Genuine transparency that holds the very powerful accountable has always been difficult to achieve. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that was appointed after the Easter Sunday attacks released their report on Wednesday, marking a milestone in Sri Lanka’s often difficult path towards transparency and accountability.
The PSC’s appointment and its subsequent hearings did not proceed smoothly. Emotions were running at an all-time high and there were serious questions regarding the roles of top officials at the highest levels of Government, including the President and the Prime Minister. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) joined with President Maithripala Sirisena in questioning the PSC process and blamed it for summoning high level security and intelligence officials to testify. In their view this was both unnecessary and unproductive and laid sensitive information before the public. Fortunately, better sense prevailed and there was a concentrated effort to ensure that the process was both inclusive and balanced. President Sirisena’s initial objections were eventually overcome and his submissions presented to the PSC. The findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that was appointed by President Sirisena shortly after the attacks were also incorporated by the PSC and the Chair of that Commission also presented his views to the PSC. The final PSC report is arguably more comprehensive and has more authority than the Malalgoda Commission and names more people as responsible. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also presented himself before the PSC, as did a slew of other officials of different law enforcement institutions including the Attorney General’s Department and the Central Bank Governor.
Perhaps the step that made the PSC most effective was opening the sessions to media, and while the reporting may not have met the highest levels of professionalism and impartiality, it did create a space for unprecedented public involvement. Not since the PCoI appointed to investigate the bond scam was there such concentrated attention on a commission and this was an important element of transparency.
The PSC’s decision to release the report into the public domain was also an important step. The report finds that President Sirisena was at fault for not holding National Security Council meetings regularly and acting on briefings by intelligence officials as well as not appointing an acting Defence Minister during his absence. It also holds the State Intelligence Service responsible, which was not highlighted in the Malalgoda report and discusses wider lapses of intelligence sharing. But the report does not stop there. The PSC also highlights lapses by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in not drawing attention to the fact that he and other officials were kept out of National Security Council (NSC) meetings and letting months go by with no counteraction.
The report will now likely be debated in Parliament and possibly sent to the Attorney General’s Department for action. The wide-ranging nature of the report, it’s naming of specific top officials and recommendations on making the national security apparatus more efficient is an important step in the right direction. Whatever the transgressions of this administration, and few would deny there have been many, one positive step has been the willingness of top officials to come forward and be questioned about their responsibilities and actions. Shining a light at the highest levels of power is a true aspiration of democracy and the PSC has largely achieved that. Preserving, expanding and taking forward this effort will be the challenge in the years ahead.