Is ‘Democracy’ at Death’s Door?
By PALITHA SENANAYAKE
Whenever the government in a democratic country like Sri Lanka opts to assert control over a socially fluid situation, the opposition groups tend to question such efforts posing the question, ‘Is this democracy?’ The manner in which this question is posed infers that the government of the day, by its effort to assert itself, is attempting to impinge on the rights of a democratic society, where freedom to express and to demonstrate are upheld as ‘sacrosanct’. This, however, is not only a misconception but also a subliminal notion that opposition groups, in their politically expedient endeavours, try to inculcate in the minds of the people; much against the spirit of what a democratic society should really be.
The irony about democracy today, in relation to many developing countries, appears to be that everybody knows what democracy is and how good a system of governance it is, but nobody seems to know how to deploy it to pull their countries out of the woods.
The concept of democracy and constitution, as a form of government originated in ancient Athens, circa 508 BC. In ancient Greece, there were many city-states with different forms of government, and many intellectuals and philosophers as well, who evaluated the best form of governance for a state. They coined ‘democracy’ from the Latin lexicon to mean the ‘Government of the people’. It was in contrast, and was also an evolved form of the past forms of governance; monarchy- of one person, and aristocracy- of the elites, and to democracy- of all the people. The thinking at the time was that, the broader the base of governance, the more representative it would be of the peoples’ needs and aspirations. Yet, since the question of responsibility taking, and execution of power, was central to any form of governance, they realised that the broader the base, the weaker would be the execution of power and the responsibility for actions.
The problem of exercising power was overcome by electing a representatives’ Government for a particular period, entrusting them with the power to enact laws and to execute peoples’ power. Then, the last but not the least issue of responsibility, meaning the responsibility for the laws enacted and for the power executed. The fact that a government is appointed from time to time, does not exonerate the responsibility for the laws enacted and for the execution of power, from the true owners of the state; the people, as sovereignty lies with them and hence also the responsibility. Thus, it behoves that, if the king is held responsible in a monarchy, and the Council of noblemen in an aristocracy, it is the people themselves that are responsible for the actions and governance and also for the conduct of the democracy. A citizenry that is not responsible enough in his/ her conduct to ensure a democratic society, does not deserve to enjoy the democratic system, and hence will degenerate back to either a junta type governance or dictatorship; the current version of the monarchy.
Accordingly, if an elected government is not keeping up to its election manifesto, not transparent in its activity; financial and otherwise, the people have the right to demand that it carry out its election undertakings and exercise transparency in all its affairs. In this respect, it is more the duty of those who voted for the prevailing government that should question these aspects of democratic governance; because failure on the part of the current government on those, could lead to a debacle at the next election.
Having established the rights and responsibilities of those who voted for the Government elect, it is necessary to consider the responsibilities of those who voted against as well, because there is no democratic system of governance anywhere that enables all its citizens to win at an election. In this, that section of the people who voted against, have to assimilate into the mainstream whether they like it or not. Just as the government that is elected pledges to run the country for all its citizens, those who voted against too have a responsibility to abide by the rules of the new government. The emphasis this point deserves could be bestowed by stating that ‘just as a government that is not equitable and accommodative of all its citizens have no right to govern the country, those countrymen who are not prepared to concede the majority’s right to elect and govern will also have no right to enjoy or to be protected by, the democratic system’.
That invariably, has to be the stand to take, because the alternative is simply, anarchy.
In that light, how could we view the recent demonstrations conducted by the JVP and other trade union affiliated organisations in this midst? Their main point of contention was that the ‘pandemic curfew’ should not be used to suppress the democratic rights of the masses. Considering the fact that the JVP and certain other unions always had some demonstration or the other, there never could be a time for a pandemic lockdown, as it was a never-ending series of demonstrations since the current government assumed power. Another argument is that the government is using the pandemic to pass legislation that is unpopular and socially inimical.
Well, since the current government was elected with an extraordinary popular mandate, how could these trade unions and the JVP appoint themselves as the arbiters of the popularity or the socially inimical nature of a particular legislation? This makes the current demonstration scenario an attempt to sabotage the democratic right of the current government that was elected by the majority, thereby undermining the right of the majority in this country. This is simply because the trade unions and the JVP are organized, whereas the mass of people who voted are rather unorganized, and hence being reduced to the position of mere spectators. In any case, it is not a socially responsible act for the Government supporters to stage demonstrations in support of the Government at the current times.
Therefore, it should now be clear that the current conduct of the JVP and the trade unions is in breach of the core principle of democracy, and also it is the JVP and the trade unions that are taking advantage of the pandemic to stage their irresponsible demonstrations, reducing the responsible majority to be mere spectators. Sooner the people and the Government realize this, amidst all that rhetoric, coupled with prompting action, the Sri Lankan society would bring the most socially inimical action perpetrated on it in recent times, to an end.
Daring siege of the Cultural Ministry
The University of Colombo, Sri Lanka was established in 1979 in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 18 of 1978. The university was given all the land from the road joining Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue (later named Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha) right up to the Thummulla junction.
There were the court premises set up to try the insurgents of 1971, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the Queen’s Club, an unauthorized temple which had everything else like car wash, canteen, night life, etc, except what should be found in a temple.
Of these the university was able to get rid of the bogus temple. The request to get the CDC premises did not materialize as the then Secretary of Education turned it down. Later these buildings were taken over to house the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
One day in the early 1990s just prior to closing time the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of Student Affairs came into my office and told me that the Students Union is planning to take over the Buildings of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their plan was to wait till dusk and get in surreptitiously two by two. I told the Senior Assistant Registrar not to divulge this to anybody else and to wait till the following morning to see the outcome.
When we reported for work the following morning, I asked the Senior Assistant Registrar as to what had happened. He said the mission had been successfully accomplished and now the students were occupying the buildings. It seemed that what the university had been trying to get for a long time, the students had successfully achieved in one night!
On the second day the students who were occupying the buildings were a little agitated, telephoned me and asked whether the Special Task Force (STF) was planning to surround the building with a view to oust them as the STF personnel were occupying vantage points on buildings in the vicinity . I telephoned and inquired from the OIC of Cinnamon Gardens Police station, and he told me that there was no such plan and that they were only watching the situation. I conveyed this to the students and allayed their fears.
A meeting was convened at the Ministry of Higher Education to see how the problem could be sorted out. At the meeting a student showed a copy of a Cabinet decision where agreement had been reached to hand over the CDC buildings to the University of Colombo. The Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time, Mr. Lakshman Jayakody, was surprised and asked the student as to how he got the copy of the decision as even he had not seen it. The student stated that he did not want to divulge the source.
The Minister stated that his immediate need was to get the pay sheet and cheque book as the employees had to be paid their salaries. The students were adamant not to surrender, and they stated that this was done as they needed hostels. Hence the decision to lay siege to the buildings. Mr. Jayakody agreed to vacate the buildings so that the university could make use of them.
That ended the saga of the famous siege of a Ministry building by a few daring undergraduates. The buildings were used to house the newly established Faculty of Management and Finance. The undergraduates were accommodated in other buildings in Muttiah Road and Thelawala, which were handed over to the university to be used as hostels.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera who passed away a few days ago was a dynamic personality who headed not one but two national universities in Sri Lanka. It was as the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) that I first encountered him, an encounter that highlighted Professor Wijeyesekera’s powers of perseverance and persuasion. During the late 1980s, I was happily ensconced at the University of Colombo when I started receiving messages from Professor Wijeyesekera to ask me to consider moving over to the OUSL. The proposition did not seem very viable to me at the time and I ignored his calls But for almost two years, he persisted until I finally gave in and shifted my academic career to Nawala- a move never regretted.
OUSL at that time was in the throes of changes and innovation, most of which were spearheaded by Professor Wijeyesekera who had taken over the leadership of OUSL in 1985 at a most controversial time. Perceptions of the OUSL were negative and the authorities were even considering closing it down. With his characteristic vigour, Dayantha Wijeyesekera set about putting things right bringing in changes, some of which were most controversial and even considered detrimental to OUSL.
In spite of opposition, he stuck to his vision and it is testimony to his persistence that a number of changes have lasted to this day – Faculties headed by Deans instead of Boards of Study headed by Directors, Departments of Study and not Units, a two-tier administrative system akin to the conventional university system of Council and Senate. To help support students who needed to come to Nawala for workshops and laboratory classes, he established student hostels-another move deemed by his critics as undermining the concept of Distance Education. The hostels still stand and have even been expanded.
Other changes were welcomed such as his indefatigable pursuit of state –of the art technology for OUSL. The OUSL’s centre for Educational Technology was a gift from Japan due to Professor Wijeyesekera’s efforts. And it was in his period of stewardship at OUSL that the first ever language laboratory to be established in a Sri Lankan university was set up in the Department of Language Studies – a gift from KOICA, the South Korean aid agency.
During Professor Wijeyesekera’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, the OUSL experienced growth and expansion in academic sectors too. During the 1980s, the university had only a handful of centres but under Dayantha Wijeyesekera the number rapidly grew- there were Regional Centres in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Study centres were set up in towns throughout the island and he was more than supportive when requested permission to establish teaching centres for English in smaller urban conglomerations such as Akkaraipattu .
Academic programmes blossomed. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for example had just one Bachelor’s degree, the LLB, during the 1980s. In Professor Wijeyesekera’s time this grew to include a Bachelor of Management Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and the first ever Bachelor’s degree in English and English Language Teaching. The first degree programme for nurses in Sri Lanka, the BSc. In Nursing, was established at the Faculty of Science with support from Athabasca University in Canada. In addition there also sprang up a whole cohort of Certificate and Diploma programmes catering to the diverse needs of professionals all over the island.
The growth of the university was reflected in the expansion of facilities. New buildings sprang up on reclaimed land bordering the Narahenpita-Nawala Road – a new Senate House which offered space to all the administrative sections and had a spacious facility for Council and Senate meetings. A three-storey building was provided for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a new Library building took shape near the Media Centre.
In addition Professor Wijeyesekera reached out to international centres of Distance Education and Open Universities across the world. In the early 1990s, he hosted with aplomb the Conference of the Association of Asian Open Universities (AAOU) and OUSL became a respected member of the AAOU as well as of the Commonwealth of Learning.
Dayantha Wijeyesekera began his career at OUSL in 1985 when the fate of the OUSL hung in the balance. Under his stewardship, the university burgeoned into a national university, a leader in Distance Education which others sought to emulate.. When he joined the OU, the student enrolment stood at 8,000. When he left, nine years later, there 20,000 students registered at the university. It was his hard work, his dedication, his commitment to academic progress that helped transform the OUSL.
May his soul rest in peace.
Open University of Sri Lanka
X-Press Pearl disaster
It will be a crying shame if we fail to get the much wanted and much spoken about compensation due to us for the monumental maritime disaster caused in around our shores when the X-Press went down.
Our government and all those departments and ministries responsible had ample time to make a water tight claim to make the compensation 1claim to the right place. The best available brains and talent to deal with this complex problem involving a host of subjects including the ecology, marine biology, shipwrecks, the law of the sea, maritime laws and whatever else should have been organized to fight our case.
The moment the disaster occurred, all concerned should have acted with single minded dedication to make a strong claim for compensation. Much video and other evidence of the damage done is available. All of us are aware of the shoals of fish, turtles and other sea creatures that died and were washed ashore and the plastic and oil pollution of our beaches. Some of those creatures that died live for over 100 years.
What we saw on our shore post-disaster was a heartbreaking sight. I don’t think it’s possible to assess the ecological damage done in monetary terms. The plastic nurdles the ship has been washed as far as Matara and it is said the acid pollution caused will be with us for a century. Fishermen have suffered great hardship by the loss of catch.
The case filed is being heard in Singapore. I hope the verdict will temper justice with mercy. The damage and misery suffered through no fault of ours is untold.
Padmini Nanayakkara, Colombo-3.
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