Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • September 2010
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From Caesar to JR to MR, the lure of the 18th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on September 9, 2010

As this article is being penned the 18th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution and its general effect of creating an absolute ruler for life is a fait accompli, baring the final coup de grace of the foregone Parliament vote. From the numbers in Parliament elected under proportional representation, it is clear that the balance of political and social forces is in favor of creating an absolute ruler. The push to increase and centralize power is neither new nor unusual in human or Sri Lankan political history. We can examine some lessons from history, ancient and modern, to understand our current phenomena of the 18th Amendment.

(i)                 The Roman Caesar

The ancient Roman civilization was a democracy of sorts with a plurality of leadership, governed by the elected Roman Senate. However as the Roman Empire expanded and also faced external threats arising from its’ over reach, the roman senate started creating the role and function of a Caesar, whose role moved from being commander in chief of the entire roman armed forces (army and navy) to Emperor of Rome. The once proud and democratic roman citizen acquiesced in this transition from democracy to monarchy in the belief that it better safeguarded their perceived collective interests. The reality however was different. They would however, right till the end, have fiercely argued that Rome was never a monarchy, instead insisting that the Roman Senate continued to function and that Caesar was answerable to the Roman Senate. Roman Emperors even attended the Senate much more often than our own 18th Amendment mandated once in three month visit.

(ii)                First Executive President JR Jayawardena

Closer to home it was in 1978 that the late former President JR Jayawardena elected a year earlier in a landslide parliamentary election, but at 52% of the popular vote, considerably less than President Rajapakse’s earlier this year, decided to centralize power in himself through the creation of the office of an executive president. Subsequently the UNP under President Jayawardena amended the Constitution no less than sixteen times, on most occasions to overcome adverse rulings by the Supreme Court, headed by then Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon, a relatively junior jurist handpicked by President Jayawardena to head the highest Court. There were little popular protests then, as indeed now, at the actions of the President, since the then ruling urban elites believed that President Jayawardena and his UNP represented their collective interests. Similarly today the large Sinhala rural middle class and the much smaller Sinhala nationalists making up the support base of the ruling UPFA, together now with support from the Muslim community represented by the SLMC (Rauff Hakeem), Ashroff Congress (Athahulla) and ACMC (Rishard Bathurdeen) make no protests at the further centralizing of power, believing that President Mahinda Rajapakse represents and will advance their common perceived interests.

(iii)               Current & Future President Mahinda Rajapakse

Over three decades after President Jayawardena created a near elected dictatorship opposed by few or none, his current successor in that officer, President Mahinda Rajapakse has taken President Jayewardene’s creation to its logical conclusion. He has succeeded in removing all checks and balances on the exercise of unrestrained individual presidential power and succeeded in bringing the public service, the police service and the elections department, hitherto politicized but nominally independent, under direct presidential rule. Sadly the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka saw no problems in these measures, no merit in the excellent submissions of the intervenient petitioners, all entirely against the proposed measures and granted the president the blank check he wanted. With no disrespect to Court, it was retired former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who writing a stinging dissent against the majority decision led by then US Chief Justice William Rehnquist, to stay the recounting of the disputed Florida votes in George Bush’s first presidential election, stated “we are supreme not because we are infallible but we are supreme because we are final”. By and large the current Sri Lankan polity, like Roman citizens of yore and ourselves three decades ago  accepted the creation of an absolute ruler in the belief that he protects our interests and will be beneficial to the collective good.

(iv)              The Tamil experiment with absolute power

Looking Northward from Colombo, it was also possible to see how the Tamil people acquiesced in the transition of Prabhakaran from Thambi, to Anna to Suriya Thevan or Sun God and the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil people. It was a Tamil friend of mine with close links to an anti LTTE Tamil group, who coined the phrase and stated that Sri Lanka defeated the forces of Tamil Eelam in the North only to enthrone the forces of Sinhala Eelam in the entire country. As a liberal and social democrat, generally sympathetic of SLFP governments, I insisted that the fundamental and defining difference was that the Sinhala polity conducted regular elections to pick our rulers. To which the response was that should Prabhakaran had been so inclined he could have called and won any election in the former uncleared Wanni, controlled by the LTTE, the operational factor being the feature of control and the lack of space for dissent. Check the election results conducted amongst the Tamil Diaspora by the LTTE’s international rump and the 90% plus support it receives. Mere elections does not a free society make, the rules that govern the conduct of that society do. We as a nation have just fundamentally altered the rules by which we play the political game, and it is likely to be to the detriment of democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka.

(v)                Conclusion 

Now however that President Rajapakse has centralized power further and armed himself with near absolute power, the issues are what policy initiatives would he use such power for, besides thwarting any opposition to his reign. It is clear that he hopes to accelerate economic development of the country, along the lines of the Chinese model, less democratic freedoms but accelerated economic growth, coming close to double digits, spurred on by massive infrastructure spending funded through supplier credits and government borrowings. Prosperity does significantly contribute to social stability as the large scale Chinese experiment in China has demonstrated and its smaller scale Chinese version in Singapore, the inspiration for UNP leaders and thinkers, demonstrate. However, the other and arguably more pressing issue though is whether President Rajapakse will move on the issue of national reconciliation and heal and unite a bitterly divided society polarized by close upon three decades of ethnic based civil conflict. He has the political power dos so, the question is whether he has the political will to do so.

In conclusion, we would do well perhaps to reflect on the well known words of Lord Acton over a century ago,  that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

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