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Dictators in National Clothing

Response to Rajiva Wijesinha’s article “We need to stay with the presidential system that has proved so successful”

By Basil Fernando

(March 11, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) The late Gunadasa Liyanage was a senior lawyer in Mount Lavinia who practiced mostly civil law. In the mid-1970’s, he was also the leader of the United National Party (UNP) supporters in the Ratmalana area. He was the choice of the local UNPers for the 1977 elections. In the days when the nominations were being prepared, he received an invitation from JR Jayawardene, the leader of the UNP, to come and visit him. When he did, JR Jayawardene requested Gunadasa Liyanage to nominate Lalith Athulalthmudali for the same seat that the people had chosen Gunadasa for. Gunadasa replied that the people’s choice was him and therefore he was not in a position to accede to the request of Jayawardene. And then Gunadasa proceeded to tell his leader, “I see inside you a dictator.” Jayawardene’s cynical retort, according to Gunadasa, was “Well, in that case, I will be the first dictator in the Sinhala national clothing.” This story was told by Gunadasa himself to many people. Gunadasa bitterly left the UNP and later even contested on behalf of a leftist party, just to demonstrate his bitterness against the authoritarian trend in the UNP. Later, despite the tragic death of one of his brothers in the hands of the JVP, Gunadasa remained steadfastly opposed to Jayawardene and defended liberal democratic values and was particularly outspoken in defense of the independence of judiciary against attacks from the ruling regime.

"The essential problems of democracy are about the participation of the people in governance. The problem is not about the powers of the head of the state. The primary issue is about the way people express themselves through their political system."

Jayawardene’s reference to the dictator in national clothing is quite significant. All dictators defend their position on the basis that they should not blindly follow external practices which may prove unsuitable for their country and try to develop what they call indigenous systems suitable for the particular circumstances. What this in essence means is to develop a system that suits the dictator. They may of course talk about the peculiar terms that are suited to the needs of particular circumstances. That was the way the military dictators in Pakistan justified their positions, as did Suharto his position in Indonesia. That is the way Li Kuan Yu also justified his own tight control of the entire system under single party and, in fact, under the thumb of a single man.

The essential problems of democracy are about the participation of the people in governance. The problem is not about the powers of the head of the state. The primary issue is about the way people express themselves through their political system. This, first of all, means the way they express themselves through media and through their own associations. These associations include the trade unions and all other free associations through which people gather together to be strong enough to resist the absolute power of the state. What the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka destroyed was this capacity of the Sri Lankan people to express themselves and organize themselves.

In this whole process of organizing society against absolute power, law plays an important function. The principle that no one is above the law is the most important principle of rule of law that prevents dictatorship. If the head of the state is above the law, then the whole scheme is one that stands against the basic foundation of rule of law and democracy.

The system that JR Jayawardene introduced is one in which, under the guise of having a unique system, the age old system of absolute power was introduced to Sri Lanka. Giving the power to the President to destroy the capacity of people to express themselves freely through the media and through their associations, the natural consequence was the virtual displacement the power of the judiciary. One-time liberals are now declaring their loyalties to continue with the executive presidential system, meaning that system in which the president is above the law, where the freedom of expression and association is suppressed, where law is relegated into an unimportant position to be replaced by executive orders made through national security laws, and where judiciary has no real role to play on matters relating to people’s basic rights.

The dictators in national clothing may have recruited a few former liberals to be their apologists. And these apologists may want to be silent about forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, illegal arrest and illegal detentions that the agents of the dictators cause. These apologists will also defend the killings and harassments of journalists. These apologists also even go to the extent that when the agents of the dictator fabricate charges against innocent people, they implicate these innocents in the crimes that were carried out on behalf of the dictator. To these apologists, there is no difference between the truth and falsehood when it comes to the defense of the practices of the regime. Jayawardene may appear today in Rajapaksha’s clothing. However, the basic contradiction between dictatorship and democracy is not erased.

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