28 December 2014

The Bar lowers itself

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka often tries to claim moral high ground and political neutrality.  This was particularly apparent during moves to oust the former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.  Whenever issues pertaining to the profession come up, the office-bearers and the membership articulate positions.  They also speak up whenever they feel the independence of the judiciary is under threat. As they should. 

What the Bar Association cannot get away from, however, is that its key office bearers are not always politically neutral.  They have political preferences and some of these preferences are less about ideology than about political parties. 

There’s nothing wrong in this of course.  As individuals, these people do have political rights.  They typically play these down, focusing instead on ‘principles’.  As they should.    The problem is consistency, at least under the current leadership. 

Not too long ago, the Bar Association was up in arms over Minister of Rehabilitation Rishard Bathiudeen’s antics in Mannar.  The man, well known for strong-arm tactics, got his goons to attack the Mannar Court.  The errant Minister didn’t stop there. He thought fit to put the District Judge and Magistrate A Judeson in the dock, subjecting him to interrogation and numerous threats. 

The Bar Association was livid.  Statements were issued condemning the Minister.  The membership was instructed to boycott the courts. The entire judicial system was brought to a standstill.  They had a case. They made it. 

Time passed.  An election was announced.  Candidates were picked.  Key campaign issues were discussed.  One of the main issues of the Opposition Candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, is law and order.  Consequently there has been a lot of rhetoric about the independence of the judiciary, the vexed issue of politicians interfering in the work of the Police and the courts.  ‘This would be ended,’ it has been promised.  All valid arguments and as such the promises certainly carry weight. 

Time passed.  Politicians, as they are wont to do in this country, assessed the mood of the electorate, weighed their chances of securing nomination in Parliamentary elections and thought about the worth of their respective stock.  Some remained where they were. Some decided to switch allegiances. 

Then Rishard Bathiudeen ‘moved’.  He crossed over to the Opposition Camp.  On the face of it, he is just another politician making ‘an informed choice’.  Sure, he put a bit of spin by feeding and denying speculation for a while, but that’s not illegal.  Neither was his loyalty-switch. 

It is disturbing no doubt to those who believed that the Opposition was serious about law and order, independence of the judiciary, the need to arrest political thugs and so on.  The man, after all, was warmly embraced by those who have suddenly decided to champion these causes, never mind their indulgence and indeed culpability in the exacerbation of this state of affairs they object to now. 

But that’s a problem for the Opposition.  Politicians play a power game.  They worry about numbers.  They weigh options, assess marginal benefits over marginal costs.  They probably believe what Rishard ‘brings’ is larger than what they might lose thanks to Rishard’s arrival.  That’s their business.

But what’s the ‘business’ of the Bar Association and its moral posturing?  What’s their ‘business’ when it comes to public assessment of the sincerity of their various objections? 

President of the Bar Association, Upul Jayasuriya, says ‘there are bigger issues…this is a political issue and I don’t want to comment about it’.  Upul Jayasuriya’s political loyalties are well known.  He has not been so shy of political issues to constantly skirt them.  The President of a body like the Bar Association ought to know that politics pervades all spheres.  Indeed, isn’t this why Jayasuriya and others were upset over the removal of Shirani Bandaranayake?  Rishard attacks the edifice that is house to Jayasuriya and the entire Bar Association.  If anyone offers to defend the house, it should warm their hearts.  If the would-be protectors embrace those who throw stones at the house, it raises certain questions.  These questions, Jayasuriya says are not worthy of response.  His choice.

He is right about there being ‘bigger issues’ though.   He has cited the vanishing act of another ruling party thug, Nishantha Muthuhettigama.  Both are ‘big issues’ and their sizes perhaps are determined by the preference of the person taking measurement. 

In the end, it is not political rivals that need to lament.  It is the people.  The candidates and their supporters are doing their best to make it extremely difficult for people to decide who the good guys are.   Upul Jayasuriya’s outfit has lowered the bar.  For errant politicians.  This is sad.  We could put it another way: 'Rishard Bathiudeen has made Upul Jayasuriya bend (the Bar).'  That's even sadder.         



Jack Point said...

It is a battle royal, like chess.

Rishard Bathiudeen is only a pawn. To win in chess one needs only to checkmate the king.

As a man of chess I think you will understand the analogy.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Of course I understand. In a sport, there are rules. Within them 'anything goes' is fine. This is different. If we slide to 'by any means necessary' then we might as well resolve to submit to the biggest thug.