27 August 2011

Goodbye Emergency, hello again constitutional flaw

Check-points: from 'almost non-existent' to 'no more'
Sri Lanka is a polity that is strangely willing to live with all manner of citizenship anomalies in general, especially those stepping from a flawed constitution.  Perhaps this is one reason why the announcement that Emergency Regulations will be done away with has not seen mindless euphoria spill into the streets of Colombo or elsewhere in the island.  There can be other reasons too.   
We’ve had ‘Emergency’ for so long that it has become a fact of life.  Like breathing.  We do it all the time, but rarely take cognizance of the fact in the manner of self-acknowledgment: ‘I am breathing in now; now I exhale’.  We breathed in and out emergency regulations. We had to, courtesy the LTTE and its many apologists.  As has always been the case, one real enemy necessitating extraordinary measures lead to those very same measures being employed to extract things totally unrelated to the threat.  A forgiving and grateful polity chose to indulge, by and large. 
On the other hand, the existence of laws does not necessarily mean they are enforced, and this holds for both the good and necessary and the bad and unnecessary.    Perhaps we are not being euphoric today because we haven’t really experienced the application of rule to the letter.  We lived through a time of check-points and barricades, routine security checks and general unease about one another and each unexplained parcel as we moved from place to place, in and out of buses and trains, and other crowded places.  We saw, post-LTTE, the barricades disappearing one by one, fewer and fewer checks, less and less traffic-stops to facilitate movement of VVIPs in convoys of anything between 10-75 vehicles, and a gradual easing of the military presence in and around the city.  That phasing out, I believe, was a gradual and necessary.
Still, a nation cannot be said to be a decent enough democracy, until such time the ability to apply such regulations at the will of the political leadership is removed.  Whether or not the rules are used or abused is irrelevant, especially since the magnitude of the threat has diminished to a point where regular law and order mechanisms can function effectively.  I am glad it’s going. 
I was surprised though that Ranil Wickremesinghe has saluted the decision but cautioned that democracy should also be protected.  Strangely, the Emergency Regulations played a critical role in expanding to extraordinary dimensions the space for democratic discourse.  If not, we would still be having the LTTE around, having to fear bomb attacks and be worried when we big goodbye to loved ones if we’d see them ever again. 
Well, all that’s in the past, and Ranil’s crimes of omission and commission (and of course the complicity of people like Jehan Perera and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu) can be forgiven (but not forgotten, of course).  What is strange about Ranil’s democracy demand is the manifest aversion of the man to the idea in his own personal political life and that of his party.  What seems to me is that although Emergency Regulations were in place, the people of this country were hardly affected by them, whereas although no such regulations exist as far as the United National Party is concerned, the will of the party rank and file is consistently brushed aside.  And it’s not as though Emergency Rule stopped the UNP or Wickremesinghe from being more effective political entities, right? 
There was a time when elections were made of unbridled intimidation of voters, massive voter-impersonation, tampering of ballot-boxes, threatening of elections officials at polling booths and violence against those in other political parties. We still see some of this, including clashes and killings during campaigns, but we have come a long way from 1988-89 and from the kind of violence and rigging we saw in 1999 (both the Wayamba Provincial Council Election and the Presidential Election).  The end of the LTTE, moreover, helped reestablish the franchise in the North and East.  It is a credit to the electorate in these areas that they exercised their franchise despite and against the thuggery of certain political groups. 
There’s more self-censorship than there is censorship, and in this sense too, we’ve come a fair distance from the time when the ‘Competent Authority’ saw to it that large swathes of national newspapers were literally blacked out.  All told, ‘moving in the right direction’ seems to be a decent conclusion with respect to democracy. 
The most important thing to keep in mind is that removing these regulations does not mean that the system has returned to ‘normal’, for ‘normalcy’ includes the citizens having to live with a flawed constitution.  Issues of accountability and transparency remain.  The existing laws are inadequate.   There is unnecessary foot-dragging on the matter of instituting effective right-to-information legislation.  ‘I have nothing to hide, so ask me,’ is a bold statement, but is a weak response to the lack of proper laws.  The simple and damning response is as follows: ‘what if you are replaced by someone who has something to hide (assuming we believe you, that is)?’  If there is room for mischief, the innocence of the person who refuses to use such loopholes as there may be is hardly consolation for a nation that ought to streamline things in a way that institutions matter more than personalities.  Living on largesse is not healthy for a democracy or one in the making. 
The bottom line is that while we can be amused about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s want-democracy whine, democracy-lack will not be sorted out by a few laughs on our part.  I am happy to see the Emergency go.  I would be happier still if loopholes (for miscreants who are capable of slipping through right now and those who would not be averse to slipping through later) as such there exist are blocked up too.  Not worried about the UNP’s loops, but this nation is still looped, although we’ve come a long way. 
I am waiting.