Freedom to question politicians
Posted on October 22nd, 2019

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said the people are free to question politicians, without fearing reprisal, unlike in the past. True, there have been instances where people even booed and hissed some ruling party politicians at public rallies, without being harmed. If such incidents had occurred in the past, hecklers would have been taken away in white vans and each one of them made to regret the day he was born.

A wag says that under the previous regime, too, the people, especially journalists, were free to say anything, but the problem was that others were free to kill them for saying that!

Yahapalana leaders would have the public believe that they have restored democracy and the freedom of expression. They pride themselves on the fact that there are no white van abductions and no attacks on dissenters. True, the situation has improved in comparison to what we experienced under the repressive regimes of Presidents J. R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. But this improvement is not due to the present-day leaders’ commitment to democratic governance or their aversion to repression.

It is said that when governments fear the people there is liberty and when the people fear governments there is tyranny. People feared the last regime, which went so far as to order a military crackdown on a group of protesters demanding clean water as a factory had contaminated the groundwater in the area. There were also numerous attacks on the UNP-led Opposition and the media. Some journalists had to flee the country, fearing for their lives.

The incumbent government is weak and fears the people so much so that, unable to face them, it has even resorted to postponing elections. What has made the present-day leaders act with restraint without baring their true faces is the instability of their government. We saw some of them in action during the JRJ regime and the second JVP uprising, in the late 1980s. They had private armies led by notorious criminals and suppressed their rivals in every conceivable manner. It is they who introduced the white-van method to tackle troublemakers.

The present government was at war with itself for more than three years, with the UNP and the SLFP trying to destroy each other, while sharing power. It has been staggering along since the collapse of the so-called national unity government. Political cripples cannot take on others, can they? This is why the people have been able to exercise some of their democratic freedoms.

As for the freedom of expression, the people and the Opposition are free to ask questions, and the government politicians are free to refuse to answer them. The question time in Parliament is a case in point. UPFA MP Udaya Gammanpila has been asking the government, for about two years, how many foreign trips President Maithripala Sirisena has made; his question has gone unanswered.

The Speaker takes pride in having introduced the right to information laws, but the Opposition’s right to information is denied under his nose. When JVP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa, last month, asked how many times the PM had travelled overseas and how much his foreign trips had cost the taxpayer, the government asked for six more months to respond! The question was first raised, on March 08, and the government asked for three months to answer it. When it was repeated, on June 18, MP Jayastissa was asked to wait three more months to receive an answer.

The Opposition has also asked, in Parliament, how many vehicles are being used by government ministers. That question, too, has gone unanswered. The Finance Minister claims to have found the exact amount of funds the former rulers have stashed away in offshore accounts. He says they have USD 18.5 bn in foreign banks. (If so, the question is why that money is not brought back to pay back foreign loans and develop vital sectors.) But the government says it cannot figure out the number of vehicles at the disposal of ministers!

The people can ask politicians questions, but they won’t get answers.

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