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The New Cabinet: Somewhat lean, poorly structured, and rather untalented



The new Cabinet of Ministers: Sitting from the left – SM Chandrasena, CB Ratnayake, Bandula Gunawardena, Janaka Bandara Thennakoon, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Prof GL Peiris, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Gamini Lokuge. Standing from left – Dullas Alahapperuma, Namal Rajapaksa, Ali Sabry, Prasanna Ranatunga, Mahindananda Aluthgamage. Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Keheliya Rambukwella, Mahinda Amaraweera, Udaya Gammanpila, Johnston Fernando, Ramesh Pathirana and Douglas Devananda

by Rajan Philips

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets full marks for creating a comparatively lean and applaudably mean cabinet. Leaving out the likes of Maithripala Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa is among the best cabinet making decisions in Sri Lanka’s 73-year history of cabinet government. The less said of them the better, and, hopefully, there will be no second thought on the matter. After ten years of sickeningly bloated cabinets, five under Mahinda Rajapaksa monarchy and five more under Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dyarchy, the new cabinet looks lean and trimmed. There is room for more trimming, and what was trimmed as ministers has been more than padded as state ministers. What is more lacking, however, is structure and talent. There is much room for structural improvement. Talent is all the dearer considering the twin challenges facing the country – a globally uncertain pandemic and an equally global crippling of the economy.

But what more can the President do? To paraphrase Pieter Keuneman’s timeless wit, you cannot perform a cabinet miracle with a pack of jokers and no aces. At the same time, and in spite of all the constraints, the Administration would seem to have missed a great opportunity in not using the long interval between dissolution (in March) and elections (in August) to create a well thought out cabinet design, identifying requisite portfolios and matching them with available talent and experience. Unfortunately, the new cabinet does not indicate much functional thinking or purpose behind it.

We know from Sir Ivor Jennings that DS Senanayake wanted to limit the cabinet size to 20 in the constitution, but was advised against it by colonial officials. It would be restrictive for future governments given the reality of expanding government roles. That was the reasoning against too small a cabinet. AJ Wilson used to say that Mr. Senanayake was a master manager of men (as Ministers) and that he ‘federalized’ the cabinet to mirror the plurality of Sri Lankan society – its religions, languages, castes, and locales. After the first cabinet of DS Senanayake, the most stable cabinet was under Dudley Senanayake in 1965. The cabinets in between were not necessarily unstable, but chaotic.

The United Front cabinet (1970-1975) was the most programmatic cabinet in that it bore a direct correspondence to the UF Manifesto on which it won the election. And the cabinet had both talent and experience due to the presence of the Left Parties. NM, Leslie Goonewardene, Bernard Soysa (NM’s alter ego at Finance) and Pieter Keuneman knew how the government worked inside out; Colvin was known to master any file in a matter of minutes. An unintended shortcoming of that cabinet, however, was that the distribution of portfolios went along Party lines at the expense of cabinet ‘federalization.’

President Jayewardene had started identifying Ministers for his cabinet even before the 1977 elections and before some of them became MPs. A few of them were from outside the UNP. And his cabinet was ‘federalized’, talented, and experienced, including first time Ministers who had earlier been senior Civil Servants or senior professionals. All of them were elected in the last first-past-the-post election that was held under the parliamentary system. That was also the last time Sri Lanka had a cabinet government, that Jennings wrote a textbook on, and which had sunk strong roots in Sri Lanka. Cabinet government was left to wither and die thereafter in Sri Lanka, under the presidential system that President Jayewardene left behind.

The new cabinet is by no means a restoration of the old cabinet government. No one expects that. But is it sufficiently structured and enabled to deliver on all the lavish promises that the SLPP has been making? And all the expectations that people have been made to project on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? On all the matters that need to be done and have been promised to be done? How will the new cabinet and its ministers relate to the various Tasks Forces that were established in the pretext of the pandemic, when parliament was dissolved? These are the questions that are arising in the early days of the new government. Answers will come eventually in the actions of the government and their results, and not out of speculation.

Subject matters

In the allocation of ministerial subjects, the President has assigned himself Defense, the bogey of the 19th Amendment notwithstanding. A glaring omission in the constitution. This is odd. The SLPP vigorously campaigned for a two-thirds majority, to overhaul the constitution and go beyond even the limits of JR. In the new cabinet, the constitutional file is not assigned to any Minister. A logical location for it would be the portfolio of Justice. But assigning it to the new Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, would raise the hackles of Sinhala Buddhist organizations who are already protesting the appointment of a Muslim to the Justice portfolio.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is also concerned about Mr. Sabry’s appointment, but not for ethno-religious reasons; it is over ethical concerns. Ali Sabry was the defence lawyer for apparently 14 SLPP politicians who were unsuccessfully arraigned on charges of corruption under the last government. Another oddity, at least optically, is appointing a supportive Muslim lawyer to Justice while trying to prosecute a politically unfavourable Muslim lawyer, Hejaz Hizbullah, allegedly based on his professional work as a lawyer. Stepping over professional courtesy, a senior government lawyer even compared Mr. Hizbullah’s professional work to that of the LTTE’s Anton Balasingham. That was not a legal argument but political grandstanding. Not that Mr. Sabry is going to have anything to do with Mr. Hizbullah’s case, given the depoliticized independence of the Attorney General’s Department that is only too well known. But it is difficult to miss the awkward appearances of conflicts of interest whenever Rajapaksas are in power.

To get back to the Constitution, if there is no Minister assigned to the subject, is it being outsourced to a task force? One headed by the non-playing coach of all departments of the game, Basil Rajapaksa. Is there a realization of the pitfalls of constitution-changing and an internal decision has been made to step slowly on the constitutional pedal? Or, are there internal differences about the scope and extent of constitutional changes that need to be resolved within the family before embarking on a formal public process? There are areas, such as the electoral system, where changes are needed and on which it would be possible to achieve a broad consensus in parliament. A minister in charge of the file would be the person to stickhandle the passage of positive changes. May be the President and the Prime Minister do not find anyone in the current parliament who could be entrusted with this task.

G.L. Peiris looks too burnt out for the constitutional task now, not quite the new spark that he was when he forayed into politics from the academia in 1994. So, he is now assigned education. It seems a comprehensive assignment, and not the chop suey that Ranil Wickremesinghe created when he cut education into pieces and stitched up higher education and highways in one ministry. While education is one subject, it is not clear whether the two State Ministers on related subjects – Piyal Nishantha de Silva (Women and Child Development, Pre-School and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and School Services), and Seetha Arambepola (Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation) – are supposed to work with the Minister of Education, or independently on their own. There is also no indication of the parliamentary support to the Minister in the core areas of the Ministry: schools and universities.

The distribution of support responsibilities is similarly unclear in the other social infrastructure portfolio – Health. Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi continues as Minister despite the spat she ran into with Public Health Inspectors during the election. There is no indication of the parliamentary support she will have in the core areas of the Health sector. The one State Ministry role in related area involves – Promotion of Indigenous Medicine, Development of Rural Ayurvedic Hospitals and Community Health, and is assigned to Sisira Jayakody. There is no special mention of anything regarding the current pandemic situation either as specific responsibility, or as an individual assignment. This is the pattern of linkages between all the cabinet ministers and the state ministers.

In the old system, each Minister had a Deputy Minister, or Parliamentary Secretary, and occasionally more than one if the Ministry had multiple subjects. State Ministries were created after 1978 to address specific subjects or undertake critical projects over a limited period of time. Now they seem to have morphed into another layer of sub-ministerial positions as pseudo-ministerial rewards to MPs for their political loyalty, and not for any special project assignment. The cabinet portfolios are limited to 28 (with the Prime Minister looking after three of them), while the number of state ministers is kept at 40, along with another 23 MPs appointed as District Co-ordinating Committee Chairmen (no one seems to have been assigned to Batticaloa).

There is no intelligible correspondence between subjects looked after by cabinet Ministers and those assigned to State Ministers. The oldest Rajapaksa brother, Chamal. is both the Minister for Irrigation and State Minister for Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management. This is another pickle portfolio like Highways and Higher Education in the same Ministry during the last government.

That said, the state ministry system has been used to serve a special presidential purpose in the new cabinet: that of accommodating Viyath Maga MPs, all but one of whom are newly elected, as Ministers of State (three elected MPs and two National List MPs) and as Chairman of District Committees (three elected MPs).

Their appointment as full cabinet ministers may have been vetoed by the Prime Minister to keep the cabinet positions open only to the older MPs not only from the SLPP (19), but also from the SLFP (two), and one-off ministries to the one-MP constituent parties (six) of the old UPFA. Vasudeva Nanyakkara gets Water Supply, while the old LSSP and the CP get nothing. Of the Viyathmaga MPs, even Sarath Weerasekera and Nalaka Godahewa who topped vote tallies in the Colombo District and Gampaha District, respectively, have had to settle for positions as State Ministers. So has Nivard Cabraal, who enters parliament for the first time but on the National List. Sarath Weerasekera, a former Rear Admiral in the Navy, and the only MP to vote against the 19th Amendment in 2015, is the new State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs. This is a mystifying appointment. Is he being set up to preside over the resuscitation of the Provincial Councils, or their liquidation? Time will tell.

Key Sectors and Old faces

There is nothing mystifying about the appointments in the key sectors of the economy and employment – finance, agriculture, industry, the export sector, and infrastructure. The old faces have returned generally to the same old, or occasionally new, positions. The structure and the composition of the ministries in these areas, in whatever thinking that may have gone into them, do not convey any sense of urgency in trying to come to grips with the current economic crisis. There is no clear lead minister in charge of such an effort. The Prime Minister takes charge of Finance, but not just Finance, as finance portfolios are universally assigned. He is also padded with Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, on the one hand, and Urban Development and Housing, on the other. The two additions could easily have been consolidated in other ministries.

Still better, Finance should have been assigned solely to a single Minister with economic gravitas – like JR Jayewardene (1947-52), UB Wanninayake (1965-70), NM Perera (1970-75), or Ronnie de Mel (1977-88). Not that they were infallible or their records are unblemished, but they conveyed the seriousness with which governments here and everywhere approach finance and economic management of the country. This is more so in the current context of a global economic crisis. It may be that there is no one else in the SLPP, other than the Prime Minister to tackle this task. In which case, the SLPP should have invited some new talent to the Party and enabled her/his entry to parliament at the last election.

There are about nine individual ministries (Agriculture, Plantations, Land Irrigation, Industry, Fisheries, Trade, Tourism, and Ports & Shipping) that are pertinent to the economy, employment, and export earnings. There are many more scattered across state ministries. They could have been easily consolidated into fewer portfolios with tighter mandates. The ministerial appointments are hardly inspirational, and it is mystifying why anyone of the Viyath Maga MPs could not have been considered for some of these positions. It is the same story in the areas of infrastructure, the environment and energy. I could not find the pigeonhole where airlines and aviation are nestled in; unless, they are already airborne in Ravana’s helicopter.

On the bright side, there might be more method and purpose in the making of the new cabinet that sideliners like us cannot quite see through. There is also the opportunity for creating cabinet sub-committees and parliamentary committees and tasking them (not as task forces) with specific responsibilities. There is no minimizing, however, the gravity of the challenges facing the government – preparing a credible budget, meeting debt payments, protecting jobs and redressing those whose jobs are not protected, ensuring food production, and preventing a collapse of the export sector. All of this and more while struggling to keep the new coronavirus at bay. It’s a tall order. One that dwarfs the two-thirds majority.


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Sri Lanka’s external relations amidst power rivalries



By Neville Ladduwahetty

“Relationship Not Normal, Can’t Be…”: S Jaishankar On India-China Ties

As reported by a NDTV Staff Writer (13 Aug, 2022}, “External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Friday said that India-China relations cannot be normal unless border situation is and added that if China disturbs the peace and tranquility in border areas, it will impact the relations further”. In view of the fact that the relations between India and China are dependent on the “peace and tranquility” in the border areas means that Sri Lanka’s relations with either at any time has to be complex; a fact that is bound to affect the pursuit of Sri Lanka’s own self-interests.

The latest manifestation of this rivalry relates to the convolutions undergone by Sri Lanka with regard to China’s Yuan Wang 5 (YW5), described by some as a tracking vessel and by others as a research and survey vessel, docking at the Hambantota Port. Sri Lanka under the former Presidency gave permission for the YW5 to dock at Hambantota. Under the present Presidency Sri Lanka wanted the arrival to be deferred following concerns expressed by India relating to their security. The latest report is that Sri Lanka has granted permission for entry based on a brief by the Sri Lankan Embassy in China that “the country will face dire economic consequences if the ship’s visit is not allowed” (Daily Mirror, August 13, 2022). The report adds that the decision was also based on the fact that India and the US “failed to give ‘concrete reasons’ for why they opposed its arrival”.

An earlier manifestation of this rivalry was in connection with an Asian Development Bank- funded solar power project in the Island of Delft. International Tenders were called by the ADB and the contract was awarded to a Chinese Company because their bid was the lowest. India objected to the project on grounds of security and the project was abandoned with Sri Lanka continuing to deliver diesel to operate the generators and provide power to the people of Delft. In this instance, Sri Lanka failed to ask India to provide “concrete reasons” for their security concerns. Instead, Sri Lanka caved in and abandoned the project at a cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.

The reason for doing so was offered by a former Mandarin of the Foreign Ministry who stated that during construction China could plant devices that would impact on the security of India. The fact that Chinese contractors are engaged in various parts of Sri Lanka thus giving them ample opportunities to plant devices anywhere seems to have escaped his wisdom. Furthermore, the fact that YW5 with its reported capabilities could carry out whatever tracking it wanted without any formal permission from outside Sri Lanka’s territorial waters should have been sufficient grounds to inform India that its concerns do not have a “concrete” basis from the outset. Why Sri Lanka did not challenge India’s concerns in the case of the solar project reflects a onetime policy of “India first” at any cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.


It is crystal clear from the two examples cited above, that there is a lack of consistency in the manner Sri Lanka addresses issues relating to major powers; a fact made more complex in a background of power rivalry. The question is whether lack of consistency is due to lack of a clear policy or a deliberately adopted strategy that is sufficiently fluid to enable whoever is in power to address each issue according to his/her imperatives. The former was the practice adopted in the past. For instance, Sri Lanka’s stated policy when it came to External Relations was Non-Aligned. In fact, Sri Lanka was a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with India and other mostly ex-colonial countries.

However, under the former Presidency this long held policy changed because the global context of a bi-polar world had changed, warranting a reevaluation of the Non-Aligned policy. Consequently, the stated policy adopted by him was one of Neutrality which he stated during his acceptance speech delivered in Anuradhapura. This policy was transformed to Neutral and Non-Aligned by the Foreign Ministry and its Secretary went further stating that the policy was “India first”. This lack of consistency is not at all helpful in Sri Lanka’s relations with nations in general, and lacks clarity and when it comes to issues amidst power rivalries.

Such inconsistencies should be avoided at all cost. For instance, if the Ministry has a different perspective on external relations to that of the President, the matter should be discussed by the Cabinet of Ministers and a collective decision taken since the Supreme Court has ruled that: “So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President” (S.D. No. 04/2015). Furthermore, under no circumstances should the Secretary have a different opinion to that of the collective decision taken by the Cabinet.


Though the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) still exists, Non-Aligned as a policy has lost its relevance because the context of a bi-polar world order in which Non-Alignment was relevant no longer exists. Instead, the multi-polar world order that exists today has given nation-states the freedom and license to pursue their self-interests. This situation has enabled India to ignore some of the core principles of Non-Alignment despite being one of its founding members. India developed defence related arrangement with Russia even during the glory days of NAM and continues to do so today. India also trained members of the LTTE to destabilise Sri Lanka and thrust devolution down Sri Lanka’s throat, all in the name of its own self-interests Today, India is actively procuring crude oil from Russia despite being an active member of QUAD with US, Japan and Australia. Sri Lanka too violated principles of the NAM when it supported the U.K. in the Falkland war, as an obligation for the outright grant given by U.K. to construct the Victoria Hydro Power Scheme.

What is evident from the conduct of nation-states is that at the end of the day, pure unbridled self-interest overrides commitment to bilateral or multilateral obligations. This then is the only policy that guides States when it comes to relations with other States, and when it comes to relations with rival powers the choices are hard but in the end, it is balancing priorities. Therefore, whether the stated policy is Neutral, Non-Aligned or even a combination of both, what matters are the decisions taken in respect of Sri Lanka’s relations with other States. Therefore, policies relating to External Relations should be a collective decision taken by the Cabinet, since too much is at stake when decisions are taken by others in the current context of power rivalries. However, since a State has to have a policy as to how it relates to other States, Neutrality is the preferred option since a policy of Non-Alignment is inappropriate in a transformed world order that is undergoing constant change because of rising aspirations of major powers.


Sri Lanka’s lack of consistency in respect of first granting permission for YW 5 to enter the Hambantota Port and later calling for its arrival to be deferred, and finally to reverse back to the original decision should be a lesson to revisit how decisions are taken when it comes to how Sri Lanka handles its external relations with other States regardless of their size and influence, or whether they are States engaged in power rivalry. What this experience has taught is that the decision-making process should be revised. Another lesson to be learnt is to not accept any concerns expressed by States at face value in the process of pursuing Sri Lanka’s self-interests. Instead, to require such States to show cause and “concrete reasons” for their concerns.

In the current context of the world order, the bi-polar world that existed has transformed itself into a multi-polar world, causing the policy of Non-Alignment to lose its relevance even though the Non-Aligned Movement continues to exist. Furthermore, this transformed world order has fostered power rivalries among aspiring States in the process of pursuing their unbridled self-interests; a fact manifested by India’s policy of “strategic autonomy”. How Sri Lanka navigates its own self-interests in such an environment is crucial for its growth and well-being. Therefore, in view of the seriousness of the issues at stake the decision making process when it comes to dealing with States in general and others engaged in power rivalries should be collective decisions by the Cabinet of Ministers backed up by a policy of Neutrality in view of Sri Lanka’s unique strategic location, since it is the only option left standing, because other options such as (1) Non-Alignment with any major centers of power: (2) Alignment with one of the major powers: (3) Bandwagoning: (4) Hedging: (5) Balancing pressures, are all unacceptable.

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Suppressing the struggle: Education and the Discourse of Class



A file photo of the military presence at Galle Face during Aragalaya

By Anushka Kahandagamage

Protesters defeated the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime, making the Rajapaksas resign from their positions, premiership and presidency, of the government. After the collapse of the dynasty, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Rajapaksa puppet, came to power with the support of a distorted majority in Parliament. Having got himself appointed as President, without a people’s mandate, Wickremesinghe began to suppress the struggle—the very struggle that led to his ascendency. Hours after Wickremesinghe took oath as President, at midnight, when the protesters were preparing to disband the major GotaGoGama (GGG) protest site, the military stormed in, violently assaulting some protesters, including women and people with disabilities. The military attacked media reporters, including BBC journalists, and destroyed the structures built on the location, prompting many to go to the GGG site in support of the protesters. A witch hunt would soon unfold, and, today, just weeks after Wickremesinghe came to power, arbitrary arrests are commonplace in Lanka, most recent and prominent, that of the trade union activist Joseph Stalin.

The Classed nature of the Discourse:

The Double Standard

National as well as international activists, academics, journalists, students, condemned the arbitrary violent attack on the GGG site. Social media was swamped with video footage of the attack, and posts, condemning the government’s moves. Many social media posts pointed fingers at the military, which was to be expected. But a notable and recurring theme was the link made between the military’s behaviour and its low education level – “Eighth grade passed Army”. Meanwhile, politicians from the ruling party (and others) publicly condemned the protesters’ actions, even calling them drug addicts (kuddo). The social media discourse targeting the military (low education) and the protesters (drug addicts), although coming from very different places, was steeped in a classed and classist language, and reduced their actions—whether of the protesters’ or of those suppressing the protest —to their level of education or social class.

Yet, there were surprisingly few discussions regarding the education level of the President, who commanded the attack on the protesters. There is no doubt that Wickremesinghe, whose past is linked with horrendous acts of violence, commanded the military to attack GGG. He is also behind the arbitrary arrests of protesters, the very people who placed him in power. While people are aware of Wickremesinghe’s violent tendencies, these inclinations are not discussed in relation to his education level. During the protest, when his house was set on fire, along with his personal library, many condemned the burning of the library, emphasizing the importance of ‘reading’ and ‘knowledge’. Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as an ‘educated’ politician, well-read and knowledgeable about foreign policy and politics. A double standard manifests itself where the violent acts of the military (by no means am I trying to glorify the military) are criticized on the grounds of their ‘low’ education level, while the violence of Wickremesinghe garners little comment.

Violence and Education

There is no essential link between violence and education, rather capitalist structures have conditioned us to associate violence with under privileged groups and lower levels of education. Formal educational structures sustain hierarchies, power and, in our context, neo-liberal market economies. Education socialises the individual in such a way s/he/they come to embody dominant society’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. Educational institutions are particularly efficient in legitimising the current social order since they play a role not only in training workers in the strict sense of providing them with skills to be productive but also in the naturalization of social relations of production. Education thus entrenches the status quo, and, in that sense, is not an innocent space, rather a space where inequality and hierarchies are sustained and reproduced.

We associate ‘low’ educational levels, and underprivilege, with violence, as we are trained to do so by the political-economic structures which glorify the ‘learned’ and ‘wealthy’. While the military should not be glorified, under any circumstances, it should be understood that the soldiers, who attacked the protesters, on the ground, represent the disadvantaged classes, carrying out their ‘duty’ as commanded by a supposedly ‘educated’ President. It is an irony that society sees people who are directly involved in violence as the generators of violence, rather than the decision-makers who perpetrate violence.

Formal educational institutions, driven by capitalist values, serve to produce, reproduce and sustain such hegemonic narratives. Indeed, there is a link between our pathological social condition and our education system. While our mostly market driven education is trapped in narratives of employability, efficiency or productivity—needed to understand a phenomenon beyond what is given—human values and critical thinking remain neglected on the back burner. Under these circumstances, there is a great need for alternative education forms.

Counter narratives and alternative

forms of Education

Education has been crucial to the struggle to depose the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime. In this context, I am referring to the ‘education’ initiatives that have been a key element of the Aragalaya: education on democracy, the constitution, history of struggles, economy and so on. In the GGG site, groups connected to the protest as well as other initiatives organized debates and discussions to raise awareness about economic, political and social issues, to learn about how to utter the correct slogans and how to steer the struggle in the ‘right’ path. In doing so, hundreds of webinars were organized, numerous articles and posts written and videos uploaded. In the GGG main protest site, a library, university, college, and an IT centre were established to support ‘educating’ the people.

‘Education’ was a thread that wove the struggle together. There were (and are) different debates on education at various levels of the struggle where alternative forms of education were discussed, challenging hierarchy and institutionalized education. The protest has opened up a space for people to pursue alternative educational structures and build counter narratives. Unfortunately, most of these efforts ultimately fall, directly or indirectly, in to hegemonic educational structures, where hierarchy and Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are sustained in different forms. Similarly, the activists and academics, among the protesters, who tried to introduce alternative education forms and counter narratives often fell into capitalist hierarchical structures. The majority of the webinars and awareness raising forums were top-down in nature and were held in one language, discriminating against other language groups.

Furthermore, these forums were frequently clogged with ‘experts’ or the kind of academics who preach their opinions to the ‘uneducated.’

In conclusion, existing capitalist educational frameworks train one to discriminate, based on class and educational levels, normalizing certain ways of life and being. For example, it’s fascinating to see how Wickremesinghe was removed from the violence and education discourse while the military was at the centre of it. Alternative forms of education are needed to question and challenge these hierarchies.

(The author is a Doctoral Candidate in School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prioritising protection of Government over the people



by Jehan Perera

According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind was a state of war in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all.”  Therefore, it was necessary for them to come to an agreement. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.

 The evolution of constitutional thinking  since the 17th century that Hobbes and Locke lived in has been to find ways to regulate the powers of the rulers and protect the people from the rulers. Those who have power need to have checks placed on them. They need to be held accountable. If those who are rulers are not checked or held accountable, they invariably abuse their powers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has been a truism. Over the past 74 years we have seen that the rulers have used their power indiscriminately some more than others. PTA is an example of a law which was instituted to deal with the Tamil separatist insurgency over 40 years ago, but it still remains-to protect power of the rulers. In the past three years when the rulers of Sri Lanka held virtually absolute power by virtue of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, the situation in the country deteriorated. The country became bankrupt for the first time ever.

 The current debate over the 22nd Amendment is to ensure and enlarge the role of civil society to mitigate the powers of the politicians who are rulers. A key question now is with regard to the three civil society representatives who will be in the Constitutional Council. The present formulation of the amendment is that the civil society representatives will have to be acceptable to the majority in parliament (thereby giving the government final say). Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s experience with constitutional reform has been  in the direction of further strengthening of the powers of the rulers against the people. The so-called reforms have invariably strengthened the hands of the rulers against the people and justified that it is being done for the sake of the people.


 The 1972 Constitution replaced the constitution that the country had inherited from the British colonial rulers. It ensured the independence of the judiciary and of the civil service and also had special protections for human rights and non-discrimination between ethnic communities. However, these protections were removed from the 1972 constitution that sought to empower the ruling politicians on the justification that they embodied the will of the sovereign people. It was argued that the elected politicians were closer to the people than unelected judges and civil servants. But being away from the people makes them non partisan, a value less understood. Judges were sacked when the new constitution came into operation and treated shamefully. The 1978 constitution repeated the activities of the 1972 constitutions. Judges were once again sacked and treated shamefully. At a later point they were even stoned.

 It is these cultures we developed that have led to the present crisis of lack of values beyond the economy itself and formed the base for Aragalaya. The 1978 constitution took the centralisation of power in the 1972 constitution even further and centralized it in the  office of one person, the executive president. He could now be even above the law, like the kings of old before parliaments that represented the people came into being. The first executive president of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, said that the only power he did not possess was the power to turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man. It is not surprising that with this power going into  the hands of the elected rulers, that the abuse  of power and corruption should grow without  limit. From being  a country  near the top of Asia at the time of independence, Sri Lanka  is today nearer the bottom. The life savings of its people have been halved in half a year and not a single politician has faced a legal accountability process.

 The 22nd Amendment belongs to the family of constitutional amendments  that began with the 17th Amendment of 2001. This  amendment was  agreed to by the then president due to the weakening of the government at that time. The  JVP  then,  as now, the party of the disadvantaged in society, gave the lead. The amendment resulted in the reduction of the power of the president and sharing those powers with parliament, state institutions and with civil society. The idea behind the 17th Amendment was to strengthen the system of checks and balances and thereby promote good governance in the national interest. The 19th Amendment that resembles it was the work of a coalition of parties that had opposed the abuse of power of the rulers they had just deposed through an electoral mandate.


 However, the limitation on the powers of the rulers has never been acquiesced by those who would be rulers or belong to their party. The 17th Amendment was overturned in 2010 by the 18th Amendment that gave back to the presidency the powers it had lost plus some more. When this led to an increase in the abuse of powers by the rulers, the  successor government brought in the 19th amendment to once again reduce the powers of the presidency. This was in pursuance of the mandate sought at the presidential election of 2015. But once again in 2019, those who formed the next government overruled the 19th Amendment and with the 20th Amendment and gave back to the presidency its lost powers plus some more.

 It is under the 20th Amendment which is about to be repealed that the corruption and abuse of power in the country reached its zenith and plunged the people into unprecedented economic hardship and poverty. It is these hardships that gave rise to the Aragalaya, or protest movement, that culminated with the physical storming of government buildings and the forced resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. The shrinking of the middle class who have toiled a lifetime are now falling between the cracks and joining the poor and vulnerable created by the government in less than three years. Yet highlighting the priorities of the rulers, no  one of the seem to be thinking of compensating those who have lost their savings, only of compensation of what happened to a few of the rulers and their henchmen during the 2015-2019 period  or the Aragalaya period in which the houses of the rulers, much beyond their known sources of wealth and income were burned down.

 An Indian political analyst Dr Maya John, has written, “Although the Aragalaya targeted not only individual politicians like the Rajapaksas but also the wider ambit of corrupt political forces – as evident in the parallel slogans of “GotaGoHome” and “225GoHome” – the bulk of people’s energy was overtly focused on dislodging certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency for the ruling establishment to still hold sway with the ouster of particular politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese proverb goes: inguru deela miris gaththa wage (exchanging ginger for chilli), we have simply got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. So, the Rajapksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.”


 The protest movement was a reaction to the social  tolerance limits, economic hardships, shortages, queues and steep price rises that in effect halved the general income of the people, with some suffering more than others. But the crackdown on them by the rulers has been both subtle and harsh in the present period. Those who gave it leadership are being picked off one by one, put into jail or being put on bail so that they dare not protest again. The unequal and discriminatory treatment of the protest movement is given the veneer of law which the government would he hoping would get it through the monitoring of the UN Human Rights Council next month and preserve the economic rewards of the EU’s GSP Plus, which is given to country’s that are making a genuine effort to improve the lot of their people, poor people not only the rich.

 In 2018, parliamentarians who attempted to stage a constitutional coup (which failed because the judiciary stood firm) sat on the chair of the Speaker of parliament whom they had forcibly chased off. They flung chairs and wrenched microphones out of their sockets. But none of them were punished even when the coup failed. However, those who joined the protest movement and sat in the chair of the president are being houndeds one by one and arrested. A protester who took the beer mug of the deposed president has been arrested. But ministers who are accused of corruption, accused reportedly even by diplomats accredited to the country, and ministers who have been convicted by the courts, sit on, in government. Such unequal and discriminatory treatment is likely to cause the sense of grievance to grow especially when the people are faced with price rises and shortages. They form the basis  to cause another Aragalaya.

 The current version of the 22nd Amendment which gives the rulers the power to pick the civil society members who will be in the constitutional council is not a sign that the government will heed the voice of the people. In this reluctance to be held accountable and to use power in a just manner, is a recipe for confrontation between the rulers and people in the future in which repression will be the response of the rulers who disregard the people. It may explain  why the military budget continues to take first place despite the economic collapse. Unless the people’s voices are represented truly in the parliament and the political processes, which can only come through a fresh set of elections, it is difficult to expect accountability in the system which is a formula for disaster sooner or later.

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