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THE SB DRAMA-Even Comedy Smells of Tragedy

By Shyamon Jayasinghe, Melbourne Writer

Sri Lanka is never short of drama.

The island, once the envy of neighbouring countries in terms of economic and social indices, now presents a miserable spectacle to the latter and to the world at large in this regard: The country has one of the poor economies of the world and one of the world’s worst performing currencies. It is stricken by a failure in inter-communal relationships that has given rise to a devastating civil war of secession, by an infrastructure of roads, rails, and power that lay in critical condition, by a dysfunctional public administration, and by a breakdown in service delivery including law and order. Causing all these are a bunch of opportunistic and short-sighted politicians who wear masks and keep preying on a hapless people.

Nevertheless, the lighter side is the kind of drama we see often hitting the headlines. Unfortunately, the plots are not good news either. Even the comedy smells of tragedy. The latest is the SB issue. SB Dissanayake is no better or worse than the average parliamentary politician in Lanka. Although handcuffed and in jail, he is now in the centre of a furore involving the judiciary. The issues raised by this extraordinary event will resonate for a long time to come and is going to have gathering repercussions for the judiciary, the constitution, parliament, and the balance of power politics in the country.

SB Dissanayake cannot be absolved of his serious offence of contempt of court. A remarkable sense of electoral strategy and political intuition led to his meteoric rise to power first within the CBK fold, and next in the ambit of the United National Party. But that was the catch. He got hubris into his head and beguiled himself into believing that he was omnipotent. Like Pinochet, he thought God had put him to power. In a flight of fancy, he attacked the judiciary outside the fortress of parliamentary privilege. According to court records, his statements had been seriously contemptuous. Politicians must, surely, know that our judiciary must be protected from the vile and venom of public utterances. In SB’s case he failed, and has paid the penalty.

However, there are issues of wider import here. There is the public perception that the punishment is too severe for an offence of contempt. SB is jailed for two years of rigorous imprisonment and has been deprived of his civic rights for seven years after jail. It is not an imprisonment that is subject to a parole period. JR Jayawardena had brought in legislative processes that led to his opponent Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranike being deprived of civic rights disregarding the major contributions made by that gracious lady to the country. As with the installation of the Presidential Executive system and the PR system, the UNP has become a victim of its own legislative abuse and manipulation. Courts merely act within a given legal framework set up by parliament.

On the other hand, even Mrs B had not been jailed. There does not seem to be any precedent of such a level of punishment for a non-criminal offence. All this may serve to convey to the public the opposition- constructed image of SB as a ‘political prisoner’. Perception becomes reality. SB’s grave violation thereby gets diminished and he would get transformed into a hero of sorts, which is the opposite effect of the judicial goal of deterrence. Everybody knows that SB with his unusual ‘gifts’ in electoral manipulation and strategy is vital for the opposition at a time when elections are not far away.

This kind of reasoning goes to point out that no public institution, including the judiciary, can operate in isolation from the wider societal context. The political subset is within closer striking range to society’s impact. Premadasa’s excesses eventually drove him to extinction and his good “were interned with his bones”. Pinochet is mercilessly being taunted and haunted by his abuse. Public figures must take this lesson, namely, that their overstretch would follow upon them as the wheels of a carriage its horse. But will Sri Lankan leaders do that?



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