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Nihal Seneviratne’s memories of 33 years in Parliament

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Nihal Seneviratne presenting a copy of his book to former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Also in the picture are Prof. Savithri Gunasekera, DEW Gunasekera and Eran Wickremarathne

by Prasanna Cooray

‘Memories of 33 years in Parliament”, a memoire by the former Secretary General of Parliament, Nihal Seneviratne, hale and hearty at the age of 88, was launched on 30 April (Saturday) evening at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute auditorium with the participation of a large gathering of distinguished guests. Former speaker Karu Jayasuriya presided over the event, where the former speaker DEW Gunasekera, MP Eran Wickremarathne, Prof. Savithri Gunasekera and Dr. Rohan Petiyagoda spoke.

The book is a fascinating and informative read, reminiscing of the major events that unfolded during Seneviratne’s one and only vocation, as a parliamentary administrator for over 33 long years.

Seneviratne’s illustrious career began in 1961 as a second clerk assistant in the Parliament (then housed at the present day Presidential Secretariat at the Galle Face). Then as a youth of 27 years of age, soon out of the university, he was groomed by the likes of L.P. Deraniyagala, Sam Wijesinhe (both his predecessors in the highest position) and Bertie Coswatte, till he assumed office as Secretary General in 1981, the post he held till May 1994.

The role played by the parliamentary staff, risking their life and limb to safeguard democracy in the country at times, could be selfless. This is exactly what the Parliament experienced when a JVP activist hurled a hand grenade during a Parliament group meeting; an MP and a staff member died while scores of others sustained injuries in August 1987. The incident is described lucidly by the author in one of the early chapters, under the title “Hand Grenade Attack in Parliament”. That goes down the history as the most ghastly act ever experienced by the Sri Lankan Parliament.

“Learning Parliamentary Practice & Procedure”

speaks about the nitty-gritty in the making of a steadfast parliamentary administrator. It is also interesting to note that the very first task assigned to young Seneviratne, on assuming duties was to take an MP into custody. This was in relation to the parliamentarian KMP Rajarathne fasting in the Parliament. Seneviratne promptly attended to his task by studying the practice related to ‘imprisoning’ an MP, as stipulated in the British law, and came out with the plan the same day. I wonder whether the present day administrators would ever dare take such a bold step even when the floor of the Parliament is in absolute mayhem, with the throwing of chairs and chilli powder.

About the impeachment motion against President R. Premadasa (in August 1991), Seneviratne says that was the most secretive activity that ever took place in the parliament. He had not been aware of it till very late; he also could not lay his hands on a copy of the impeachment document. Interestingly, even the Parliament does not possess a copy of that document.

The book also gives an account of a similar incident when Sirimavo Bandaranaike government was toppled by just one vote following the crossover of 17 MPs from the government side to the opposition in July 1960. Then Leader of Opposition JR Jayewardene was the mastermind of this move.

Seneviratne was also the officer to oversee the relocation of the Parliament from the Galle Face to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, a fact that he reminisces with great pride. He recaps the memories of this transfer and the prowesses of the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa who designed the building complex.

Among the other important events of yesteryear, involving the Parliament recalled by Seneviratne, include abolishing of civic rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike (in October 1980), takeover of the Lake House Group of Newspapers following the publicity it gave to the funeral of the late Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake (in April 1973) and the trial of two journalists (namely, Harold Peiris and Philip Cooray) for publishing a wrong picture and a caption for a news item involving then Foreign Minister ACS Hameed (in 1978). All these incidents, products of abuse of majority power have been against the true spirit of democracy the Parliament ought to protect.

Seneviratne also recollects a most unusual event ever to have happened in the chamber. A stranger, clad in spotless national dress, almost sworn in as a Member of Parliament, at an opening session of a new Parliament after a general election in the sixties. Seneviratne, diligently had observed an unfamiliar new face among the many new faces, approached him and asked which constituency he represents. He had answered “Mulkirigala”, of which George Rajapaksa was the representative whom Seneviratne knew well. That cleared his doubt and led to the arrest of the intruder. Later, it was revealed that he was an escapee from the mental hospital Angoda.

Seneviratne has not even spared some of the witty verbal jabs that were shared by the parliamentarians of his time. Dudley Senanayake, making mockery of his Opposition counterpart Maithripala Senanayake’s nationalistic sentiments while being a husband to a Tamil wife quipped “He believes Sinhala only by day and the reasonable use of Tamil at night”, recollects Seneviratne. He recapitulates few more such witty comments in the chapter “Some witty sayings of Parliamentarians”, to the much amusement of the reader.

The parliamentarians of yesteryear Seneviratne handpicked for special mention in his book include Dr. NM Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Dr. SA Wickremasinghe, Sarath Muttetuwegama, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Anura Bandaranaike.

Seneviratne’s wonderful book is a must read for the readers interested in political history of this country. Had the events been ordered chronologically that would have helped the reader to traverse the past with less effort I thought while reading.

“Memories of 33 years in Parliament” is a Sarasavi publication.



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Opinion

1972: Another in a history of missed opportunities

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‘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.’

1972 Construction in Retrospect – II

By Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne,

President’s Counsel

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.

Fundamental rights

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.

Judiciary

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).

Public service

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.

Concluding remarks

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.

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Opinion

Stay, Gota, STAY! 

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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.

But, now?

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?

Non-party? Apolitical?

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.

What now?

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:

GO HOME!

Dr Asoka Weerakkody

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Opinion

Recent political violence and its consequences

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A house of an SLPP politician on fire after a mob attack

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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