The authoritarianism of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, backed by the world’s most powerful superpower the United States, was severely bashed in Monday’s general election. This was the result of efforts by the Pakistani judiciary lead by Chief Justice Iftekhar Chowdhury and many senior judges, and also by an electorate that despite all draconian limitations imposed on them decisively determined the outcome of the election. The dictator has been humiliatingly defeated and the credit goes to the secular forces of Pakistan.
In Sri Lanka forces that represent secularism have been unable to deal any significant blow to the authoritarian system that has run the country since 1978. The Constitution issued that year imposed a system of complete executive control, thereby undermining the basic separation of powers, checks and balances and a government that is accountable to the people.
Sri Lanka’s judiciary has not produced a single personality that would risk his career and even face detention and imprisonment to defend the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law or democracy. By contrast, in Pakistan many risked their careers and several ended up in jail, endured house arrest or suffered torture. A cowardly judiciary by a majority judgment approved a referendum in 1982 that granted the wish of President J.R. Jayewardene to extend the Parliament for six years without an election. The country’s judiciary and those who represented a secular orientation were unable to resist even this most absurd move.
The character of a modern nation is tested by its capacity to resist forces that try to destroy the foundations of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. In Sri Lanka there was not much resistance when everything associated with a modern state was taken back and an utterly feudalistic, absolute power concept was introduced to the country — with unlimited possibilities for the abuse of power and corruption.
Beginning from the first executive president, who abused his power to acquire for himself some prime coconut lands, those in power have enjoyed the right to absolute corruption and a complete absence of accountability. Even the minor attempt to counteract this process through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution has been abandoned and scorned.
How is it that the people of Pakistan and a large section of its judiciary and lawyers have acquired this power of resistance that Sri Lanka has pathetically demonstrated as lacking? At one time Sri Lankans boasted of their country as the most developed, not only in South Asia but in all of Asia. However, Sri Lankans have allowed their rulers to take from them every important aspect of a modern state that found expression in the founding document of independent Sri Lanka, which is the Constitution. What is found in the country today is a collapsed consciousness accompanied with a collapse of all basic public institutions.
As Patrick Lawrence has noted:
“It is this collapsed consciousness that accounts for one of the strangest characteristics of the Sri Lankan people. Amid all the wreckage, amid all the murders and disappearances and abuse, this macabre silence prevails. No atrocity seems to stir them. If anything, the greater the atrocity the deeper the silence. Only the few still know the importance of raising their voices. And among these, still fewer have devised ways of doing so. A friend in Colombo once described Sri Lanka by saying simply, ‘Ours, an ugly country.’ He meant the brutality, the bloodshed, the corruption, and so on. One must consider whether it is not the silence of the living that is most truly unattractive.
“Absent its institutions, absent its voices, Sri Lanka is rendered incapable of resolving any of its conflicts and difficulties and faces, instead, the prospect of disintegration, for in reality there is no working entity called ‘Sri Lanka.’ Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and social critic, once wrote that France during the radical polarizations of the 1930s ‘no longer existed except through the hatreds French people bore one another.’
“There must have been many fine, well-intentioned French people alive at that time, just as there are many such Sri Lankans living now. But we learn from Aron just how a nation can destroy itself nonetheless: It is first destroyed in people’s minds.”
It is perhaps time for Sri Lankans to open their eyes and to learn a few lessons from their neighbors in Pakistan. However, such learning is not easy in the present circumstances. Following the election results in Pakistan one Sri Lankan intellectual said, “We are no longer able to talk or do as they have done in Pakistan. If I talk some people will ‘visit me.’
“In our institution we have a conference hall which we rent for local organizations to have their meetings. For many years many people have come to have their meetings. Recently, I was called by the officer in charge of the police station in the area. In normal times I would not have gone. I would have told him instead to come to us if he wants to have a chat. But now to behave like that is too dangerous, so I went.
“The officer in charge told me that he had heard that many people have conferences in our hall and that he wished to know what these people talk about. I told him that different people talk about different things; some people for example talk about gender justice, others about pollution and others about all sorts of harassments including harassments from the police.
“At this he got upset. He told me, ‘You should stop people talking about these things.’ I told him that we are only renting the premises and it is not within our power to decide what people talk about. Then he wanted me to give a list of persons who attend these meetings. Anyway, within the last two or three months, nobody comes to have meetings. Even people who made prior arraignments are canceling them. Everyone is so afraid.”
It is no wonder a police inspector who has served the police department for several decades told the Negombo High Court during a trial recently that it is quite normal for police to arrest a person without the slightest evidence and then to see if the person is involved in a crime during interrogation. He said this in a case where he admitted an innocent man had been severely tortured during the investigation to the extent that he later suffered renal failure. This illustrates how such fear is created.
Sources: Lessons from Pakistan for Sri Lanka