Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesHundred Days and After – Tisaranee Gunasekara

Hundred Days and After – Tisaranee Gunasekara


“… hold in a single thought reality and justice.” – W B Yeats (A Vision)

The Governor of the Central Bank was summoned to the Bribery Commission and grilled for six hours. A three-month travel ban was imposed on him.

That one incident demonstrates how far we have progressed since January 8th.

The journey away from Rajapaksa Rule towards democracy, accountability and the rule of law has been far from perfect; it has been slow and ponderous, with many a stop and digression. But it is happening, as the interrogation of Arjun Mahendran clearly indicates.

There had been many allegations of insider trading against the Central Bank under Rajapaksa rule as well. But no committee was appointed; no investigation happened; no one was questioned, least of all the then Governor.

There is no perfect government, there never was and never will be outside of utopia. There will always be bribery and corruption; politicians and officials are as likely to go astray and do wrong as the rest of the citizenry. What is necessary and possible is to create a mindset which rejects impunity and a system which punishes wrongdoers irrespective of how high they are.

The manner in which the Central Bank Bond case is progressing signifies that we are on the right road towards that future.

The 100 Day Programme was an incredibly ambitious one. Implementing it in 100 days would have been impossible even if the new president and the new government possessed a two-thirds majority. Not everything that should and could have been done in the first 100 days was done, but progress has been made nevertheless. Cost of living has become less oppressive; the mega-casino menace is over; media restrictions have been removed; the existence of an ethnic problem and the need for a political solution have been accepted; the anti-minority hysteria has receded; some Northern land has been released to their original owners; militarization of civilian spaces has ceased; soldiers and sailors have been liberated from menial tasks; impunity is receding; the judiciary seems to be far more assertive and independent; ministers drive without convoys and stop at traffic lights….

Much remains to be done. And foremost in the ‘must do’ list is the 19th Amendment, aimed at correcting the grotesque and dangerous power-imbalances created by the 1978 Constitution and made infinitely worse by the 18th Amendment.

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Sri Lanka’s version of executive presidential system has manifestly failed to achieve many of its key aims. It has often worked against democracy, created instability and encouraged rampant corruption and unforgivable inefficiency (for example, the Weliamuna Report on Sri Lankan Airlines and the lawless and arbitrary manner in which the Colombo Port City project was launched). But its most deadly malaise is an inborn tendency to encourage despotic dreams on the part of political leaders. Presidents begin to act as if they are uncrowned kings, the modern day heirs of the country’s ancient monarchs. When their acolytes start hailing them as kings, disaster ensues. Perhaps it is not quite accidental that executive presidency has worked for (rather than against) democracy mostly in countries without monarchical pasts. The obvious exception to this possible rule is France, but France’s history also includes the decisive (and repeated) rejection of monarchy and a popularly acclaimed act of regicide.

In Sri Lanka the dangers and the dysfunctionalities of allowing all power to be concentrated in the hands of a single individual became undeniably manifest in the last several years. The Rajapaksa disaster alone calls for a multi-polar system where power is diffused and devolved. Sri Lanka needs a democratic system of governance with proper checks and balances, which can impede the president or the prime minister from amassing too much power. A majority of Lankans obviously comprehended this need, which was why they voted out Mahinda Rajapakasa and voted in Maithripala Sirisena.

If the victories of 1970 and 1977 could be interpreted as popular consent for constitutional transformations, so can the victory of 2015 – even more so. Unlike in 1970 or 1977, the main plank of Maithripala Sirisena’s electoral platform was constitutional change in general and the transformation of the executive presidential system in particular. His victory therefore has to be taken as a vote for a new system of governance. His mandate is not to wield the powers of the executive presidency but to change it.

Unchanging truths and infallible solutions belong in the province of religion. There are no Enlightened Ones or Gods in politics; just fallible humans who struggle with better or worse policies. The 19th Amendment is not perfect. It is not supposed to. What it should be measured against is not some utopian ideal, but the really existing system of governance. And going by that yardstick, the 19th Amendment is potentially more democratic, more able to protect the rights of the people and curb the abuses of the rulers, more likely to bring about intelligent, sensible and efficient governance.

Democracy is neither uniform nor immutable. It is not a finished product, a final destination made of unchanging stone. It is a work-in-progress, an endless experiment. In fact, its ability to survive also depends on its capacity to evolve with changing times. There are no perfect constitutions or constitutional amendments either. All we know is that the existing system is unsafe in multiple ways. The 19th Amendment will resolve some of the problems created by the existing system. But it will have its own flaws. And someday, it too can be amended or abandoned, for something better. That is a mark of democracy, the right to keep what works and dump what does not.

Political Agoraphobia

Power in today’s Sri Lanka is more diffused than ever in history, because of the uniquely broadbased nature of January 8th victory.

To paraphrase Bertold Brecht[i], Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election, but he did not win it alone. He won thanks to the most diverse political coalition in Lankan history. The victory of January 8th truly had many fathers; indeed it could not have happened without multiple fathers. Its paternity cannot be monopolised by any one individual, party or organisation.

And though no single individual or party holds all reins of power, the country is running smoothly. There is no bifurcation, collapse or anarchy, except in the fevered imaginings of feverish Rajapaksa supporters. The calm, quiet, ordinary (almost boring!) present proves that stability is not dependent on power-concentration. We do not need an uncrowned king to keep anarchy at bay!

Rousseau famously wrote, ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains’[ii]. Not every freeborn citizen values freedom. Some people do not want to be free. For these sufferers of political-agoraphobia, bondage and not freedom is the natural state. Without a leader lording it over them, they feel unsafe, bereft, lost…

Thus we have the grotesque spectacle of some UPFA parliamentarians opposing the 19th Amendment in the name of democracy. The fact that these very parliamentarians voted for the profoundly anti-democratic 18th Amendment indicates that they belong in the Orwellian universe where war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. They are no more democratic than China is socialist.

Just as democracy needs democratic citizens, despotism requires obedient subjects. It is no accident that Rajapaksa propaganda sought to create a collective mindset which harked back to our monarchical past and equated national security and wellbeing with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and infallible ‘Hero-King’. The Rajapaksa project has been consigned to the dust-heap of history, but the desire to turn aware and knowledgeable citizens into ignorant and frightened subjects is not unique to Rajapaksas. That danger can stem from other politicians as well. That is why we must not allow any party or leader to dilute or reduce our democratic space. That is why we must resist any attempt by anyone to treat us like permanent infants. Let political-agoraphobiacs dream of the yoke; ‘never again’ should be our determination.

The King in his Echo-Chamber

Most religions have their creation myths, some more inane than others. Take for instance, Church of Scientology’s version: “A galactic overlord Xenu expelled hordes of people to a prison planet (Earth) 75 million years ago, dropped them into volcanoes, then dispersed their spirits…with nuclear bombs. These spirits still possess humans to this day.”[iii]

Human credulity is as boundless as human imagination. The belief of the Rajapaksa-acolytes, that only the triumphant return of Hero-King Mahinda can save Sri Lanka from chaos, is a snug fit for this common human condition.

The UPFA has a majority in parliament, but that majority does not reflect current politico-electoral reality. It was the outcome of a politico-electoral map which has been rendered obsolete by times and tides. The UNP is in a minority, but if an election is held now, the UNP will emerge the single largest party. The UPFA will come second, and a not very strong second if the attempt by Mahinda & Co to break up the SLFP succeeds.

Only someone who is naive to the point of idiocy can believe that Maithripala Sirisena would want Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. Mahinda & Co would know this. The actual purpose of the ‘Bring Back Mahinda as Prime Minister’ campaign is to hoodwink ordinary SLFPers and create the largest possible schism in the SLFP. Mahinda & Co are planning to grab a huge chunk of the SLFP’s vote base, win more seats than the official SLFP and, based on that victory, mount a coup to regain power first in the party and someday nationally.

Delusions of Second Comings apart, Mr. Rajapaksa probably realises that the UNP would be the only real beneficiary of a schism in the SLFP. But like the devil in that pithy Sinhala saying (Yana yaka koraha bindagene yanawa – translated inadequately as ‘The departing devil breaks the rice-washing pot on its way out’) he is possessed by malice. His thirst for vengeance will not be slaked until the SLFP is deluged by defeat.

Mahinda Rajapaksa still lives in his echo chamber, where he only hears what he wants to hear – the hosannas of an adoring audience, most of them brought to his house or to other venues in hired-buses. He is still misreading the public mood and cannot understand that he is treading the DUNF path. Like the DUNF, Mahinda & Co is unlikely to win more than 10% of the vote. If is any post-election haemorrhaging, the flow is likely to be from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rump faction to the official SLFP and not the other way around.

During the presidential election campaign, as astrologer after astrologer declared Rajapaksa victory to be a divinely mandated inevitability, a beggar in Galle made a bet that the winner will be Maithripala Sirisena. Having voted for Mr. Rajapaksa in 2010, the beggar changed because of the way he and others at the rock-bottom of society were treated by the triumphant Rajapaksas. Whenever President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa or Parliamentarian Rajapaksa was scheduled to go by, the police would forcibly herd all beggars out of the royal-sight. The beggar obviously realised the connection between his personal humiliation and the rulers’ real attitude to ordinary men and women.

Asians/Lankans are not born with a slave-particle in their brains. Authoritarianism is not a function of geopolitical location but of historical time. Today, the yearning to be free is not a Western yearning but a universal human one. The outcome of the presidential election demonstrated that a majority of Lankans share this yearning.

“I am not reconciled to a world in which a gesture or a word misunderstood can cost a life”, wrote Heinrich Böll[iv]. We are no longer in that world. 100 days on, the situation is admittedly far from perfect. The pace is slow. Much remains to be done. But the country is still on the right track and hope for a better future is entirely warranted.

[i] A Worker Reads History

[ii] Social Contract


[iv] Billiards at Half Past Nine

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