The challenge of transparency

Monday, 10 June 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

There can be no accountability without transparency. This is why democracies have checks and balances in place to provide boundaries to power. However, in Sri Lanka these checks and balances are tenuous at best, with genuine accountability and responsibility hard to come by. 

With a nation in shock after the Easter Sunday attacks, there was a national desire to find out what happened and why it happened. Twenty million people were trying to make sense of a tragedy that was unprecedented and struggling to come to terms with the lapses at the highest levels of Government. It was in this background that the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) was appointed. It was seen as an essential step to find out what happened and thereby take the first step towards providing solutions and closure. 

Predictably, the entire PSC enterprise was politicised from the start. The PSC overlapped with a Presidential Commission that was appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena and its sitting also unfolded parallel to five cases filed before the Supreme Court including a petition from a father who lost both his children in the Kochchikade blast. When the PSC began its sessions, Parliamentarians from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) were also notable absentees and have gone out of their way to disparage the process as being a threat to national security even though there is scant evidence to back this claim. 

The two sessions so far have been explosive. In the last sitting IGP Pujith Jayasundara and former Defence Ministry Secretary Hemasiri Fernando painted a picture of national security being heavily compromised, with the IGP kept out of National Security Council (NSC) meetings for nearly six months, and council meetings held erratically at the whims and fancies of the President. The IGP, in his evidence, said he had been excluded from the NSC meetings since October last year, over a trust issue that had come up over the transfer of a Police inspector.

Previous testimony by the Head of State Intelligence Service Sisira Mendis had shown that there had been warnings of the attacks, even naming Zahran Hashim and his associates. The lack of action is damning, and the politicisation of the system incredibly disappointing. But one thing is clear: the only way forward is to drag all the details into the daylight, so the public can know what really happened and pressure can be applied to put more efficient frameworks in place.   

On Friday President Sirisena chairing a special Cabinet meeting demanded that the PSC be shut down, threatening to stop holding Cabinet meetings if there is no stop to the damaging information coming out from the PSC. A day later Mendis resigned, with reports indicating he stepped down on the request of the President. If the President proceeds with his threat to stop Cabinet meetings, it could bring the entire Government to a grinding halt and this would be yet another serious blow to the economy, which is already staggering under the effects of the constitutional crisis, Easter Sunday attacks, slow growth and political uncertainty.

It is essential that the public supports all efforts for transparency at this juncture as it is the only way for citizens to know whether their representatives and public officials are carrying out their duties. The lives of 20 million people depend on national security being put back on track and that process should not be undermined by anyone.