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Shared Values and Democracy in Asia

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Ex-Prez Sirisena on “Shared Values and Democracy in Asia,”

Excellencies, Distinguished Participants, Ladies, and Gentlemen, Good afternoon Let me at the outset congratulate Excellency Suga Yoshihide, the Prime Minister of our cherished friend-Japan. I am extremely happy to address the Symposium on “Shared Values and Democracy in Asia,” following him, and Excellency Shree Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India- our great neighbour and friend.

I am reminded of the San Francisco Conference after the Second World War, where Excellency J R Jayewardene, our then Finance Minister, staunchly stood for Japan. Quoting from Dhammapada, he said, “We extend to Japan a hand of friendship, and trust… her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity.” Japan has achieved that wish. I consider the invitation to me echoes that friendship and trust.

Since Buddhist teachings mentor governance in Sri Lanka, I will initially touch upon how democratic and Buddhist values tally. Lord Buddha, emphasized the Sathara Sangraha Vasthu on treating the subjects. They were: dana (attached to giving-up and sharing), Priya Vachana (kind speech leading to mutual understanding), arthacharya (frugality and spirituality), and of samanatmatha (equality in dispensing justice without fear or favor). They are compatible with democratic governance principles.

Additionally, the Dasa Raja Dharma explains the virtues of the Buddhist ideal of Kingship. Democratic governance qualities are symbolized in them. For example, Dana projects to welfare, seela to morality, avihimsa to non-hatred, Shanthi to patience.

 

The Constitution of Sri Lanka ends with the following invocation:

‘Devo Vassatukalena

Sassasampatthi hetu cha

Phito bhavatu loko cha

Raja bhavatu dhammiko’

 

It meant: “May the rains be on time, may the farmers have a plentiful harvest, may the people prosper, and may the King be just.” The understanding is that as a consequence, the prosperity our governments wish is embedded in nature and the principles of good governance. This is how the Buddhist criteria bind with Sri Lankan governance

In my long political career, I successfully achieved peace, equality, freedom of expression, justice, etc., which are shared common values of democracy and Buddhism. In the first year in office of President itself, I shed the extraordinary powers of the presidency through a constitutional amendment. Appointments were made to the Superior Judiciary, membership of Human Rights, Public Service, Elections, and Police Commissions, etc., in a depoliticized and democratic manner.

Politics, when viewed from a lens of Machiavellian angle, one may comprehend that shedding unlimited power is foolish. Since a true democrat represents people he should follow his vision, not for his empowerment. I shed power knowing the potential personal loss. It was believing from the bottom of my heart the value of victorious democratic values.

During my presidency, a strong Right to Information Act was legalized. It was a victory for democratic values and human freedom.

As a father, I cannot imagine grief for a parent in a life that surpasses, seeing, hearing, the death or disappearance of a child. Respecting reconciliation, the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons and Office for Reparations was evidence for our shared democratic and humanitarian values. These echoed as positive democratic signals. Though I lost politically by deep rooting such democratic, humanitarian pillars, by fertilizing humanity I enjoyed incessant satisfaction.

In global politics, parallelly there are selfish efforts to exterminate these values. Some countries retreat from democracy to semi-authoritarianism, and even authoritarianism. Some leaders have withdrawn from humanitarian stances to the chagrin of champions of democracy. Sometimes it is despicable to observe how some democratic governments treat their minority communities, denying welfare and fundamental rights, behaving abusively, with hatred-in words and deeds. These are negative signals.

If we inquire into the root-causes for positive and negative signals, it transpires that they are symmetrically related to sharing or not-sharing democratic values. Even today these differentiations happen everywhere. Though this Symposium is Asia-centric, due to this universal spread, it transforms into an exercise of global value, validity, and appropriateness.

What is the clientele group affected by these values? One may say they belong to the politicians’ category. As President Barack Obama once stated in a democracy it is the citizen who is most important. I also believe that the citizen should be the owner and recipient of democratic values.

Therefore, citizens’ demands are the most important. What could be enjoyed by the citizen is the most important. It could be a multitude of challenges like upgrading the basic physical facilities, alleviating poverty, offering mental peace, erasing threats of wars and conflicts, enhancing humanitarianism and friendship with internationals, supporting the affected by disasters, saving the climate and environment for future generations, etc.

Most Symposium participants represent citizens. Since citizens are the most important factor, vigilance, constant monitoring, tending, etc become extremely important. In performing these, questioning, and scrutinizing the actions of citizens and their representatives become essential.

The checks and balances are provided in parliamentary institutions and Constitutions. The Public Accounts Committees, Petitions Committees, Standing Committees, etc., are our experiences. They are tools securing democratic values and independence.

As mentioned in the Constitution, the three pillars – the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary- can perform decent democratic balancing. If one pillar steamrolls power over the other two, it will signify the death knell of democracy.

While we discuss democratic values, it is observed that other forces act to negate democratic values.

It is observed that some world powers increasingly project authoritarian influence beyond their borders by manipulation, through global propagandizing, using third-party proxies, lavishly throwing resources, or using military alliances. The battlefields of the First World are not located on their motherlands, but lands of less powerful nations. Remote controllers of war are in faraway powerful countries, away from the war fronts. Complaints are heard that some political leaders are bought-over by powerful nations. These are threats to democratic values.

Even in the developed world in firmly established democracies, we woefully observe appeals to populism, nationalism, chauvinism, and racism attracting social attention, raising their heads above democratic values, such as transparency, cooperation, rule of law, equality, etc.

Additionally, unfortunate challenges are observed emerging under the poisonous fangs and flags of organized terrorism. They carry out unsympathetic attacks. These events exhibit that democracy is open to the challenges of extremists and they are aware of how to pierce through to destabilize democracy. Therefore, the Region needs to be prepared and be on alert.

Our borders have become unrealistic with new technological development. A situation has arisen where we cannot escape cybercrimes, terrorist attacks, atomic radiation, etc. These do not care about borders.

The economic issues created especially by forcible encroachment of borders by COVID-19 has confirmed the fear of economic destabilization. This domestic and international deprivation created by it cannot be avoided in isolation. Therefore, we require the integrated cooperation of democratic countries.

Technology has effectively increased productivity, but divorced labour. In developed countries, this can result in retrenching labour or making them poor or exploited. It skews income distribution; reduces their purchasing power. It diminishes the demand for our products in their markets. It results in unemployment in our country. When it becomes acute, and no solutions are found for their problems from democracy or globalization, people degrade both and suspect them. The consequences are dangerous.

American President-elect Joe Biden once declared “Globalization has not been an unalloyed good. It has deepened the rift between those racing ahead at the top and those struggling to hang on in the middle or falling to the bottom.” With COVID 19, the status has worsened. As the new American President, we look forward to him and other developed nations for responses to us in Asia to escape from globalization impacts and the stresses of COVID-19.

If the common man does not receive positive responses, demagogues, cunning saviours, and charlatans will get opportunities to rouse people’s fear, win their vote and manipulate to divorce them from democratic values, instead of sharing democratic values.

They will attack democratic values. They will rouse emotional sentiments, deceive poverty-stricken, innocent, naïve people, and manipulate to gain political power. The powerful States, having trapped poor governments financially, may finally attempt to coerce those governments to execute anti-democratic procedures.

They will belittle freedom of expression; hack communication networks; delegitimize the independent judiciary, hamstring civil society by disparaging them as spies; use the internet and social media to disseminate misinformation and exacerbate internal divisions, etc. These deteriorate democratic values.

What we require is to develop democratic values to face future situations.

I may exemplify influences on one democratic value. The foundation of democracy lies in election systems. Having supported various political groups and elevating them to power we repent when we find them oriented to authoritarianism, and fail in solving peoples’ problems. The correct choice is the voters’ responsibility. Hence, it is important to educate the voters’ democratic social responsibility, their power, rights, obligations, and organizational processes.

Some developed countries complain of foreign interventions to electoral processes. This could be faced by any country. To counter, it is necessary to establish transparent monitoring systems on election functions and financing, money laundering processes, strengthening election-related institutions, the establishment of anti-corruption institutions, etc.

To achieve optimal results, steps should be taken to assist through democratic processes. Multilateral organizations such as the United Nations should motivate the weak parties. It is necessary to support the pulse-racing institutions in our societies such as the rule of law, protection from poverty, good governance, invasions, and pandemics, etc.

Our commitment should truly exhibit our acceptance of values such as equality, dignity, respect to the rule of law, honouring the independence of the Judiciary, balancing of separation of powers and freedoms of expression and demonstration, etc. Their outputs must reflect active democratic participation, success in democratic operations, and reduction of nasty ant- democratic violations in the society. The progress of democratic innovations and creativity are respected when everyone in the society is heard and weighed equally, citizens are empowered to hold their leaders to account through democratic institutions, no one is above the law. These processes must be our values and expectations.

Joe Biden, the American President-Elect once said that when Benjamin Franklin was exiting the Constitutional Convention, a group of citizens inquired “What kind of government the delegates had decided on?”. Benjamin Franklin had responded: “A Republic. If you can keep it.” What he meant was that there was a huge responsibility on the people to safeguard the democratic values.

Joe Biden later said: “Democracy demands diligence. Democracy demands engagement. And sometimes, democracy demands the sacrifice of its citizens.” Like for Franklin’s Republic, ‘maintaining’ a democracy is also a heavy challenge.

I believe that the participants at this symposium will commit to fulfilling the demands of diligence, engagement, and sacrifice. If we commit thus, we are certain of victory.

The nuclear disarmament and global peace champion, former Mayor of Nagasaki Ikko Itho San appealed in the Nagasaki Peace Declaration to join hands with the world’s citizens for disarmament and peace. He wished that “the bells of peace will ring loud and clear in the sky over Nagasaki.” I pray from the bottom of my heart that the ideas, recommendations, solutions, invigorating democratic values, generating from this Symposium, will one day ring loud and clear in the sky over Asia.

I wish the Symposium success.

I wish all a peaceful, happy, prosperous, and healthy New Year-2021.

Thank you very much for listening to me patiently.



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