Who is Sri Lanka’s ‘Nero?’; piano playing cop or corrupt leaders?

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The sacking of a constable who played the grand piano at the President’s House after former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his entourage fled through the back door as thousands of citizens broke down the gates, has captured global news in a sardonic footnote to the 2022 ‘aragalaya’ (peoples’ protests)

When piano playing becomes a crime

International wire service reports said, no doubt tongue-in-cheek, that seniors in the police command structure had likened the cop’s rebellious act to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Whether that decadent emperor actually fiddled or for that matter, knew how to fiddle given that historians curtly dismiss this story as an unlikely embellishment, is one thing. But that apart, the question is as to who really is Sri Lanka’s Nero in one or varied forms as the case may be?

The cop who entertained crowds of young protestors thrilled at overthrowing a disastrously bad head of State or our grossly corrupt political leaders who have collectively brought the country to bankruptcy? Or our so-called business leaders and electronic media moguls still sowing seeds of communal hatred while reaping fat profits off corrupt deals? Or for that matter, senior policemen vying for the ‘top job’ marked by complicity in the Easter Sunday attacks by jihadists on churches and hotels in 2019 or attacking peaceful protestors at the Galle Face Green in 2022?

The list of manifold inequities on their part constitute highest violations of the law and the Constitution. Compared to that, the simple act of playing the piano by a lowly constable during a mass uprising gripped by extraordinary – and rightful – anger against a venal and unconscionably corrupt political establishment, pales into insignificance. That said, it is also a mystery as to why more than a full year was taken to complete what is said to have been a ‘lengthy inquiry’ into ‘insubordination.’

‘Vandalising the country’ has no redress?

Surely this was no complicated act, to be pondered upon in detail unlike for example, inquiring into bribery or corruption charges? Inquiries into corrupt conduct rarely result in any effective action against policemen or politicians in any event. This constable’s ‘misconduct’ was in providing background music while the President’s House was being ‘vandalised’ we are told. But the ‘vandalising’ of the country as a whole by Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers and their sycophants has no redress apparently?

Who rectifies this? Our salutations at the altar of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) without putting to rights, pervasive political corruption which has eaten into Sri Lanka’s democratic innards much like a cancer that has attacked every major organ, cannot but end in misery. For all President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s promises of a brave new tomorrow for the nation’s youth, his airy tolerance of gross corruptors in the Cabinet and in his innermost circles is scarcely reassuring to say the least.

That corruption, monetary, political or other ways, pervades our institutions as well, even the corruption-fighting oversight bodies that are given constitutional recognition. Recently, the Supreme Court in its Special Determination on Sri Lanka’s Anti-Corruption Bill, stipulated that the independence of the new Anti-Corruption Commission must be safeguarded by the amendment of Clause 3 of the Bill. This must provide that the Commission shall ‘exercise and perform its powers and functions without being subject to any direction or other interference proceeding from any other person.’

Irony in looking to the law for protection

The only exception is in regard to a court or tribunal entitled in law to direct or supervise the Commission. The Anti-Corruption Act, No 9 of 2023 passed into law last month has faithfully brought this judicial stipulation in, under Section 3(4) and further, in sub section (5), prescribed punishment for ‘every person who, without legal authority, interferes or attempts to interfere with the exercise or performance of  the powers or functions of the Commission.’

The punishment so prescribed is imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to a period of one year or with fine or both along with a raft of civic disabilities as well as being disqualified from holding any public office or  from being employed as a public officer. But what practical effect do these safeguards actually have when the threats to independent oversight bodies emanate from the highest political citadel?

This is a relevant question for we have exactly this same safeguard in regard to Sri Lanka’s judiciary, coming as part of a decades long developed constitutional safeguard (see Article 111C of the 1978 Constitution). But where has that protected the judiciary when politicians have thundered that the Court is becoming too clever for its own good, used parliamentary privilege to cast aspersions on particular judges or indeed, when the Head of State warns that instructions from ‘anyone else’ will not be tolerated in regard to Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring exercise?

Where the law fails,
most abjectly

On the one hand, we have that kind of political interference in the judicial function while on the other hand, Ministers of Justice who castigate the judiciary in the strongest possible terms then become crusaders for judicial independence when they are relegated to the opposition benches. This we see most starkly in response to President Wickremesinghe’s political grandstanding with the Court. All that underlines the manner in which political encroachment on the province of the judiciary and independent oversight institutions has crippled legal and constitutional systems, virtually irreversibly.

That will not be put to rights by this ‘best anti-corruption law’ that the President boasted about some time ago. Ensuring legal safeguards for an institution to work independently, inclusive of the Anti-Corruption Commission, only works if the Rule of Law works. The abject failure of earlier bodies was not due to inadequate financial independence, inadequate resources or skilled and dedicated personnel though these were no doubt, relevant factors.

Rather, the failure of all anti-corruption efforts in Sri Lanka, including during 2015-2019 (the ‘yahapalanaya’ period) was due to politicians and their cheering squads in the police department, the legal fraternity and the state law office using (then) corruption fighting bodies as footballs, tossing from one side to the other to get political or personal mileage. That and the accompanying evil of ‘packing’ such bodies with their favourites, crucified public trust in the very term ‘anti-corruption.’

No magic cure for this
‘anti-democracy’ rot

Sri Lanka’s degrading trajectory into the abyss of bankruptcy with the alarming breakdown of health, education and social service systems is in direct consequence thereto. Certainly the sacking of the piano playing cop one year later from Sri Lanka’s ‘people protests’ goes beyond a mere titbit of entertaining news. These absurdities are markers of a broken country and paralyzed democratic systems.

This is very much in tune with routine police abuse in manhandling journalists engaged in legitimate acts of reporting on protests and arresting women for walking on the road wearing protest placards. There are no  miracle cures, no magic potion that can be swallowed to wade off this ‘anti-democracy’ rot that is invading the spaces of our public and constitutional life in the guise of ‘having to put up with anything as long as there is stability.’

Make no mistake, there is no ‘Dhammika peniya’ which gullible Sri Lankans once downed in their thousands to ward off the covid virus, for this paralysis. That rot which every day goes by without being questioned by Colombo’s ‘privileged’ must be recognised for what it is; complicity in the perversion of the law and of the Constitution regardless of consequences.

Perchance, these are also multiple ‘Neros’ heedlessly wining and dining the nights away in careless disregard of a majority of suffering citizens left to their fate, much like the unfortunate cop kicked out for playing the piano during the ‘invasion’ of the President’s House last year.

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