Lanka: sustaining state legitimacy requires ethics

Jehan Perera | Published: 00:00, Jan 23,2020 | Updated: 00:29, Jan 23,2020


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PRESIDENT Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s image continues to rise amongst the general public because of the variety of manifestations of his commitment to get things done better to make life better for people. His surprise visits to different state institutions, most recently to the Bandaranaike International Airport where he has been scrutinising their levels of efficiency and public service, would put public sector officials on the alert that their duties need to be taken seriously. This would be a boon to the general public who find that getting their work attended to in government departments to be onerous. There is also likely to be a reduction in the levels of corruption which occur when supervision from the top is lax. This is a case of good means being employed to achieve good ends.

The president has also been winning public support by the manner in which he has been dealing directly with problems that are long festering. One of these problems that the president appears to have dealt with successfully is with university students who have multifarious grievances, ranging from the limited facilities they enjoy to obtaining scholarship assistance. The previous government experienced a full range of university protests, most notably the ones concerning the setting up of a private medical school, which also obtained the support of medical trade unions. These protests took place virtually every day in the form of road blockages and strikes that caused much disaffection amongst the general public which blamed the government for not solving the problems and inconveniencing them.

The president’s solutions to these protracted problems have been simple and straightforward. In the most recent such protest, the university students marched from the Town Hall and proceeded to the Presidential Secretariat and staged a protest in front of the secretariat. The protest march resulted in severe traffic congestion along the Galle Road. When president Gotabaya Rajapaksa learnt about the protest, he instructed the security forces to allow students to enter the Presidential Secretariat without any obstruction for talks with is officials which were conducted successfully. The president made known that he would solve problems through discussions and peacefully.


Rapid decision-making

ANOTHER long-standing problem to which the president has ordered an immediate solution is to increase the daily wage rate of estate sector workers to Rs 1,000 a day. According to social welfare statistics, the estate sector lags behind other sectors of the country in terms of the quality of life. In some instances, there has been regression over the past several years, rather than forward movement. The responsiveness of the government to the needs of a vulnerable community is commendable. This is an issue on which the estate unions went on strike in the past, but without success. They had to compromise as the estate management companies argued that they could not afford to pay such a rate and remain economically viable.

In the case of both the university students and estate workers, the president’s actions would tend to build trust between the government and those interest groups. Trust is very important in binding a society together. It also facilitates problem-solving and economic development as investors are more prepared to work in an environment where there is both positive responsiveness on the part of the government towards problems solving and trust that accompanies it. However, to generate sustainable trust it is important that decisions made are consistent over time and are also the result of consultation between all parties to the problem. This requires a systemic approach to problem solving.

President Rajapaksa’s recent actions show he is keen on deciding fast and getting his decisions implemented in the proper spirit. His experience as a military commander and also as the highest civilian authority over the military in the final four years of the war which he oversaw to its successful conclusion, means that there is both rapid decision-making and rapid implementation of decisions that have been made. This needs to be supplemented by a process of review, so that any problems that may arise from such decisions can be adequately dealt with. In complex societies, it is often the case that problems present themselves in the course of implementation of decisions and there needs to be provision for adjustments. This process of consultation, decisionmaking and review needs to be institutionalized so that there is consistency over time.

Unacceptable breach

UNFORTUNATELY, accompanying the president’s commitment to efficiency and to results, there also is a parallel process of disregard and breakdown of ethical norms which are also important if trust is to be maintained. Efficiency needs to be accompanied by a commitment to ethics if it is to be sustainable. The most pointed example at the present time is the case of the tape recordings of former minister Ranjan Ramanayake. The manner in which the 120,000 telephone calls he had taped leaked out to the media no sooner than the police took them into its custody will diminish confidence in the state and its institutions. The former minister is not only a politician, he is also a film star, who had a personal following, and even intensely personal conversations that have little or nothing to do with politics have been aired to the detriment of those who are exposed to public view.

The police are the first point of law enforcement. It is they who investigate the facts of a case and collect evidence which is presented to the judicial authorities. If this material leaks to the media there will be an erosion of faith in the police and in the system of law enforcement in general which would be detrimental to the preservation of a trusting and law abiding society. In the case of the publicly aired Ramanayake tapes there are also members of the judiciary who themselves have been caught on tape. This would not be a first time either in Sri Lanka or in other parts of the world in which members of the judiciary are compromised. Those who seek to use this incident to undermine past judicial decisions need to be reined in, both by the law and by public opinion. What is at stake is public confidence in the system of law enforcement which is crucial to any society.

As law enforcement agencies are vested with the power to declare what is legal and illegal and, by extension, what is right and wrong, to weaken their credibility is to weaken the ethical basis of the state. The judiciary in particular is vested with the power of review, which is the power to challenge the decisions of other branches of the state on the basis of law in particular, but also ethics, which underlies the moral basis of the state. There is a need to ensure that breaches such as the one that occurred in the case of the Ramanayake tapes are not repeated. There needs to be an independent inquiry into how this breach occurred. When bad means are employed to achieve political ends, the entire environment gets polluted. To the extent that the institutional systems that provide a check and balance are undermined, the legitimacy of the state, as one based on the rule of law, will itself be undermined, paving the way for injustice.


Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.

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