a sense of déjà vu. That is because those two dates twenty years ago were the dates when he gave evidence before another Presidential Commission of Inquiry. Then, he was the Leader of the Opposition.

That Commission was appointed by none other than then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Kumaratunga, by virtue of powers vested in her as President, appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of disappearances, torture and murder that took place between January 1 1988 and December 31 1990 in an unofficial government detention centre at the Batalanda Housing Estate.

The ‘Batalanda Commission’ commenced sittings in January1996, officially concluded its hearings at the end of October 1997 and submitted its report to President Kumaratunga in March 1998.

No action was taken against Wickremesinghe although there was widespread speculation that Wickremesinghe could be arrested on the basis of disclosures made before the Commission. In fact, a newspaper report noted that during his appearance at the Commission, Wickremesinghe “was subjected to lengthy questioning, but fared well as a witness and came out largely unscathed”.

Nevertheless, the ghosts of Batalanda have been resurrected time and again to tarnish Wickremesinghe, whenever it was convenient to do so politically. That is a task that has been undertaken by governments headed by Kumaratunga in the past.

So, when Kumaratunga hails Wickremesinghe’s appearance at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, there is reason to sit up and take note, and maybe even applaud.

Reaction to the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Commission has been two-fold. There is no denying the facts: he is the first and only sitting Prime Minister to appear before a Commission of Inquiry in this country.

When he did, there were none of the shenanigans we witnessed when former Minister Ravi Karunanayake gave evidence. Difficult questions were asked by the Commissioners but the Prime Minister answered them in a matter of fact manner and there was nothing to suggest there was wrongdoing on his part. Of course, the final verdict on that would be given when the Commissioners submit their report to President Maithripala Sirisena.

Then there is the counter argument: that one day’s performance at the Commission doesn’t absolve the Prime Minister from blame.After all, he was the person responsible for recruiting Arjuna Mahendran for the job of Central Bank Governor. It is Mahendran’s son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius who is the focus of attention for his alleged role in the sale of Central Bank bonds.

In hindsight, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe must be ruing the day he decided to employ Mahendran as Central Bank Governor, just as much as Mahinda Rajapaksa must be ruing the day he decided to call presidential elections two years ahead of schedule. We all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing to have, after the event!

Days after the Prime Minister appeared before the Commission of Inquiry, posters appeared in the city stating ‘bayanethi agamethi’ (fearless Prime Minister). This may have been done by some party enthusiast who is keen to score some brownie points with the PM- but might in fact have the opposite effect: the Prime Minister could be accused of trying to take political advantage from his appearance before the Commission.

These theatrics aside, a more objective assessment is warranted. The fact that no sitting Prime Minister before him- even in the halcyon days of the Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes and Dahanayakes- has testified before a Commission of Inquiry must surely be a feather in Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s cap, even if he was responsible for giving a top government job to Arjuna Mahendran.

The fact that Chandrika Kumaratunga- no great fan of Ranil Wickremesinghe, by any standards- says so too is enough evidence that the praise the Prime Minister has earned for his efforts are justified, despite what his political opponents might say.

The more important issue is perhaps what most people are missing-although Kumaratunga appears to have noticed it, in her message: that a Commission was appointed into the activities of a sitting government, that it brought about the resignation of a Finance Minister and that even the Prime Minister was willing to testify before it.

That is what Sri Lanka- the country that gave the world its first Woman Prime Minister- can be proud about.

Has its democracy finally come of age after a decade of slumber when the rights of people were suppressed and usurped by one family? One swallow does not make a summer and one Commission does not lead us to utopia, but let us hope that we have at least made a start.