Sarath de Alwis
History repeats, because we don’t listen the first time. Those who wanted genuine change, now pin their hopes on the 20th Amendment which would abolish the Executive Presidency and restore parliamentary rule.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency in the years 2010-2015 is remarkable for its successes and excesses. If he planned to perpetuate his rule, he did so for a good reason.
Kingship is an ancient office. Mahinda’s second term was a modern ‘kingship’. That explains the vociferous opposition to the proposed abolition of the executive presidency. When the powerful Executive President ended a war and became the unifier of the land and redeemer of his tribe, he became the anointed ruler of the tribe.
The abolition of the executive presidency will not impugn the unitary form of the Republic. That is balderdash by a segment of the Opposition that is itching for a strong man to rescue the land from democratic chaos and restore the discipline of the despot.
The executive presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa is far more complex than what was designed by President J.R. Jayewardene.
The executive presidency introduced in 1978 was the result of a unique turn of events that occurred in 1977.
The UNP received more than 50 percent of the total vote in the entire island. Under the first-past-the-post electoral system that existed in 1977, this translated into the UNP getting 5/6 of seats in Parliament. The massive mandate turned the septuagenarian JRJ into a philosopher king.
With philosophic detachment he outlined his vision. He told an interviewer, “I think you must trim your sails to your own country’s needs and resources and forget about philosophies and theories”
Fortified by this unprecedented mandate, President JRJ decided that the country needed a ‘strong and stable executive not subject to the whims and fancies of an elected legislature’. He wanted an authoritative institution ‘not afraid to take ‘correct but unpopular measures ‘.
The Presidency of J.R. Jayewardene ended quietly in considerable confusion. His friend, classmate and political adversary, Dr. Colvin R de Silva wrote a brilliantly incisive pamphlet, ‘The UNP Government and the Crisis of the Nation ‘summing up the times of the first executive presidency.
“To drift as we are doing under this government, offering no alternative to a state at war with a section of the people, is to drift to disaster. That is not the way to prevent what has to be prevented; namely the division of this country into two separate states which cannot survive except as client states of big powers. The UNP government has put our independence in peril. And so also, and no less, have the Tigers! “
Readers should forgive me for the extensive quote. We owe history some degree of honesty. As Kafka told us in the business of writing, let us not bend. Let us not water it down. Let us not try to make the illogical logical. Let us not edit our souls. We should follow our obsessions mercilessly.
In the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the dice fell differently. He won the Presidency by a whisker a quarter century later in 2005. He beat the Tigers in 2009. He became the unifier of the land.
Following the military triumph, the Executive Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa quietly acquired the prototypical character of a ‘Kingship’.
Authoritarian rule is not pure coercion. It is not only state machinery. The apparatus of coercion can coopt religious leaders to manipulate the flock to desired goals and targets. Domination of minds from within was the singular achievement of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Constitutional amendments are adopted or rejected not on their relative merits. Partisan interests have guided our constitutional evolution. If some group feels that the proposed outcome is a zero-sum game, the intended outcome was of little relevance.
Traditional institutions are conditioned to resist change to existing arrangements that function to their advantage. Traditional elites make it their business to stunt the growth and the spread of democracy.
The Buddhist clergy is such a traditional institution. They constitute a traditional elite. They are profoundly hierarchical in orientation. To them, democracy is peripheral.
With the executive presidency, we created an agency that was superior to the elected Parliament. It was a manipulative authority concentrated in the hands of a single person.
Under the first executive presidency, life of Parliament was extended by a decidedly flawed referendum. It was pure and simple slaughter of democracy.
Historian Isaac Deutscher described the murders of German Socialist pioneers Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 as the last triumph of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Hohenzollern Germany and the first triumph of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
The Referendum held under the Executive Presidency of JRJ was the last triumph of the UNP that won independence for Ceylon. It was the first triumph of the autocracy of Mahinda Rajapaksa that ended the civil war in Sri Lanka.
When you trample on freedom, you leave footprints for successors. Relative morality is the name of the game.
The parallel is cited for one reason only. The study of history compels us to confront chaos while retaining our faith in its order and meaning.
The successful conclusion of the war made Mahinda Rajapaksa something more than an Executive President. He became the unifier of the motherland, redeemer of the Dhammadveepa – the land of the righteous. The three principal sects of Sangha fraternity have bestowed on Mahinda Rajapaksa exotic titles usually associated with our ancient kings: Vishva Kirti Sri Sinhaladhisvara, Sri Vira Vikrama Lankadhisvara, Sri Lanka Rajavamsa Vibhushana Dharmadvipa Cakravarti.”
This should not surprise us. The clergy as it is constituted today is an institution that operates on the principle of inequality and a top down flow of power and authority.
The memory of kings has a tenacious hold on the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha fraternity. That hold is less spiritual and more political.
Political institutions cannot be fashioned independent of the customs and practices of a society.
Today, the proposed abolition of the executive presidency has provoked a high-pitched opposition from an influential section of the Maha Sangha. The pro-Rajapaksa clerical troopers are versatile practitioners of the art of intimidatory persuasion. They proceed on the theory that he who shouts loudest is heard most.
They are most comfortable with a coercive disciplinary state that guarantees their tenure as shepherds of the flock. Past glories constitute their principal platform. Confronting enemies of the nation is their primary occupation.
They are pronounced partisans of the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led opposition. It is therefore obvious that they not only wish to preserve the powerful executive presidency but would like a Mahinda Rajapaksa proxy to reoccupy it. There is logic behind the move. The military victory over the separatists has had a seismic impact on the executive presidency.
Mahinda was indeed a ‘King’ to his followers. He still is. He will remain on this perch or pedestal as long as that section of the Buddhist clergy succeeds in sustaining the Sinhala Supremacist sentiment.
Mahinda defeated separatism and unified the country. He is the modern hero king. There is indeed some popular basis to this notion. That said, it is clear that in Ven Medagoda Abayatissa thero, spearheading the opposition to the abolition of the executive presidency, he has an an image maker of great promise. He is able to present the sales pitch as scripture and doctrine.
Monarchist sentiment was never completely extinguished in Sri Lanka. The Kandyan Convention was an instrument that enabled the monastic orders of Kandy to continue state sponsored rituals. The Monastic elite accepted the British King.
As an eminent social anthropologist recently pointed out, among our traditional Buddhist clergy, “embers of monarchist fantasy lie beneath, ready to be ignited at the slightest opportunity.”
Post war triumphalism anointed the Executive Presidency with a sanctity associated normally with ancient Kings in our folklore.
The Rajapaksa regime found that a restoration of a new indigenous order – part feudal, part oligarchic, replete with a religio-magical legitimization, would be politically more rewarding than reaching out to genuine reconciliation.
So, we are back in a drift, just as comrade Colvin pointed out in the eighties.
The drive to glorify a vanished past, was a thinly disguised political project that constructed a paternalistic kingship associated with the executive presidency. Parallel to the process of making a ‘ Maharajano’ was the idea that the Sinhala people are the true citizens of the land and others are guests who must not demand more than their due.
This trend had other negative consequences. The culture of impunity became firmly entrenched. Dissent was construed anti national. Ethnic supremacy of the modern kingship had a price: Our freedom.