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Sri Lanka in Lee Kuan Yew’s words



Prime Minister and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew presenting gifts to President of Sri Lanka Junius Richard (J R) Jayewardene (back to camera), who is on a one-day stopover in Singapore after attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting in Sydney, during dinner in honour of the visiting Sri Lankan leader at Mandarin Hotel in Orchard Road. Image courtesy of Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

By Hasala Perera

It is often said that Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) once considered Sri Lanka as a development model, but no one has questioned the veracity of this claim, and it will be interesting to see what he has said about Sri Lanka.

LKY’s views about Sri Lanka have been published in three books, one is his memoirs, ‘From Third World to First’, second in a compilation of his speeches titled ‘LKY -The man and his ideas’ and ‘Giants of Asia – Conversations with LKY’, which contains interviews American journalist Tom Plate had with LKY.

In his book, ‘From Third World to First’, LKY has dedicated an entire chapter to his views of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and it titled ‘South Asia’s Legends and Leaders’ and seven out of these 22 pages are devoted to Sri Lanka.

For easy reference, ‘From Third World To First’ as [1], ‘LKY – Man and his ideas’ is mentioned as [2], and ‘Giants of Asia – Conversations with LKY’ as [3] with the corresponding page number where appropriate. It is important to note here that LKY refers to the country both as Ceylon and Sri Lanka.

LKY’s first Impression

LKY visited Sri Lanka on four occasions. His first visit was in 1956 and during each visit he had happened to meet a new leader in the country.

He states that ‘Ceylon was Britain’s model commonwealth country’ [1, p 461] and that ‘Ceylon had more resources and better infrastructure than Singapore’ [1, p 460], he attributes this to Lord Mountbatten’s presence in Kandy [ibid], which could be some proof that he had a positive outlook of Sri Lanka and wished if Singapore had the same infrastructure as Sri Lanka.

He was full of praise of the capital city Colombo when he states that ‘Colombo was a better city than Singapore’ [2, pg.14/22], and he was ‘impressed by the public buildings’ in the city [1, p 460].

His View of Sri Lankan Leaders

LKY gave his opinion on six Premiers of Sri Lanka namely S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, J.R Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and on Mahinda Rajapaksa just a. few years before his death

His first visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the victory of Bandaranaike’s newly created Sri Lanka Freedom Party, he calls him a dapper little man, well dressed, articulate and a ‘Pukka Sahib’ [1, p 460] a term invented by the British to call the inhabitants of their colonies who followed their ways.

LKY says that Bandaranaike was elated to have won the election mandate from a Sinhala majority and he had promised to make Sinhalese the official language and Buddhism the state religion and did not seem troubled by the disadvantage caused by the minorities as a result of it [1, p 460], during his conversations with him he felt that Bandaranaike spoke to him as if he had still been a member of the Oxford Union debating society [1, p461], despite all his effort to be a champion of the Sinhalese Language, he states that three years later he was not surprised to hear about his assassination by a Buddhist monk [ibid].

LKY’s second visit to Sri Lanka was in 1966, when Dudley Senanayake was the prime minister of the Country, who he refers as a gentle, resigned and a fatalistic elderly man [1, p 462], while playing golf together in Colombo he describes an incident where Dudley Senanayake apologised to him about the huts, goats and cows encroached by squatters at the fairway, as he was unable to justify people for keeping open spaces in the city, unlike our present leaders Senanayake quite casually sent LKY by train from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya, where he played a game of golf and witnessed the same problem with the squatters as in Colombo [ibid]. He felt that Senanayake was a weak leader and did not have control over the citizens of the country.

When he visited Sri Lanka for the third time in 1970, the prime minister of Sri Lanka was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whom he believed had won due to a sympathy vote [1, p 461] but he describes her as a tougher, determined and less voluble leader than her husband S.W.R.D Bandaranaike [ibid]. He praises her policy on the non-aligned ideology, but he is not in favour of her policy-based decision on supporting the removal of US troops from several South East Asian Countries as he felt that Singapore could be at a disadvantage if they were removed as there was a possibility of communism taking over those countries which could have a negative impact on Singapore [ibid].

It was through one of her Cabinet Ministers Felix Dias Bandaranaike that he learnt Sri Lanka spent only 2.5% of its budget on defence [1, p 461], and the reason he gives is that Sri Lanka is “blessed” with peace and security as a result of its good fortune in geography and history. LKY calls him a bright but an ‘unprofound’ person, but despite its ‘blessings’ he ironically mentions that 10 years later Sri Lanka spends more than half of its budget on defence and arms to crush a rebellion that took place inside the Country [ibid], he is the only Sri Lankan minister ever mentioned by him.

LKY further states the futility of Mrs Bandaranaike’s decision to change the name of the country from ‘Ceylon’ to ‘Sri Lanka’ and making the country a republic as it did not improve the fortunes of the country, the best example he takes here is that Sri Lankan Tea was still been sold as Ceylon Tea [1, pg.463] as a matter of fact even to this day Sri Lankan Tea is known as Ceylon Tea. He further states that by changing names sometimes you could deceive gods, but you can’t deceive the people who live in it [2, pg.15/22]

His meeting with President J R Jayewardene took place outside Sri Lanka, which was at the CHOGRM Conference held in Sydney. He says that during this meeting Jayewardene wanted Sri Lanka to move away from socialist policies which had bankrupted the country and wanted Singapore to get involved in the development of Sri Lanka; he says that he was impressed by his practical approach which made him visit Sri Lanka for the fourth time in 1978 [1, pp 463,464].

Despite the positive outlook LKY had on President Jayewardene, as time went by he started seeing his drawbacks, the former thought that the latter’s decision to start a national airline as a symbol of progress and employ a pilot as a chairman of the newly built airline as a weakness [1, p 464]. He finally states Jayewardene retired as a tired man who had run out of solutions [1, p 465], which indicates that his opinion of Jayewardene had changed.

He calls Ranasingha Premadasa, who succeeded him a ‘Sinhala Chauvinist’ [1, p 465] and considers the latter’s decision to remove Indian Soldiers brought down during the Jayawardena government to fight the civil war as insensible [ibid]. He did not have a positive attitude towards Ranasinghe Premadasa.

A few years before his death in an interview he had given to the American journalist Tom Plate he gives his views on the former President and the incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as follows: “He thinks he has finished the war, I have read his speeches, I knew he was a Sinhalese extremist and I cannot change his mind” [3], he felt that Rajapaksa was an obstinate leader and extremist.

His View on Sri Lanka’s Economy and Management

LKY was aware that Sri Lanka was a country with wealth. ‘Sri Lanka had large Sterling Reserves’ [2, p 14/22], yet he knew that the country lacked management principles and sound policies that could one day challenge the ability to retain that wealth.

One of his first experiences was when the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake sent LKY from Colombo to Nuwara Elya by train in a special carriage, the food given on that train was ‘poisonous’, and the crab meal that was served to him was stinking and badly contaminated [1, pg.462], which showed carelessness and irresponsible management by the railway department. He went into the toilet and spewed it all [ibid].

LKY realised that Sri Lankan leaders were not intelligent in identifying priorities. When Jayewardene wanted to start an airline as he thought that it was a symbol of progress, LKY advised him that it should not be his priority because to start an airline one needed many talented and good administrators, in addition to that an airline is a glamour project and is not of great value for developing Sri Lanka [1, p 464] instead he advised the Sri Lankan President that priority should be given to other projects in the country such as irrigation, agriculture, industrial development and housing [ibid].

LKY observed the lack of meritocracy in Sri Lankan administration when Jayewardene decided to employ a pilot as a Chairman of the newly formed Airline, his simple question to him was this: ‘How can an airline pilot run an airline?’ [1, pg.464], he firmly believed that it should be done by a capable administrator. However Jayewardene insisted on it so LKY helped him to launch it in six months with the help of the staff of Singapore Airlines. This was the beginning of Air Lanka (now Sri Lankan Airlines), but it lacked a proper top management and when the newly elected chairman decided to buy certain aircraft against their advice, the Singaporean government decided to withdraw its support.

LKY foresaw that Air Lanka was doomed to fail, and he gave five reasons for it, and they were excessive capacity expansion, negative cash flow, lack of trained staff, unreliable services and insufficient passengers. [1, p 464].

LKY noticed the absence of meritocracy when he saw the condition of the tea estates here; he was very disappointed of the way tea estates were managed and criticised the locals who managed it when he states that ‘the locals who had been promoted were not good supervisors as their British predecessors’ [1, p 463], and as a result there was no strict discipline, plucking was not done appropriately and the tea plantations were in a deplorable condition’[ibid]; if responsibilities are not given based on meritocracy the industries wouldcollapse and as a result the economy of the country is doomed to fail.

LKY’s on the Education System of Sri Lanka and his visit to the Peradeniya University

LKY had a very positive view of the education system introduced by the British in Sri Lanka. He says, ‘It (Sri Lanka) had a relatively good standard of education’ [1, p 462]. He says Sri Lanka had some universities of high quality in Colombo and Kandy (Peradeniya) that was teaching in English [ibid] and before the war they had thick layer of educated talent [2, pg. 14/22], but he was disappointed at its change of medium to local languages and the standards of the education after his visit to the Peradeniya University.

LKY mentions his visit to the Peradeniya University, which he calls the University of Kandy, when he learnt from the Vice Chancellor that the medium of instruction in the university Sinhala for Sinhalese students, Tamil for students from Jaffna and English for Burgher students. [1, pg.463]

LKY asks the Vice Chancellor, ‘How can three engineers educated in three different languages build one bridge?’ And the VC replied: ‘That, Sir is a political question for the ministers to answer’ [1, p 463]. This statement showed how qualified educationists in Sri Lanka became helpless because of the decisions made by politicians.

The Vice Chancellor further mentions that all the basic textbooks which were printed in English had to be translated to Sinhala and Tamil and by the time they were translated and printed, they were three to four editions old; LKY calls this translation a slow and unwieldy process [1, p 463].

Although LKY does not mention the name of the Vice Chancellor, he describes him as a Burgher gentleman who wore a Cambridge University tie, and this description matches Professor E. O. E Periera, who held the position of the Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya University from 1969 to 1971.

Even though LKY was full of praise of the Sri Lankan education system, which was initially conducted in English, after his visit to the Peradeniya University his views changed as he witnessed the switch over from English to local languages and the helplessness of the academics.

What Sri Lanka did was the opposite of what LKY did to Universities in Singapore; he changed the medium of instruction at the Nanyang University in Singapore from Chinese to English, when he realised that it could not be done as the lecturers lacked the proper skills he merged it with the University of Singapore and thus was the beginning of the National University of Singapore [2, p 3/4], several years later reflecting about his decision he says Nanyang University no longer taught in Chinese and its graduates could easily find employment. [1, pg702].

LKY’s view on ethnic problem of Sri Lanka

LKY was very sympathetic towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka. He states that ‘they were active and intelligent fellows who worked hard and got themselves penalised as a result of the domination of the Sinhala majority’ [2, p 14/22]: ‘Sinhalese who are less capable are putting down Tamils who are more capable [3].

He was critical of Sri Lanka’s election. He mentions that ‘one-man-one-vote system did not solve a basic problem’ [1, p 462]. He believed that that the voting system did not give a fair representation. He states, ‘The majority Sinhalese could outvote the Tamils’ [Ibid] and ‘Sri Lanka is a democracy based on one citizen one vote’ [3] and he is not against democracies when they work, but he was against defending countries because of democracy [ibid].

J R Jayewardene told LKY that he was willing to give autonomy control to the Tamil people in Jaffna but later realised that he could not giveaway to the supremacy of Sinhalese to the Tamil, which led to the civil war [1, pg.464].

LKY firmly believed that a political solution was the only way to sort out the ethnic problem of Sri Lanka. During his meetings with President Premadasa he tried to convince him that the conflict could not be solved by force of arms and the political solution was the only way [1, p 465].

LKY believed that the civil war that took place in Sri Lanka destroyed the hope of a prosperous Sri Lanka for many years if not many generations [1, p 464], which is true as every successive government in Sri Lanka from the 1980s had to deal with it and despite ending the war, we are yet overcome the scars and horrors of it.

His view on reasons for Sri Lanka’s failure

LKY thought that S.W.R. D Bandaranaike’s decision to make Sinhala the national language and Buddhism the national religion as the start of the ‘unravelling’ of Ceylon [1, p 460]; he further states that the minority Tamils felt disadvantaged and disposed as a result of it [1, p 462].

He wanted English to be made the primary language of use in Singapore. ‘We inherited the English Language from the British and adopted it as our common working language’ [1, p 78] and when Singapore got independence from the British, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce wanted him to make Chinese the official language of Singapore. Although the Chinese were the majority community in Singapore and LKY was himself a Chinese, his answer to them was ‘You must be mad’. [2, pg.2/4].

LKY was against the concept of welfare. ‘Welfare undermines Self Reliance’ [1, p 126] as he believed everyone had to work. ‘The world does not owe us a living; we cannot live by the begging bowl’ [1, p 70] but successive Sri Lankan governments depended on loans and aid while the people of Sri Lanka depended on welfare and concessions.

In 1994, during a debate in the Singapore Parliament LKY asked, ‘Can you have a good government without having good men in charge?’ [2, pg13/22], his simple view was that you can’t have a good Country without good administrators and referring to Sri Lanka he states, ‘During my visits over the years I watched the promising country go to waste [1, pg.462] and it failed because they had wrong or weak leaders like the Philippines [2, p 15/22].


Was LKY aware that Sri Lanka was looking at Singapore as a model? He did, and what was his opinion about it? He says, ‘It was ‘flattering’ for Sri Lanka to model its Country from Singapore’ [1, pg464]. He knew that Sri Lanka can never be a Singapore.

LKY never wanted any prestige and honour. ‘I had no desire to rewrite the past and perpetuate ourselves by renaming streets or buildings or putting our faces on postage stamps or currency notes’. However, in Sri Lanka majority of the road names in Colombo were changed and many Prime Ministers and Presidents had their faces in postage stamps, coins and banks notes.

LKY ends the chapter on Sri Lanka in his memoir thus: “It’s sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip [sic] has given the English Language the word ‘serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness’ [1, pg.466]. According to the Oxford Dictionary the word serendipity means ‘Something interesting or pleasant happening by chance’.

In another speech, LKY states that Sri Lanka can never be put together again and somebody should have told Sri Lankans to change the system, loosen up or break off [2, pg.14/22]. Today, Sri Lankans have come on to the streets protesting the rulers to leave and change the system, something LKY expected Sri Lanka to do, or the Country would break.

A few years before his death, LKY mentioned that despite the end of the civil war ‘It (Sri Lanka) is not a happy, united country’ [3], so will Sri Lanka groom itself to be a united and a happy Country, this will be possible only if its citizens are confident in achieving it, as Lee Kwan states ‘If I have to choose one word to explain why Singapore succeeded, it is CONFIDENCE’ [1, p 87]. Hopefully, if Sri Lankans move forward with confidence, the country will be able to achieve its goal.

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Export-led economy or import substitution?



Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis. Although successive governments may have contributed to this state of affairs, the present government stands directly accused of causing a total collapse of the economy. Three main reasons are given for this sudden downturn; the drastic tax reductions, the fertiliser ban and depletion of dollars due to artificial jacking up of the rupee causing a dollar and rupee crisis. These policies may have succeeded under different circumstances but not when the country is ravaged by a pandemic. However, the inability to foresee the unsuitability of such policies at this time is the failure of our leadership and their economic advisers. There are about 54 countries which are in debt crisis at present but none of them are as hopeless as Sri Lanka.

Historically, the reason for the weakening of the economy is the fact that the expenditure on imports has been higher than the income from exports under successive governments since 1977. In 2014, Sri Lanka spent USD 19 billion on imports while the export earnings have been just USD 11 billion. To meet the difference, we had to borrow and as a result got into debt which at present is about USD 50 billion. Worse, we have been borrowing to live high, pay back loans and even for vanity projects.

Most of the developing countries are deeply in debt and often the debt is much more than their total export earnings. This is a situation that countries with export-led economies have to cope with. Export-led growth attempts to promote the expansion of gross domestic product and per capita income with inflows from export earnings but this seldom happens.Sri Lanka’s earnings from exports was only 23% of the GDP in 2014 and it has been around that figure since 1977. If exports are to be increased to a significant level, we may have to borrow heavily to start export-oriented projects on a large scale which would take us deeper into debt, making repayment almost impossible.

Foreign direct investments and foreign funded industry are the other sources of foreign exchange. What attracts investors mainly is the cheap labour available in the developing countries. Thus, the governments of developing countries are forced to keep wages low to attract investors. The workers may be deprived of an improvement of their living standards that growth is supposed to bring. A good example is Sri Lankan estate workers.

People in countries with export-led economies must produce what people in another country want. The economy therefore depends on foreign demand, when the demand declines the economy suffers. For instance, when the Covid pandemic hit the rich countries the demand for garments dropped and the garment industry suffered. Another problem is access to foreign markets and the competition among producing countries. Further, the governments of the countries which import these items may control the quantities they import through taxes and sometimes through politically motivated sanctions. Thus, the export-led economies are at the mercy of the rich countries.

The global economic system controlled by the Western powers through the Bretton Wood Twins and Washington Consensus does not encourage developing countries to seek alternative means of growth. They give aid to those who follow their instructions which are geared for capital development at the expense of labour. Self-sufficiency is discouraged. Instead, they must remain as suppliers of few commodities and cheap labour to the global market. Sri Lanka supplies tea, garments and cheap labour to West Asia. We have not looked at alternative models. We have not attempted to produce our essential needs, such as food, medicine, building materials, etc. Though these can be locally produced, we import them using foreign exchange earned by exporting tea, garments and cheap labour. And when the demand for these falls, as it happened at the height of the pandemic, our economy becomes so weak that a bungling government could send it crashing.

In 2021, while its economy was struggling, Sri Lanka imported fruits and vegetables worth USD 380 million out of a total of USD 6 billion spent on non-essentials such as cheese, butter, ice-cream, bottled water. We need only USD 300 million to import chemical fertiliser. This was while the farmers were protesting and agriculturists were opposing the fertiliser ban. This, I see as a consequence of not having a well-developed national economy and an import-substitution programme. Self-sufficiency in food was not considered important, and catering to the super rich and tourists became a priority.

Now, the question is whether Sri Lanka will continue with export dependency. More importantly, are we going to spend more than we earn and live beyond our means? Are we going to borrow more and depend on foreign largesse? Don’t these loans and gifts come with strings attached? Will we have to cough up a few more ports or grant federalism?

What has happened has happened, there is no point in crying over spilt milk. The solution lies in our ability to learn to live within our means. We must never import more than we export, if we have no gas we must learn to find alternatives. The energy-efficient Anagi stove made of clay can be used even in Colombo flats. This could develop into an excellent cottage industry which could supply both the stove and firewood made of wood chips, sawdust or paddy husks compressed into cakes for easy storage and use in the stove. If instead the government, to pacify the protesters, import gas with borrowed dollars we will sink deeper in the debt mire. We must get along on a shoestring until we can stand on our own feet. Even IMF loans have their serious disadvantages and no country up to now has developed with IMF aid.In the long run, what Sri Lanka should do is to adopt a strategy to strike a balance between strengthening the domestic demand and export orientation. Import-substitution is a suitable policy for countries which want to come out of the debt trap. Heavy indebtedness, whether for an individual or a country, is a fetter that could restrict forward movement and freedom. It has made us part with ports, fuel storage facility, and sign agreements inimical to the national interest.

Sri Lanka, being predominantly an agricultural country, must give priority to the development of agriculture. Our aim should be to curtail our dependence on imported food items, which could be produced locally. More than 50% of export earnings go for import of food items, half of which could be locally produced. Everything required for agriculture––fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides, seeds and machines––should be locally produced. Big investors may not be interested, for they cannot expect high returns, as the local market is small. Yet, the small farmers could be made into small entrepreneurs and assured of reasonable returns on their investment if the exploitation by rice mill owners and middlemen could be eliminated by government intervention. By this means a quarter of the export bill could be reduced.Renewable energy policy should be fully implemented to reduce expenditure of fuel imports. CEB engineers are not very co-operative and their resistance has to be overcome. The capacity of the petroleum refinery also should be enlarged making use of facilities available at Sapugaskanda, Trincomalee and Hambantota which would further reduce the cost of fuel imports.

Small industries mainly for local needs such as electrical items, kitchen utensils, building materials, small electronic items, fabrics, could also be gradually developed with the aim at import substitution.Sri Lanka has to learn experience and decide whether to continue with the export-led economy, which, as shown above, is subject to external factors beyond our control and which has several disadvantages, including debt accumulation and the threat of sudden collapse. Time is opportune for use to think of import-substitution. The present crisis may offer a good opportunity to make virtue out of necessity and give priority to local production.

N. A. de S. Amaratunga

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Fixing the economic crisis will not stop GotaGoGama



By Jehan Perera

The economy is continuing to deteriorate with barely any dollars in the government’s possession even to pay for essentials such as fuel and medicine. The people will not be able to tolerate more weeks and months of shortages of essential supplies that force them to line up in queues for hours. There is anger seething in people who spend hours standing in queues and those who have seen their real incomes fall by more than a half as prices soar and the rupee sinks. Even though the present economic crisis has its roots in the political system and its weaknesses, the priority at the present time is to salvage the economy and get more dollars to pay for the import of essential commodities. The anger that is building up in society was seen on the fateful evening of May 9 in the attack by government affiliated goons on the GotaGoGama and MinaGoGama protest sites and in the retaliation that followed.

In this turbulent environment UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken up the premiership and the challenge of guiding the destinies of the country as Prime Minister at the time of its worst crisis ever. There is presently much public opposition to this, as the belief prevails that the new prime minister was handpicked to protect those guilty of corruption and mismanagement, in particular President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest of his clan.Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is also seen as a person who has been rejected by the people. He comes to the Prime Minister’s position having lost the last election as prime minister and seeing his party reduced from 105 seats to one. This is the sixth occasion on which Ranil Wickremesinghe has become prime minister.

He was first appointed Prime Minister after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 but had to leave the position the following year when his party lost the general election. Subsequently, he was appointed as the Prime Minister from 2001 to 2004 during the presidency of President Chandrika Bandaranaike, who ended the term of his government prematurely. He was re-elected to be Prime Minister in 2015 only to have President Maithripala Sirisena dismissing him in October 2018. He was reappointed for the fifth time nearly two months later due to a court order. The past experience is that when the President and Prime Minister come from two different political parties the relationship sours and mistrust grows.


The possibility of a similar fate is present this time too. But it can also be different. The Prime Minister’s hope, and the country’s too, will be that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a changed man having learnt from bitter experience that he has been at the receiving end of self-seeking and irrational advice. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has shown his mettle in taking up the challenge of heading the government at this time. He has been appointed Prime Minister in a parliament in which he is the only parliamentarian from his own party. He is too intelligent not to know the odds that are stacked up against him. He has twice had the bitter experience of working with Presidents from rival political parties.

The ruling party members are likely to have their own ideas of what needs to be done and may not cooperate with the Prime Minister who comes from a political party that has been their traditional rival. Therefore, the role that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will need to play is crucial to the success of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He will need to ensure that the ruling party members fall in line with the policies of austerity, sustainability and a respect for human rights that will be able to attract the necessary financial aid flows from the western countries and institutional lenders, such as the World Bank and IMF.In terms of the 20th Amendment that he has pledged to give up soon, the President has the power to decide on ministerial positions and even to dissolve Parliament after the passage of two years and six months from the date of its election. These are threats that the ruling party parliamentarians are likely to take seriously even if they do not like being in this situation.

The untrammeled powers of the presidency that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa currently holds can be used to create the space for the Prime minister to make his decisions and ensure that the rest of the government falls in line. The key need is to restore economic and political stability and the broken trust between the government and people. Parliamentary debates during the coming week will have to deal with two immediate issues – voting on the nomination of the Prime Minister and the election of the Deputy Speaker. Winning a majority vote by one side in Parliament will only lead to further polarisation within the house, which will do little to deal with economic issues facing the country. The President needs to make an appeal to achieve a consensus through consultations among political party leaders as the way forward in the larger interest of Sri Lanka.


In the meantime, the continuation of the Aragalaya (struggle) at Galle Face and elsewhere in the country can be the external check and balance on the government. The positive feature of this protest movement is that it has brought together the different ethnicities, religions, social classes and the older generations to be with the younger. The main target of the Aragalaya remains the president and the misuse of his presidential powers. Therefore, President Rajapaksa cannot continue to long use or misuse his presidential powers in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. Even if the Prime Minister is able to ease the economic crisis, the political crisis will remain especially if the President does not engage in the political reform he has promised and which the people demand.The Aragala site on Vesak night was packed with people in the same way it was 37 days previously when the protests at Galle Face overlooking the Presidential Secretariat first commenced. As it was then, the main target of the protestors was the President as evinced by the name they gave the site GotaGoGama.

The undiminished commitment of a core group of activists has sustained the protests through scorching sun, rainstorms and, latterly, a government goon assault. Their commitment is reflective of a countrywide desire to cleanse politics of its corruption and abuse of power. Time has taken its toll and there are fewer tents than there were at the beginning stages of the protests. People have their jobs to keep and lives to lead. But there are still enough who come even irregularly to keep the torch alight. Some even bring their children so that the torch may last through the next generation.

The Aragalaya has achieved important outcomes in the past month and much more than could have been anticipated before it commenced. It forced the resignation of the most successful politician this country has ever seen, who lost his way due to the dismantling of the system of checks and balances that he contributed to in the biggest measure. It has led the President to accept the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and thereby reduce the powers of the presidency, to take steps to ensure an all-party interim government and to consider the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, has said that the GotaGoGama should be institutionalised and the facilities available there enhanced. This will also help to ensure that the President and Prime minister keep to their promises.

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A way out of today’s constitutional impasse and the way forward



The citizens right to recall their elected representatives :

By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan and SCC Elankovan

After 30 days of sustained peaceful agitation led by youth and supported by thousands of ordinary citizens all over the country Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa finally resigned after many weeks of turmoil and back and forth efforts to retain his position. The Cabinet of Ministers had resigned twice earlier. The resignation came close on the heels of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence where he addressed SLPP party supporters after which they descended on the un-armed and peaceful protestors, mercilessly attacking them, not sparing even the women and old people, burning and breaking everything they could get their hands on, while the security forces looked on. Despite the strong-arm tactics, curfew, emergency regulations and the threat of legal action, the protests continue calling for the resignation of the President who, on the strength of the 20th Amendment, has absolute power.The people of this country are asking for accountability. This, in effect, is an exercise of the Right of Recall by the Voters, the people exercising their Right to recall their representatives where they have acted against their interests, mismanaged and brought the country to a state of economic collapse after allegedly being involved in rampant corruption and nepotism.

This protest campaign is giving rise to debate and discussion not just among academics but on the streets and in homes, as to what are the citizens’ democratic rights where their elected representatives do not act in their interests but in an arbitrary and authoritarian way, causing loss and deprivation to the citizens even to the extent as happened recently of inciting violence causing injury to person and property. The other point at issue is how can the impasse be resolved where the citizens demand that the President and the government go and the President and government refuse to depart. It is in this context that we put forward the right of recall as a way to resolve the situation and as being one which the people themselves are voicing through their actions.

“Citizens right to recall the representatives they elected”.This right is premised on the principle of the peoples ‘sovereignty. The Constitution of Sri Lanka, Article 2 states ‘Sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable’.The Right of Recall is an instrument to enhance accountability among elected representatives and gives the electors a method of asserting their sovereignty without having to wait for the elapse of the period till the next election. It is argued that the representatives of the people, holding public office, are answerable to the people and expected to work for the people. If they act contrary to the peoples’ interests and continue in Office against the wishes of the people they could, on the basis of this principle, be recalled.The process of a Recall is a political one and different from the impeachment process which is legal and predicated on certain grounds being proven as well as the support of two-thirds of the members of Parliament for such resolution, (see Article 38 of the Constitution). As things stand, it is virtually impossible to impeach the President. As the majority of people in the Country wish to do away with this President and his government in whom they have lost confidence and the President refuses to step down there is a Constitutional impasse. Hence, we have to consider alternate methods for removing him and I would submit that in the present circumstances prevailing in the Country after the collapse of the economy and now governance, we should consider the Right of Recall as an option.

Sri Lanka, is one of the oldest democracies in South Asia. But today it is a travesty of democracy. The Government, headed by a President who wields unrestricted and wide ranging powers, has ruined and bankrupted the country, which is in the throes of an economic crisis where even the basic necessities are now in short supply and people have to queue up for food, fuel and even medicine, with electricity cuts affecting the output of factories and even small businesses and hence livelihoods. In spite of the non-violent demonstrations and agitation of citizens from every walk of life and every community and religion, and where the entire country has lost confidence in the President, extending even to the whole parliamentary system, the President refuses to step down because he maintains that he was elected by a majority of electors for a specific term. This is indeed a mockery of Democracy.

It must be noted that apart from the mismanagement, corruption and subversion of the judicial processes that marked this regime the autocratic methods of policy making and political culture of authoritarianism have contributed to the resulting economic down turn. This too requires systemic and structural changes. It is now being proposed by the BASL, and some political parties, that the solution lies in doing away with the 20th Amendment under which excessive powers were conferred upon the Executive Presidency under the fallacy that a strong presidency would guard the Country against the security lapses that happened during the Easter Sunday terrorist attack and drive quick economic development. The provisions of the 19th Amendment, under which checks and balances were provided, will be re-enacted as the draft 21st Amendment with some modification or changes where needed and could be passed by the present Parliament as the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. It is submitted that the citizens Right to Recall their Representatives should also be included in this enactment

Indian Experience

The Right of Recall has come to be accepted in India at a local government or municipal level. The Right of Recall has been a part of the political discourse in neighbouring India, and was even discussed at the Constituent Assembly during the Constitution drafting process 1946-1949. It was argued that it would help in the political education of the people and encourage voters to think, but on the other side it was contended that it would be improper to provide this right at the infancy of Indian democracy and could lead to political rivalry and render the Constitution a battle ground. For these reasons Dr. Ambedkar did not accept this amendment. Sardar Vallabai Patel also discussed this proposed amendment. In 1974 a constitutional amendment bill on voters’ right to recall elected representatives was brought in the Lok Sabha by CK Chandrappan and Atul Bihari Vajpayee the BJP leader had supported it, but the Bill did not pass. The former speaker of the Indian Parliament Somnath Chatterjee had also sought to introduce the Right to Recall to ensure accountability. However, the Election Commission of India was not in favour.

Most recently, in 2016, the Representation of the People Amendment Bill was introduced by Varun Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, to recall Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs), but was unsuccessful. However, it has been implemented at the panchayat level in the Grama Sabha and also at the municipal level in a number of states, including UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and in Punjab. In a country, such as India, with its large population introducing this principle at the level of the State legislative Assemblies and the Lok Sabha (Union Parliament) would pose many logistic and other problems, besides which the rural voters are not so politically educated and literacy levels, especially among older people, is still low. Hence it is not practicable to introduce this right at the higher levels.

In other countries

The right of recall has come to be accepted in many countries. We would like to draw attention to the UK (United Kingdom), Recall of MPS Act passed in March 2016. This Act makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their MP and call a by-election. Other countries like the US, Germany, Ecuador, Japan, Canada, etc., have this provision but generally at the local government or municipal level. A few state legislatures in the US have this provision, for example the State of Wisconsin. In Canada the only Province or territory with Recall election law currently in force is British Columbia. The law requires 40% of the voters to sign the petition and thereafter the petition has to be validated by the Election Commission. In Germany provisions for Recall of members of the State Parliaments of Germany, exist in five of the federal states. All these states allow for the recall of the entire legislature by triggering a new election. .

That this principle has been a matter of political discourse over a long period of time is shown in a letter by George Washington to his nephew in 1787, quoted in Edward Fallone’s book on this subject, which states as follows: “The power will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a limited period to representatives of their own choosing, whenever it is executed contrary to their interest or not agreeable to their wishes their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled”.

In Sri Lanka, with its small and politically educated population of 22 million and high literacy level, the right to recall principle could be introduced without much difficulty and would help to enhance the quality of Sri Lanka’s representative government as members of Parliament would be more mindful of their parliamentary duties when they know they can be “recalled”. The actions of citizens stepping in, recognising that the only way to save the country was for them to act and demand the resignation of the President and the government they elected is an example of the exercising of the right to recall. In fact, the electoral system in Sri Lanka permits the sitting member to be replaced by the next person on the list so it would not be necessary to go for an expensive election either. In the case of the President, if we were to follow this procedure where a certain percentage of the persons who voted for him submit a petition to the Election Commission to have him recalled, the question would arise as to who would take his place or what procedure should be followed in doing so. If it involves another election this may not be possible in the present conditions and the financial straits in which the country finds itself, but I trust this is a matter which can be studied and resolved satisfactorily through for example a Parliament being given the task of electing the new President.

The report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform 2016 noted that citizens throughout the country demanded that the right to recall and modalities for implementing the same be included in a new Constitution. Now, we could argue that our fellow citizens have demonstrated and actually made this “Right to Recall” functional in deposing the government and that it is therefore the moment for legislators to acknowledge the citizens’ action by including this right as part of the envisaged 21st Amendment.

We would caution that the right to recall is but one of the wide-ranging changes that should be made to introduce a system of governance to increase the level of accountability of public representatives. Further, changes which take cognizance of the principle of subsidiarity and give due place to local government and Provincial Councils are also equally important. This will make for a more participatory democracy in which the minority communities and other layers of society who remain structurally disempowered can share power, too. This could be incorporated into the 21st Amendment or be the subject of a separate Amendment, but brought in parallel. The abolition of the Executive Presidency per se, is also an urgent requirement but might also require a referendum.

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