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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Guided democracy

”These far reaching reforms were not the result of any home-grown proposal. In fact, no group or political association in the country asked for it. Indeed, the largest of them, the Ceylon National Congress, opposed the extension of the franchise.”

by Shanie

“In the Renaissance of my life

the cries of the damned crowded my ears.

the curses of the damned poisoned my mouth,

the arms of the damned demolished my verse,

the guilt of two generations hit like the plague

and boarded up the town,

in the Renaissance of my life.”- Peter Scharen

(a Sri Lankan who emigrated to Australia where he established himself as a poet of renown)

 Last week, Sri Lanka kept two anniversaries. One was the fortieth anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a Republic. That was when the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government promulgated a new Constitution on 22nd May 1972 severing the constitutional links we had with our former colonial rulers. The Government of Sri Lanka and the state media chose to largely ignore that anniversary. Instead, the defeat of the northern insurgents three years ago was celebrated with much fanfare. President Rajapaksa called it the third anniversary of a ‘humanitarian’ victory. This is one of two buzz words the President is fond of using regularly. The other being ‘home-grown’. The defeat by the security forces of a terrorist organization was certainly a successful and welcome military effort. But it certainly can by no means be called a humanitarian operation. No war, civil or international, can be called a humanitarian war, particularly when hundreds of thousands of civilians are killed, maimed, displaced or go missing during military operations. But talk of ‘humanitarian interventions’ are not new. In the immediate pre-second world war era, Mussolini and his black shirts invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and called it a humanitarian intervention. Hitler in Nazi Germany did likewise when he annexed Sudetenland in 1938.

President Rajapaksa has also referred to the long tradition of democracy in Sri Lanka from 1931 when universal suffrage was incorporated into the Donoughmore constitutional reforms. This certainly is a proud record for our country when for the first time all adults over the age of 21 were allowed to vote at the election to the State Council – it was a first for Asia as well. But this was not a home-grown reform. It was recommended by a British Parliamentary Commission headed by the Earl of Donoughmore. The Commission not only recommended universal suffrage but also the abolition of communal electorates which had been a feature of elections to previous Legislative Councils.

These far reaching reforms were not the result of any home-grown proposal. In fact, no group or political association in the country asked for it. Indeed, the largest of them, the Ceylon National Congress, opposed the extension of the franchise. The proposed reforms were subject to a heated debate in the Legislative Council and barely managed to be accepted by a majority of two votes. The reason for the opposition to the reforms by the political elite of that time was perhaps because they felt threatened by the widening of the electorate and the possible loss of power. But the Donoughmore Commissioners stuck to their recommendations; they had the support for nthis from the Secretary of State for the Colonies Sidney Webb. So it was to the benevolence of our colonial rulers that we owe our long tradition of participatory democracy. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, home-grown about it.

Home Grown Solutions

President Rajapaksa and his faithful followers, including sadly the leaders of the old Left, now go about repeating the need for a home-grown solution to the National Question as if it were a mantra discovered by President Rajapaksa the other day. Ever since the ethnic problem came up in the mid-nineteen fifties, we have had several attempts by our political leaders to arrive at a reasonable settlement with justice to all communities – ‘a home grown solution’ if that is the phrase that the present government understands. The first was the agreement that the liberal-minded S W R D Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister, worked out in 1957 with the equally liberal-minded S J V Chelvanayakam, then the leader of the largest party representing the minorities of the North and East. If that agreement had been allowed to be implemented, the country would have avoided over fifty years of bloodshed. But extremist elements within Bandaranaike’s party goaded by the political opportunism of J R Jayewardene who was now leading the opposition UNP, would not allow that to happen, calling the agreement a betrayal of the nation. As Professor Ludowyk noted, ‘the racial forces unleashed by the (1956) election campaign were too strong to be brought to heel, and besides the defeated party (the UNP) was now professing a programme of violent communalism’.

The situation today is similar. A small group of extremists are able to hold the country to ransom and prevent a solution to the National Question that will fair and just by all communities. For some inexplicable reason, President Rajapakse seems to go along with these small extremist groups. In 1956, the demand for the official recognition of Sinhala, Professor Ludowyk again states, was a rational one. It was intolerable that the majority of people who did not know English should have been penalized on this account. But campaigning for Sinhala only (and against any concession to the Tamils) were extremists who distorted the case they presented. To quote Professor Ludowyk: ‘The situation got out of hand because of these small groups. And as the election had been fought it was easy to see how thin were the partitions dividing rational demands from irrational fears. Both the MEP and UNP did not scruple to break through them to secure political advantage.’

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was the first opportunity to effect a permanent settlement of the National Question. There were other home-grown opportunities. The agreement between Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayakam, the constitutional proposals formulated following all party-talks during the Presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the report presented by the Experts panel appointed by President Rajapaksa himself and finally the report of the all-party committee headed by Tissa Vitarana which was also appointed by President Rajapaksa. From all this, it now seems that it is not a home-grown solution that the President is looking for but a solution that will be acceptable to the small group of extremists who surround him. Commissions and Committees are appointed and they spend several months listening to representations and debating among themselves. They finally produce a report which would have cost an enormous amount of public funds and the report and recommendations are not even tabled for public discussion. It seems that the these committees and commissions (the Udalagama Commission and the LLRC are further examples) and Parliamentary Select Committees will continue to be appointed only as face-saving devices to meet pressure from some quarter but with no intention of even releasing them for public discussion, let alone implementing them, if the recommendations do not meet the political needs of the President and the small group around him.

The Case of Sarath Fonseka

It is not only in respect of establishing peace and reconciliation between all communities where the government is floundering. Crushing the terrorism of the LTTE is not a slogan that can be carried indefinitely. It has to be replaced by good governance and an adherence to the Rule of Law ensuring that justice is meted out equally to all. Very few will believe that Sarath Fonseka has received justice, despite his ‘convictions’ by military tribunals and by the judiciary. One has to question whether the ‘crimes’ for which he was charged and the lightening speed with which he was tried and convicted was in the normal course of justice in our country. Contrast his case with those of politicians charged with murder still remaining free and continuing their political activities.

The Attorney General has made clear that Sarath Fonseka has not been pardoned but that only the balance period of prison sentence has been remitted. He therefore still remains without civic rights to contest elections or to sit in Parliament. The Attorney General has also made it clear that there are other cases pending against him which have not been withdrawn. His release from prison is therefore on probation. If he continues to be a thorn in the flesh of the government and his popularity is seen as affecting the fortunes of the government, he could be slapped again in prison on the pending charges and any further charges that may be brought against him. Incidentally, the state media has chosen to ignore Sarath Fonseka’s release from prison.

Sarath Fonseka is undoubtedly a popular hero. The harassment that he has had to undergo at the hands of the government has only increased his popularity. So far as any reasonable citizen can see, nothing he had said or done over the years has broken any law or caused any damage to the reputation and good name of Sri Lanka. Perhaps, if he was a seasoned politician and not a military officer, he may have said or done the things he said or did in a different way. But that is Sarath Fonseka and every person has his own way or talking and acting. Fonseka was sentenced to serve nearly ten years in prison. If he was guilty of any crime, some of our politicians are guilty of more despicable crimes and will need to spend a lifetime in prison.

Politicisation and Democratic Rights

Namini Wijedasa, a young but experienced woman journalist gave the keynote address this week at the annual meeting of the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance. Wijedasa pulled no punches at the untenable attitude that prevails today. ‘If you criticise the way foreign relations are conducted, you’re being bribed by the West. If you speak about human rights abuses, you are a grasping NGO agent. Either way, you are embroiled in a certain conspiracy to topple the government…..

‘If you criticise your rulers, you’re just downright ungrateful because they won the war—and that should suffice for the next several decades. Indeed, “if you are not with us, you are against us”. Still. Three years after the war ended.

‘This bigotry and intolerance is untenable. It is wholly detrimental to the free thought, free speech and the advancement of society. Why in this day and age is a government afraid of a diversity of views? Why do they feel so threatened by detractors and critics that they feel it necessary to classify them as conspirators or traitors?’

Wijedasa lamented that ‘our public institutions have lost every semblance of independence and are completely and wholly controlled by the executive. And this includes the judiciary. When the judiciary depends on the executive for survival and career advancement, and the executive is of the type that expects complete subservience, what hope does this country have?’

She concluded her address with a call for people at all levels, particularly at the village level and the women’s groups to be conscious of their rights. We have a right to demand good governance from those who run our country – the government and the opposition. Indeed, people at these levels taking a stand for good governance is the only hope for a return to democratic values in our country.



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