Constitutional reforms for democracy or another dictator?

by Nalaka Rupasinghe

(August 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) After nearly four decades of bloodshed since Sirima Bandaranaike’s regime (1970-1977) Members of Parliament (MPs) in Sri Lanka have come to the most crucial juncture of our history. The key question everyone has to ask themselves is: Are we going to vote for democratic changes (constitutional reforms) or another dictator? Should we go back to the era of elected dictators such as Sirima Bandaranaike or JR Jayewardene? I (humbly) urge everyone to refresh their memories with the help of my previous article ‘Idi Amin returns as Asian Leader’ see links below. The article did not aim to compare the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It has to be understood within the context of Rajapaksa’s campaign for a two-thirds majority in Sri Lanka’s parliament.

The ruling party was demanding a two-thirds majority in parliament so it could abolish the executive presidency. The article was written to educate Sri Lankan voters so as to prevent them from falling victim to further deceptions. I wish I could publish it in Sinhala and Tamil because the target audience was Sri Lankan voters. The Sri Lankan majority should decide the political future of the country.

President Rajapaksa knew that, had he left the presidential election until the end of his first term in November 2011, the rocketing cost of living and the corruption in the government would have undermined his popularity as winner of the war against LTTE terrorism. He used the best opportunity, soon after the war victory, to grab votes and win an election. The government propaganda machinery gave the whole credit for the victory to the president and his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The war hero, the battlefield architect, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, has been humiliated for Rajapaksas’ political ambitions.

He is going to use the same strategy to grab a two-thirds majority among MPs before they realise his political ambitions. A bad omen already emerged soon after the general election victory in April 2010. He keeps all key ministerial positions for himself and his brothers. He is seeking to extend his term of office indefinitely. Namal Rajapaksa MP, ‘the future king’, is more powerful than a senior minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strategy had been to win the general election by keeping his main rival, General Fonseka, in prison and further extending the emergency regulation to crack down on opposition. For the first time in Sri Lankan history, he convened the dissolved parliament twice to extend the emergency. Independent media reported that nearly 90% of state resources were used for the government election campaigns. The general election result shows that voter turn-out was extremely low. According to the opposition, it was around 50%. This means that the other 50% of the voters are not represented in the parliament. A voter from Kurunegala said: “Many voters feared going to polling stations. There were vehicles on the roads with tinted glass. Some were wrapped like toffees. They had no number plates and only little openings in the windscreens. The drivers could see the roads, but nobody could see who was inside the vehicles. Police did not check those vehicles.”

It is a constitutional duty for the government to protect religious establishments and the most venerated Buddhist shrine Dalada Maligava (Palace of the Tooth). But, when the Sanga Convention was to advise the government on good governance, agents in robes threatened to bomb the sacred shrine.

The Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, Mahanayake of the Malwathu Chapter, said voters who voted against the government had to take refuge in the jungles after the elections as in the days of terror. But the government’s promise was to liberate the country from terrorism. According to the facts, in terms of western democracy the general election victory was a robbery in broad daylight.

President Rajapaksa seems engaged in a political manoeuvre. When he found it hard to get a two-thirds majority from MPs, he now stands shoulder to shoulder with the main opposition, the United National Party (UNP). In principle, he has agreed with the UNP to consider replacing executive presidency with executive premiership. Perhaps he wants to be another Putin. The MPs and the public have to realise that there is no great difference between an executive president and a prime minister with similar powers (as Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike was in 1970-1977).

Constitutional reformers should consider creating a delicate balance of powers between parliament and the executive presidency. The president should have executive powers to lead the nation. The president’s role should not be a rubber stamp.

The proposed amendments aim to abolish the most democratic aspects of the ‘JR constitution’. For example preferential voting will be abolished allowing party leaders to put forward henchmen for election that would further strengthen the dictatorship.

Everybody knows the treacherous politics of Mr Rajapaksa’s predecessors resulted in nearly four decades of bloodshed, suffering and economic hardships. Since Sirima Bandaranaike’s time the country has been almost continuously under emergency regulations. This means democracy has been virtually dead for four decades. Emergency regulations have been used to suspend constitutional/democratic rights, kill people without court trials, burn bodies in ‘tyre pyres’ and crack down on opposition, trade unions and the media.

To amend the constitution needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. But to suspend all constitutional rights requires just one majority vote there. This must be changed. For good governance, votes must be obtained from opposition MPs for emergency-regulation extensions. Such extensions are ‘the Guillotine of democracy’. Terrorists could/should be dealt with under different laws.

In the aftermath of the wars with the LTTE and the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), it is the duty of a responsible government to introduce effective political solutions and democratic reforms. It is time for a public consultation to re-consider constitutional reforms meticulously to restore lost democracy, re-build the nation and preserve the motherland. This needs time, at least a year. Constitutional reforms should reflect experience from the past. In June, I read a shocking story. In Vavuniya, a Northern district liberated from the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), a man cut off a woman’s hand and fingers to steal gold bangles and a ring. When her husband tried to resist, he was shot. I see this not just as an evil crime but also as a fatal symptom of the people’s despair at economic hardship. The government must treat the root cause of such incidents.

Now, MPs, it is your time/turn to demand from the president democratic reforms. The left wing parties in the government (LSSP and the CP) should not forget the lessons they learnt from the ‘Sirima government’, (the people called it ‘a seven year curse’) which prepared the way for an elected dictator, J.R.Jayawardena. The question they need to ask is, ‘Should we let President Rajapaksa hammer the last nails in the coffins of the parties?’ It is time for other MPs to show the public that they are not corrupt and have a backbone. Tell the president: ‘We need more time to study the changes you propose for the constitution. Consult the public, academics and all political parties! Give us time to breathe.’

In the ancient world each giant pyramid was built by hundred of thousand of people/slaves with their blood, sweat and tears to send one man, the king, to heaven. Do government MPs want to create a new ‘royal family’ in the 21st century when most monarchs are disappearing from the world’s politics?

Please be cautious when you listen to spin doctors such as Dr. Dayan Jayathileke and the old professor G.L.Peris. If you take their theories as gospel you could go terribly wrong. These people benefit equally from the UNP and the SLFP. I remember the days of President Premadasa in 1989 when people did not want to drink tap water from the rivers because of the floating human bodies. I remember when fishmongers found it hard to sell fish containing body parts. I remember when mothers could not shed tears openly when their sons were burnt in ‘tyre-pyres’.

Dayan was the director of the ‘Premadasa Foundation’ and the Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the United Nations for the Rajapaksa government. The UNP’s Peris is foreign minister in the Rajapaksa government. He is the public face used by Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leaderships since Chandrika to give an attractive image to treacherous politics

Chandrika’s coalition promised to restore democracy, punish political criminals and wipe out corruptions. What happened? You should have your own memories. I give one example of continuing corruption. Minister of education Richard Pathirana should have been a role model for other ministers. But he was one of the most corrupted ministers in the government.

He came from a poor family background. People in Galle know/are aware that before entering politics he used a motorbike that would start only if pushed. When he became the minister he built huge buildings for schools even if they had small numbers of children. Commission from contractors and admissions to leading schools was a lucrative business.

When elections were being held, his goons and thugs went three or four times to vote after deleting the ink on their voting finger. Once, a policeman arrested a goon for this (election) offence. The minister, outraged, went to the polling station with a police superintendent. ‘Put your gun down! Come here, you bloody dog, how dare you arrest my man?’ said the minister. Then the minister slapped the policeman ordering him to release the goon immediately. His agents opened liquor shops until midnight (well beyond the legal 8.00pm) without fear of prosecution. Half of the arrack they sold contained ‘kasippu’ (local illicit liquor).

At the end of Chandrika’s regime Richard Pathirana was a multi-millionaire. It was reported he had bought a luxurious house worth 40 million rupees in Colombo and built another mansion in Galle. Builders who built Minister S.B. Dissanayake’s mansion came from Hanguranketha to lay marbles in the floors in Pathirana’s Galle mansion. Finally he was awarded an honorary doctorate by a university for his ‘honest service to the public and the country’ and became Dr. Richard Pathirana. When he was a chief guest at school ceremonies he often advised students to follow him as a role model for success. Finally Richard Pathirana became paralysed. People in Galle say he was cursed by the gods.

Chandrika’s government exposed S.B Dissanayake as the only corrupted minister in her cabinet but only after he split from the party. Now he is minister of higher education in the Rajapaksa government.

Government MPs need to ask themselves: Do we have democracy at least within the party? What happened to Nisantha Muthuhettigama (now MP for Dodangoda)? As the chief organiser of Akmeemana electorate, he did all the hard work to regain the faith of voters. He became popular and the leading figure in Galle with his wealth and dedication/commitment. Then he (Nisantha) was forced out of Akmeemana by the president, in favour of Dr. Richard Pathirana’s son. This means that politics is a family property. This must be changed. When Nisantha asked the president about parachuting candidates into the provincial council election such as Sajin De Vass Gunawardena (the man who led Mihin Lanka Air line to bankruptcy) and Anarkali Akarsa, the answer was ‘It is not your business.’ When he openly criticised the leadership he was humiliated, assaulted by the president’s security men. Pro government media including ‘The Island’ presented him as mentally ill. When he alleged the election results were fraudulent, he received death threats.

I have received some credible information that people close to the political hierarchy have been hunting ancient treasures, including some hidden in the liberated areas, using sophisticated equipment so that they can do the ‘job’ without exorcists.

The defence budget has been the best treasure for the political hierarchy since JR Jayewardene’s presidency. While few people benefit from those budgets, millions of people undergo enormous economic hardships. It was reported that the Insurance Corporation of Sri Lanka was to be bought by the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Last year while the war was being fought the defence budget was $1.66billion. The 2010 budget, after the war, was only slightly less, $1.65billion. (Rs.201 billion). This is not what people were promised. The government promised to cut the defence budget and use the money for development and for reducing the cost of living. Military expenditure is 3.5 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of this tiny island. In the U.K. it is 2.5, Germany 1.3, Italy 1.7, China 2.0, and India 2.6, Japan 0.9%

If the government wants to rebuild the nation, it should stop misinterpreting King Dutugamunu’s legacy for racist advantages and start using King Dathusena’s legacy as a role model. King Kassapa asked his imprisoned father, Dathusena, about treasure he thought he had hidden for his legitimate son Mugalan. Dathusena asked a permission to have a bath in the massive reservoir, Kalaveva, which he had built. After bathing he said to Kassapa; ‘This is my treasure saved for the nation, not for Mugalan.’

But the contractors of the ‘modern king’ destroy the greatest treasure, the ancient irrigation system without taking any care of the unique technology used by our ancient engineers to store water. They remove purpose built mud layers; to repair dams/modify lakes. As a result Salvinia grow, and the lakes become unusable.

I watched the video and the photos of the assassination of Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, the late opposition leader of the North Central Province, at the inauguration ceremony of his new home in Anuradhapura. He was explaining his motive for coming to politics, to make it more gentlemanly and less corrupt. Minutes after his speech, he was assassinated along with his beautiful wife and supporters. Nobody had a chance to enjoy the auspicious/traditional ceremonial food, Kavun and Kiribath, prepared for the occasion. There must be an end to the evil legacy.

(Nalaka Rupasinghe is Str8talk Chronicle’s Sri Lanka Specialist where this article originally published)