By Gamini Weerakoon
(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)
The intense gobbledygook that has been parroted on constitutional law, particularly on ‘20A’ in English and Sinhala in the media has left this columnist somewhat groggy.
It made us wonder whether the man on the street or the farmer toiling in his field did think about the implications of ‘20A’ or the 19th Amendment and JR’s Executive Presidency when he voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mandate or simply voted for ‘Appe Man’.
A term tossed about by constitutional pundits and media persons has been: ‘Democratic Dictatorship’ and variants of it as ‘Strongman Democracy’ and ‘Benevolent Democracy’. To the old school types of older generations, ‘Democratic Dictator’ is an oxymoron — a term with two contradictory meanings. ‘Democracy’, they learnt at school, was a ‘Government of the people, by the people for the people’. A ‘dictatorship’ broadly implied a form of government by a single individual or a group of leaders that do not tolerate opposing views, political pluralism or media independence. Democracy and dictatorship are like fire and water; fire and dynamite.
Yet in this Democratic Socialist Republic, there have been people who long for a strong ruler — a dictator. We recall a few years ago a report about a monk at an almsgiving calling upon Gotabaya to ‘become even a Hitler to save Sinhala-Buddhism from destruction by the Yahapalanaya government. There are many who long for the ‘glorious days of Sinhala monarchs’, most of whom were absolute despots ruling over a feudal society.
Modern-day advocates of despotism , those longing for a return to the days of Dutu Gemunu, Parakrama Bahu, Vijaya Bahu and the like, believe in political reincarnations like the Rajapaksas who could take Lanka back to those ‘glorious days ’.
Yet, all these wishes and hopes can be freely expressed only because a democratic system is in existence today. In the good old days if a monarch heard of attempts to remove him from the throne — let alone bring in a new system of governance — the initiators of such moves would be entitled to the many original indigenous forms of torture before transiting to another reincarnation, history tells us.
Dictators seize power through the democratic process. Adolf Hitler tried to seize power through his ‘Munich Beerhall Putsch’ by taking to the streets and proclaiming a national revolution. When they were fired on by the police and the army, four demonstrators were killed and Hitler was injured and jailed for four years on charges of treason. Historians note that the putsch taught Hitler the lesson that he could achieve power only through legal means.
Having built up his Nazi party rapidly and scoring electoral victories by small margins in 1933, he contested Chancellor Hindenburg and polled 36.8 percent of the votes and was offered the Chancellorship. From then on in a few short steps through an Enabling Act that gave him full power, he declared himself the Fuhrer—the Leader— and made his political slogan — Ein Volk, Ein Reich. Ein Fuhrer (One People, One Nation, One Leader) — a reality. From then on all non- Nazi political parties and all opposition to him ceased to exist.
The words of Hitler — One nation, One Leader, One People — are still echoed by many would-be modern -day dictators to rouse patriotism and create a mystique about themselves to crush rising opposition against them.
Last week, Nihal Jayawickrema, a former stalwart of the Sirima Bandaranaike regime, in an article to the Daily Mirror on the 20th Amendment, said the 20th Amendment ‘seeks to restore the original 1978 Constitution’ (of J.R. Jayewardene).He quotes Sirima Bandaranaike speaking in the National State Assembly. She had said that the Second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution that sought to confer on Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene the powers of both the president and prime minister will set our country on the road to dictatorship and that there will be no turning back…… The events of the past few months are reminiscent of the last days of the Weimar Republic when Adolf Hitler using the constitutional process rapidly destroyed the foundations of the constitutional state. He too combined in his person the powers of the president and the chancellor, and then transformed by constitutional amendment, a federal democracy into centralised autocracy under the direct control of the Fuhrer’. He too relied on a massive mandate which he received at a plebiscite and insidiously removed every constitutional protection contained in the Constitution of the Weimar Republic until finally the only political solution that remained in Germany was the despot’s whim’, the former Prime Minister had said.
Do Sri Lankans in the second decade of the 21st Century see parallels?
Jaywickrema’s article goes on to describe the office of President JRJ, vested with absolute power and was placed above the law and beyond the reach of the courts. He describes how the judiciary was reconstituted and a politically acceptable docile and subservient judiciary was created. The dismantling of the Opposition by expelling Opposition Leader Sirima Bandaranaike from parliament, similar measures that were brought against a former Senior Cabinet Minister (Felix Dias Bandaranaike) and a former Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Justice—that is Nihal Jayawickreme, himself.
Jaywickreme goes on to detail the other follies committed during the ‘37 years that an Executive President reigned over Sri Lanka’ and says the 20th Amendment bill seeks to revive and install it.
He also makes a very salient point which those SLFPers in the Pohotuwa party of the Rajapaksas and SLFPers backing it tend to ignore. It was an inexplicable irony of Sri Lankan politics that it was a UNP government with the support of the SLFP that successfully disengaged from the 1978 constitution and it is that SLFP that is today lending its support to reinstate what their former leader described as the ‘dictatorship of His Excellency Junius Richard Jayewardene’.
Nihal Jayawickreme begins his constitutional essay with the 1972 Constitution but fails to look back to those heady days that began in 1970 when the United Front led by Sirima Bandaranaike’s SLFP and the Marxists swept the polls with a two-thirds majority and claimed it was a mandate to change the existing Soulbury Constitution, which was used to govern this country for 24 years. It provided far greater political and economic stability than the 1972 Constitution or that of 1978 one.
True the country had remained a dominion in the Commonwealth with the Queen as the Head of State but independent republican status could have come with ease instead of going through the nationalist, socialist hijinks destroying individual and minority freedoms. The one provision in the Soulbury Constitution that provided protection for minorities was erased from the 1972 constitution. That provision specifically declared that no community or religion could be accorded special privileges not granted to other communities. Instead Sinhala only was entrenched in the Constitution and Buddhism accorded the foremost place to Buddhism. The main Tamil parties boycotted the Constitutional Council that drafted the 1972 Constitution.
It resulted in the social fabric of the country being torn apart. And we are still making futile attempts at reconciliation of the Sinhalese and Tamils. The slaughter of youth in the 1971 JVP Revolution, sowing seeds for a Tamil insurrection in the North and East by Standardisation of Examinations and the Criminal Justice Commissions of Felix Dias Bandaranaike are now all swept under the carpet.
Is the basic flaw in Sri Lanka’s constitutional making the interpretation of the ‘mandate given by the people’? A two-thirds majority seems to be heady wine that flows directly into the heads of victorious political leaders making them think that they have been blessed with divine powers. Does it give them the right to play havoc with all the fundamental rights of the people? Perhaps the only way to verify the mandate of the people is to hold a referendum on the proposed laws or the constitution.
Lanka is at crossroads. Do we go back on reverse gear to the days of monarchy or their modern version of tinpot dictators or progress as a modern democratic republic with citizens enjoying their fundamental rights?