The dismantling of democracy by obscurantist forces

Many will find an echo of Jayewardene's action in the way General (Retd) Sarath Fonseka, who is has been found guilty by a hand-picked Military Tribunal. He has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and by imprisoning him on the basis of the ruling by the Tribunal, has effectively prevented from contesting or campaigning at the next election.
by Shanie

"Democracy is neither white magic nor black, neither a formula of easy solution nor a sanctimonious fraud. It is a tool which, like any other tool, is to be judged by its results,; which, like any other tool, can be blunted or mishandled till it is flung aside in disgust, but which can be used to correct inequalities, if there is a will to correct them."

(July 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Richard Tawney, the economic historian, was one of the many leading intellectuals of his time who supported the Labour Party. The above quote is from his book 'Equality' which he wrote on the eve of the Labour Party forming the second minority government under Ramsay MacDonald. Tawney's democratic socialism was to have a great influence on many socialists in Britain. It was such socialist-inclined intellectuals who produced the Donoughmore Constitution on which was based the first national democratic election in Sri Lanka in 1931. That election, the first based on universal adult franchise, saw almost all electorates returning conservatives from the feudal aristocracy. The second election in 1935 saw, for the first time, the election of the Marxist 'twins' Philip Gunwardana in Avissawela and N M Perera in Ruwanwela, who comprehensively defeated two representatives of the aristocracy, an Obeysekeras and a Molamure respectively. Those were the beginnings of democratic elections in our country. When we obtained independence from colonial rule in 1948, the new Constitution crafted by Sir Ivor Jennings laid the foundation for a secular democratic administration through independent national institutions.

During the early years following independence, successive governments maintained this commitment towards democracy, for independent public services and administration, and for a separation of the powers of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. This commitment did not change with the election of the coalition led by S W R D Bandaranaike in 1956. He was basically a liberal-minded democrat but his prime-ministerial life was cut short within three years by a Buddhist monk who was only a tool in the hands of conservative feudal elements. Bandaranaike had given leadership to the forces who were, on the lines of Tawney's prescription for socialism in 1929, demanding a more egalitarian and democratic government that would provide greater social mobility and social justice with equal educational and employment opportunities for the less privileged. Unfortunately, Bandaranaike did not have the political vision to see that the political future of the SLFP depended on consolidating his power base with the support of like-minded socialist liberals rather than with obscurantist feudal forces. In the end, he became the victim of these same obscurantist forces.

The beginnings

Bandaranaike's widow, who served two terms as Prime Minister, and Dudley Senanayake, who was Prime Minister in between these two terms, continued to basically maintain our democratic structures. Sirimavo Bandaranaike resisted undue authoritarianism despite her nephew Felix's view that a 'little bit of totalitarianism' was good for democracy. The dismantling of democracy really began with the 1977 government of J R Jayewardene. Jayewardene himself had been thought of a liberal democrat until then; perhaps at heart he was. He became Prime Minister when he was past the psalmist's span and was impatient to achieve much before he retired. He therefore expanded on Felix Dias' prescription for democracy and thought a greater bit of totalitarianism was required. He would not tolerate any opposition to his ideas, whether that opposition came from opposition politicians representing the people, or from religious and civil society leaders concerned with human rights and social justice or from the judiciary safeguarding the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution.

The 1977 election had seen a landslide victory for the UNP which virtually decimated the opposition. The only opposition to the UNP had come from North and East where Tamil United Liberation Front secured 16 seats to become the largest opposition party. But this convincing victory was not enough for the long term ambitions of J R Jayewardene. He wanted to ensure that there would be no political opposition to him with his intended programme of work. So he had to neutralise the opposition. His first target was to enact a new Constitution creating a new Executive Presidency and making himself the first Executive President. By the 1978 Constitution, the Executive President was given extra-ordinarily wide powers and immunity from legal proceedings for any public or private action taken while holding office. Jayewardene himself once boasted that the only power he lacked was to change the gender of a person. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government has, by the 18th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, improved on Jayewardene's authoritarian Constitution by removing the limit to the term of office of the President.

Changing the Constitution was not enough. Any possible threat to re-election in a democratic election had to be prevented. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was that threat and she had to be prevented from being able to stand at the next election against Jayewardene. There was no law that could have ensured that. So Parliament was asked to enact a new legal offence of abuse of power which would deprive a person found guilty of civic rights. The UNP parliamentarians had all been compelled to submit to Jayewardene undated letters of resignation to ensure that no one would deviate from the Jayewardene line. The parliamentarians duly obliged by creating a new and vague offence of 'abuse of power'. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was charged with abuse of power but her case was not heard in the ordinary Courts of Law but by a Special Presidential Commission, whose members were hand-picked by the President himself. Not surprisingly, the Commission found Mrs Bandaranaike guilty of the abuse of power and Parliament passed a resolution depriving her of her civic rights for six years, effectively preventing her from sitting in Parliament and contesting or campaigning at the next election due not later than 1983.

Mrs Bandaranaike and Sarath Fonseka

Many will find an echo of Jayewardene's action in the way General (Retd) Sarath Fonseka, who is has been found guilty by a hand-picked Military Tribunal. He has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and by imprisoning him on the basis of the ruling by the Tribunal, has effectively prevented from contesting or campaigning at the next election. This week, newspapers reported that Fonseka was not entitled to any pardon or parole because he was found guilty by a Military Tribunal and not by an ordinary Court of Law. A Supreme Court Bench, presided over by the former Chief Justice, had earlier ruled that a Military Tribunal was a Court of Law in terms of the Constitution. Perhaps the former Chief Justice, who is now senior adviser to the President, can explain this to the President, and through him, to a curious public.

When the then government was proceeding to take away the civic rights of Mrs Bandaranaike, the Rt. Revd Lakshman Wickremesinghe, then Chairman of the Civil Rights Movement, wrote to President Jayewardene. He stated inter alia:"The proceedings of the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry cannot be described as a fair and impartial judicial process. The reasons for saying so have been provided in the Statement issued by the Civil Rights Movement... In view of this, to proceed with the resolution in Parliament so as to subject Mrs Bandaranaike to civic disabilities such as depriving her of her seat in Parliament and of her right to contest the general election in 1983 or before, will be to act in a way that is neither impartial nor fair. In the Buddhist tradition, the righteous ruler must govern with both impartiality and fair-play, in addition to acting justly. Since you are a national leader who intends to build a righteous society based on Buddhist principles, the confidence many people have placed in you is at stake on this occasion.

"Again, in view of what has been said about the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, to deprive your chief political opponent, who alone is able to muster an effective opposition to your party at the present time, of her right to sit in Parliament, and to contest the next general election as leader of her party or a coalition of parties, is to undermine one of the basic foundations of a vibrant democracy. This foundation is the presence of an effective opposition capable of forming an alternate government. The people expect a national leader of your stature and experience will not so act as to undermine such a basic foundation of real democracy.

"If this action is proceeded with, it will deepen the divisions already existing within the nation, and especially among the Sinhala people. The spirit of bitterness and desire for revenge will be further aggravated. The kind of stability you require for implementing your development programme will be severely undermined. Dissent and opposition will seek expression in ways that are extra-parliamentary; and the increasing use of the security forces will be required to maintain an outward show of stability." What Bishop Wickremesinghe wrote thirty years ago seem so appropriate at the present time. But sadly our politicians never seem to learn from the lessons of the past.

Intimidation at Elections

The third attempt to dismantle democracy was the fourth amendment in 1982. Citing a purported attempt to undermine the political order – a so-called 'Naxalite' plot to assassinate cabinet ministers, service chiefs – the President called for the holding of a referendum to postpone general elections by a further six years. No evidence of such a plot was produced then or later. Only a simple majority was required to ratify this and this was duly obtained at a dubious election which the then Election Commissioner himself admitted was fraught with irregularities. The violation of all election laws and impersonation of voters was so blatant that even the vote of Mr Hector Kobbekaduwa has purportedly been already cast by an impersonator when he called to his polling booth. Kobbekaduwa had been the opposition candidate who narrowly lost to Jayewardene at the Presidential election a few months earlier. The election officials could not have been unaware of his identity but the intimidation and threats to their lives was such that they dared not protest. Government parliamentarians openly and arrogantly roamed the polling booths with a gun in hand.

It is similar intimidation that opposition parties have complained of in the run up to the local government election next week. It is shame that the security forces are being subject to the charge of violence against opposition candidates, particularly in the North and East. It is an even greater shame that some intellectuals should condone such violence. They must examine their conscience. Violence unleashed against political or ethnic opponents will one day come to haunt them. It will also come to haunt politicians who misuse the security forces and the Police to serve political ends.

Tell a Friend