Monday, April 6, 2015

Saliya Pieris tells it all

People have stories. Landmarks too. Both are told and recorded. All too often, nevertheless, those landmarks get the spotlight while the other lesser stories are shrugged off. What gets missed are the untraveled roads, which are abandoned by a person in pursuit of his or her destiny. Those roads figure in a person's career, and at the end of the day when a summing up is in order, they will be brought up. Always. Saliya Pieris probably knows this.

He is a lawyer by profession, but that hardly does justice to his CV. He is an something of an expert on Fundamental Rights, though it would not be wrong to say that his expertise goes far beyond that area. He also is a political commentator and part of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). There is much he knows and very little he doesn't, especially in what he has chosen to specialise in. He himself would be the first person to admit all these points, no doubt.

Saliya Pieris was born to a "political family". His mother's family had tilted to the Left, and one of her relatives had been the inimitable Cholomondeley Goonewardena (MP for Kalutara). His father on the other hand had worked under Esmond Wickremesinghe at Lake House, a repository of right-wing politics at the time. "We always had lively debates at home. Doesn't mean we stuck to one position, but each of us defended whatever we stood for the way we could."

He speaks about his father, Harold Pieris, at this point. "He was principled enough to criticise his political stances when it was right to do so. Although he was the Editor of the Sunday Observer, he criticised the removal of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's civic rights. He also opposed the 1982 referendum, which extended the parliament without a General Election. Both he and my mother believed that it was morally wrong."

Pieris was educated at St Joseph's College in Maradana. Father Stanley Abeysekera had been the rector then, a point he highlights for me. "My school didn't really shape me in a political sense. But Father Stanley influenced my thinking. He was quite informed about current affairs and would  engage us with his views frequently. That kept us in track with the world outside."

He apparently was an avid quizzer at school, having won second place in the Dulux "Do You Know Quiz" in 1984. He also was Head Prefect, which brought him into contact with another Josephian, Ranasinghe Premadasa. "I spoke on an occasion at school where he was the Chief Guest. He sent a message saying that he wanted to see me. I forgot about it, but a year later when my father met him, he inquired why I didn't reply. He asked me to meet him in parliament."

Meeting Premadasa had been a turning point, because by then Pieris had become interested in the law. Probably moved by how he had spoken that day, Premadasa told him to read Hansard parliamentary debates before 1956, though he didn't explain why. Things moved fast thereafter. Pieris completed his A/Levels in 1987, having opted for science. "I didn't want law as a career initially," he admits, "In fact I wanted to pursue biology. Since my results weren't good enough, however, I had no option." He entered Law College that same year, completing the course in 1992.

St Joseph's College, Colombo 10
Having joined the Attorney General's department one year later, he eventually became a State Counsel. He also managed to complete the LL.B. at Open University in 1998, with a Masters degree from the University of London seven years later. In the meantime, he worked as a Counsel for four years, specialising in Criminal Law, and later opening up his practice in Colombo. "Though my initial training was in Criminal Law, I eventually began handling Fundamental Rights cases."

Everyone's a red at 20, or so they say. I ask Pieris whether he echoed this in his time. He agrees, but not completely. "We saw a rift in the Left in our time. The New Left or the JVP took to violence to achieve their ends. The Old Left was in dire straits. We realised that both had their self-imposed limitations and were disenchanted. They didn't shape us. Progressivism did."

At Law College, he was a member of the "Pragath Pila", a student body which stood for progressive values. "We were a mishmash of Left and Right. We teetered to neither extreme but stuck to middle ground." He and his friends adulated liberal values, and Pieris admits how overwhelmed he was by them. Through that, they eventually got about pushing reforms in line with those values. Among their key concerns was language. He explains why.

"Union meetings were almost always conducted in English. We proposed that they should be held in Sinhala or Tamil. Not that we wanted to marginalise English, but we were concerned about students who weren't comfortable with it." In hindsight, Pieris admits that things have changed since then. "Maybe we shouldn't have shrugged off English. We could have engaged our students with it. Still, given how multicultural Law College was, we felt that prioritising the vernacular was best."

People change. Not so Pieris. He stuck by ideals at a difficult time. He was Counsel for Sarath Fonseka and Shirani Bandaranayake. When the 18th Amendment was being tabled, he did not mince words when criticising it. Claiming that he has never aligned himself with any ideology, he tells me that his notions of justice, equality, and fair play reflected the political status quo of his time. "In a way, I think my career has been dependent (though not completely) on my beliefs, which do change from time to time."

I ask him what belief he values the most. "For me, the judiciary is above everything else. Courts don't make laws. The parliament does. Courts don't administer the country. The Executive does. But what we saw in the past was a judiciary that let both parliament and Executive interfere. In such a case, we can't safeguard our independence."

He adds that this even affects Fundamental Rights cases. "The Attorney General's Department looks into FR cases, except those involving torture. Both torture victims and alleged torturers seek private counsel, which is where we come in." When courts are free and independent, they take up FR cases involving state authorities (including the police) without any fear. When they are not, we see a slump.

Harold Pieris
"From about 1990 to 1999, FR cases peaked. This was especially because G. P. S. de Silva, who was the Chief Justice at that point, ensured that the Courts remained independent. Even though the Premadasa regime was a period of terror, I would say that the judiciary was excellently protected during that time. So when judges like Mark Fernando and Ranjith Dheeraratne retired, FR cases slumped. The Courts' attitude to them changed, for the worse."

I agree. At a time when judges weren't politically appointed and they didn't get involved with the government, there wouldn't have been any conflict of interest. While I don't agree that this absolves a dictatorship (like the one we had from 1988 to 1993), legitimising the judiciary is one way through which a regime can be overthrown. When courts lose that legitimacy, revolution and regime-change are inevitable.

In a way, he argues that this is reflected through a country's Constitution. "Looking back, I feel that the 1978 Constitution failed to stick to the spirit of the law. That was its biggest weakness. But compared with today, the Executive respected the judiciary more readily then. Still, there was a setback when it came to sticking to laws. Which means that enacting them isn't enough."

I put it to him that we saw a transition from nationalism to chauvinism between 1956 and 1977, and that the laws enacted during this time reflected it. He says that while the 1956 revolution was necessary, subsequent political shifts began to acknowledge a more multicultural society. "The 1972 Constitution marginalised minorities, while its successor, through the 13th Amendment especially, tried to remedy this."

I ask him why he thinks 1956 was needed. "It was inevitable. Even the Schools Takeover Act, which the government enacted to control certain private schools, couldn’t be avoided. The reason is that we had Catholic schools outside Colombo where Catholics were in the minority. It clearly showed that the Church couldn't handle everything, which is where the government stepped in. So in a way, what happened in 1956 was needed. Same thing with 1972."

Pieris emphasises that governments, like schools, are never entirely free from religious bent. I point out that this would hardly go down with those who want to separate religion from state. He argues that the two are separated only to keep one from unduly intruding into another. I ask him whether this means keeping the clergy out of the government. "Not at all. Only if the clergy itself restricts its members can we keep them out. So long as they don't, there's no problem in allowing, say, monks to enter parliament. It's their democratic right. The law must not stand in their way. It can't reform that."

Reform is of course a word that's spouted frequently these days. Pieris' stance on religion and nationality provokes me, however. I tell him that if we are to subscribe to a multicultural society, we might as well do away with Article Nine of the Constitution, which emphasises the state's obligation to Buddhism.

He disagrees, to my surprise. "Removing Article Nine would be impractical. We must base ideals on realities. You can argue that we have a multicultural society. On the other hand demographics must be taken into account too. Besides, there's no real harm in keeping that provision, because the law recognises equality for all religions. So I don't think we need to worry about this when it comes to reform."

Suddenly switching over to another topic, I ask him whether the Marxists have any force left today. "Not really," he answers frankly. He does agree that Marxism and in particular Trotskyism held sway over Sri Lanka. "The problem was that they compromised. During Dudley Senanayake's time, for instance, they used the slogan 'Dudleyge bade masala vadey' to oppose his pact with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. This alienated Tamil leftists. As the years went by, Trotskyites began to skew their beliefs for the sake of power. When that happened, people lost faith in them.

"I am opposed to Marxism ideologically," he adds, "The state can't control the individual. He is best left alone. That is why, in very many Western countries which practise free enterprise, dissent is tolerated." He argues furthermore that we have been virtually blanketed by anti-Western propaganda, with key articulators of chauvinism holding sway over the last decade or so.

"We mustn't shield ourselves from that part of the world. Certain commentators seem to earn a living out of speaking against the West. They think that vilifying it is necessary to become a nationalist. To me, that's bankrupt. We must admit that dissent is tolerated over there. Only then can we hope to bridge our democracy deficit."

I tell him nevertheless that while people like Noam Chomsky and George Carlin may appear as dissidents, the likes of Professor Nalin de Silva argue that they are "planted" to convince the rest of the world that there is dissent. I point out that this is a reasonable presumption. He disagrees. "I have been there frequently. I was in Chicago, I have passed the White House, and I have seen how well protesters are treated there. It would be foolish to claim that all that's a fa├žade. It's not."

Time doesn't permit me to go any further, however. In any case, I am done. Looking at Saliya Pieris' career, I am reminded of Martin Lee, that brilliant lawyer who spearheaded Hong Kong's democratic movement against China in the 1990's. I see the same monkish calm, which breaks down into humour once in a while. He still has a long way to go.

Note: By the time this article was published, Pieris had become the Deputy President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. An added credit no doubt. With a whole lot more to come, one suspects. Rightly.