The United Kingdom and all its dominions in particular were agog yesterday with the spectacle of the coronation of their new king, Charles III. The British public, facing cost of living issues, rising inflation, a recession and strikes, still love the pageantry – and the monarchy, warts and all; never mind the expenses from their purse.
At the king’s late mother’s coronation in 1953 (then yet as Queen of Ceylon), she wore a ceremonial gown which included the flowers of all the territories where she reigned (though not necessarily ruled), a creation which was ‘a shimmering haze of colour’. This time, the only reference to Sri Lanka was its name embroidered on one of the 56 leaves of a tree depicting the Commonwealth membership on a screen that will ensure the king’s privacy when he is anointed with holy oil on his hands, breast and head.
Sri Lanka was also once upon a time a monarchy, with kings great, mediocre and indifferent. At one time it had more than one king and kingdoms moving from place to place throughout its ancient history until it all ended with the advent of the European conquerors and finally the fall of the citadel of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815. The whole of Sri Lanka was absorbed into the British Empire by 1818.
In return, the British gave this country a form of parliamentary democracy in the middle of the last century, and in 1978, the then independent Government introduced a French-style Executive Presidency which many justifiably argue was a modern-day absolute monarchy given the wide powers afforded to such an office by a Constitution.
On May 22, 1972, the country broke away from the last vestiges of colonialism by declaring itself a Republic, but within the Commonwealth. That historic occasion of severing the umbilical cord with the United Kingdom this month 51 years ago is not even commemorated unlike in other countries.
On President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s initiative, the Commonwealth Secretariat wrote to King Charles and a meeting was arranged with him for Commonwealth Heads of State and Heads of Government attending the coronation. The official version of the Commonwealth Secretariat is that King Charles assumed the role of symbolic head of the Commonwealth having inherited it from his mother. However, they are quick to add that the position is not hereditary and the next Commonwealth head will be elected by the leaders of the 56 member nations. That is bound to be a fun election.
The current Chair-in-office of the Commonwealth is the President of Rwanda. He is not symbolic, neither is he potent. It is well known that the Commonwealth agenda is overwhelmingly determined by the Governments of Britain and the ‘older’ members of the Commonwealth – the ‘white Commonwealth’. The relevance of the British monarchy in the group’s agenda, let alone from the world stage itself, remains a question.
While the new king clearly shares his mother’s love and affection for the former colonies (many Commonwealth member-nations became independent, sovereign states during her reign), his influence even in what is known as His Majesty’s Government is constitutionally limited. His ability towards even gentle persuasion directing British Government policy towards Commonwealth member-nations cannot be counted on – unless, he adopts a more meaningful role as a modern king which he has shown by making changes to the age-old traditions of the coronation ceremony.
Under his own name, His Majesty’s Government leads the charge against Sri Lanka, a fellow Commonwealth member, at the UN Human Rights Council, and elsewhere. Clearly under pressure from domestic constituencies and its voter base, His Majesty’s Governments still believe they have oversight over a country they ruled for over one and half centuries, even though that rule ended 75 years ago. The UK’s actual contribution to the Commonwealth itself, financially is not worth a penny, and politically, is to whip members to fall in line with their worldview and domestic compulsions.
His Majesty’s symbolism may fall well short of what is expected from His Majesty’s Government towards the Commonwealth.
Gas blasts: What’s cooking?
When gas cylinders and appliances started catching fire in 2021, then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, set up a committee of scientific experts to determine the causes and to recommend solutions. They produced a report in 20 days and handed it over to the Presidential Secretariat. It was not made public.
Six months later, the Sunday Times filed a request under the Right to Information (RTI) Act requesting the report. Our contention was that its findings were a matter of public safety. Within a few weeks between November and December 2021, the police had counted nearly 800 incidents.
The Presidential Secretariat, still under the control of President Rajapaksa, refused to release the report citing an ongoing investigation. This is a common excuse for turning down requests under RTI, even when there’s no evidence of an investigation or its outcome.
When the President changed, a fresh application was made for the report under RTI. This time it was rejected saying the Secretariat didn’t have the document (there was photographic evidence of it being presented to President Rajapaksa). On appeal, the relevant officer confirmed verbally that the report was “not there”. The Presidential Secretariat launched a search and it was eventually released only after a copy was obtained from the head of the committee. Extracts from the report were published by us last week.
It’s safe to surmise this happens with many reports produced by the many Presidential committees and Commissions of Inquiry. Not only do they gather dust, they go missing. It is an all too frequent occurrence and the public is not privy to their contents, despite taxpayer money having been spent on them and the subject matter of most such reports, if not all, being of pressing public interest.
And what about accountability for the gas incidents? The report clearly states the fires and explosions were caused by a change in the composition of the gas which caused a build-up of pressure that appliances in the market were not geared to handle. Consumers had not been forewarned.
There has been no valuation of losses – not even an attempt towards it. No arrests and no compensation. There is no proper regulator. As usual, the official apparatus has proved that anything goes; all is soon forgotten, even if not forgiven.