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Chanaka Amaratunga - A Sri Lankan liberal leader who had no followers

By Basil Fernando

(February 25, Hong Kong, Sri Lnaka Guardian) These days who would not want to think of liberalism? In a country where the idea of tolerance and individual freedom is totally lost, the idea of limited government isreplaced with the absolute power of a single man known as the executive president who is above the law and even the constitution. Where the notion of government depending on the consent of the people is replaced with the forcing of governments on people without elections that can be called free and fair, the opposition politics and the rights of citizens to overthrow a government that see their claim to their rights as nothing less than treachery, naturally anyone would want to dream of liberalism.

True, there is no liberal to be found anywhere in the country. No one even makes the claim of being a liberal anymore. Even those who made some noise at one time saying that the Sri Lankan constitution lacks checks and balances, that it has only the worst aspects of the French and the American constitutional models without having any of the better aspects of these traditions, that the executive presidential system of Sri Lanka was the creation of a political maniac who only wanted power for his own sake, that liberal democracy was not possible without the abolition of the system of governance introduced through the 1978 constitution, that the greatest crimes of the first executive president was the undermining of the independence of the judiciary and the brutal attacks on the freedom of expression are today happy with all those things that they once condemned.

In such circumstances it is only natural to recall at least one man who did not betray his loyalties to the fundamentals of liberalism and who passionately wanted to introduce the liberal idea to Sri Lanka. Chanaka Amaratunga (1958 – 1996) was such a man. Something of his writings which are available, shows the refinement of his mind and his depth of understanding of those fundamentals of liberalism to which he was committed to.

He wrote,

Tolerance of diversity, the value of debate, the opportunity for choice, the integrity of individual personality, a belief in the potential improvability of persons through the acquisition of knowledge and experience and skills, an acknowledgement of the validity of individual judgments – all these are liberal ideas, and they are based upon analysis and argument about man and society and upon acceptance of fundamentals which, however unrecognized and inexplicit, are the foundations of liberalism.

Quoting John Gray with approval, he wrote: “Liberalism is: individualist, in that it asserts that moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity; egalitarian, in as much as it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal or political order of differences in moral worth among human beings; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms; and meliorist in its affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements.”

He was so committed to the liberal idea that he thought it should be introduced more widely and to do so he even proposed the development of a manual for the purpose.

Whatever followers that Chanaka Amaratunga had are no longer speaking of the liberal idea. Some have betrayed that idea for much less than 30 pieces of silver. The shameless acceptance of little positions in the despicable governments that any liberal anywhere in the world would have little difficulty in condemning has left only a shameless memory of that great idea at the very time that most people in the country would have been attracted to it than at any time in the past.

What Chanaka Amaratunga has left by way of writing may be little but he was pointing to the great idea of liberalism and on that subject the literature is plenty. It is perhaps time that a greater interest should be created in the study of these ideas.

At the moment Chanaka Amaratunga does not have any followers, but he deserves to have many. Perhaps in these dark days some attempts must be made to understand the direction in which he was pointing.

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