By GARVIN KARUNARATNE Ph.D.
The editorial of The Island on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day says it all: “The challenge before us is to retrace our steps, figure out where we took wrong turns, and forge ahead in the right direction, as many other nations have already done. Easier said than done, but there seems to be no other way.”
The problem is that even to retrace our footsteps, there is no consensus among the learned. Addressing the 10 th annual conference of the Sri Lanka Forum of University economists, on 27 January, 2022, Professor Premachandra Atukorale has said that “it is impossible to heavily rely on import and exchange controls, without compromising on a massive economic collapse and social upheaval.”
Perhaps, it may be useful to recall how Sri Lanka managed its economy, in deciding how we can retrace our footsteps to the days when we did not have food queues and social upheaval, all the while handling development very successfully.
In February, 1968, I was posted as the Additional Government Agent of Kegalle District. I worked there for two years. I knew of no queues for any essential food during that period. In fact, I was in charge of providing essential food – as the Deputy Food Controller for the District. At that time every area was covered with a cooperative society, and, in each division, there were Cooperative Unions that were equipped with stores and lorries; and on a clockwork basis all essential food was distributed through the cooperatives. This included a measure of rice per person per week, entirely free, under the Rice Ration Scheme, which was done away by President Jayawardena, in 1978.
Then there was a major Department at work – the Food Commissioner’s Department, managed at the helm by a senior civil servant, a department that had very large stores full of rice and flour, and also attended to imports, when necessary. At the district level, there was an Assistant Food Controller who worked directly under me, and it was our duty to see that food was always available, without any interruption. Importing essentials, like dhal, chillies, etc., was handled by the CWE, because depending on the private sector has proved unreliable – the private sector has profit as its aim, service to the people comes next.
Kegalle District included the electorates of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, Minister NH Karunaratne, Deputy Ministers Imbulana, Vimala Kannangara, Beligammana and Dr NM Perera of the Opposition. There was never a delay in providing essential food – and that included rice, lentils, chillies and other curry stuff. I had the unenviable task of meeting the Prime Minister every Saturday and Sunday morning, at around nine, at the Warakapola Rest House, and to accompany him to a host of meetings in his electorate, ending in the late evenings, and there was never a person that had a complaint. The Divisional Secretaries had to work hard. There were a few bad eggs that I had to get rid of. Had there been any interruption in food supplies, the ministers would have complained to the Prime Minister or Dr NM would have raised the matter in Parliament.
This was also the situation in Matara, where I was the Government Agent from, 1971 to 1973. There were no ministers in any electorates, and only one Deputy Minister B. Y. Tudawe. There were no shortages, except during the JVP insurrection of April 1971.
There was no foreign exchange problem, because there were effective controls over the little foreign exchange that came in through exports and other sources. There were no currency dealers who handled foreign exchange like today, and the intake of foreign currency was a guarded property used first for importing essentials, and small allocations were made to import useful items such as automobiles and refrigerators. This was the situation even when we had ample funds – when we financed the Gal Oya Development Project – a massive project building a tank three times the size of Parakrama Samudra, Polonnaruwa, bringing 60,000 hectares under cultivation and creating many industries, all done with foreign funds we had.
In 1970, I worked as the Deputy Director of Small Industries, and one of my tasks was to ensure that every small industrialist had an allocation of foreign exchange, to import any particular item they required for their manufactures. I can state that every application was inquired into by my inspectors of industry – I had some 20 of them and assessed by me, every genuine small industry received an allocation. Then no foreign funds were allowed for foreign study, but an exception was made to provide foreign funds to Sunethra and Chandrika Bandaranaike, and I had the occasion to ask the Prime Minister why he had done so, and he replied, “That is the only request I had from my predecessor and I felt like obliging.”
Foreign exchange was then effectively controlled. When I left the Administrative Service and moved abroad in April 1973, I did not get a single penny. My wife and three children were given only three pounds and five shillings.
It is sad that university dons, the most learned in our country, have failed to grasp how the country was run those days. Professor Atukorale has said, “It is impossible to rely heavily on import and exchange controls without compromising on a massive economic collapse and social upheaval.” It was by effectively controlling import and foreign exchange that all Third World countries managed their economies, without any economic collapse. The economic might of India itself is indicative of an economy that did not follow the IMF, and used funds borrowed from the IMF to bring about development by controlling the economy.
Sri Lanka managed its foreign exchange effectively, till President Jayewardene was fooled by the IMF to follow the Structural Adjustment Programme, which advised him to allow the rich to spend foreign exchange, as much as they wanted, for endless foreign travel to educate their children abroad, import all luxury items; and the IMF provide loans for this purpose and mind you to entice the leaders, even provided grace periods when the service and interest charges were not to be paid. The then leaders enjoyed and the rich played with the funds, leaving the future leaders to bear the brunt of repayment. That is the process that led us to the present abyss.
Then there were two budgets: a local rupee budget for handling all work in the country, including major development tasks, funded with printed money, and a foreign exchange budget to handle the foreign exchange that was collected. Recently the Central Bank Governor Cabraal had decided that all foreigners staying at hotels should be charged in foreign currency. This is a decision that should have been taken long ago. Other countries, like India and Thailand, took similar action over decades ago. We, unfortunately, do not collect even 50 percent of the foreign exchange that comes in today, and it is time that we put a dragnet like in the period before 1977.
Of the period 1948 to 1977, an exception is the period 1974 to 1977, when there were shortages due to the Government de-emphasising agricultural development in order to have their own Divisional Development Councils Programme, and embarking on land reform which stifled development and caused foreign sanctions. Even Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike managed to make all demanded payments and managed without falling into foreign debt. 1976 and 1977 happen to be the last years when our country was run without a deficit. Since then annually our foreign debt has increased and is at $ 56 billion today.
Thus, the manner in which we handled the economy in the pre-1977 period is a tried and tested blueprint that worked successfully for nearly two decades, and this is the only way we could get out of the present mire.
Dr. Karunaratne is the author of Author of How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka and Alternative Programmes of Success: Godage, 2006 and How the IMF Sabotaged Third World Development: Kindle/Godage, 2017.
1972: Another in a history of missed opportunities
1972 Construction in Retrospect – II
By Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne,
In the two earlier parts of this article, the writer dealt with the Constituent Assembly process that led to the First Republican Constitution and how the Constitution led to constitutionalising majoritarianism in multi-cultural Sri Lanka. In a country with a history of missed opportunities, 1972 was another.
A noteworthy feature of the 1972 Constitution is the recognition of fundamental rights. Principles of State Policy contained in another chapter were to guide the making of laws and the governance of Sri Lanka. But these Principles did not confer legal rights and were not enforceable in a court of law.
The fundamental rights guaranteed by the 1972 Constitution, however, were mainly civil and political rights: equality and equal protection, freedom from arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty and security of person, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom to enjoy and promote one’s culture, freedoms of assembly, association, speech and expression, movement and residence and freedom from discrimination in appointments in the public sector. But all these rights were subject to such restrictions as the law may prescribe in the interests of national unity and integrity, national security, national economy, public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of rights and freedoms of others or giving effect to the Principles of State Policy.
Thus, even the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of life and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion could be restricted. While Principles of State Policy did not confer legal rights, fundamental rights could be restricted to give effect to such principles. In several cases, the Constitutional Court held that impugned provisions of Bills that were prima facie inconsistent with fundamental rights were nevertheless for the purposes of giving effect to Principles of State Policy. It is hard to see the rationale for permitting fundamental rights, which bind all organs of government, to be restricted in the interests of Principles of State Policy which are only for guidance in law-making and governance and are not enforceable.
Much has been said about the new constitution not having a provision equivalent to section 29 (2) of the Soulbury Constitution. While the fundamental right to equality and equal protection was a safeguard against discrimination, it was subject to wide restrictions, unlike section 29 (2), which was absolute. Also, section 29 (2) was in the nature of a group right. Although it was not as effective as it was expected to be, as was demonstrated by the failure to invoke it to prevent the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Hill-Country Tamils, numerically smaller ethnic and religious groups nevertheless felt comfortable that it existed, at least on paper. They saw its omission from the 1972 Constitution as a move towards majoritarianism, especially in the context that Sri Lanka was declared a unitary state, Buddhism given the foremost place, and Sinhala declared to be the only official language.
With the ‘Republic pledged to realise the objectives of a socialist democracy’, the non-inclusion of second-generation human rights based on the principles of social justice and public obligation is puzzling. Important examples of such rights that could have been included are the right to just and favourable conditions of work, equal work for equal pay, right to rest and leisure as an employee, right to free elementary education, right to food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services and right to special care and assistance for mothers and children.
Section 18 (3) of the 1972 Constitution provided that all existing laws shall operate notwithstanding any inconsistency with fundamental rights. This was in sharp contrast to the Constitution of India, which provides in Article 13 (1) that all laws in force before the commencement of the Constitution, in so far as they are inconsistent with fundamental rights, shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void. The 1972 Constitution did not provide for a special jurisdiction of a court for the enforcement of fundamental rights against the executive arm of the State. Theoretically, fundamental rights could have been enforced through writs in public law as well as through actions for damages, declaratory actions and injunctions in civil courts. There is only one known fundamental rights case under the 1972 Constitution, Gunaratne v People’s Bank, a declaratory action arising out of the famous bank strike of the 1970s.
Constitutionality of legislation
A significant feature of the 1972 Constitution was that, unlike under the Independence Constitution, a law could not be challenged for constitutionality. Post-enactment judicial review of legislation was thus taken away. Chapter X provided for pre-enactment judicial review. A Bill could be challenged in the Constitutional Court within a week of it being placed on the agenda of the National State Assembly (NSA).
A Bill which is, in the view of the Cabinet of Ministers, urgent in the national interest shall be referred to the Constitutional Court which shall communicate its advice to the Speaker as expeditiously as possible and in any case within twenty-four hours of the assembling of the Court.
An argument against post-enactment judicial review is that there should be certainty as regards the constitutionality of legislation. However, no serious problems have arisen in jurisdictions where post-enactment judicial review is permitted. To mitigate hardships that may be caused by legal provisions being struck down years later, the Indian Supreme Court has used the tool of ‘prospective over-ruling,’ limiting the retrospective effect of a declaration of invalidity in appropriate cases. Section 172 of the South African Constitution expressly permits such limitation.
Post-enactment judicial review is an essential tool to prevent infringement of constitutional provisions by legislative action. The effect of most legislative provisions is felt only when they are being enforced. Another argument in favour of post-enactment judicial review is that the people are able to get the benefit of the latest judicial interpretation of a constitutional provision. There have been many instances of obviously unconstitutional provisions going unchallenged. Provisions relating to urgent Bills have been abused by successive administrations. An urgent Bill is referred directly to the Supreme Court by the President even without a Gazette notification. Such a Bill is not tabled in Parliament before such reference and even Members of Parliament would not know the contents of such a Bill.
Under the Independence Constitution, the Chief Justice, the Judges of the Supreme Court and Commissioners of Assize were appointed by the Head of State, on the advice of the Prime Minister. The 1972 Constitution made no change in that regard.
In relation to other judicial officers, however, the provisions of the new constitution were very unsatisfactory.
Since 1946, the appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of judicial officers had been vested in a Judicial Service Commission consisting of the Chief Justice, a Judge of the Supreme Court and another person who is or has been a Judge of the Supreme Court.
The 1972 Constitution provided for a five-member Judicial Services Advisory Board (JSAB) and a three-member Judicial Services Disciplinary Board (JSDB), both headed by the Chief Justice. A list of persons recommended for appointment as judicial officers and state officers exercising judicial functions would be forwarded by the JSAB to the Cabinet of Ministers, which was the appointing authority. The Cabinet reserved for itself the right to appoint a person not recommended by the JSAB, subject to the proviso that the full list of JSAB-recommended names and the reasons for non-acceptance of anyone so recommended were tabled in the NSA. Dismissal and disciplinary control were exercised by the JSDB, which was required to forward a report to the Cabinet through the Minister of Justice and a copy transmitted to the Speaker. A judicial officer could also be removed for misconduct by the President on an address by the NSA. J.A.L. Cooray considered the changes effected by the 1972 Constitution to be hardly compatible with the independence of the judicial function. (Constitutional and Administrative Law of Sri Lanka, 2nd edn, 69).
Under the Independence Constitution, the Permanent Secretary of each ministry was subject to the general direction and control of the Minister in exercising supervision over the departments coming under the ministry. The 1972 Constitution made no change to this position except to include institutions, such as corporations, within the ambit of the relevant provision.
Before 1972, the appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of public officers were vested in a Public Service Commission appointed by the Governor-General. This position was changed, and the powers were taken over by the Cabinet of Ministers. Appointments were made after receiving recommendations from a State Services Advisory Board. The power of appointment could be delegated to the Minister concerned or by the Minister, in turn, to any state officer. The power of disciplinary control and dismissal was exercised after receiving a recommendation from the State Services Disciplinary Board.
The UF no doubt considered the bureaucracy to be obstructionist and wished the public service to be available to the government to accelerate socio-economic development. This is understandable. As Radhika Coomaraswamy has argued in Sri Lanka, The Crisis of the Anglo-American Constitutional Traditions in a Developing Society, the framers of the 1972 Constitution considered the checks and balances contained in the 1947 Constitution appearing to obstruct decision-making, perpetuating a status quo of privilege and domination. But rather than including appropriate constitutional provisions to ensure that political decisions were carried out by the bureaucracy, the entire public service was placed under the control of the political executive, eroding the independence that it enjoyed.
Legality and legitimacy of the Constitution
1972 was undoubtedly a legal revolution. According to L. J. M. Cooray, the question of the legality of the process followed does not arise. ‘One might just as well ask: Was the American War of Independence legal? The Constituent Assembly of Sri Lanka was part of a revolution, which aimed at overthrowing the existing constitution.’ As to the ‘legality’ of the new Constitution, Cooray stated: ‘It could be answered by posing the question: Does the stigma of illegality apply to the United States Constitution or to the Bill of Rights and the Acts of Settlement which followed the 1699 Revolution [of Britain]?’ A constitution becomes legal in the course of time if it is accepted by the people, the courts and the administration. This requirement was fulfilled in respect of the 1972 Constitution, Cooray opines. Constitutional Government in Sri Lanka, 1796-1977 (Lake House 1984) 246-247.
Legality apart, did the 1972 Constitution have the necessary legitimacy? With all political parties agreeing on the Constituent Assembly process, it was a unique opportunity to adopt a constitution that had the support of the people at large. But, instead, the United Front imposed upon the country a constitution of its choice.
Rather than impose its will on the Constituent Assembly, the UF should have accommodated the views of the various parties that answered its call to take the Constituent Assembly route. Such accommodation would have given greater legitimacy to the 1972 Constitution. That ‘legitimacy deficit’ of the 1972 Constitution no doubt helped J. R. Jayewardene, who succeeded the liberal-minded Dudley Senanayake as the leader of the UNP, to impose his own will in turn in the form of the 1978 Constitution with which the country is still straddled.
While the complete break from the British Crown, retention of the parliamentary form of government, the introduction of a fundamental rights chapter and declaration of principles of state policy were undoubtedly laudable, the 1972 Constitution also paved the way for majoritarianism and undermining of the concepts of the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution.
1972 was also a historic opportunity to accommodate the diversity and pluralism of the people of Sri Lanka in state power and resolve the language question, an opportunity that tragically was missed. If the United Front had met the Federal Party halfway, the history of this country might have been significantly different.
Stay, Gota, STAY!
by Dr Asoka Weerakkody
Nobody knows how the signature battle cry of the suffering masses ‘GOTA GO HOME’ started or by whom. But by now it is everywhere including on the back of three-wheelers, which is the high altar of social comment in Sri Lanka. The other day I found one even on a ‘higher’ plane; on the small traditional budu-ge in a house in our village, just beneath the offered flowers, was the message, GOTA GO HOME!
At first, the protests erupted spontaneously and independently throughout the country by the masses who had had enough. Whereas these were ad hoc, the march on Galle Face became THE permanent site of protest against a corrupt government that had also become inept. Whereas masses will put up with the corrupt, it will not with the inept, and certainly not with the disastrous combination.
At first, the young protesters were the darlings of every free-thinking man and woman in the country, of the society elders and of the religious leaders. Their strength was their spontaneity, indefatigability and especially their apolitical nature.
There are worrying signs that the once-blooming flower of the ‘Sri Lankan Spring’ is wilting. Is it going the same way as the Pohottuwa?
In today’s world of mass communication, no protest movement can remain apolitical for long. Sooner than later, they will be consumed and become controlled by the dark forces of extremism, on the far left (or the far right). Be it the Black Lives Matter marches, the LGBT rights marches or the environmental protests, fate is the same. Whereas the original marches were spontaneous and peaceful, those which followed became violent and destructive. After such a destructive spree across Pittsburgh, USA, one distraught Black man wailed, ‘they vandalised and ransacked my shop. I don’t know where they came from. They are not from here. They are not even Black’.
We went for a walk around the Gota Go Gama before it was attacked. One could not but admire the dedication and the staying power of these youngsters, camping in the sun and the rain, and shouting slogans, till they become hoarse. However, one could also see a comprehensive organization behind the face of spontaneity. And a lot of funds seemed to be pouring in. From where? The Aragalaya, which is accusing the members of the government of receiving funds from dubious sources, must itself be open about its own sources of funding if it were to remain credible.
For e.g., one sight caught my eye. Set back from all that froth and fury in the street, there was a very long orderly queue of people. First, I wondered whether it was for toilets! No, it turned out to be the queue for food – biriyani, provided free! There is something incongruous about this. Who is spending vast amounts of money to provide same – and more importantly, why?
The novelty of the Aragalaya is that it is largely driven by young people who have hitherto been apolitical and fiercely independent.Whereas this was true at the beginning, there are disturbing signs that it is no longer the case:
The slogans they shout do not sound spontaneous but orchestrated. This is also evident in the ‘sister’ protests in the provinces. They are reading from a script, the leader as well as the chorus – rather like schoolchildren practising for a play.
(In contrast to those of the weather-beaten farmers: ‘we don’t need your handouts. Just give us fertiliser. We will do the rest’) Once the camps in Galle Face were destroyed by the MR goons, they were re-built in no time. Who provided the funds and the organisation for this? When the leaders of the Opposition came to inspect the carnage left by the MR goons, Sajith Premadasa was hooted, attacked and had to be rescued, whereas the JVP leader was welcomed. Non-party? Apolitical? How is it that within hours of Gota Go Gama being attacked, houses and offices of government MPs were looted and burned by mobs, in widely different parts of the country? This was obviously done according to a pre-planned list. Some of the affected members never came anywhere near the Temple Trees.
Gota Go Home – and then what?
People who shout themselves hoarse have not stopped to contemplate the above question. The phrase has become a meaningless sound bite rather than a genuine demand for change. If one is demanding to get rid of something, one must have a clear idea of a credible alternative. The shouting masses have none. They have become mouthpieces of the anarchists in the background, who simply want disorder.
Sadly, the Parliamentary Opposition is no better. The response of the SJB and in particular that of Sajith P has been pathetic. Whereas he is good at working himself to apoplexy that Gota should go, he is blissfully silent on what happens next. When MR resigned, as the Leader of the Opposition, he was the natural heir. Yet he was pussy-footing around and drawing up some absurd ‘conditions’ for him to accept the mantle. Maybe he believed he was the only ‘suitor in town’. When the word got around that Ranil was going to be sworn in, he panicked and sent an urgent message to the President that after all, he was ready to be sworn in next morning. Too late. Ranil has already ‘run away’ with the bride and was already honeymooning.
All those who are demanding ‘Gota Go Home’ simply have no idea of its consequences. It is sad to see some responsible society and religious leaders, who should know better making the same demand. According to the Constitution (Clause 31.3.a.1) the President cannot call for an election before the expiry of four years of his term. If he dies in office or resigns, the PM will serve out the term (as D B Wijetunga did when R Premadasa was killed). Next in line to succession to the interim Presidency, is the Speaker! God help us!
Similar provisions in the Constitution prohibit the dissolving of the Parliament before the expiry of four years. Even more idiotic demand of the Galle Face crowd is for ‘all 225’ to go. If they do, it would be a one-man Presidential rule in the interim. Is that acceptable?
The only way to elect a new President or a new Parliament, is for the current one to approve such by a 2/3rds majority. Can you see turkeys voting for Christmas? In any event, is this the time to hold an election? What madness is this?
The crying need of the hour is a stable government, followed by Law and Order. The need for the former was brilliantly expressed by the new Governor of the CB (paraphrasing): ‘For heaven’s sake give me government, any government as long as it is stable. The foreign aid agencies demand it. Nothing will be forthcoming without a stable government. Otherwise, I might as well pack up and go back’.
Ranil has offered to provide same while others are too busy talking. For heaven’s sake, let us give the man a chance! We need a war-time mentality. Political legitimacy is less important now than a willingness to put one’s head on the block, experience and international recognition and respect. Ranil has all these. Some amuse themselves by mocking that he did not win his own seat; they must ask themselves, how did the lot who won 2/3rds of the seats perform? To those who questioned his legitimacy, he has correctly invoked Churchill, who would never have become the PM had it not been for the war. Fellow Tories did not like him and hated his guts. He became the wartime leader only because the Labour leader Attlee told the Sovereign that Churchill was the only Tory, he was willing to serve under.
Now is the time for all politicians of ability to come forward and support the new interim government. Let them stop preaching and start working. The likes of Harsha de Silva, instead of touring TV studios national and international, should come forward and show what he can do, rather than preach. Unfortunately, the supine and introspective leadership of the SJB prevents him and others from doing so. SP is behaving like the proverbial dog on the haystack. Some have already dared to break free. I hope others would follow.
The new interim government must publish a road map with an approximate timeline on how they plan to get us out of this mire.
The President must stick his head out of his tortoise shell and make a definitive statement to the effect that:
He is NOT going, but staying to sort out his own mess;
He has electoral legitimacy bestowed upon him by the people and this could only be taken away by the very same people and not by a motley of people shouting slogans in the street, however upset or loud they may be;
Along with legitimacy comes responsibility; while apologizing for the past errors, he firmly intends to fulfil his responsibility and live up to the oath he took under the Sri Maha Bodhi;
He is happy to work with anybody who is willing and able to achieve this end;
When the time is ripe, he will call for elections;
In the meantime, he firmly intends to take back control of the streets from the mobs – spontaneous or orchestrated, so that peaceful civilian life will prevail;
Looting and destruction of the property will be firmly dealt with and any looters will be shot on sight.
The religious and society-elders should cut down on pontificating on the TV and offer their advice to the new government, even if behind the scenes. They must also desist from continuing to provide unqualified support and solidarity to the protesters at the Gota Go Gama and preach to them about the realities of life as opposed to the ideal and fanciful.
The TV channels should stop rushing camera crews to wherever there is trouble and disorder and from playing such images over and over again, ad nauseam. This could only provoke copy-cat episodes. Internationally, now we need positive images of cooperation and collaboration instead of negative and destructive ones.
The ex-pats must help by sending in dollars through the banking system and start talking positively about our country, rather than keep shaking our heads in despair.
So, what of the Aragalaya?
This is my message to the well-intentioned but misguided youth at the Gota Go Gama.
We salute your dedication and energy. Your efforts did make a difference. After all, you did manage to get rid of MR and his corrupt Cabinet (although your slogan was different)
But now is the time to STOP. Your slogans are beginning to sound silly. When you say ‘Gota go home’, ‘Ranil go home’, ‘all 225 go home’, who would be left to run the country? You?
Although up to now you have been the darlings of the media and lovable David of the masses, the TV channels would not keep sending crews to film you. The news agenda will move on (as it always does), and you will be demoted from the headlines to ‘news in brief’. Once the fuel starts flowing, people will be busy getting along with their lives. You will become an object of curiosity to the passers-by.
You are no longer in control, but being controlled. You are no longer telling, but being told. From an admirable patriotic protest, you are becoming a pantomime. Without realizing you have lost your two biggest strengths – being spontaneous and independent.
You have now become the visible arm of a dark invisible anarchic hard-left movement.
Finally:Children, it was good while it lasted. You had your say. You had your fun (and biriyani). All this time, you have been telling everyone else to ‘Go Home’. Now, the time has come for YOU, to:
Dr Asoka Weerakkody
Recent political violence and its consequences
By Dr Laksiri Fernando
The government was directly involved in instigating political violence against peaceful protestors on 9 May, consequences of which had to be reaped within hours even those who are not directly involved in such action from the government side. Given the economic crisis and foreign exchange difficulties the country is facing at present, the consequences of these violent events that would badly affect the image of the country and the people. Sri Lanka has emerged as a violent country among foreign observers and critiques.
There were instances in the past that some ministers were involved particularly in attacks on ethnic minorities (1983). There was election violence where almost all parties were involved. The country is also notorious for a longstanding separatist movement with political violence as the main mode of operation. In 1971, there was a youth insurrection which reemerged in the late 1980s in a more sectarian manner. In April 2019, Sri Lanka became a target of Islamic State, with both local and international roots.
Reasons for Increasing Violence
During the initial years of independence, Sri Lanka was a peaceful country. Even the independence movement was characteristically peaceful without going into extremes. Except some incidents, related to worker’s strikes, the country was by and large peaceful and appreciated by many observers and commentators overseas. The situation dramatically changed in late 1960s giving rise to a strong leftwing organisation, the JVP. Even if the old-left parties were advocating ‘class struggle,’ no organisation had any military wing or anything like that.
Then, what went wrong since the 1970s? ‘Frustration-aggression’ theory could be one explanation. This is also the case in recent events beginning with farmers’ protests opposing the fertiliser ban. There were more broader reasons than ‘frustration’ or ‘relative deprivation.’ When it came to long queues and shortages in cooking gas, petrol, kerosene, diesel, medicine, and other basic amenties, the ‘relative deprivation’ turned into a ‘absolute deprivation.’ Most devastating was power cuts. All these happened within a context of high inflation where the value of people’s salaries and income became absolutely depreciated.
There were broader social reasons. Population explosion with young people becoming large both in numbers and as a proportion, widespread graduate and educated unemployment, dysfunctional education, the gap between rural and urban areas widening both in economic and social terms are some of them. Constitutional instability with amendments like 18A, 19A, 20A, back and forth, also contributed immensely for the youth to join militant political organisations and trade/student unions.
Can any of the reasons, however, justify political violence that became unleashed in the country in the recent past or before? Perhaps it is a common dilemma in many countries that human beings have a propensity to violence, ranging from mild verbal aggression to physical violence and vicious murder and everything in between. Aggression patterns, however, vary from country to country, age to age, and male to female. It is a fact that women are less violent than their male counterparts.
From PM’s Office
It was a Monday. Background was for the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, given the increasing protests and because of obvious failures. With the organization of MP Johnston Fernando and others, hundreds of people were rallied around the PMs official residence, the Temple Trees. Soon the PM asked the people to come in and addressed them in an aggressive manner.
The PM asked whether he should resign, and the crowed shouted ‘No.’ They were shouting, ‘Whose power, Mahinda’s power.’ ‘That means I don’t need to resign,’ he replied. He has further said “You know in politics I have always been on the side of the country. On the side of the people … I am willing to make any sacrifice for the people’s benefit.”
Johnston Fernando, the government’s whip, was more aggressive and violent. “Let’s start the fight. If the President can’t handle the situation, he should hand over power to us. We will clear Galle Face.” The crowd cheered. Another person who was closely involved was Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son.
Some of the people who were prominently involved in organising the meeting were Johnston Fernando, Sanath Nishantha, Milan Jayathilake, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sanjeeva Edirimanna, Saman Lal Fernando, Mahinda Kahandagama, Dan Priyasad, and their supporters. Western Province DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon was clearly involved as an accomplice.
The objectives of the gathering were extremely clear. It is difficult to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa was unaware. During the apparent lack of interference of the police at Galle Face, his intervention was very clear on the side of the attackers.
SLPP goons wreaking havoc on the Galle Face protest site
Attacks and Counter Attacks
There were two sites that were particularly attacked. While there are different names, the most popular being ‘Gota-Go-Gama’ and ‘Mina-Go-Gama.’ Apart from around 200 people who were brutally attacked, their platforms, tents, placards, and flags were destroyed. Some people were thrown into the Beira-lake. Whatever the extremes of their slogans and demands, the above protest sites were prominent as peaceful protests.
It is strange to see, however, within hours of the above incidents, over 40 houses of the government supporters, including MPs, were attacked, and burnt down destroying some of the personal valuables. Ten people were killed in the incidents. Below is one incident that Al Jazeera reported.
“Earlier in the day, legislator Amarakeerthi Athukorala from the ruling party shot two people – killing a 27-year-old man – after being surrounded by a mob in Nittambuwa, about 40 km (25 miles) from Colombo, police said. CCTV footage showed the MP and his security officer fleeing into a nearby building. They were later found dead.”i
Of course, there are contradictory and different interpretations of the incidents. However, it is difficult to deny the involvement of some form of political activists. Who are they? Geetha Kumarasinghe narrated her ordeal in the following manner in Parliament.
“When they were attacking my home, I was trembling in fear and was hiding in a corner of a room. What wrong have I done? I have never hurt anyone. I have sacrificed everything to engage in politics and serve my people. I slogged and slaved in cinema and won many awards through sheer dedication and hard work. They destroyed all my trophies and awards. Why? Why did these young people do this to me? I can never get my awards and trophies back. You all have mothers, I am also a mother, why did you do this to me?” she sobbed.
Who Indulged in Violence?
One side is very clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Johnstone Fernando, and Namal Rajapaksa were clearly on one side. But who were on the other side?
The JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, recently admitted or claimed that “Our party has been there right from the beginning. We have our youth, cultural, student and women wings, at the Galle Face.” Of course, there were other groups and more independent ones. Silva’s attitude towards politics and other parties also became clear when he referred to heckling of the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, when he visited the Galle Face protest site. Silva said the following.
“Everybody should be careful. People hate to see politicians travelling in luxury cars with security contingents. People detested the politicians’ attitude of trying to stay above them. The Opposition Leader went there in his luxury vehicles with his security guards and henchmen. So, he had to face the wrath of the people.”
Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in Parliament, denied any involvement of the JVP in house attacks and counter violence. He may be true to his conscience. There is a possibility that within the JVP itself that there are two wings operating. Tilvin Silva’s words remind us of the JVPs aggressive and violent past.
Dilemma of Violence
Violence appears to continue. There was a recent incident of people or groups attacking and burning a house of an owner of a fuel station. Undoubtedly there are extreme grievances on the part of the people due to fuel shortages and high prices of consumer items, including essential medicine. However, none of these reasons could justify political violence unleashed by the government or the opposition politicians.
There may be deep seated reasons why people in the country are extremely violent. Some of the reasons may go to the educational system and the way students are taught in schools and universities. Some reasons may be rooted in the family institution or even religion. Political culture in the country does appear to be extremely distorted or lopsided and change of which should come from all sectors of the political society. What might be important in the meanwhile are:
Deplore strongly political violence of all forms.
Request the new national government to ameliorate people’s economic grievances.
Punish those who have involved or instigated violence without discrimination.
Establish rule of law and impartiality of the public and security services.
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