Saturday, February 7, 2015

'Yahapalanaya' (un)cloaked

There is nothing wrong in regime-change. Nothing wrong in talking about democracy or mourning its absence. Self-righteous words however do have a limit. They run out of steam the moment those who speak them come to power. Democracy-deficits are objected to by the same people who embrace them when they are elected. Sadly.

The "enemy of my enemy is my friend" argument holds sway, however. No one is a saint. There are lesser evils that need to be taken in to eliminate greater ones.

What we're seeing in Sri Lanka today is good governance. "Yahapalanaya". Maithripala Sirisena has promised it all. Commendably. He has promised to look into past abuses and misuses of authority, to punish those deserving and exonerate those wrongly accused or in other ways punished. That's commendable too. But hardly enough.

Not every appointment made by a government is political. Qualification-requirements, age-limits and term-limits, and appointment-transparency must be kept. And yet, even with all these, there is still something "political" about appointments made by any regime. Why? Because it is the government and in particular the Executive that has to sanction appointment. That's where the "political" part to it crops up, after all.

There is nothing wrong in this, though, provided the necessarily qualification-caveats are met. Giving a post to someone on the basis of friendship and ignoring the more deserving are signs of nepotism. With a capital N. Which is where, sadly enough, the new regime isn't going on track.

Upul Jayasuriya is the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. That’s BASL. He's a lawyer. An eminent one. He and his organisation spoke against the previous government, their abuses and tactics, all the way. Whether they were tied to party preference (Jayasuriya is a UNP activist) more than democracy-love is another story. For now, however, there are problems. Big ones.

Jayasuriya has been appointed as the chairman of the Board of Investment. Forget that he's a lawyer. Forget that his predecessors at the BOI include Thilan Wijesinghe. Forget that the BOI website itself states that he served as a Legal Adviser to the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (the forerunner to the BOI), and that his experience with economics and finance is limited to this. Forget all these. What's important is timing.

There are other appointments of course. The Chairman of Lake House,  for instance, is the brother of a Member of Parliament. That's a far cry from his predecessor Bandula Padmakumara, who wasn't even remotely related to a ruling party stalwart.

Padmakumara, moreover, was removed not only from his post, but from a private channel. And as Colombo Telegraph itself notes, that had to do with his political preference (which, if I may add here, is his right and his right alone) than the need for an unbiased media. Because let's face it, why would anyone appoint the brother of a former MP as Chairman of state media? To prevent bias? No. Then what? Timing!

"Justice," someone said, "must not only be done; it must also be seen to be done." Appearance of bias is bad. Kavan Ratnayaka is Lake House Chairman. His brother (Sagala Ratnayaka) is a former UNP parliamentarian. The UNP holds sway over national policy (i.e. the Cabinet). That's hardly consoling.

Which is why I worry about Upul Jayasuriya's appointment. Jayasuriya, for all BASL's posturing about neutrality, was/is a UNP activist. His predecessor, Wijedasa Rajapakshe, is a Minister under that same party. Anyone who looks at Jayasuriya's track records and thinks he's politically non-aligned clearly needs an eye-test. Whether or not he is biased towards one party isn't the question here: the fact is that he's a UNP activist, and his appointment, particularly given his “credentials” in finance and economics, smacks of "politics" all the way.

Jayasuriya, to make things worse, has shunned the media ever since his appointment. Why? Appointees are required, not as a matter of law but as a matter of transparency, to speak about their appointments and credentials. He hasn't done that. And there is a reason for this. As Colombo Telegraph reported, Rajitha Senaratne announced that "all public sector officials" are to "strictly follow an Establishment Code and that no comments/information should be released to the media without obtaining prior written approval of the relevant Ministry Secretary."

First of all, Senaratne is not the Media Minister. Gayantha Karunathilaka is. Whether or not Karunathilaka has endorsed this decision is another story. But without questioning state officials, without questioning credential and track record, we can't really hope for "yahapalanaya". Yes, it's that simple. Senaratne, sadly enough, hasn't realised this.

Jayasuriya's appointment is done and dusted. So is Kavan Ratnayaka's. Both are "political", by definition and appearance. I don't much know about Kavan to comment on his track record. But Jayasuriya is another matter. When compared to perhaps one of the most capable and efficient chairmen our Board of Investment ever had (Thilan Wijesinghe), this appointment seems to be “political” no matter how you look at it. That is not what we voted Maithripala Sirisena for.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com