Even veteran Sri Lanka experts were shocked by the recent BBC HardTalk interview of Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gothabhaya Rajapaksa. The interview demonstrated how far this once democratic country has slipped into de facto dictatorship. With most local democratic voices silenced by fear combined with the complicity of the international community’s weak response, there has clearly been an almost complete breakdown of democratic conventions and processes. Should the protection of basic rights, rule of law and social justice for minorities based on a whim and only if it pleases those in power to allow these things to happen?

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a well respected scholar and head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka which is involved in public policy implementation aimed at good governance and safeguarding of democracy and human rights commented on this interview on www.groundviews.org on 21/06/10:

Many readers may have seen if not read about Defence Secretary Gothabhaya Rajapaksa’s interview with Stephen Sackur of the BBC HardTalk programme in which he calls Sarath Fonseka a liar and threatens to hang him for his position on a war crimes investigation. Local opinion, not surprisingly, given the current political context, has been divided on the propriety of Mr Rajapaksa’s outburst and the damage it could do to the image of the regime and of the country internationally. There are the shocked and perturbed, albeit mostly in private, on the one hand and on the other, the hallelujah chorus of the apparatchiks. According to them, Mr Rajapaksa showed Sackur what’s what and saw off the smug arrogant, hostile occidental propagandist with panache!

My concern here is to inquire into what this interview and the response to it tells us about the state of governance in our country, post -war and once more on the verge of constitutional reform.

Let us be clear at the outset as to what we are inquiring into – an interview given by a public servant in which he delivers threats and accusations against a former army commander and defeated presidential candidate who is currently in detention and who is – and this is important – a Member of Parliament. The public servant is the defence secretary and an architect of the historic military defeat of the LTTE. He is also a former army officer and of course, this is important too, the president’s brother. Furthermore – this is important as well – the public servant’s minister is the president, his brother.

Were such an event to have occurred in India, the world’s largest democracy or in Britain from where our parliamentary traditions and conventions of governance hail, the public servant would have had to resign and if he did not, he would have been sacked. Were the latter action not taken, the government of the day would be in jeopardy. Public opinion and the media would bay for its blood. The rationale for all of this being that in functioning democracies, public servants are not supposed to make policy pronouncements of their own, voice their personal opinions to the international or local media or make statements that are tantamount to the grossest interference in an issue, which is the subject of an ongoing judicial process.

Was Mr Rajapaksa merely expressing government policy, the policy of his brother, his minister and president? Or, since no action has been taken, is it the case that this a case, not of Yes Minister but of Yes Secretary?

It is indeed sad that Mr Fonseka apart, members of parliament have not seen it fit to raise what is surely a privilege issue. A secretary to a ministry has in effect called a MP a liar and traitor on international television and pronounced that he should be hanged. It is also sad that there has been little comment or observation of the insight this affords us on the state of governance in the land. Is Gothabaya Rajapaksa a one man deterrent to discussion and dissent – the lifeblood of democracy? Does one decisive military victory and two thumping electoral mandates to his brother and by extension his family, give him the licence to mouth off maliciously in flagrant violation of the dignity and propriety of the office he holds?

Given the impending revocation of the Seventeenth Amendment and the jettisoning of the Constitutional Council and independent commissions it provides for and the removal of the term limit on the presidency, the structure of power and government in the country will be shoved further away from the structure of power and government that characterizes democratic governance. Those who railed against the executive presidency and promised loudly to abolish it are to entrench it instead and with it no doubt, the arbitrariness and caprice of a monarchy and dynastic rule.

The nature of the regime and its rule are profiled by the defence secretary’s vituperative interview, the priorities for constitutional reform in the current context of limbo between the post war situation we are in and the post-conflict one we should aspire to and the reported appointment of who is now frequently referred to as the First Son, 24 year old fresher MP Namal Rajapaksa to head the District Development Committee for Kilinochchi! More Crown Prince perhaps than First Son, being given war ravaged Killi to dabble in development? Is there a precedent here of Killinochchi becoming the local Duchy of Cornwall.

The gratitude and appreciation of the citizenry for the defeat of the LTTE and expressed in two thumping mandates for the Rajapaksa family should not blind the citizenry to the dangers of authoritarianism and the corrosion of governance. Nor should we allow fear to silence protest and resistance to this and then wallow in regret for our complicity and appeasement at a later, god forbid, much later date. Whoever rules, whoever governs and for how long is not the issue. There must always be, as a basic minimum, checks and balances, the rule of law, due process, best practices and standards adhered to, rights protected and duties fulfilled.

And public servants should be public servants, irrespective of who their siblings are. Or else they should go and if they do not, they should be sacked. This is surely the way of a functioning democracy.