by Mangala Samaraweera
It is a propitious moment to reflect on Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials and the future of democracy as we prepare for yet another general election on 5 August – to select the 13th Parliamant since 1947.
Since the introduction of the executive Presidency and the provincial council system combined with the parliamentary and local government elections, hardly a year passes without a poll of one kind or another; if elections are the yardstick to measure a country’s democratic credentials, Sri Lanka will undoubtedly come on top as one of the most democratic countries in the world. However in the 2019 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy index, Sri Lanka is listed as ‘a flawed democracy’ at no. 69; with the rapid militarization of the civilian administrative structures over the last several months since the 2019 Presidential election, it should not surprise us if Sri Lanka is downgraded in 2020 to the ‘hybrid regime’ status and well on the way to the .‘authoritarian’ category.
In the twentieth century many democracies died as a result of coups d’état led by men with guns and tanks through military power and coercion. Democracies in Argentina, Chile, Pakistan, Thailand and Ghana died this way. Today democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders, who subvert the very process that brought them to power. In fact many democracies erode slowly in barely visible steps and democratic backsliding begins at the ballot box. The paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of,democracy – gradually, subtly and even legally – to subvert and kill democracy.
The subversion and the slow strangulation of the democratic process and institutions in Sri Lanka has now been accelerated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and may have to be administered the final rites if he receives the two-thirds majority he is seeking; but he is not the sole cause of it. Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions have been severely encroached by autocratic leaders since the 1970s and many of the checks and balances essential to a modern democracy have also been ruthlessly manipulated and undermined especially since the executive presidential system was created in 1978.
The Constitutional Council which was revived under the 19th amendment is now in a near state of paralysis and the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary is becoming increasingly blurred. The President has publicly declared that the independent commissions are a nuisance to his style of governance and seeks a mandate to roll back the 19th amendment.
Racism, hate speech and ethnic and religious extremism allowed free rein with the law being applied selectively to curtail freedom of speech and expression instead, has become the order of the day exerting further pressure on democracy in Sri Lanka which is essentially a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual society. Sri Lanka’s inability as a nation to celebrate its diversity, upholding the rights of all its citizens is the single most important factor which has held back Sri Lanka’s sustainable progress and development. Today majoritarianism and chauvinism, disguised as nationalism, has become state policy.
Corruption, steadily rising since independence has now become a cancer eating into the very fabric of our society. Opening the economy in 1977 without the reforms and regulations and the level playing field essential for a dynamic market economy, has led to a corrosive form of crony capitalism. In short, corruption, recurring authoritarianism and resultant blows to civil, political and human rights have weakened Sri Lanka’s body politic and today the country is experiencing a menacing slide towards an autocratic state with a sinister convergence of the executive, the military and the clergy.
In fact, a new draft majoritarian ‘constitution’ for Sri Lanka prepared and spearheaded by some members of the Buddhist clergy and other Sinhala chauvinist groups has already been handed over to the President with much fanfare in the pro- government media ‘to be approved outside Parliament.’ Without precedent, the Gotabaya presidency if given a strong mandate on August 5, will drag the country into the abyss of prolonged militaristic authoritarianism disguised in pseudo-democratic icing. With an unprecedented economic crisis also in the offing and rising unemployment, repression and authoritarianism may well be the preferred option for the Rajapaksa mindset. This could prove catastrophic for a country often described as “Asia’s oldest “democracy.”
As Sri Lanka gazes into the abyss at the edge of the precipice, this truly is an existentialist moment for all Sri Lankans; each individual must make meaningful choices and the choice they make will define Sri Lanka’s future for generations to come. Are we to define a new future for our country based on our fears and prejudices? Or are we to define our future based on our hopes and aspirations for a better Sri Lanka for all? Are we going to allow the handful of religious and racial megalomaniacs and other fundamentalist zealots who monopolize the sensationalist media to define our future while we silently wonder if moderation and tolerance are becoming bygone values of a distant and more civilised era? The loud and violent sounds of extremism make better news than the democratic pronouncements of the silent majority. The silence of the majority in the face of extremism, intolerance, hatred and the pseudo patriotism of the vociferous few since independence has finally culminated in the massive crisis we face today as a nation. The root causes of the crisis we are facing today are economic, religious or socio-political in nature and an educational system which has totally failed to provide the knowledge and experiences and critical and analytical thinking as well as values needed to meet the challenges of a developing country like Sri Lanka.
As we slide towards open ended polarization and state sponsored political anarchy, a vigorous reiteration of liberal values is the need of the hour; a radical center should be home to a radical commitment to liberalism and centrist values. The need now is to create a new political culture based on reviving the value systems drawn from Lord Buddha’s middle path to Mahatma Gandhi’s path of non violence, from Nehru to Martin Luther King, from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama.
Despite being one of the first countries to embrace the market economy in 1977, Sri Lanka still is, essentially a command economy bogged down by archaic legislation and a ‘socialist mindset’. The crony capitalist system practiced by this regime must be replaced by a caring and dynamic social market economy with the emphasis on an inclusive social safety net to protect the poor, the weak and the less fortunate. An all inclusive meritocracy is needed ensuring equality of opportunities for all and the culture of political patronage must come to an end. The rule of law is also an essential pre-requisite for a civilized society where no one – king, priest or soldier – is above the law. This is essential for Sri Lanka to achieve meaningful progress including winning investor confidence as well as the confidence and trust of our own citizens to participate meaningfully in the development of our nation.
As Sri Lanka hurtles towards an unprecedented political and economic crisis, a renewal of the consensual democracy that looks beyond the adversarial politics of the left and the right is an urgent necessity. Aristotle in his treatise “Politics” of 350B.C. writes about the ‘middling element’ as the substance that bridged the chasm between the rich and the poor echoing Siddhartha Gautama from a century before. Today, as Sri Lanka stumbles from one crisis to the other the middling element may prove to be our only alternative.
There are those who may think that the ‘middle path’ is a philosophy of weakness and impotence where ‘bleeding heart liberals’ will try to find excuses and justifications for any situation with an ‘anything goes’ attitude, where the rule of law is irrelevant. In fact many people confuse liberalism with the laissez faire attitude of libertarianism. The middle path or ‘Radical Center’ is based on the principles of democracy, freedom, equality and justice as the four pillared foundation for a just, caring and prosperous society. Although many may say that a radical center is a contradiction in terms, a radical recommitment to liberal democratic principles is an urgent necessity along with the courage of one’s convictions even to wage a non-violent struggle if and when necessary to protect and achieve these values. The Radical Center is a platform of moderation providing the silent majority to oppose and fight authoritarianism, racism and all other forms of extremism actively and vigorously.
The ‘Radical Center’ entails the creation of a centrist middle way where dissenting voices and opinions from every part of the political spectrum would have a place within a democratic framework of decentralized governance . It is a system where diversity in all it’s manifestations is celebrated ; the years of deep mistrust between the different communities must lose its sting within a non violent, democratic framework where pluralism and secularism flourish. The radical center should show the intolerant that those they hate are in fact, quite similar to themselves and have the same dreams and aspirations as well as the same fears and concerns as human beings. The radical center should be the point where all Sri Lankans can discover their common humanity going beyond the boundaries of race, creed and caste.
The outcome of the election on August 5 is irrelevant as neither Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP nor the divided opposition have a vision to solve this crisis of democracy and governance – culmination of several decades of bad governance and mismanagement. The return to centrist values is the only possible path to ensure the survival of democracy whose credentials are being pushed to the limits by the forces of political opportunism and extremism. The alternative is not an autocracy based on the convergence of the executive, military and the clergy as hinted by the President nor is it a ‘strong’ government with a 2/3 majority as pursued by the Prime-Minister. All governments which obtained 2/3 majority – in1970, 1977 and the bribe-induced 2/3 majority of 2010 – contributed to the rot and decay in governance we witness today.
An urgent recommitment to democracy is the need of the hour. Democracy, despite all it’s flaws and shortcomings, remains the best system of governance as we move towards the second quarter of the twenty-first century. We have been paying lip service to democracy by having regular elections but almost all our democratic institutions along with the necessary checks and balances have been severely undermined over the years. Even the few steps taken in 2015 to strengthen such institutions are planned to be rolled back after the elections if the SLPP obtains a large majority.
All right thinking people across Sri Lanka must break their silence and unite to protect democracy. The tyranny of the few can only be defeated if the silent majority – the true patriots – wakes up from their somnambulist stupor to say ‘enough is enough.’ True to the saying by Samuel Johnson, patriotism in Sri Lanka has now become the ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’; patriotism as encouraged today is thinly veiled racism and over zealous chauvinism which has been the main cause of our downhill journey since independence.
Patriotism needs to be redefined to reflect the goals and aspirations of a modern Sri Lanka rejecting the feudal/tribal attitudes and ‘big frog in a small well’ mindset of the post ’56 era. While celebrating the diversity and glory of our respective ancient cultures and religions, the true patriots of Sri Lanka – nationalistic and cosmopolitan – must unite to march hand in hand with the rest of the world towards freedom, happiness and prosperity.
Development after the elections
By Jehan Perera
Many years ago, former Government Agent of Jaffna, Dr Devanesan Nesiah, explained the northern sentiment when elections were taking place. He said there was apprehension about the possible turn of events over which they had no control. The minority status of the Tamil people would invariably mean that their future would be determined by the outcome of the power struggle in the south of the country. I was reminded of these words of Dr Nesiah during discussions organised by the Civil Society Platform in the northern towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna on the democratic challenges arising from the forthcoming elections.
The main theme, at the present elections in the south, and most of the country, has been the need to elect a strong government and to give it a 2/3 majority to change the constitution, accordingly. The response in Vavuniya and Jaffna, by the members of civil society, was that a strong government would not heed the wishes of the people. Like people in other parts of the country, they felt let down by the political leaders and said they did not know for whom to vote. The issues that they highlighted as being their concerns were economic ones, such as the lack of jobs for youth and the harm to families caused by an unregulated micro credit scheme that made them vulnerable to the predatory actions of money lenders.
The civil society members, in the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna, did not take up the issue of the 19th Amendment and the possible threat to civil society space that the speakers from the south put before them. This indicated a longer term need to have educational programmes on the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence, in particular, to ensure justice and non-discrimination. But they also did not comment or discuss the manifesto put out by the main Tamil political party, the TNA, which addressed longstanding issues of the Tamil polity, including self-determination, federalism, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces or the newer post-war issues of missing persons and accountability for war crimes.
The absence of public debate, at the civil society meetings in the north on the political dimension at the forthcoming elections, may reflect a wariness about speaking publicly on politically controversial matters. Civil society groups throughout the country have been reporting there is more police surveillance of their work. The fear of falling into trouble and being seen as anti-government may have restrained the participants at the civil society meeting in the north from expressing their true feelings. On the other hand, there is also the reality that existential issues of jobs, loans and incomes are of immediate concern especially in the context of the Covid-induced economic downturn. The short term concerns of people are invariably with economic issues.
One of the salient features of the present elections has been the general unwillingness of even the main political parties to address any of the issues posed by the TNA. This would be due to their apprehension of the adverse fallout from the electorate. It could also be due to their lack of ideas regarding the way forward. Apart from the 19th Amendment, another impediment to a strong government, that is identified by its proponents is the 13th Amendment. In the run up to the elections, there have been calls for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, which created the devolved system of provincial councils, along with the 19th Amendment that directly reduced the power of the presidency and increased the independence of state institutions. The provincial councils have been emasculated by denying them of both resources and decision making power and are condemned for being white elephants.
It has been noted, by the political commentator D B S Jeyaraj, that the TNA’s choice of focusing on issues of transitional justice, in dealing with war time violations of human rights, led to the TNA aligning itself with Western powers. This did not yield the anticipated benefits as the previous government failed to implement many of its commitments in regard to transitional justice. It would have been better to have focused instead on getting the provincial councils in the north and east to engage in more development-oriented work which would have met the existential needs of the people.
Jeyaraj has also surmised that if the TNA had chosen the path of utilising the provincial council system for development work, it could have obtained support from India, which had been the co-architects of the provincial council system, in 1987, along with the then Sri Lankan government. India has a moral obligation to contribute to developing the north and east of the country where the war raged in full fury and led to immense destruction. India’s role in destabilising Sri Lanka and enhancing the military capacity of the Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, is a bitter and abiding memory which the journalist Shamindra Ferdinando has written extensively about.
A creative suggestion made during the civil society discussion in Jaffna was for the provincial councils to implement what governments have promised to implement but have failed to do. An example given was that of reparations to war victims. The previous government pledged to set up a system of reparations in terms of the UNHRC resolution in 2015. But, although an Office for Reparations was established, very little was done. The question was whether the provincial councils in the north and east could not have utilised their resources for the purposes of instituting schemes of reparations as it would be clearly within the policy framework of the government.
While the issues in the TNA’s manifesto will remain perennial ones to the Tamil polity, the people are looking for political leaders who will deliver them the economic benefits in the same way as in the rest of the country. The civil society meetings in the north suggests that the northern people are not showing priority interest in political issues as they believe these are non-deliverable at the present time. Instead of using its majority status in parliament and seeking to abolish the 13th Amendment, and the provincial council system, and creating a crisis with the Tamil polity and India, the new government would do better to work through them to meet the material needs of the people. They need to also realize limits of the constitution, and focus on social, economic and political pluralism and promote values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise, and consent of the governed.
A blazing story!
The local showbiz scene is ablaze with a story about the members of a particular band, who indicated that they are undergoing a tough time, abroad, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was a video, showing the members pouring forth their difficulties, and earnestly requesting the authorities concerned to bring them back home, that got others to move into action…and the truth has come out.
After having looked into their situation, extensively, knowledgeable sources say that the video contained a load of lies and, according to reports coming our way, the band has now been blacklisted by the authorities for lying about their situation.
These guys have, apparently, gone on Holiday Visas and have, thereby, contravened the Visa conditions.
The story going around is that they have had problems, within the band, as well.
The authorities, in Sri Lanka, are aware of the situation, in that part of the world, but there are many others who are waiting to get back home and, they say, musicians can’t get into the priority list.
So, it’s likely to be a long wait for these guys before they can check out their hometown again!
Top local stars to light up ARISE SRI LANKA
Richard de Zoysa’s brainchild, ARISE SRI LANKA, is going to create an awesome atmosphere, not only locally, but abroad, as well.
This telethon event will feature the cream of Sri Lankan talent, said Richard, who is the Chairman of Elite Promotions & Entertainment (Pvt) Ltd.
Put together as a fund-raiser for those, in the frontline, tackling the coronavirus pandemic, in Sri Lanka, ARISE SRI LANKA will bring into the spotlight a galaxy of local stars, including Noeline Honter, Damian, Mahindakumar, Rukshan, Melantha, Jacky, Ranil Amirthiah, Mariazelle, Trishelle, Corinne, Sohan, Samista, Shean, Rajitha, Umara, April, Shafie, Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe, Kevin, Ishini, and Donald.
Mirage is scheduled to open this live streaming fun-raiser, and they will back the artistes, assigned to do the first half of the show.
Sohan & The X-Periments will make their appearance, after the intermission, and they, too, will be backing a set of artistes, scheduled to do the second half.
The new look Aquarius group, led by bassist Benjy Ranabahu, will also be featured, and they will perform a very special song, originally done by The Eagles, titled ‘There’s A Whole In The World.’
The lyrics are very meaningful, especially in today’s context where the coronavirus pandemic has literally created holes, in every way, and in every part of the world.
Aquarius will be seen in a new setting, doing this particular song – no stage gimmicks, etc.
The finale, I’m told, will be a song composed by Noeline, with Melantha doing the musical arrangements, and titled ‘Arise Sri Lanka.’
The programme will include songs in Sinhala, and Tamil, as well, and will be streamed to many parts of the world, via TV and social media.
Richard says that this show, scheduled for August 29th, is in appreciation of the work done by the frontliners, to keep the pandemic, under control, in Sri Lanka.
“We, in Sri Lanka, can be proud of the fact that we were able to tackle the Covid-19 situation, to a great extent,” said Richard, adding that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged the fact that we have handled the coronavirus pandemic, in an exceptional way.
The team, helping Richard put together ARISE SRI LANKA, include Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Donald Pieries, from the group Mirage, Benjy Ranabahu, and the guy from The Island ‘Star Track.’
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