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False historical perspectives of Wigneswaran

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by Rienzie Wijetilleke and

Kusum Wijetilleke

rienzietwij@gmail.com

Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s recent comments regarding racial and religious politics were most timely. In a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders, to hear the Archbishop state so unequivocally that religion and language should not be the basis for a political party is at least mildly reassuring. It seems that the Archbishop was irked by recent comments made in Parliament by MP C. V. Wigneswaran regarding the primary language of Sri Lanka’s indigenous peoples. Cardinal Malcom is certainly not alone, although when he states that this division began in the 1950s, he is only half right. Certainly, the introduction of the singular language policy of 1956 created a significant fissure in the country, yet the beginnings of the debate around language and ethnicity and its political divisions had taken root long before this.

In Sri Lanka’s post-independence self-reckoning, many colourful characters played their roles in further igniting the already volatile situation and using their positions to foment distrust for personal gain. Many famous (or infamous) political luminaries were involved throughout the decades in the see-saw struggle to build a unitary nation state with guaranteed rights for all ethnicities. Specifically, the following passages will pay attention to two important figures during this period; former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the Politician and Lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam, both selected mainly for their colourful use of language and rhetorical flourishes.

 

Elitist Ideologues

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) is widely considered to be one of the foremost characters in the era of post-independence Sri Lanka, marked by communal divisions, creating the conditions for a separatist struggle with a terrorist organization. SWRD and other nationalist agitators were all armed with ideological justifications for their dogmatic ethno-political positions. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (SJV), the aforementioned G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP) along with SWRD were all guilty during certain periods in their careers of utilizing divisive supremacist and absolutist rhetoric, stoking communal tension.

In the mid-1950s, speeches such as the below, made by SWRD, were common place:

“… the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines?… I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside”

Against a historical backdrop of inflamed rhetoric and divisive political machinations, today’s politics appear to be exhibiting many of these traits. Recent elections saw various politicians using their platforms to propagate their own community’s sense of historical grievance and connect it to the present day.

In his recent comments, Mr. Wigneswaran alluded to “false historical perspectives of the past”. Taking these comments in unison with his opening lines regarding Tamil being the language of the “first indigenous inhabitants of this country” one can easily detect a hint of the racial supremacy that was the hallmark of GGP’s rhetoric. Notwithstanding the historical accuracy of his speech, there seems little reason to make such a remark other than to embellish his otherwise banal statement with a trace of controversy so that it may reach the collective conscious of the mainstream. Thereafter followed the plea to “recognize the intrinsic rights of people of the North and the East.”

In the mid-1930s, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) formed the Sinhala Mahasabha, a party whose sole purpose was to promote Sinhalese culture and community interests. This was a direct response to the Tamil Nationalist anti-Sinhala movement led by G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP) in that same decade. The result was one of the earliest Sinhala – Tamil riots in modern history, at Nawalapitiya in 1939. The riots were reportedly the result of disparaging comments made by GGP regarding the Mahavamsa which were perfectly in tune with much of his rhetoric during this time.

Prior to the incident, at the launching of the Sinhala Mahasabha branch in Nawalapitiya, SWRD commented that the party should erect a statue of GGP to thank him for provoking its very existence. Being a shrewd politician, SWRD understood the influence of a well-motivated reactionary movement, fueled by the rhetoric of its nemeses. This seems to be a point lost on Mr. Wigneswaran judging by his recent comments in Parliament, reminiscent of the sort of grand-standing and ferocious rhetoric the famous GGP traded in.

 

The Contradictions of Ponnambalam

A talented lawyer by trade, GGP was blessed with foresight and tactical acumen which made him a considerable political force. He realised early on that the Tamil elites of the time had more in common with the Sinhalese elites than their ‘own people’. SWRD and the Sinhala Mahasabha joined ranks with the UNP of D.S. Senanayake and began constitutional reforms with the aim of establishing an independent ‘Ceylonese’ nation. Ponnambalam Arunachalam (PA) and Ponnambalam Ramanathan (PR), both stalwarts of Ceylonese politics, were supportive of constitutional reforms and of the concept of an independent Ceylon under the auspices of the Donoughmore Commission. PA and PR had earlier rejected the concept of communal representation, encouraged by the British Governor of the time, William Manning, in favour of the universal franchise. It is suspected that both PA and PR were suspicious of communal representation since it may have dissolved their positions as elites belonging to a higher caste and thereby entitled to be the torch-bearers for the Tamil people in an independent Ceylon.

GGP realised that the introduction of the universal franchise would dilute Tamil representation in the legislature. Whilst GGP appeared to disagree with the elitist PA and PR he seemed to betray his own elitist tendencies when he proposed the “50/50” Balanced Representation scheme. Yet, it was his rhetoric that spurned the potential for a truly inclusive ‘Ceylonese’ state. To this extent GGP supported PR in his regular visits to London in the 1930s to lobby the British Government to discard the universal franchise in favour of communal representation and in effect, uphold the caste system.

Against the context of the introduction of the universal franchise, GGP articulated his belief that the Sinhalese did not warrant a majority in the legislature or a primary role in governing the country and structuring any future nation state. His campaign often included racist epithets and spoke of historical racial power balances not too dissimilar to the content of Mr. Wigneswaran’s recent comments. GGP would regularly repeat his ideology, which promoted the supremacy of the Tamils over the Sinhala race in ancient Ceylon. One of his main weapons was to disparage the Mahawamsa knowing well the emotional attachment of the Sinhalese to it. He consistently labelled the Sinhalese as a “race of hybrids” and inculcated a sense of social and hierarchical grievance amongst the Tamils.

 

Internationally Borrowed Localized Intellectualism

This sense of racial supremacy was also prevalent during the 1920s and 30s in different parts of the world as well as amongst some of the Sinhalese politicians. The rise of Nazism in Europe and Stalinism in the Soviet Union influenced many Ceylonese intellectuals of the time as well. The ‘Catholic Guardian of Jaffna’ for example, expressed admiration for Hitler during this period. GGP referred to SWRD as a Nazi during comments in the Legislative Chamber, while remarking that he would not allow the Tamils to be treated like the Jews in Germany.

However, GGP himself was said to have visited Nazi Germany on more than one occasion along with some members of the British Union of Fascists. He, like others, seemed to be influenced by the staunchly racialized politics of the time. As an example, Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva were influenced by Marxist ideology that was so popular during this time. During the debates on the Sinhala Only Act, a special mention must be made on the efforts of Dr. Colvin R. De Silva to rebuke what was a popular decision amongst the majority;

“… Do we want an independent Ceylon or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian Ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of the language issue… One language, two nations; two languages, one Nation…”

These intuitive comments would prove to be prophetic some years later. It must be said that many of these men were all products of their time, of their environments and of their intellectual pursuits.

Returning to the recent comments of the Archbishop, he certainly seemed bemused when he laments the current debates surrounding the “original” language of this country and its “original” people. Mr. Wigneswaran’s intent is clear: to carve out a fresh political pedestal for himself, perhaps eager to carry the heavy burden of separatist politics that has ravaged this country for so long.

If we are to humour Mr. Wigneswaran and read between the lines of his statement, if only to uncover an ulterior motive, it seems that he may be setting up his stall as an agitator for not just the people of the North but also the people of the East. It seems necessary to state that while Tamil is a common language between the majorities of both Northern and Eastern provinces, they seem to have little else in common. Thus, it is ironic that Mr. Wigneswaran visited the LTTE memorial in Jaffna before deciding that he had earned the right to speak for the people of the eastern province as well. Note that the Eastern province has over 1.5 mn people, some 400,000 of them Sinhalese and over half a million of them Muslim. Unlike Mr. Wigneswaran, the people of the Eastern Province will still remember the LTTE’s campaigns of terror on Muslim populations; 150 deaths in the Kattankudy Mosque Massacre (1990) and up to 285 deaths in the Palliyagodella Massacre (1992). This is to say nothing of the total eviction of some 72,000 Muslims from the north.

 

Economic Policies Required Not Communal Politics

It certainly seems that Mr. Wigneswaran has not grasped the lessons of history and continues to trade in the same communal politics of the pre-independence era. He might have been excused for this due to the recent renaissance of mainstream communal politics in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks. Yet, we should not excuse a politician of Mr. Wigneswaran’s proven intellect. The separatist tendencies that exist in the political mainstream should be alienated, not given centre stage at a time when the economic strife of people in the North as well as the South should be the focus of parliamentary business. History has taught us that the politics of racial superiority will only lead to further destruction. Would GGP himself have ever endorsed such rhetoric had he known the real future costs of his separatist ideology?

This seems to indicate that Mr Wigneswaran himself suffers from false historical perspectives. One example is equating the LTTE to the Tamil population in general, a notion that many Tamils would find offensive. Indeed he remains a strong surrogate for the ‘Balasingam ideology’ that still persists through the remnants of the Federal Party. What would he say if a Sinhalese politician were to make similar comments in Parliament? Instead of accepting the overwhelming mandate gained by the President and the PM and focusing on the obvious economic hardship that so many in the country are going through, Mr. Wigneswaran seeks to re-energise the nativists in his corner. It seems tactically naïve to constantly create more support amongst the Sinhala supremacists, who need so little invitation. Why fan the flames when it may be at his political peril? Perhaps, it is designed to sow hatred and instigate fresh violence, which will then improve his negotiating position and prove his point in the process.

The current economic situation is dire for many, people have no disposable income, very little sense of financial security due to rising personal debt and stagnant wages, should we not, at least now, seek to cast away communal politics? If mainstream political discourse begins to degenerate into the racialized rhetoric of pre-independence Sri Lanka, we should hope that the modern day versions of the Tamil elites show more restraint than GGP did. We should hope that the mainstream rhetoric of the majority embraces pluralism as part of its patriotic nationalistic posturing.

If the economy is mishandled further while the electorate is still waging its communal war against each other, the long and ardent project to build a successful ‘post-Ceylonese’ Sri Lanka will stumble further and eventually crash. Any state that remains, be it Sinhalese or Tamil, will be a pale imitation of what was promised by the aforementioned forefathers of their own nationalist movements. What then will become of those intrinsic rights?



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Sri Lanka’s external relations amidst power rivalries

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By Neville Ladduwahetty

“Relationship Not Normal, Can’t Be…”: S Jaishankar On India-China Ties

As reported by a NDTV Staff Writer (13 Aug, 2022}, “External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Friday said that India-China relations cannot be normal unless border situation is and added that if China disturbs the peace and tranquility in border areas, it will impact the relations further”. In view of the fact that the relations between India and China are dependent on the “peace and tranquility” in the border areas means that Sri Lanka’s relations with either at any time has to be complex; a fact that is bound to affect the pursuit of Sri Lanka’s own self-interests.

The latest manifestation of this rivalry relates to the convolutions undergone by Sri Lanka with regard to China’s Yuan Wang 5 (YW5), described by some as a tracking vessel and by others as a research and survey vessel, docking at the Hambantota Port. Sri Lanka under the former Presidency gave permission for the YW5 to dock at Hambantota. Under the present Presidency Sri Lanka wanted the arrival to be deferred following concerns expressed by India relating to their security. The latest report is that Sri Lanka has granted permission for entry based on a brief by the Sri Lankan Embassy in China that “the country will face dire economic consequences if the ship’s visit is not allowed” (Daily Mirror, August 13, 2022). The report adds that the decision was also based on the fact that India and the US “failed to give ‘concrete reasons’ for why they opposed its arrival”.

An earlier manifestation of this rivalry was in connection with an Asian Development Bank- funded solar power project in the Island of Delft. International Tenders were called by the ADB and the contract was awarded to a Chinese Company because their bid was the lowest. India objected to the project on grounds of security and the project was abandoned with Sri Lanka continuing to deliver diesel to operate the generators and provide power to the people of Delft. In this instance, Sri Lanka failed to ask India to provide “concrete reasons” for their security concerns. Instead, Sri Lanka caved in and abandoned the project at a cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.

The reason for doing so was offered by a former Mandarin of the Foreign Ministry who stated that during construction China could plant devices that would impact on the security of India. The fact that Chinese contractors are engaged in various parts of Sri Lanka thus giving them ample opportunities to plant devices anywhere seems to have escaped his wisdom. Furthermore, the fact that YW5 with its reported capabilities could carry out whatever tracking it wanted without any formal permission from outside Sri Lanka’s territorial waters should have been sufficient grounds to inform India that its concerns do not have a “concrete” basis from the outset. Why Sri Lanka did not challenge India’s concerns in the case of the solar project reflects a onetime policy of “India first” at any cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.

LACK of CONSISTANCY in POLICY

It is crystal clear from the two examples cited above, that there is a lack of consistency in the manner Sri Lanka addresses issues relating to major powers; a fact made more complex in a background of power rivalry. The question is whether lack of consistency is due to lack of a clear policy or a deliberately adopted strategy that is sufficiently fluid to enable whoever is in power to address each issue according to his/her imperatives. The former was the practice adopted in the past. For instance, Sri Lanka’s stated policy when it came to External Relations was Non-Aligned. In fact, Sri Lanka was a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with India and other mostly ex-colonial countries.

However, under the former Presidency this long held policy changed because the global context of a bi-polar world had changed, warranting a reevaluation of the Non-Aligned policy. Consequently, the stated policy adopted by him was one of Neutrality which he stated during his acceptance speech delivered in Anuradhapura. This policy was transformed to Neutral and Non-Aligned by the Foreign Ministry and its Secretary went further stating that the policy was “India first”. This lack of consistency is not at all helpful in Sri Lanka’s relations with nations in general, and lacks clarity and when it comes to issues amidst power rivalries.

Such inconsistencies should be avoided at all cost. For instance, if the Ministry has a different perspective on external relations to that of the President, the matter should be discussed by the Cabinet of Ministers and a collective decision taken since the Supreme Court has ruled that: “So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President” (S.D. No. 04/2015). Furthermore, under no circumstances should the Secretary have a different opinion to that of the collective decision taken by the Cabinet.

NEED for CONSISTENCY

Though the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) still exists, Non-Aligned as a policy has lost its relevance because the context of a bi-polar world order in which Non-Alignment was relevant no longer exists. Instead, the multi-polar world order that exists today has given nation-states the freedom and license to pursue their self-interests. This situation has enabled India to ignore some of the core principles of Non-Alignment despite being one of its founding members. India developed defence related arrangement with Russia even during the glory days of NAM and continues to do so today. India also trained members of the LTTE to destabilise Sri Lanka and thrust devolution down Sri Lanka’s throat, all in the name of its own self-interests Today, India is actively procuring crude oil from Russia despite being an active member of QUAD with US, Japan and Australia. Sri Lanka too violated principles of the NAM when it supported the U.K. in the Falkland war, as an obligation for the outright grant given by U.K. to construct the Victoria Hydro Power Scheme.

What is evident from the conduct of nation-states is that at the end of the day, pure unbridled self-interest overrides commitment to bilateral or multilateral obligations. This then is the only policy that guides States when it comes to relations with other States, and when it comes to relations with rival powers the choices are hard but in the end, it is balancing priorities. Therefore, whether the stated policy is Neutral, Non-Aligned or even a combination of both, what matters are the decisions taken in respect of Sri Lanka’s relations with other States. Therefore, policies relating to External Relations should be a collective decision taken by the Cabinet, since too much is at stake when decisions are taken by others in the current context of power rivalries. However, since a State has to have a policy as to how it relates to other States, Neutrality is the preferred option since a policy of Non-Alignment is inappropriate in a transformed world order that is undergoing constant change because of rising aspirations of major powers.

CONCLUSION

Sri Lanka’s lack of consistency in respect of first granting permission for YW 5 to enter the Hambantota Port and later calling for its arrival to be deferred, and finally to reverse back to the original decision should be a lesson to revisit how decisions are taken when it comes to how Sri Lanka handles its external relations with other States regardless of their size and influence, or whether they are States engaged in power rivalry. What this experience has taught is that the decision-making process should be revised. Another lesson to be learnt is to not accept any concerns expressed by States at face value in the process of pursuing Sri Lanka’s self-interests. Instead, to require such States to show cause and “concrete reasons” for their concerns.

In the current context of the world order, the bi-polar world that existed has transformed itself into a multi-polar world, causing the policy of Non-Alignment to lose its relevance even though the Non-Aligned Movement continues to exist. Furthermore, this transformed world order has fostered power rivalries among aspiring States in the process of pursuing their unbridled self-interests; a fact manifested by India’s policy of “strategic autonomy”. How Sri Lanka navigates its own self-interests in such an environment is crucial for its growth and well-being. Therefore, in view of the seriousness of the issues at stake the decision making process when it comes to dealing with States in general and others engaged in power rivalries should be collective decisions by the Cabinet of Ministers backed up by a policy of Neutrality in view of Sri Lanka’s unique strategic location, since it is the only option left standing, because other options such as (1) Non-Alignment with any major centers of power: (2) Alignment with one of the major powers: (3) Bandwagoning: (4) Hedging: (5) Balancing pressures, are all unacceptable.

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Suppressing the struggle: Education and the Discourse of Class

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A file photo of the military presence at Galle Face during Aragalaya

By Anushka Kahandagamage

Protesters defeated the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime, making the Rajapaksas resign from their positions, premiership and presidency, of the government. After the collapse of the dynasty, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Rajapaksa puppet, came to power with the support of a distorted majority in Parliament. Having got himself appointed as President, without a people’s mandate, Wickremesinghe began to suppress the struggle—the very struggle that led to his ascendency. Hours after Wickremesinghe took oath as President, at midnight, when the protesters were preparing to disband the major GotaGoGama (GGG) protest site, the military stormed in, violently assaulting some protesters, including women and people with disabilities. The military attacked media reporters, including BBC journalists, and destroyed the structures built on the location, prompting many to go to the GGG site in support of the protesters. A witch hunt would soon unfold, and, today, just weeks after Wickremesinghe came to power, arbitrary arrests are commonplace in Lanka, most recent and prominent, that of the trade union activist Joseph Stalin.

The Classed nature of the Discourse:

The Double Standard

National as well as international activists, academics, journalists, students, condemned the arbitrary violent attack on the GGG site. Social media was swamped with video footage of the attack, and posts, condemning the government’s moves. Many social media posts pointed fingers at the military, which was to be expected. But a notable and recurring theme was the link made between the military’s behaviour and its low education level – “Eighth grade passed Army”. Meanwhile, politicians from the ruling party (and others) publicly condemned the protesters’ actions, even calling them drug addicts (kuddo). The social media discourse targeting the military (low education) and the protesters (drug addicts), although coming from very different places, was steeped in a classed and classist language, and reduced their actions—whether of the protesters’ or of those suppressing the protest —to their level of education or social class.

Yet, there were surprisingly few discussions regarding the education level of the President, who commanded the attack on the protesters. There is no doubt that Wickremesinghe, whose past is linked with horrendous acts of violence, commanded the military to attack GGG. He is also behind the arbitrary arrests of protesters, the very people who placed him in power. While people are aware of Wickremesinghe’s violent tendencies, these inclinations are not discussed in relation to his education level. During the protest, when his house was set on fire, along with his personal library, many condemned the burning of the library, emphasizing the importance of ‘reading’ and ‘knowledge’. Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as an ‘educated’ politician, well-read and knowledgeable about foreign policy and politics. A double standard manifests itself where the violent acts of the military (by no means am I trying to glorify the military) are criticized on the grounds of their ‘low’ education level, while the violence of Wickremesinghe garners little comment.

Violence and Education

There is no essential link between violence and education, rather capitalist structures have conditioned us to associate violence with under privileged groups and lower levels of education. Formal educational structures sustain hierarchies, power and, in our context, neo-liberal market economies. Education socialises the individual in such a way s/he/they come to embody dominant society’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. Educational institutions are particularly efficient in legitimising the current social order since they play a role not only in training workers in the strict sense of providing them with skills to be productive but also in the naturalization of social relations of production. Education thus entrenches the status quo, and, in that sense, is not an innocent space, rather a space where inequality and hierarchies are sustained and reproduced.

We associate ‘low’ educational levels, and underprivilege, with violence, as we are trained to do so by the political-economic structures which glorify the ‘learned’ and ‘wealthy’. While the military should not be glorified, under any circumstances, it should be understood that the soldiers, who attacked the protesters, on the ground, represent the disadvantaged classes, carrying out their ‘duty’ as commanded by a supposedly ‘educated’ President. It is an irony that society sees people who are directly involved in violence as the generators of violence, rather than the decision-makers who perpetrate violence.

Formal educational institutions, driven by capitalist values, serve to produce, reproduce and sustain such hegemonic narratives. Indeed, there is a link between our pathological social condition and our education system. While our mostly market driven education is trapped in narratives of employability, efficiency or productivity—needed to understand a phenomenon beyond what is given—human values and critical thinking remain neglected on the back burner. Under these circumstances, there is a great need for alternative education forms.

Counter narratives and alternative

forms of Education

Education has been crucial to the struggle to depose the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime. In this context, I am referring to the ‘education’ initiatives that have been a key element of the Aragalaya: education on democracy, the constitution, history of struggles, economy and so on. In the GGG site, groups connected to the protest as well as other initiatives organized debates and discussions to raise awareness about economic, political and social issues, to learn about how to utter the correct slogans and how to steer the struggle in the ‘right’ path. In doing so, hundreds of webinars were organized, numerous articles and posts written and videos uploaded. In the GGG main protest site, a library, university, college, and an IT centre were established to support ‘educating’ the people.

‘Education’ was a thread that wove the struggle together. There were (and are) different debates on education at various levels of the struggle where alternative forms of education were discussed, challenging hierarchy and institutionalized education. The protest has opened up a space for people to pursue alternative educational structures and build counter narratives. Unfortunately, most of these efforts ultimately fall, directly or indirectly, in to hegemonic educational structures, where hierarchy and Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are sustained in different forms. Similarly, the activists and academics, among the protesters, who tried to introduce alternative education forms and counter narratives often fell into capitalist hierarchical structures. The majority of the webinars and awareness raising forums were top-down in nature and were held in one language, discriminating against other language groups.

Furthermore, these forums were frequently clogged with ‘experts’ or the kind of academics who preach their opinions to the ‘uneducated.’

In conclusion, existing capitalist educational frameworks train one to discriminate, based on class and educational levels, normalizing certain ways of life and being. For example, it’s fascinating to see how Wickremesinghe was removed from the violence and education discourse while the military was at the centre of it. Alternative forms of education are needed to question and challenge these hierarchies.

(The author is a Doctoral Candidate in School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prioritising protection of Government over the people

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by Jehan Perera

According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind was a state of war in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all.”  Therefore, it was necessary for them to come to an agreement. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.

 The evolution of constitutional thinking  since the 17th century that Hobbes and Locke lived in has been to find ways to regulate the powers of the rulers and protect the people from the rulers. Those who have power need to have checks placed on them. They need to be held accountable. If those who are rulers are not checked or held accountable, they invariably abuse their powers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has been a truism. Over the past 74 years we have seen that the rulers have used their power indiscriminately some more than others. PTA is an example of a law which was instituted to deal with the Tamil separatist insurgency over 40 years ago, but it still remains-to protect power of the rulers. In the past three years when the rulers of Sri Lanka held virtually absolute power by virtue of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, the situation in the country deteriorated. The country became bankrupt for the first time ever.

 The current debate over the 22nd Amendment is to ensure and enlarge the role of civil society to mitigate the powers of the politicians who are rulers. A key question now is with regard to the three civil society representatives who will be in the Constitutional Council. The present formulation of the amendment is that the civil society representatives will have to be acceptable to the majority in parliament (thereby giving the government final say). Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s experience with constitutional reform has been  in the direction of further strengthening of the powers of the rulers against the people. The so-called reforms have invariably strengthened the hands of the rulers against the people and justified that it is being done for the sake of the people.

 ERODING CONTROLS

 The 1972 Constitution replaced the constitution that the country had inherited from the British colonial rulers. It ensured the independence of the judiciary and of the civil service and also had special protections for human rights and non-discrimination between ethnic communities. However, these protections were removed from the 1972 constitution that sought to empower the ruling politicians on the justification that they embodied the will of the sovereign people. It was argued that the elected politicians were closer to the people than unelected judges and civil servants. But being away from the people makes them non partisan, a value less understood. Judges were sacked when the new constitution came into operation and treated shamefully. The 1978 constitution repeated the activities of the 1972 constitutions. Judges were once again sacked and treated shamefully. At a later point they were even stoned.

 It is these cultures we developed that have led to the present crisis of lack of values beyond the economy itself and formed the base for Aragalaya. The 1978 constitution took the centralisation of power in the 1972 constitution even further and centralized it in the  office of one person, the executive president. He could now be even above the law, like the kings of old before parliaments that represented the people came into being. The first executive president of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, said that the only power he did not possess was the power to turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man. It is not surprising that with this power going into  the hands of the elected rulers, that the abuse  of power and corruption should grow without  limit. From being  a country  near the top of Asia at the time of independence, Sri Lanka  is today nearer the bottom. The life savings of its people have been halved in half a year and not a single politician has faced a legal accountability process.

 The 22nd Amendment belongs to the family of constitutional amendments  that began with the 17th Amendment of 2001. This  amendment was  agreed to by the then president due to the weakening of the government at that time. The  JVP  then,  as now, the party of the disadvantaged in society, gave the lead. The amendment resulted in the reduction of the power of the president and sharing those powers with parliament, state institutions and with civil society. The idea behind the 17th Amendment was to strengthen the system of checks and balances and thereby promote good governance in the national interest. The 19th Amendment that resembles it was the work of a coalition of parties that had opposed the abuse of power of the rulers they had just deposed through an electoral mandate.

 HIGH CORRUPTION

 However, the limitation on the powers of the rulers has never been acquiesced by those who would be rulers or belong to their party. The 17th Amendment was overturned in 2010 by the 18th Amendment that gave back to the presidency the powers it had lost plus some more. When this led to an increase in the abuse of powers by the rulers, the  successor government brought in the 19th amendment to once again reduce the powers of the presidency. This was in pursuance of the mandate sought at the presidential election of 2015. But once again in 2019, those who formed the next government overruled the 19th Amendment and with the 20th Amendment and gave back to the presidency its lost powers plus some more.

 It is under the 20th Amendment which is about to be repealed that the corruption and abuse of power in the country reached its zenith and plunged the people into unprecedented economic hardship and poverty. It is these hardships that gave rise to the Aragalaya, or protest movement, that culminated with the physical storming of government buildings and the forced resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. The shrinking of the middle class who have toiled a lifetime are now falling between the cracks and joining the poor and vulnerable created by the government in less than three years. Yet highlighting the priorities of the rulers, no  one of the seem to be thinking of compensating those who have lost their savings, only of compensation of what happened to a few of the rulers and their henchmen during the 2015-2019 period  or the Aragalaya period in which the houses of the rulers, much beyond their known sources of wealth and income were burned down.

 An Indian political analyst Dr Maya John, has written, “Although the Aragalaya targeted not only individual politicians like the Rajapaksas but also the wider ambit of corrupt political forces – as evident in the parallel slogans of “GotaGoHome” and “225GoHome” – the bulk of people’s energy was overtly focused on dislodging certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency for the ruling establishment to still hold sway with the ouster of particular politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese proverb goes: inguru deela miris gaththa wage (exchanging ginger for chilli), we have simply got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. So, the Rajapksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.”

UNEQUAL TREATMENT

 The protest movement was a reaction to the social  tolerance limits, economic hardships, shortages, queues and steep price rises that in effect halved the general income of the people, with some suffering more than others. But the crackdown on them by the rulers has been both subtle and harsh in the present period. Those who gave it leadership are being picked off one by one, put into jail or being put on bail so that they dare not protest again. The unequal and discriminatory treatment of the protest movement is given the veneer of law which the government would he hoping would get it through the monitoring of the UN Human Rights Council next month and preserve the economic rewards of the EU’s GSP Plus, which is given to country’s that are making a genuine effort to improve the lot of their people, poor people not only the rich.

 In 2018, parliamentarians who attempted to stage a constitutional coup (which failed because the judiciary stood firm) sat on the chair of the Speaker of parliament whom they had forcibly chased off. They flung chairs and wrenched microphones out of their sockets. But none of them were punished even when the coup failed. However, those who joined the protest movement and sat in the chair of the president are being houndeds one by one and arrested. A protester who took the beer mug of the deposed president has been arrested. But ministers who are accused of corruption, accused reportedly even by diplomats accredited to the country, and ministers who have been convicted by the courts, sit on, in government. Such unequal and discriminatory treatment is likely to cause the sense of grievance to grow especially when the people are faced with price rises and shortages. They form the basis  to cause another Aragalaya.

 The current version of the 22nd Amendment which gives the rulers the power to pick the civil society members who will be in the constitutional council is not a sign that the government will heed the voice of the people. In this reluctance to be held accountable and to use power in a just manner, is a recipe for confrontation between the rulers and people in the future in which repression will be the response of the rulers who disregard the people. It may explain  why the military budget continues to take first place despite the economic collapse. Unless the people’s voices are represented truly in the parliament and the political processes, which can only come through a fresh set of elections, it is difficult to expect accountability in the system which is a formula for disaster sooner or later.

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