'Military dominates every aspect of public life' - Lal Wijenayake

Lal Wijenayake joined the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1963, which was considered to be 'the most influential professedly Trotskyist party anywhere in the world' as Robert J. Alexander has written. In 1972 he was elected to the Central Committee of the LSSP and soon he was appointed to the politburo. After contesting the first ever Provincial Council election in 1988 and becoming the opposition leader of the Central Provincial Council, he served as a LSSP Provincial Councillor for almost fifteen years, continuously.

Despite the fact that his own party being a coalition partner of the incumbent government, Wijenayake - an attorney at law - is widely known for being an outspoken critic of the current regime. In 2009, in the aftermath of journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge's assassination, he, along with several others formed the 'Platform for Freedom  (PFP), which is a coalition of civil society organisations supported by the trade unions, media  organizations and political parties. In the same year, he was expelled from the LSSP Politburo.

"My party didn't like me sharing the platform with the opposition United National Party (UNP) leaders. So they decided to throw me out. And in the same year, we formed the Lawyers for Democracy (LfD)" he said, speaking to JDS. Currently he serves as a Convenor of the LfD.

When asked, what was the significance of organizing lawyers, he responded: "At a time of crisis in the country, legal profession needs to play a serious role. We wanted to emerge as a forceful voice to discharge the social obligations and the responsibilities as lawyers.”

The full interview follows:

JDS: What  led you and others to take the initiative to form the group, 'Lawyers for Democracy?'

Lal Wijenayake: We live in a decadent time. There is no rule of law. The whole system is falling apart and what we see as the 'rule of law' is simply the nominal existence of legal institutions. The executive and the political authority have an absolute control over all such institutions. They intervene in every affair and they dictate and control everything. Consequently, the judicial independence has steadily eroded, which has  largely contributed to weaken the public confidence in rule of law. For instance,  notions such as 'equality before the law' and 'no one is above the law' are regarded as important and mandatory legal maxims. But as far as our context is concerned, none of these notions make any sense.

Look at the present situation. Weeks ago, a well reputed Magistrate in Mannar was threatened by a minister with the aim of obstructing the administration of justice. Later, mobs instigated by the minister went and hurled stones at the at the Magistrate court while the courts were in session. This is the first time in the history of our judiciary that such direct threats and physical attacks have taken place.This incredibly outrageous behavior is a very clear case of contempt of court. This particular minister is known to be a close confidant of the president. Therefore the lawyers all around the country went on protest demanding the president fire the minister with immediate effect. So far not a single action has been taken against him. Now we are seeking an order for legal proceedings against the minister.

Let me point out one or two other examples in order to understand the level of the degeneration. Minister Mervin Silva, who is notoriously known for his criminal behaviour, once tied a government servant to a tree in broad daylight, while many others were watching. The incident was even videoed and thousands watched it online and over the television. Did anything happen? He didn't stop there. He physically attacked media personnel several times, threatening them and damaging their equipments. He even publicly claimed responsibility for assaulting journalists and inflicting grievous bodily harm, apart from threatening to break the limbs of rights activists who attended Geneva human rights council sessions. All these incidents were widely reported by almost every media outlet. But he still walks around with absolute  impunity and holds onto his ministerial position.

In a similar case, there was an ongoing court case against the ex-parliamentarian Chandana Kathriarachchi. The case was heard in three different courts for almost 12 years. But recently a state counsel simply walked into the court room and declared that there is no any evidence against him and that's it - no further procedure.

There was another ex-minister who was under serious corruption charges and there was a pending legal action against him. So he decided to cross over to the government side and that was the end of the story - all the charges against him were withdrawn.

These are just few examples out of many, which reflects the magnitude of the degeneration. Normally, in such situations, the responsibility falls upon the Bar Association to voice their concern over the deterioration of the rule of law and raise the public awareness. But unfortunately, for some reason, they demonstrate a clear lack of will to act upon their responsibility. Their position on such issues remains extremely vague and confusing. When the criminals and politicians dictate the terms and limits of the legal system, we, as people who are concerned about democracy and rule of law, cannot just sit back and watch. Social as well as moral responsibility calls upon us to act. So we were compelled to do something. The 'Lawyers for Democracy' was the eventual outcome of such collective actions.

JDS: But as far as Sri Lanka's political history is concerned, politicians overriding core democratic principles and the rule of law has always been part of the game. Bending laws to fit the needs of the ruling politicians is nothing new, is it?

LW: Well, it may be true to some extent. But there is something more to that. Mainly, after the executive presidential system was introduced in 1977, the rule of law was gravely undermined. It didn't happen overnight. It was a process and it started in 1977. This was taken forward by the successive governments, with quite a lot of enthusiasm. What has happened now is that, the current regime has completed that process by totally subordinating the rule of law to the naked political interests of  the ruling party and the executive president. The entire administrative system remains under absolute control of one single person. The president appoints the Election Commissioner as well as members to all the other Commissions including the Human Rights Commission. In the same manner, he appoints the commanders to the armed forces and the police apart from appointing judges to the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court. The appointments are always made on the basis of personal loyalties and political preferences. Today, even the Attorney General's Department is functioning under the Ministry of Defence, which falls under the jurisdiction of the president while his brother holds the top administrative post in the ministry. It's simply like running a family business. This is an unprecedented situation.

The 17th Amendment to the constitution, which intended to provide important checks and balances on these executive presidential powers, has been repealed through adopting the 18th Amendment which has completed the process of making of a constitutional dictator. This is one of the worst scenarios anyone could have imagined. So, it is not just subordinating the rule of law to political interests of one single party, but to the interests of one single man with absolutely unlimited powers.

JDS: Since the adoption of the 1977 constitution, the executive president functions as the commander in chief of the state armed forces. But compared to the past, some have expressed grave concerns with regard to the level of militarization which is seen as unparalleled. Any comments on that?

LW: This is an extremely serious issue. I don't know whether everyone has realized the severity of the ongoing militarization process. There are several retired military officers who have been appointed as provincial governors. Some others - including serving military officers - have been posted as diplomats to various countries. This not only violates the fundamental values and core principals of a democratic system, it even goes further in violating international laws. Because many of these officers have been accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The military dominates every aspect of public life. Today, the normal construction work is done by military, hotels and resorts are run by military and even the administrative and policing work have fallen under their supervision. Let me point out one such example so as to highlight the gravity of the issue. There is a special section functioning under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is responsible for providing security to government departments, universities etc. This means that the defence authorities have easy access to all these places - including higher education institutions - apart from gaining the ability to monitor every activity taking place in such places. And who runs the MoD? It is run by president's brother.

This intensified militarization can be also seen by looking at the military's involvement in some of the recent events. When the Free Trade Zone workers went on strike against the proposed controversial pension scheme for private sector, the army was deployed. During the protest campaign, one worker was killed and again the army intervened even to handle his funeral  mass.  The same happened with the fishermen who were protesting against increasing fuel prices. A fisherman was gunned down by the military and his funeral was held under strict military presence. Besides, there is a direct link between the rising rate of crimes and the increased militarization. As reported in media, deserted soldiers as well as serving ones were involved in many of the recent robberies, contract killings, sexual abuses against children and women.

JDS: But don't you think that military committing such crimes have been a daily occurrence in the Tamil areas which has been a long neglected issue by the people in the south of the island?

LW: I fully agree. The Sinhalese are now reaping what they have sown. For decades, many tend to conveniently ignore the plight of the Tamils. Even now, there are not many people who would express concerns over the intensified militarization taking place in the north-east. The people who live in those areas don't have a free life at all. Even to breathe they need to get permission from the military. Without being monitored by the armed forces, they cannot practice their culture even during a wedding or a funeral, let alone doing politics.

JDS: As you say, when such conditions prevail even three years after the official end of the military confrontation, what hope you have with respect to finding a negotiated settlement to the national question?

LW: The war was not the cause, as we all know. It is simply a violent manifestation of the unsolved national question. But for decades, no Sinhala government was able to demonstrate a genuine will or commitment to solve the issue. Now since the military confrontation has ended, many keep beating their chests saying that war has ended and we have won. But what effective step has been taken within these three years with the aim of addressing the root cause? Nothing! The government keep saying 'let's talk - let's negotiate' and so on. But the important question remains - negotiate what? What is the basis of any such negotiations? This is exactly what the Tamil National Alliance keep asking. I think it's an absolutely sensible, legitimate question to ask. But the government keep dragging its feet without offering any concrete solution for the Tamils to consider. You cannot see least unanimity of opinion among the partners of the ruling coalition and the the most chauvinist elements decide on behalf of all the others. But here, let me make one thing clear: Some believe that the president is trapped and he is under pressure  from Sinhala hard liners which is in my opinion, an utter lie. He himself is a chauvinist and a hard liner. The government tells one thing to impress the outside world and another thing to entertain their Sinhala voting base.

Even if we forget about what the TNA is demanding, the question remains what happen to their own reports and recommendations? All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) which functioned under the minister Tissa Vitharana, submitted an 18,000 page report to the office of the presidential secretariat. That was two years ago. But when the Secretary to the President says that he didn't see such a report, what does this imply? It simply implies that there is absolutely no interest at all in solving this problem. How long do they intend to keep the Tamils as slaves of the Sinhala governments?

Recently, the government tried to whip up extremist Sinhala sentiments by using a speech made by the TNA leader, R.Sambanthan during the national convention of the Federal Party. His statement was seen as outright sedition and he became a target of verbal abuse unleashed by the members of the ruling coalition as well as by the state media. Some even said that this veteran politician should be thrown out of the parliament and must be imprisoned. After all the injustices that has been committed against the Tamils, does a Tamil leader not  have the right to speak his mind and express his concern over the plight of his own people? Isn't this exactly the same thing that happened in the past? In the '80s, by introducing the 6th Amendment to the constitution, the then president Jayawardane managed to throw the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader Amirthalingam out of the parliament and eventually paving the way for his untimely death. So, instead of finding a settlement, to me it seems that we are back in the the same old path determined to create the same tragedies and miseries all over again.

JDS: Even though there had not been any notable progress with regard to finding a permanent solution to the national question, the government says that it has undertaken a massive developmental drive in the north-east which would be conducive to find a solution in the long run. Do you agree?

LW: This is pure propaganda. What does such a development drive means when a large amount of people are still forced to live under deplorable conditions as IDPs even three years after the war ended? The government has not showed any intention to resettle them in their own lands. It has deliberately avoided looking into the basic needs of these people except trying to keep them pinned down to their miserable conditions through every possible means. Their lands have been forcibly taken over, and the military garrisons and Buddhist shrines have been built on the sites of their graveyards. There is a considerable influx of southern businessmen into these areas who are been backed by the military and the government itself. But when the local people, whose ancestral lands have been declared as high security zones, try to stage a peaceful vigil to reclaim their rights, they get physically intimidated and threatened at gun point.

What has been offered to the surviving war victims is nothing but further misery and terror. Where ever you go in Jaffna, you see huge bill boards carrying president's image - even in front of  the historical Nallur temple. These rulers, who don't show the slightest concern about the plight of the surviving Tamil population who were routinely terrorized through intense militarization, spend millions of rupees for their image boosting campaigns. 

Does any of these things sound to you like a 'massive development drive?' We would definitely  not buy that sort of nonsense.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.