Of the Executive Presidents who ruled the country prior to Maithripala Sirisena, J.R. Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa can be described as those who mostly and increasingly exhibited the majesty and the prowess of the post. Both had adequate powers to do so. In fact, J.R. Jayewardene boasted that the only thing he could not do was to make a man a woman and vice versa.
Dr. Colvin R de Silva, a most erudite expert on constitutional affairs, once said that even if the president had lost his mental capacities, it would involve a lengthy process to remove him from office and as such we are compelled to be tolerant with a President who is not only unsuitable for the post but also has lost his mental capacities.
Suba saha Yasa
The role being played presently by President Maithripala Sirisena exhibiting his power is something unique and unprecedented which no other previous presidents have ever attempted.
One important aspect of this scenario is that the people or the public officers including the Police and the three armed forces have not realised that the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena is not equipped with powers to do what he is doing at the moment. President Maithripala Sirisena compared to his predecessors can be considered relatively a nominal head of State with most of his Executive powers removed. The 19th Amendment deprived the President of most of his Executive powers. Yet, he is playing the role of a full-fledged lion. In terms of the limited powers vested in him by the Constitution, he can no longer be considered a lion. He is only a man in the lion’s skin. Yet, he has been able to frighten the people like a true lion.
This scenario can be described as a new creative version of the drama called ‘Suba saha Yasa,’ a popular political satire staged by late Simon Nawagaththegama. The people did not know it was Suba, the doorkeeper, who was on the throne. They perceived him as the true king. This confusion depicted in ‘Suba saha Yasa’ is analogous to the present constitutional crisis in the country and can be seen operating in a different form.
Irrespective of the rationality or not of the 19th Amendment, it largely stripped the President of his Executive powers, reducing his status to a level of a nominal president. The 19th Amendment was effected with the intention of transferring Executive powers of the president to prime minister. Hence, the Government followed a silent policy of not enlightening the people of the true impact of the 19th Amendment which drastically reduced the powers of the President; further, the Government remained silent about explaining the people about the extent of changes effected to the powers enjoyed by the incumbent President.
On the other hand, the incumbent President was elected on the old system. The reduction of Executive powers was effected only after he was elected the President. So much so, as the President remained the head of the Yahapalana Government, he was been allowed to enjoy the old glamour inherent in the post of president despite most of his Executive powers being removed.
Under the circumstances, not only the people, even the public officials and the bureaucracy were not aware that the status of the President had been reduced to the level of a nominal head of State following the 19th Amendment which removed most of the powers held by the previous presidents. Even the prospective candidates of the forthcoming presidential election 2020 were not aware of this reality.
It was the author of this article who for the first time, brought to the notice of the public that the president elected following the 19th Amendment would no longer be an executive president but only a nominal head of State. It was when this debate was on that the incumbent President initiated the miracle of regime change.
Assuming a non-existent power
If the President is compared to a bird, then it is this President bird, whose wings have been clipped by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who flies high in the sky making acrobatic movements and surprising the spectators. Previous Presidents violated the Constitution many times when they had absolute and unlimited powers which even the Constitution itself could not control. The irony is that the present President has done the same when he has no such power.
Under the old system prior to the enactment of the 19th Amendment, the president had the authority to remove the cabinet of ministers including the prime minister and appoint a new prime minister and a new cabinet at his discretion. He also had the power to prorogue Parliament and dissolve it at any time after one year from the first meeting at his wish.
But, according to the 19th Amendment the president cannot decide on the prime minister. Nor can he decide the cabinet of ministers. The leader of the political party that commands the majority support of the Parliament will become the prime minister who in turn will appoint the cabinet of ministers. The president cannot change the cabinet of ministers appointed this way. It could only be changed in the event of the defeat of a no confidence motion against the PM and the cabinet of ministers.
The sacking of the former Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers, appointing a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet of Ministers, and thereafter, proroguing and later dissolving Parliament, has been effected by the incumbent President not by any power derived from the Constitution but through assuming an artificial power on him. It does not appear to be an error made without a proper knowledge of the Constitution.
If the President’s intention was genuine, he could have referred the matter to the Supreme Court before attempting this change and obtained its advice on the legality and the constitutionality of this issue. It is not difficult to understand that he intentionally ignored this course of action as he was adamant to pursue his design which is arbitrary and ruthless.
The method the President has adopted is unconventional, immoral and anti-democratic. It is extremely ruthless and as destructive as an atomic bomb. In a political sense, the President is engaged in a role analogous to that of a suicide bomber. What the President has done can be considered a dangerous and evil design initiated with the intention of taking revenge not only from Ranil Wickremesinghe, his new opponent, but also from all organisations that brought him to power, their members, Mahinda Rajapaksa, his old foe who has embraced him presently with a feigned smile and friendship, and his followers and eventually plunging the entire country into destruction including himself.
Predicting the crisis
I may perhaps be the only person who publicly criticised the idea of fielding a non-party common candidate at the presidential election to defeat the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the time it remained the only alternative that excited and inspired the anti-Mahinda forces. I met venerable Sobitha Thero and warned him against it. I questioned Sobitha Thero, ‘Even if MR is defeated by fielding a common candidate picked from somewhere, what is the guarantee that after victory he will not assert his powers and resort to an arbitrary course of action?’ The Thero kept looking at my face but did not answer my question.
The limited reforms introduced by the ‘Movement for a Just Society,’ which caused much excitement among the people, too, came under my serious protest and criticism. I pointed out that even though the errors and defects of a system of government could be rectified by a simple constitutional reform, it would not be possible to replace a system of government with a completely new system through simple constitutional reform; it is also contrary to the principles of constitution-making.
Further, I explained that the 19th Amendment proposed by Jayampathi Wickramarathna to the ‘Movement for a Just Society’ would end up in turning the system of governance into chaos and eventually plunge the country into a state of anarchy.
The leaders who shouldered the burden of the ‘Good Governance’ campaign regrettably lacked the tolerance and acumen to fathom the dangers that I signalled. At that specific moment, even Ravaya officially appeared for the 19th Amendment. Many critics including Ravaya failed to see the destructive cancer inherent in the 19th Amendment. They saw only the ostentatious changes effected such as the Right to Information Act, reduction of the term of the office of the president for five years and limitation of the presidential powers, etc.
After passing the 19th Amendment though with defects inherent in it, I warned the country through the ‘Punarudaya Movement’ about the next big crisis likely to happen. I pointed out that the 19th Amendment had distorted the Constitution and plunged the entire system of governance into a deep crisis and in consequence, Sri Lanka is moving towards a serious anarchic state.
Thereafter, several months before the constitutional crisis came to the forefront, I repeatedly predicted the advent of a serious constitutional crisis prior to the next presidential election. I repeatedly stressed that the country had already reached the verge of full anarchy. This prediction made by the ‘Punarudaya Movement’ has now come true.
The suicidal political operation initiated by the President has gone so far that it will not be possible to defeat or reverse it. The atomic bomb that he has shed on the country will blast to its very end. The destruction caused to the country will be immense. It might end one era completely.
It will destroy not only Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, but will also overwhelm all the leaders of the old generation, the putrid system of all institutions, system of government and the Constitution as well. It won’t stop at that; it will destroy the entire economy and plunge the country into a state of bankruptcy, thereby thrusting the people into a near-death situation.
The next age has to emerge phoenix-like from the dust and the debris left after a great devastation. The country will be compelled to start everything anew. If the people are intelligent, they can still turn a great catastrophe into a source of happiness the way the Japanese and the Germans did!
TWO: “Understanding the Root Cause of the Crisis” = Victor’s translation of an Article in Sinhala
Presently, the Sri Lankan State has lost its dignified existence and the prowess that a State ought to have. Evidently, it is moving towards a virtual collapse. This, in my opinion is a direct outcome of the rotten state of affairs associated with the present Sri Lankan State and its putrid system of institutions replete with rampant corruption. The most important aspect of the present crisis is that even the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the supreme Law of the country, the embodiment of the sovereignty of the people, which defines the public institutions and their role and serves as the ultimate guide of democratic governance is also in a jeopardy. If we compare the Constitution to a goddess, I must say that she had been raped from time to time, singly and collectively by the rulers, the law makers and the judiciary, her custodian. Consequently, she had been rendered innocent and inglorious. Presently, Sri Lanka is in a state of complete anarchy without having anyone to guide the Rulers thereby expediting the down fall of the country. The present situation of the South of Sri Lanka is more or less similar to the unfortunate conditions prevailed in the North in the immediate aftermath of the internal civil war. At the end of the war, the Tamil North, from a political sense remained in a deranged state having lost many things. The Sinhalese South is also plunged into a similar situation consequent to the present constitutional crisis though there are certain differences in the nature of the circumstance. In this backdrop, all ethnic groups living in the country can be said to be caught in a similar predicament. The collapse of the Sri Lankan State began shortly after defeating the de-facto State claimed by Prabakaran.The irony of this scenario is that the Sinhalese and Muslim populations of the South of Sri Lanka who were excited and jubilant over the defeat of Prabakaran are not aware that they are also embroiled in a similar situation as the as the State in which they live too, has reached the brink of its collapse.
Destruction Caused by Violence
The violent struggles in the Sinhalese South and the Tamil North made an untold damage to the country. The Sinhalese rebels attempted to capture the ruling power while Tamil rebels aimed at establishing a separate State of their own; ultimately, what both did was to attack the State. Even though the government in power was able to suppress and defeat the armed rebels, their attacks on government necessarily resulted in weakening and devastating the country. Both Sinhalese and Tamil rebels exerted maximum violence and cruelty. In subduing them, the State as an alternative counter strategy released more violence and cruelty than was exerted by the rebels. Both the rebels and the government acted in violation of the law during this long uncivilised period giving way to the reign of the Law of the Jungle which invariably led to blotch the integrity of the State, politicians and the officialdom. It became pervasive in almost every sphere with everyone becoming interested only in himself. Exploitation of state property by its custodians became the norm of the State rule during this uncivilized period. The face of the State underwent a repulsive transformation giving it a look of an exploitative band of thieves. The violent struggles distorted and weakened the institutional system of the country. Similarly, the very foundation of the State itself was threatened, distorted and weakened. While a substantial number of unfortunate people had been physically killed in violent struggles, those escaped death and were fortunate to survive had to suffer a spiritual death. Thus, to a greater or lesser degree the entire society had been plunged into a spiritual death.
After ending the civil war, the successive governments that came to power should have made an honest attempt to probe into the circumstances that led to the armed struggles, violence and the resultant destruction with the view to rebuilding the State which was rampant with injustice, inefficiency and corruption and also to recreate the society which had been rendered sick. But, Mahinda Rajapaksha, the leader who ended the war and the two main leaders of the “Yahapalana Government” Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickramasinha who succeeded the former defeating him lacked the wisdom and the courage required for that.
Consequently, the country has fallen out of the frying pan into the fire. Failure to build the modern Nation State prior to or after independence can be considered the main cause of the Sri Lanka’s crisis. The true meaning of building the Nation State implies negation of ethnic, caste and religious differences and treating everyone with equal respect, ensuring equal rights for everyone thereby creating a nation with a common identity as Sri Lankans who are bound by a common bond and committed to work in harmony for the upliftment of the country. India and Singapore are two countries that had achieved this object successfully. India did it in a formal way. Singapore achieved it in a different style. Our earlier leaders (Ponnambalam Arunachalam, D.S.Senanayaka and SWRD Bandaranayke) and those emerged later did not have a deep political knowledge on this problem. Instead, their thinking had been shaped by the factors of race, caste and religion.
Role of Caste
Mahatma Gandhi came to Sri Lanka on a 17 days visit on 12th November 1927. Gandhi’s visit coincided with the arrival of the members of the Donoughmore Commission which proposed Constitutional reforms to formulate a system of government for Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Mahatma Gandhi delivered a short speech at the reception organized on the same day by the Lanka Jathika Sangamaya at Maligakanda Pirivena to welcome him. The speech he made addressing the leaders of the Jathika Sangamaya is produced in the book titled “Gandhi in Sri Lanka” written by Gopal Krishna. But it does not contain a list of names of those who participated in this meeting. However, Sampath Bandara, in his book titled “Mahatma Gandhige Lanka Gamanaya haa Lankeeya Deshapalanaya” (Arrival of Mahatma Gandhi in Sri Lanka & Sri Lankan Politics) has included a list of leaders who were present to welcome Gandhi. E. W.Perera, the President of Lanka Jathika Sangamaya, D.B.Jayathilaka, James Peiris, Victor Korea, and W.A.de.Silva, F.R.Obesekara, SWRD Bandaranaike and D.S.Senanayaka were among many others who were present at this meeting. We can safely presume that all important leaders of the Lanka Jathika Sangamaya might have attended this meeting.
Gandhi used the word “freedom” referring to the Independent Movements of both India and Ceylon at this meeting. But he was careful in qualifying that they were not the same but two different movements. He raised a very important question, a principle in regard to the freedom or independence that Sri Lanka was aspiring to gain. Gandhi, addressing them had said that “there exists a community considered as “untouchables” in India. Though I have no clear idea about the social life in Lanka, I have heard of a similar community in Lanka known as Rodiyas treated as untouchables and questioned whether The Lanka Jathika Sangamaya expects to ensure the freedom of such suppressed groups in its campaign for freedom. If the freedom of suppressed groups is not ensured then the freedom that you aspire to gain cannot be considered true and genuine.” He had commented. I do not think that the leaders of the Jathika Sangamaya were capable of grasping the deep political meaning underneath this statement. Gandhi called the untouchables the Harijans which means the sons of God!
As stated in “Caste in Modern Ceylon” by Bryce Ryan, an authoritative account on caste system in Sri Lanka, “towards the end of the nineteenth century and until 1925 or so, some of the bitterest fulminations in Ceylon were not inter-communal but inter- caste”. In the passage of time the open castes conflicts had subsided while the ethnic differences had taken its place. Yet, the roots of caste animosity have not disappeared. They remain latent in the social fabric. B.H.Farmer in his book titled “Ceylon – A Divided Nation” provides a detailed account of the historical evolution of social conflicts in Sri Lanka and the circumstances that led to them. He had emphasised that the caste factor still persists as a formidable force in Sri Lanka’s politics. Interestingly, Farmer had written this book in 1963, 15 years after the country had gained independence. The leaders of minorities viewed with suspicion the independence that was going to be conferred on Sri Lanka without a strong social struggle being made on the part of the beneficiaries. The leaders of minorities had a fear that they will be overwhelmed by a Sinhalese domination once the British rule was over. Similarly, the leaders of the suppressed castes in both the Sinhalese and the Tamil society had a fear that they would be dominated by
the Sinhalese Goigama and Tamil Vellala castes respectively. These two groups of suppressed castes made separate submissions first to the Donoughmore Commission and later to the Soulbury Commission seeking redress for their grievances. Prior to gaining independence the pressure stood on caste and not on ethnicity. As Gandhi had instinctively felt during his tour of Sri Lanka, the independence has not become a political phenomenon guaranteeing freedom to the suppressed castes. It did not pave the way for the people who served as serfs in temple and manor lands to come out of the wretchedness associated with their lives. As a result, the independence could not make a farreaching impact on the life of the oppressed classes who had been denied human respect and human rights owing to the deep rooted caste discriminations that prevailed in both Sinhalese and Tamil society .
The Donoughmore Commission too, which arrived in Sri Lanka on the day Mahatma Gandhi’s visit tool place had made important observations on nationalism and democracy practiced in the country. Its observations are valid even today. The Donoughmore Commission observed that Sri Lanka had not yet evolved into a cohesive society; nationalism which had developed was only an ad-hoc outgrowth of race, caste and religion and was not aimed at common welfare of the country and the people; the society lacked democratic disciplines or a system of political parties for successful operation of a parliamentary system of government. The Donoughmore Commission had further stated that there was no unity or sense of collective responsibility among the leaders and as such, at this moment, the country should be granted only a system of governance which could help promote unity, national cohesion and raise social awareness on democracy. All frontline national leaders of the day like Ponnambalam Ramanadan, D.S.Senanayaka and SWRD Bandaranayke had thoroughly opposed the grant of universal suffrage to the people of Sri Lanka. Ostensibly, their views and biases on social classes and the caste system had an impact on their protest.However; the Donourmore Commission was of the view that most of the regressive social elements will slowly disappear once the universal suffrage was introduced. The commission introduced a special
system of governance based on a Committee System to educate the political leaders of the country, instil discipline in them to overcome parochial differences and encourage them to work in harmony and democratically. Role of Ethnicity It was after gaining independence that the ethnic issue came to forefront. In my opinion, it was SWRD Bandaranayke who aggravated the ethnic difference between Sinhalese and Tamils and mystified it in to a complex issue which eventually culminated in a ruthless bloodshed. It’s a fact that the vernaculars suffered badly during the colonial regime. Local languages had lost recognition and restoring their status remained an essential condition. Bandaranayke achieved his political dream with the support of the proponents of the Sinhala only policy. In this respect, Tamils can be considered a community more passionate and attached to their language than Sinhalese people. What ought to have done was to give a new and renewed recognition for both languages, Sinhala and Tamil and adopt a bilingual policy allowing the Sinhalese people to transact with the government in Sinhala language and Tamils in Tamil language while English is promoted as the second language in schools.Yet,what Bandaranayke did was to throw the English language into waste bin and disallowed Tamil people of their right to transact with the government in their language thereby denying them of the respect they enjoyed as human beings. Ethnicity and caste remained two crucial factors that caused violent attacks and bloodshed in Sri Lanka.It was Sinhalese youth in the South who took arms first against the government and not the Tamils in the North. According to the observations made by the public authorities on the 1971 insurrection, it was not only a class struggle, even the caste has had a big impact on it. That was why the authorities were prompted to look into the caste background of all rebels who were arrested. Perhaps, this must be the first instance in which a research had been done about the caste. President Ranasinha Premadasa following the defeat of the second JVP insurrection, appointed a commission of inquiry to probe into the youth unrest and report the reasons that had led to insurrections .The Commission on Youth Unrest too, had observed the impact of caste on youth unrest in both in the South and the North .
The violent uprisings broke out at different times had a destructive impact on the State and the society. They were instrumental in distorting and making the society sick and above all rendering the State corrupt and weak. It was an outcome of the failure on our part to build the modern nation at independence or thereafter. Sri Lanka has no capacity to move forward, even one step ahead without recreating the nation. Even after a great catastrophe, it would still be possible, though late, to recreate the Nation provided we are ready to thrust aside ethnic, caste and religious differences and adopt a policy of treating everyone equally irrespective of discriminatory practices and prejudices. The State which had reached the verge of collapse can still be restored only if we are capable of recreating the Nation.
NOTE ABOUT VICTOR IVAN.
Majuwana Kankanamage Victor Ivan (69) : මාජුවානා කන්කානම්ගේ වික්ටර් අයිවන්) is Sri Lankan journalist. He was a Marxist rebel in his youth and later became the Editor of the controversial Sinhalese newspaper Ravaya. He served as the Editor of the Ravaya for 25 years consecutively since its inception. Victor is an investigative journalist, political critic, a theorist, social activist and also an author of several books. He was the 7th accused of the main court case on the Youth Insurrection 1971. The panel of judges described him as the most colourful character of all suspects respondents. Judgment of the Criminal Justice Commission. Inquiry No, 1 – Government Printer- page 255. He was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment at the end of the inquiry. During his imprisonment he abandoned the doctrine of the JVP as well as that of Marxism. While rejecting the doctrine of violence he became an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi adopting the philosophy of non-violence expounded
A PERTINENT COMMENT from VINOD MOONESINGHE, who is from an eminent Trot lineage, 2 Dec 2018: