Sam Samarasinghe aka Stanley WR de Samarasinghe, with this NOTE in Colombo Telegraph: Some of you may have read my article titled “A Way Out of the Crisis to Save Sri Lanka’s Democracy” that appeared in the Colombo Telegraph on December 7th. It elicited a fairly significant response. The format of Colombo Telegraph allows for dialogue and discussion of a topic. Making use of that I prepared a response partly to answer some issues and questions that some of the correspondents raised. Colombo Telegraph has published my response. …. A Response presented here with highlighting emphases imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi
I am thankful to all those who contributed to the dialogue following my article published in the Colombo Telegraph on December 07. I will not attempt to respond to individual comments. But taken in its totality the discussion raises some important issues relating to governance in Sri Lanka in the context of the present crisis.
Facts: First, some general principles that I adhere to in analysis and comment and an admission of my own biases. I consider that facts are sacred and one is not entitled to ones own facts. However, facts pose their own problems. Facts are almost never perfect. For example, in my specialty, economics, data on growth, investment and so forth are the facts that we use for analysis. But economic data itself is imperfect. Even if good data is available, a writer may not have full access to such data or may be ignorant of them.
Opinion: Everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. We can agree to disagree without being disagreeable. Opinion is usually based on facts, theory, and values. If the facts are faulty the opinion may also have shortcomings. Second, often we write something without making the underlying theory explicit. For example, those who advocate that universal franchise allows “unqualified” people to enter parliament often believe in the theory that nomination for parliament must be limited to those who have, say, a minimum educational qualification. Some may also believe in the theory that voting must also be limited to people who have some minimum educational qualification. I believe in the theory that in a democracy all adults must be allowed to vote. The third major factor that determines opinion is our values and morals. Sometimes “biases” in our opinions arise from differences in our values and morals.
Bias: In respect of Sri Lanka’s system of governance I readily admit that I am totally biased towards the preservation of democracy based on practices such as one- person one-vote and the supremacy of rule of law. I believe that as a system of governance democracy alone allows everybody to be considered as having equal moral worth irrespective of gender, ethnicity, caste, economic status, job, level of
education and so on.
Equity: Democracy also has important practical consequences especially for the underprivileged. As I noted in a recent essay titled “Crisis of Governance: Welfare Implications” (see http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article- details&page=article-details&code_title=194533 ), for a relatively poor country, Sri Lanka’s atypical good achievements (equity) in education and health are closely associated with the democracy we have had for 88 years. For reasons of social equity alone, it must be protected.
Existential threat: I also believe that Sri Lanka’s democracy, albeit not a particularly perfect version as many commentators have rightly noted, is facing an existential threat today. As I noted in my essay it is the duty of the Supreme Court and the three key political actors, Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa to find a solution. Politicians want power. Compromise does not come naturally to them. But this crisis is such that it would be good for the country if all concerned settle for half of a loaf.
Institutional reform: Assuming that our democracy survives this crisis, the system needs a very substantial institutional overhaul . In an essay titled “A Strategy and Program for Yaha Paalanaya 2020” that I published in early September (see http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=191155 ) before this crisis emerged, I outlined a few of the institutional changes that are needed to resurrect Yaha Paalanaya. For example, an independent Ministry of Justice that is answerable not to the president or the executive branch of government but only to parliament will help fight corruption and violation of rule of law by the powerful.
Constitution: The present crisis also demonstrates the futility of trying to write detailed Constitutions. Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution (English version) with 18 Amendments up to 2010 has about 30,000 words. Such details often lead to inconsistencies that nobody can foresee at the time of drafting. The present court battles illustrate the point. After 40 years the country wants a “new” constitution. In contrast the US Constitution that came into effect in 1789 and has lasted 229 years has been amended 27 times and runs into 4,500 words. The Declaration of Independence has another about 1,500 words.
Societies and their needs change over time. It makes little sense to write very detailed constitutions assuming that such a framework will be suitable for all times.
It is better to prepare a basic constitution that spells out a set of lasting and universally valid values (e.g. basic human rights), provides an institutional framework for governance, and let normal legislation take care of the details depending on need. An independent Judiciary can adjudicate and interpret the law in accordance with the Constitution and settle disputes between the legislative and executive branches of government.
The constitution must not be cluttered with provisions that clearly do not belong to it. A good example is article 33 cc of the 1978 Constitution that spells out the
appointment of president’s counsel (PCs). This is a recognition given to lawyers who render outstanding service in their profession. There are plenty of other professions that also have similar schemes of honor but quite rightly have no mention in the constitution. The only explanation I can think of for including this provision is that a set of lawyers who drafted it thought it was a good idea to have it to boost their
Social Cleavage: President Sirisena, in trying to explain his antipathy towards Ranil Wickremesinghe, has made some remarks that merit more attention for the implications that they have for the future stability of the country. Sirisena in his address to the Nation in late October stated, inter alia, that “Apart from a (sic.) policy differences, I noted that there were also differences of culture between Mr. Wickremesinghe and me. —- I believe that Mr. Wickremesinghe and his group of closest friends, who belonged to a privileged class and did not understand the pulse of the people conducted
themselves as if shaping the future of the country was a fun game they played.” (Colombo Telegraph https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/president-maithripala-sirisenas-address-to-the-nation-full-text/ ) I do not wish to comment on the two individuals concerned. But Sirisena’s remarks
suggest the significant social cleavage that separates the privileged upper crust of society that is largely based in Colombo and the Western Province from the rest of the country.
This is not the division between the old pre-1956 privileged upper caste/upper class to which a minority of people belonged largely by accident of birth and the rest of society. What Sirisena refers to is a new social cleavage between those who have access to an English education, superior higher education often inexpensive foreign universities, and succeed in the professions and business. Many are beneficiaries of free education. A large number come from less privileged backgrounds but have made it to the top. This upper crust has strong global links. They are very competitive and consider themselves to have rightfully earned what they have. Sharing with the less privileged and empathy for the poor country cousins are not a priority or a social obligation for this class. The best evidence on the economic side is the poor income tax payment record of this new rich class.
Sirisena’s remarks apply across party lines. MPs and ministers who got rich or super-rich after entering parliament are examples. This cleavage is not unique to Sri Lanka. It is to be seen in almost every rapidly developing country as well as in the west. The current crisis in France where poor rural people have invaded Paris and set fire to the city is one example. US President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 with the help of poor white American voters in the less prosperous parts of the country is another. This is not the place to discuss this issue in detail. Even if Sri Lanka’s constituitonal crisis is resolved in the coming days, our democracy is not secure unless we address the underlying malaise that has produced the situation.
This response covers in general all the contributions in the Colombo Telegraph that were made to this discussion up to December 09, 2018…. SAM
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