Sri Lanka Perspectives June 2021: Growing threats to good governance
by R Hariharan on 08 Jul 2021 1 Comment

Notwithstanding the setbacks due to the Covid pandemic, Sri Lanka has improved its rating to 87 (from 94 in 2019), according to the latest report on the performance of 164 countries in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The UN Agenda of Sustainable Development adopted by UN members in 2015, identified 17 SDGs to be achieved by the year 2030, considered essential for peace and prosperity of the people and the planet. However, good governance, so essential for peace and prosperity, does not find a place in the SDGs.


The improvement in SDG rating would be welcome news to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who sounded a little defensive while reviewing the overall performance in the televised address to the nation on June 25. The nation was celebrating the occasion of Poson Poya, commemorating the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. His address on the occasion reiterated his Buddhist credentials.


After elaborating on the setbacks to the economy due to Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken to overcome its adverse impact, the President said he would fulfill promises made in his election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour.’  He eloquently listed his achievements in ensuring national security by strengthening the security apparatus and in improving the state of economy which were weakened by earlier government. However, good governance which brought down his brother Mahinda’s bid for a third term as President, did not find a place in the speech. 


Without good governance, achieving development goals is meaningless. Good governance can be explained in many ways; but in a democracy ultimately the people decide good governance. It is for good governance people voted the earlier Sirisena-Wickremesinghe ‘Yahapalana’ government to power. Though the two leaders made tentative efforts to keep their promises, internal squabbles skewed their priorities and doomed the performance.


UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP) has identified eight major characteristics of good governance. They provide a convenient yardstick to assess the quality of governance. According to ESCAP, good governance is “participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.”


If the ESCAP yardstick is applied, the Rajapaksa government would be failing on almost all parameters of good governance. And it is not good news for the people who voted the President overwhelmingly for stability and good governance after the failure of the earlier government. Rule of law, accountability and inclusive governance are conspicuous by their absence in the Rajapaksa government’s style.


The case of presidential pardon granted to former MP Duminda Silva, a death row convict, is typical of all that is wrong with governance in Sri Lanka. Silva was among the 93 convicts pardoned and released on the occasion of Poson. Interestingly, 16 Tamils jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) but not prosecuted were among those pardoned.


A wealthy man with family connections, Silva is considered as Gotabaya loyalist.  Silva as an MP was closely associated with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, serving as Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Silva and four others were convicted by the High Court in 2016 for the killing of former SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra by gunfire, during the Local Government election on October 8, 2011. The five-member bench of the Supreme Court rejected Silva’s appeal and upheld the death sentence in 2018.


This was the second pardon granted by the President after he assumed office 18 months ago. In March 2020, he pardoned former Staff Sgt Sunil Ratnayake, who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians including three children, in Mirusuvil in April 2000. On appeal, the Supreme Court had upheld his conviction and death sentence.


The grant of presidential pardon to Silva raised a hue and cry. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) in a letter to the President asked him to clarify the basis on which Silva was selected for granting pardon. It asked him, as head of state, the circumstances taken into consideration in granting the pardon and whether a report was called for from trial judges as required under the constitution. The BASL also asked whether advice of the Attorney General was sought and the minister of justice was consulted before Silva’s release.


The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted the pardon granted to Silva weakened the rule of law and undermined accountability. Sumana Premachandra, widow of the slain politician, called the pardon a religious sacrilege. Premachandra’s daughter and Member of Parliament, Hirunika Premachandra, recounting her father’s close association with PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a letter rebuked the President for pardoning the brutal murderer of her father. She added “Sri Lanka was a lawless country under his rule.”


The Supreme Court had been taking note of the absence of rule of law in a quite a few cases. In May, it was scathing in ruling against the police brutality and custodial killing of 17-year old Sandu Malinga in May 2014. The present plight of Shani Abeyasekara, former director of Criminal Investigation Department, who led the investigations into numerous high-profile cases of human rights abuses including the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and murder of Lasantha Wickremetunga during the Rajapaksa rule, is well known.  Recently, the Court of Appeal’s granted bail to former CID chief Shani Abeysekera languishing in jail, after sternly rejecting the Attorney General’s arguments. This indicates the judiciary is losing its patience with the abuse of law.


The release of 16 Tamil under trials after long imprisonment is perhaps a silver lining in the dismal story of Poson pardons. Hope their release would herald the disposal of cases of over 100 suspected LTTE associates languishing in jail without trial. There is also talk of a meeting between President Rajapaksa and TNA chief Sampanthan; would it lead to a political rapprochement to end ethnic confrontation? It is still an open question.


However, signs so far are ominous for President Rajapaksa. The writing on the wall is clear, as Hirunika wrote in her letter to the President, “Your rule is breeding injustice, Mr. President… The day is not far off when the people will break these shackles and rise up.”



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