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Editorial


War is no license for theft

‘Silent enim leges inter arma’ — Marcus Tullius Cicero
The law stands mute in the midst of arms, Cicero observed over 20 centuries ago and he has been quoted many times since whenever the question of civil liberties in times of war comes up. Indeed, Cicero’s referent was not war as such but a situation of mob violence, of armed gangs led by thuggish partisan leaders in Rome and about the defence of a man who killed another on the basis that the victim was planning to kill him (the murderer) in the first place.
The situation in Sri Lanka is too complex to be called ‘mob violence’ but Cicero’s is not an inappropriate quote.  Civil liberties, it can be argued, ought to be subservient to national security, for without nation the very term becomes meaningless. 
The problem with this particular articulation is that we are talking about politicians who operate in a constitutional climate that has few checks and balances. In the name of the nation and nation’s security all manner of injustices have been perpetrated and indeed are being perpetrated. Extra judicial killings and abductions are not limited to those zones in the North and East where conflict reigns.  Even if one argues that the entire country is essentially a war zone, one cannot dismiss the fact that when due process is absent or absented the difference between an elected government and a terrorist organisation disappears. 
The law, moreover, is not a set of rules limited to the consideration of physical violence. Even if the law is for reasons of convenience (typically) ‘muted’ in the midst of arms, there are few instances where all issues are absolutely overwhelmed by the sound of gunfire and explosions. Civil administration does not and cannot go silent. Civil courts do not close down. Judges do not go on extended leave of the until-further-notice kind.  
Unfortunately we are a nation that is ever-willing to swallow the excuses of our leaders. They will point to the war and kick things under the carpet. They sell us cricket, they sell us carnivals and other kinds of cheap glitter and we buy these things wholesale. But just as wars come home in the form of the effects of adverse impact on the economy, deaths of friends and family and an enhanced sense of insecurity, so too the infringement on other pertinent matters.
The news is no doubt dominated by matters from the front, wherever the ‘front’ may be.  Other things are not always front-paged.  Still, there are many disturbing reports which those in power would like the public to be ignorant of.  There have been, for example, chilling reports of misappropriation perpetrated by those who are close to the highest echelons of power. 
In a country where the executive authority is invested with sweeping powers, President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot claim ignorance. The buck stops with him, not least of all because his closest confidantes have been named. Whether or not they will be shamed via the court system we cannot tell, but part of the blame will rise and taint the President, unless he takes concrete steps to stop the rot. 
This is a problem that only Mahinda Rajapaksa has to face. If it is not this President’s confidante, it will be another’s. If it is not this President it will be his successor, as was his predecessor. Presidents elected under this constitution cannot claim innocence and it is incumbent upon them to clear their names.
What all this says is that war or no war, there are serious flaws in the nation’s institutional structure. It is not a matter of sacking the errant official for there will always be another who will have access to the same avenues that lead to and from the Treasury and other wealth-filled places.
War or no war, certain blatant flaws in the institutions need to be corrected. Typically what happens is that newspapers break stories of such scandals, the relevant individuals are shamed and then everything is forgotten. People revert to the cushioned comfort of the view ‘that’s the way things happen, have happened and will happen’.   
On the other hand, if we are to move forward, things must change.  If this requires constitutional amendment, go for constitutional amendment. Strengthen the mechanisms to arrest bribery and corruption and also educate the citizenry on the procedures that have to be followed to activate these mechanisms. 
Today, there is a lot of talk about consensual politics.  The nation hopes that this dialogue leads to concrete steps aimed at streamlining the defence mechanisms of civil society in general and ridding the system of the loops that allow the corrupt to walk in with impunity and walk out with oodles of public funds. If this doesn’t happen, then it would essentially be a discussion between thieves or facilitators of thieving.
There’s a civil war and only those who love pontification can talk about the purities associated with civil liberties.  Things just don’t happen that way.  That, however, is not a blank cheque. Civil administration, we repeat, does not take a break. The law does not go to sleep. The parliament is not suspended indefinitely. Flaws need not remain as such. The institutions that are expected to act as buffers between flawed politicians and a citizenry that deserves better are in urgent need of restructuring.  If they collapse (and collapse they will sooner or later if left unattended), then anarchy awaits us all. 
The war is a convenient carpet and like all carpets, have enough space underneath to accommodate a lot of garbage. Sooner or later people trip over the resultant protrusions. Among those who hit the dust, rest assured, will be some big names. That would not be consolation enough, unfortunately.