World leaders, statesmen and philosophers have made famous proclamations on the deep meaning and significance of human liberty and warned of the grave danger in taking it for granted. One statesman said eternal vigilance was the price of liberty, while another lamented “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name”.
The 19th century British philosopher John Steuart Mill’s warning on this issue is vital for Sri Lanka at a time of one of the gravest constitutional crises when the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake says she has been arbitrarily convicted by a one-sided Parliamentary Select Committee in what appears to be a case of justice hurried and thus miscarried.The philosopher said a people might prefer a free government, but if, from cowardice or want of public spirit they do not fight for it,they are unfit for liberty.
When the 1978 constitution for an executive presidency was foisted, there was little by way of protest. When a special presidential commission was appointed to strip former Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights, most people took little or no action against it. When an illegitimate move was made in 1982 to conduct a referendum instead of a general election, public agitation against it was woefully inadequate. Thus a majority of a little more than 50% at the referendum was twisted into a 5/6 majority in parliament, leading to the July 1983 holocaust, the ethnic war, the invasion of Sri Lanka by Indian troops, the reign of terror from 1987 to 1989 and other terrible consequences.
Some years ago, the Rajapaksa regime appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). This Commission made some important recommendations for lasting peace with justice for all, but the regime appears to be unwilling or unable to implement most of those recommendations apparently for fear of antagonising extremists in the patch-work ruling coalition.
So we are unwilling to learn the right lessons from the past, and thus we saw during the past two weeks the horror of the Chief Justice herself being denied the right to natural justice which is given even to a common criminal. Last Thursday the PSC gave the Chief Justice some thousand pages of documents containing allegations against her. She was told she must respond within days, and was not even informed whether her lawyers would be able to cross examine the witnesses who had made those allegations. Denied the basic principles of natural justice, the Chief Justice walked out prompting a PSC member to refer to her as a ‘mad woman’. Indeed the valid question is where the madness comes from and who is going mad, because though we have heard it often, it is a reality that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, not only in material terms but also otherwise.