25 June 2022

The international community, the opposition and the people

 


Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the worst President we’ve had. He’s the worst leader, counting all presidents, prime ministers, ministers, chairpersons of local government authorities and maranaadhara samithi. He’s the worst Sri Lankan ever. Let’s assume.

Let’s assume that as the all-powerful Executive President, all ills are attributable to him. Let’s assume that although this implies that he can lay claim to all positives, he had nothing to do with effectively handling the Covid-19 situation, the vaccination drive and enforcement of safety protocols which (by the way) eventually enabled and empowered those who hate him the most (and whose hatred is rooted in political preferences and other things that predates the current economic crises) to rub shoulders with fellow political travelers in demonstrations, protest marches, arson, theft and thuggery. Let’s assume that he did nothing at all.

No, let’s go further. Let’s assume that Covid-19 was an insidious creation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself, a virus which he unleashed on the world with the express intent of wrecking the tourism sector, effecting a serious dent in remittances by expatriate workers, restricting movement etc., etc. Let’s assume that all this in aggregate made himself eminently eligible to the tag ‘party-pooper.’

Today, we are in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis. Today, more than ever before, we have been forced to think about things like energy security, food security, food and nutritional sovereignty, the need for development banks and the folly of embracing uncritically and indeed nurturing to near perfection an import mafia. Let’s assume, though, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rhetoric and action with regard to at least two of the above, namely renewable energy and environment-friendly agriculture, had nothing to do with such ‘needs.’

Let us not assume but acknowledge that regardless of intent, overall understanding and objectives pertaining to sovereignty that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was largely unsuccessful. Let’s assume that this had nothing to do with the resilience of entrenched interests of corporate thugs and public racketeers, but let’s not assume but rather acknowledge that party and family played a massive role in scuttling good intention, not just about energy and agriculture but basic management of the economy, upholding procedures established to ensure fiscal discipline, robust and meaningful tax regimes etc. Let’s not assume but acknowledge that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s greatest failure was that he could not (or would not) unfetter himself from party and family.

Forget all that. Let’s return to the first assumption. Let us repeat. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the worst President we’ve had. He’s the worst leader, counting all presidents, prime ministers, ministers, chairpersons of local government authorities and maranaadhara samithi. He’s the worst Sri Lankan ever. Let’s assume.

We should mention, at least parenthetically, that he is but (and at worst) a symptom of systemic flaw. At least that’s what those who can see beyond personality and party could (but probably for reasons of political convenience do not) conclude. Never mind. Let’s assume ‘Gota is the System’ and kid ourselves that getting rid of him gives us system-change. Well, let’s say it paves the way for system-change. Yes, let’s not talk about utter naïveté in these matters. Let’s assume. Let’s conclude.

Now, treating all assumptions as established fact, let us wave the flag of the logical response: ‘Gota should go!’ How do we move from there, i.e. beyond a slogan whose utterers aren’t political innocents and among whom are those who have benefited for decades (as a class and as individuals) or else are ill-educated about constitutions, constitutional reform and the whole brouhaha over amendments (the draft 21st was shot down by the Supreme Court, whose observations amount to law-makers being given a resounding F on the subject of ‘Constitutionality’)?

Of course Gotabaya Rajapaksa can resign. Can happen, but hasn’t. He can be removed, constitutionally. Can happen, but hasn’t. And so we have pundits saying ‘the people, the international community and the Opposition’ have to come together to remove him. In essence, to secure the numbers necessary to remove him constitutionally. He can be ousted in other ways, but no one is seriously talking about ‘revolution’ here. Revolution would include system-change and ‘system’ would include the economic theories (sic) that went a long way to bring us to where we are, dealings with the IMF and other Bretton Woods Institutions etc., but no one is seriously considering such options right now. It’s just ‘Gota must go,’ or ‘The international community, the Opposition and the people must get together  and send Gota away.’  Thereafter, parliament (or rather ‘The Opposition’) can figure out who should be the next president. Lovely.

Let’s get back to the movers and shakers. The international Community, one. Yeah right! Do they mean, the US, UK, EU and other members of The Quad? Now if those are the addresses to which grievance are addressed and succour sought, good luck!

The Opposition, two. Yeah right! And yeah, those who want Gota sent away utter not a word about capabilities of the current Opposition (never mind legitimacy which is ultimately measurable only through the ballot). The Opposition, if we just take the SJB and the JVP, essentially back-stabbed the ‘Aragalaya’ and ‘Aragalists,’ not to mention the fact that they deliberately planned to pursue their party interests by preying on general anxiety, fear and anger. Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake hilariously claimed that they would take up the prime minister’s post if Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned. Each ought to have been more honest and said ‘I become PM if Gota resigns, and then I have the inside track to the Presidency.’ Anyone who places bets on such dishonest people and parties (whose track records are as bad or worse than those of the SLPP) are ridiculously naive or at least politically suspect. The SLFP, then? Really?  

‘The people,’ three. Now that’s a different category altogether. We cannot and should not say ‘yeah, right!’ or be dismissive in some other way. Democracy is about the people. How do we measure the weight of the people factor, though? The numbers at protests, the decibel levels of the rhetoric? Yes, in a way, never mind that among these ‘people’ are agents provocateurs and others whose political history doesn’t make one really cheer, especially given long and profound silence about what ‘the system’ has done and to whom for decades.

In a way, yes, ‘The people’ count.  They need to be counted. Literally.  My friend Sugath Kulatunga, commenting on dubious individuals including ‘intellectuals,’ professionals, the clergy and artists marking ‘presence’ at Galle Face, made a pertinent observation.

‘I believe [they] have had no lessons in Civics at school and are not aware that Sri Lanka is a democracy with a written constitution where tenets of majority rule and rule of law are enshrined.’

If you want to step out of all that, by all means. Just don’t dabble in constitutions and parliamentary affairs. A precedent set where a bunch of people even with legitimate reasons to protest (and the legitimacy of the protests are indisputable, let us not forget) browbeat the elected and obtain eviction without measuring the true nature of a) popular discontent, and b) agreement about the would-be successor’s ability to turn things around does not bode well for participatory democracy.

The silliness of all this talk about the Gota-Ranil combine being a failure is easily measured by a simple question: name another combine that can deliver. The truth is, politicians and parties as they stand today, given histories and fixations about economics, cannot deliver us from the evils they’ve showered us with. We might have to look elsewhere, but certainly not at the international community, the Opposition or ‘people’ who are deliberately left undefined.

Anarchy, then, by all means, but then call it that. Just don’t sugar-coat it with democracy-speak.


[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.'


16 June 2022

The ‘ada davase mahanakama’

 


‘Upasakamma ipaduna heena kule…’ (translatable as ‘[of] the devout mother who was born into a lower caste…’) is one of the songs in Nanda Malini’s ‘radical’ album ‘Pawana (The wind).’ While most of the lyrics were penned by Prof Sunil Ariyaratne, this was was attributed to Ranchagoda Lamaya, the nom de guerre used by well-known journalist Sirilal Kodikara. Pawana was quite popular in the late eighties. Nanda Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne rode what they believed was a radical political wave at the time. The album covered a lot of areas, caste-discrimination being one.

This particular song touched on all kinds of issues associated with the Buddhist Order including deviation from prescribed path, disturbing association with politicians, profit-seeking and of course the significance of caste. The lyricist doesn’t paint with a broad brush, however, pointing out the wholesome and even heroic role played by the ‘cheevaraya’ or ‘robe’ across history. The tone is unabashedly harsh at odds with the ideals of the cheevaraya of course for it essentially calls out raucously for blood of the perceived enemy: ‘rata  kana unva vanasaa rata deya rekuma, eyai ape ada davase mahanakama (today’s role of the bikkhu is to destroy those who are destroying the country).’

Nevertheless, it re-poses a perennial question: the role of the bikkhu or the Maha Sangha if you will. That role has been defined in the Word of the Enlightened One. It has, is and will be interpreted as per the whims and fancies of interpreter. If ‘moment’ was the overriding factor in such definition, then the  bikkhu, drawn out of the Order and the Dhamma, can be assigned innumerable responsibilities. Simply put, today’s role could be drastically different from yesterday’s and tomorrow’s even more sore.

To each his/her own interpretation would be the dispassionate and necessarily liberal Buddhist response, if such is solicited. Indeed, one might even argue that the individual bikkhu is free to interpret as he will, subject perhaps to the Vinaya rules, which again are open to multiple interpretation (like any doctrinal tract, religious, philosophical or ideological).  By the same token, then, no bikkhu (or for that matter no bikkhuni, upasaka or upasika) can be found fault with for choosing one among many available paths of being and practice.

Society, however, is not kind. People are quick to judge and even act as though they are the final arbiters regardless of their credentials either as adherents or students. And so all chosen paths can be criticised. Nanda Malini essentially rubbishes the aranyavasi haamuduruwo and the hamuruduwo in the pansala quietly attending to the needs of a community; she would hail the bikkhu on the street, so to speak, voice raised, fist clenched, calling people to arms and ever ready to wield club or gun. We had, after all, a ‘Theraputtabhaya Balakaya’ during the bheeshanaya, i.e. the name given to the purportedly armed-wing of pro-JVP bikkhus. Over 500 bikkhus were slaughtered by the then regime of Ranasinghe Premadasa, most of them having nothing to do with the JVP. That’s another story, but a related tale is the ironical one about his son Sajith’s party (SJP) ‘marching’ from Kandy to Colombo playing/singing songs from the Pawana album which of course originally targeted his father’s regime!

So how can a bikkhu, and by extension Buddhist society (or any religious collective for that matter) perceive role? Perhaps one could draw from the Buddha’s prescription: charatha bikkhave charika; bahujana hithaya bahujana sukhaya (Go forth O Monks, travel, commit yourselves to the wellbeing of the people). ‘Wellbeing’ of course could be niduk, nirogi, suva (free of sorrow, good health and contentment). Obtaining that could be political, overtly or inconspicuously, seen as such or else disavowed.

What then is the nature of the ‘ada davasa’ if we are to draw from the song? Ousting a government/ruler considered to be corrupt or tyrannical (whether or not this is so and whether or not one has fleshed out transition, power-transfer and alternative)? Perhaps. However there could be disagreement over objective and method. And anyway, even if one stretches the meaning of ‘moment’ to denoting an era or the tenure of a regime/leader, what is urgent, today and in Sri Lanka, is as economic as it is political. Indeed if one were to collapse ‘moment’ to the ‘right now’ then we have to talk about crisis, the elemental components and most importantly, that which the ‘bahujanathava’ feels most acutely.  Hunger, or at least the possibility of hunger given the dark warnings of a global food crisis which can only manifest itself locally in a more extreme form.

What then, in this context, is the ‘ada davase mahanakama’? Clearly it has to be related to food, its production and its distribution.  

There are thousands of temples in this country. Almost every temple stands in large compounds. Then there are temple-lands, large tracts bequeathed by the devout or as grants from kings. The bikkhu, moreover, is historically one of the key figures in any village where the majority are Buddhists. A leader, respected and even revered, and sought when guidance is required. Someone with a great potential to mobilise the particular community. Ideal to lead, organise or bless a vagaa sangramaya (a crop-planting effort). Now that would be a ‘mahanakama’ that no one would object to. An ‘ada davase’ effort. Something real. Something grounded. Something that can take root. Something that will yield something wholesome for a community and in aggregate the entire nation.  

Bahujana hithaya, bahujana sukhaya’ need not be the preserve of the bikkhu. It is not the preserve of Buddhists and Buddhism either. Now that would be a calming and beneficial breeze. A ‘pavana’ devoid of anything caustic, not hot and corrosive, but one that is balmy, refreshing and wholesome.

malindadocs@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are this personal views.]  



 

02 June 2022

#Aragalayaleft?



‘Left’ in internet parlance refers, apparently, to an individual who has withdrawn from a group, for example one on WhatsApp created for like-minded people or those who share some common attribute (for example being a member of a particular sports team or a political collective). It can also be used, by extension, to refer to something that was but is no more. It is in this sense that we need to discuss the proposition, ‘#aragalayaleft?’ In other words, what happened to the agitation/protests or the ‘aragalaya?’ Is it still on? Is it done? Does it exist in the trappings and not substance? Such are the issues that we discuss here.

Outside of the diehards, it is clearly apparent that the aragalaya is not what it was or what it was meant to be or what its adherents made it out to be. GGG (Gotagotama) still exists, but few would insist that the spirit pervading the territory in the month of April and the first weeks of May is intact.

Perhaps this is partly because ‘aragalaya’ is associated with a mis-written address. After all, the anxiety, fear, anger etc., that spilled out of the household and workplace didn’t flow all the way to the GGG from all parts of the country. GGG was seen or understood as a proxy or focal point, yes. People from all parts of the country did go there and many camped out for a few days or more, yes. However, for obvious reasons GGG could not hold all the agitators nor all agitation. The agitation still exists of course. The root causes haven’t been sorted out.

On the other hand, after the May 9th incident and its aftermath, several factors came into play. First and foremost the Prime Minister tendered his resignation. The aragalists, having focused on an individual and a family, found the political rug pulled from under their feet. True, some did talk of system-change, but that was almost an afterthought or footnote. Revenge for perceived wrongs dominated the aragala discourse and the voices of those who say personality and party as expressions of system-failure were drowned in the cheers and jeers calling out for blood and beheading. It was clear that the anger was directed towards a political family/clan. It is clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa symbolised this family/clan and all the ills associated with it. When they announced #mahindaleft it was a hefty consolation prize.

Then there was the systematic violence in response to the attack on GGG by goons who set off from Temple Trees. The aragalists and the aragalaya lost much ground then and there. It is one thing to fight in self-defence and quite another to systematically target enemies, engage in arson and looting, perpetrating thuggery and murder. What was lost at that point was the moral high ground: those who engaged in such activity did so in the name of the aragalaya, called themselves aragalists and there was hardly a whimper of protest from those in the aragalaya who did not condone such acts.

More seriously, the non-political claims of the aragalaya (as in ‘not belonging to or being led by established political parties/organizations’) were proven to be idle boasts. There were JVP thugs at GGG; Sajith Premadasa was attacked, Anura Kumara Dissanayake was not. Sunil Handunnetti openly condoned arson, looting, thuggery and murder. Lalkantha did not justify it, but he acknowledged that the JVP called all party units in all parts of the country out on to the streets immediately after the attack on GGG. It’s not hard to connect the dots.

Was the JVP the heart, so to speak, of GGG? Many would say ‘no’ or ‘no way’ and they wouldn’t be lying. However, there was and there still is a JVP presence in GGG, a village they claim, but one now wrapped in fading and faded colours (little is left of the initial enthusiasm, the overflowing of love, camaraderie and a collective desire to recreate a nation of different and more wholesome colours).

Who stole the colours of GGG, then? Who robbed the perfumes? As mentioned above, part of the explanation has to be the fact that the agitation was directed at personalities and not systems. Part of it is the dilemma of any spontaneous uprising made of multiple voices — when it comes to synthesising all interests into cogent, pragmatic demands, there’s dissonance. What came out was pretty bland — mostly regurgitation of old and tired slogans, calls for the obvious and demands for constitutional amendments that clearly indicated absolute ignorance of constitutional content and process.

Part of it is the vile (yes, vile) intentions of the JVP. The JVP initially pooh-poohed the Aragalaya (‘We are not interested in fatherless agitation,’ they said). They were arrogant (‘We will give the leadership that the Aragalaya needs,’ they said). The JVP tried to make political profit out of the aragalaya; Harini Amarasuriya was aghast that Ranil Wickremesinghe, the sole UNP MP, was made Prime Minister but saw nothing wrong in the leader of her party wanting to be President (first PM subject to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and then using the inside track to the Executive Presidency), even though his party polled just 3%. And for reasons best known to them perhaps deliberately or unwittingly, the JVP showered body-blows on the aragalaya, robbing it of its integrity and moral superiority by indulging in violence.  

Of course change is not an overnight phenomenon. Neither is it fair to demand that aragalists deliver paradise here and now. Sugath Kulatunga in an FB post generously suggests, ‘probably the aragalaya is a learning process.’ That it certainly is and this is why hope should not be retired. Setbacks are scripted into any revolutionary process. Debacles are also inevitable. However, advancement is predicated among other things on identifying and insuring the struggle against the most pernicious type of enemy, he/she who comes wearing the uniform of agitation, waving agitational banners and assuming he/she has some kind of right to lead. In this instance, the JVP is the most prominent of this tribe.

Kulatunga’s generosity came with some home truths which warrant retelling:

‘System-change is the current buzzword or a mantra chanted by many people including intellectuals. The Galle Face Aragalaya also claims that the struggle is for a systems change. But their 8 demands do not spell systems change. The changes they demand are within the prevailing system. For instance if Gota goes there will be another President. Others like an interim government and amendments to the Constitution are within the current system. Fair and independent elections are provided in the present law. A systems change focuses on the causes, rather than the symptoms. A definition of system change explains that it encompasses taking a holistic (or ‘systemic’) view of required transformations in the policies, practices, power dynamics, social norms or mindsets that underlie the societal issue at stake. Aragalaya demands are neither radical nor revolutionary. They concern only on some adjustments in the prevailing system and do not address the underlying social issues.’

The JVP is not for system-change. Neither is the IMF for that matter. In fact the JVP and the IMF are integral parts of the system (that clearly requires transformation). Maybe the aragalaya will save itself from such fake aragalists. The true aragalaya is never evicted or buried. It finds different addresses, learns from errors, becomes more circumspect and emerges even more radiant and strong. That aragalaya is no longer resident in GGG. It has left. In essence. 

Related Articles:

Personalities and systems

The 'aragalists' and the challenge of re-mapping Sri Lanka

Tomorrow, tomorrow and so forth...

A season of (il)legitimacies 

The brink and beyond

Spontaneity and its discontents 

ලෙයට ලෙය වෙනුවට ආලය

පුද්ගල චරිත මතුවේ, නිර්පාක්ෂික හැව ගැලැවේ, අරගලය ඉදිරියටම....

The BASL Proposals: A review

 

 
malindadocs@gmail.com


[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

26 May 2022

Constitutional Reform: the wages of haste, sloth and expediency




There are certain rules of thumb with regard to constitutional reform. First, such exercises should never be predicated on political expediency. In other words, one’s allegiance or otherwise to the immediate beneficiary, beneficiaries or political party/coalition should not be a factor in offering support or objecting, respectively. Secondly, one’s allegiance or otherwise to any person, political party or community losing out from proposed amendments should not be a factor either. Thirdly, it has to be understood that constitutional reform in the form of amendment or total overhaul is a very serious matter that can cast dark and foreboding shadows well into the future; as such such exercises should never be done in a hurry and should always consider possible outcomes well into the future.

Even a cursory examination of text and process related to most of 20 amendments enacted since 1978 indicate that these principles, if you will, have been observed in the breach. They were, for the most part, pieces of legislation pushed through courtesy parliamentary numbers of course but designed to benefit incumbents and the political parties they led or belonged to. A quick look at Amendments 17-20 would be useful at this point.

The 17th, was hurriedly passed during the ‘parivasa arrangement.’ It sought to clip some of the executive powers of the president. Note that the 1978 constitution, which gave us the executive presidency, was overwhelmingly passed and cheered by the then ruling party, the UNP. That party began to lament the office only when ousted from office in 1994. It was then that the UNP realised that the 1978 constitution not only gave draconian powers to the president, but rendered the opposition absolutely impotent.

J R Jayewardene believed the proportional representation system would ensure continuous UNP governments and that no party would ever secure two-thirds majorities in parliament, thus ensuring the safety of the executive presidential system. He was proven wrong. The 17th, in a sense, was progressive but it had many flaws.

The 18th was a reverse of what may be termed ‘democratising measures’ contained in the 17th. Again, a coalition that had the numbers saw it through. It scuttled in effect the independent institutions that sought to wrest power from the president and removed the two-term limit of the incumbent. In other words, it was a partisan piece of legislation designed to favour the incumbent and his political party.  

The 19th once again sought to restore elements of the 17th while removing ‘unlimited terms’ for a president. It also brought in measures to prevent dual citizens from holding public office. While the move to restore independent institutions was positive at least in intent, the issue of dual-citizenship was ill-advised, undemocratic and most seriously prompted by partisan political interests, i.e. to dent political ambitions of known individuals in the opposition camp. Most seriously, judicial review was snubbed in effect. The observations of the Supreme Court mischievously skirted, fresh text included which bypassed the principle of judicial review and passed in the middle of the night when most members were half asleep.  As serious is the fact that the ‘independence’ sought in institutions appointed by the Constitutional Council (CC) was compromised by the very composition of the CC. Moreover, the authors deliberately left ‘national government’ undefined, effectively rendering

The 20th, once again, reversed the sections on independent institutions. On the positive side, judicial review was affirmed with Supreme Court observations/recommendations taken into account in the amended version submitted to Parliament. Again, the 20th was also partisan; its thrust was motivation marked by political expedience.

Interestingly, there are many parliamentarians who voted ‘aye’ for each of these amendments; clearly indicating that the political needs of the moment and not the greater good of the democracy was the key motivation.

The 21st, at least in draft, appears to go against the grain of the said rules of thumb. It’s not the office that is targeted, but the individual. It is about who benefits and who stands to lose. It is being pushed through in an almighty hurry. Whether or not judicial review is sought is unclear. Moreover, the experience of the 19th has taught us that judicial review can be snubbed, in effect.

Yes, like all amendments, this too will be flavoured with terms such as ‘the public demand/will’ which of course cannot truly be ascertained by the number of placards or the number of voices chanting slogans. If there’s any doubt, ask any of the people supposedly representing ‘public will’ the following questions: a) What was wrong about the 18th Amendment? b) Was there anything wrong with the 19th? c) if the answer is ‘no,’ ask about judicial review, the composition of the CC, the implications of leaving ‘national government’ undefined, if dual-citizenship is an issue considering that non-nationals as well as citizens have done immense damage to the nation and the citizenry, d) What’s wrong with the 20th? As for those clamouring for the abolition of the executive presidency, just one question would suffice: ‘Do you know the implications considering the fact that the 13th Amendment still stands?’

The 21st needs study and review. It requires time. It needs to be subject to judicial review. The draft clearly indicates that the authors are adamant that the flaws of the 19th be restored! The composition of the CC remains politician-heavy. How this insulates citizen from parliamentarians considered by ‘the public’ to be corrupt, slothful and incompetent, is a question that doesn’t seem to have bothered the authors.

The amendments proposed (especially to Articles 44-47) clearly seek to transfer power from president to prime minister, which of course can be defended except for the fact that the incumbent was elected to an office by the people who, one has to assume, knew what those powers were. Other articles involving the CC are similarly at odds with the principle of representational legitimacy.

Ideally the parliament and the judiciary would look far into the future (the former, unlikely and the latter may not be given the opportunity to do so), but the passage of all amendments over the past 44 years shows does not make for much hope. The excitement, haste and narrow political agendas of successive regimes and leaders helped mangle constitutional reform. Indeed, if short-cuts are what are being looked at, we might as well revert to the First Republican Constitution, that of 1972. Since we just passed the 50th anniversary of becoming a republic and truly enjoying political independence, it might be as fitting a celebration as any!

malindadocs@gmail.com


[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

19 May 2022

Personalities and Systems

‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,’ one of the more literary essays written by Karl Marx famously, contains many quotable quotes which are of course frequently used in contexts that have little to do with the thrust of the man’s thinking. This, however, is apt for our times: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who concerned himself with the dynamics of power, captured the same issue of structure and agency in ‘Distinction,’ speaking of structuring structures and structured structures.  

The overbearing nature of structures and how they weigh upon the universe of the possible are too often forgotten, perhaps mostly because public anger/perception focuses on personalities and their strength, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. People vote for people. People vote for parties, but political organizations are judged less by ideologies and programs than by those identified with them.

Over the past six weeks or so, people did talk about ‘systems’ but if pushed to describe these, few would have gone beyond ‘the executive presidency.’ It was easier, as it has always been, to pick (on) an individual. So we got #gotagohome. Then we got, what is essentially a reboot without disturbing the structures or foundations. As some wit put it, ‘in 2015, Maithri became the de facto leader of the UNP; in 2022 Ranil became the de facto leader of the pohottuwa.’ Regardless of how many votes Ranil Wickremesinghe received, regardless of whether or not parliamentary strength reflects popular support (which of course cannot be precisely ascertained this side of an election), within Parliament, Wickremesinghe’s legitimacy is now established — the majority accept his leadership.  

Now all this seems to have floored many in the much talked of ‘aragalaya.’ Even Dr Harini Amarasuriya, the National List MP of the JVP, obviously one of the better informed parliamentarians and certainly someone equipped to engage in intelligent debate seemed to be surprised. She tweeted the following:

‘Ok, let’s talk stability. 1. @GotabayaR resigns, 2. Interim govt formed, 3. Constitutional amendments, 4. Election. Why wasn’t this an option? How is appointing a person with a single seat in parliament as PM going to ensure stability?’

So, Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigns, let's assume. What next? Well, as per the constitution, Parliament has to elect a successor. Who? Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of her party? Well, we’ll get to that presently. Let’s assume MP X succeeds Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Let’s assume an interim government is formed. We then come to constitutional amendments. All talk of constitutional amendment is reducible to a. Repealing the 20th Amendment and replacing it with the 19th Amendment, b) strengthening the resultant ‘independent institutions,’ c) inclusion of robust auditing mechanisms.

Harini must have read the 20th and the 19th. Would she claim that the 19th is flawless (apart from weaknesses of independent institutions as per the BASL proposals)? We haven’t heard the JVP talk about the composition of the Constitutional Council (in the 19th) or ‘national government’ being left undefined. Few talk about the passage of the 19th and how it made a mockery of judicial review or, for that matter, the fact that the architects of the 20th followed judicial recommendations to the letter.

Among the changes to the constitution is the abolishing of the executive presidency. Neither the BASL nor constitutional tinkerers seem to have bothered the consequences in a context where the 13th Amendment remains untouched.

So, to the question, ‘why was this not an option?’  An option for whom? What’s forgotten here is that at the end of the day options can only be considered by the incumbent and the Parliament; what’s opted for is essentially reflective of the power balance in the latter. It can’t be the case that a bunch of NGOs or ragtag parties or a diplomatic cabal gets to choose among options, certainly not if ‘solutions’ have to be found within the framework of the existing constitution. Outside of it, of course, there’s revolution, but that’s something the JVP seems to have abandoned ages ago and it’s not something that the aragalists seem to be serious about since the focus has been, from Day One, on personality (and to a lesser degree family/clan and party), and not on system and structure.

‘How is appointing a person with a single seat in parliament as PM going to ensure stability?’ This is an interesting question in and of itself and amusing too, coming from Harini. Yes, Wickremesinghe obtained less than 3% of the vote from the Colombo District, keyword ‘district.’ In 2020, the Jathika Jana Balavegaya, led by the JVP, polled 60,600 votes in Colombo (5.72%). The UNP’s slice country-wide was 249, 435 (2.15%) whereas the JJB got 445,958 (3.84%). Harini’s got a point.

However, one wonders if Harini raised an eyebrow when AKD demanded Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation as a precondition for accepting the Prime Minister’s post, essentially saying ‘get out and make way for me to become your successor.’ AKD got 418,553 votes (3.16%) at the last presidential election (Sajith Premadasa got 5.6 million or 42% while Rajapaksa got 6.9m or 52%). Again, remember, legitimacy thereafter can only be obtained via elections. So, what’s AKD’s legitimacy? So, what’s the legitimacy of the JJB to assume control? ‘Better than Ranil’s’ is a legitimate answer but it falls short, way short, of claims that cannot be scoffed at.

The larger question is not related to the season of silliness vis-à-vis legitimacy questions/claims; it is the fixation with individuals, the strange desire for a saviour. Brecht put it well in ‘Galileo’ who, responding to his student Andrea Sarti’s bitter remark ‘unhappy is the land that has no hero,’ pointed out, ‘no, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’

Wickremesinghe has a tough task and needs to be given credit for taking it on in the worst of circumstances. Whether he would deliver, what he would deliver and when he would deliver are left to be seen. For now, there’s political stability, relatively speaking. Those who wanted Rajapaksa’s head on a platter may want his as well tomorrow. Those who focus on personalities love ‘off with the head’ and seldom pause to reflect on the fact that heads can get replaced but if systems remain intact ‘change’ is cosmetic. At best.

As for the aragalaya/aragalists, the work is not even half done. Surfaces have been scratched, certainly, but a bit of polish sorts such things out easily. Enough? Harini Amarasuriya, despite being ‘clipped’ so to speak by party loyalty, would probably say, ‘hardly.’

malindadocs@gmail.com

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

14 May 2022

The BASL proposals: A review

 


Crises prompt proposals for management, recovery and future prosperity. Of the many we’ve seen, perhaps on account of public profile, the set of proposals submitted by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is one which calls for serious consideration. Indeed, the BASL proposals have been approved by multiple political groups/individuals including the President and the main party in the Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). What is offered here is a review.

The BASL document is organised under three headings, background, objectives and proposals. Let us consider them in this order.

Background:
Yes, the economic crisis is grave. The crisis however has little to do with the political architecture . The political unrest was spurred by the economic debacle which of course was exacerbated by horrendous policy decisions and brought to tipping point by the unleashing of goons by ruling party politicians in an exercise where the then Prime Minister is clearly culpable.  

All this, however, has little to do with the alleged failures of the Executive Presidency as the BASL insists. The BASL believes that ‘meaningful parliamentary oversight’ would have done the trick. However, we’ve had presidential terms without such economic hardships even though there wasn’t any meaningful parliamentary oversight. On the other hand, there have been and there are countries without executive presidencies that have suffered and are suffering economic collapses. The ‘background’ as articulated by the BASL, appears more like a necessary preamble to shoot down the 20th Amendment which of course has its flaws.

The people are demanding a system change, the BASL claims.‘System change,’ though, was but a footnote in the agitational tract. The BASL speaks of constitutional amendments and institutional rearrangement. Good.  Political stability. Yes. Calling for responsibility is fine too. Obtaining it is another matter. However, the BASL has sketched the situation decently enough.

Objectives:
Let’s move to the five stated objectives: a) create political, economic and social stability in the country, b) create an environment to address the fundamental problems that have brought about the current crisis (and imperil future reforms), c) restructure external debt and enter into appropriate programmes with multilateral institutions including the IMF and for that purpose to appoint the financial and legal advisers and negotiate a debt standstill pending debt restructuring, d) obtain bridging finance [which] together with the savings arising from the debt standstill to be used to procure uninterrupted supply of essentials to the People until such time the debt restructuring, and the IMF program is in place, will eliminate the shortages in power, fuel, gas, medicines, food etc., and e) create an environment to combat corruption and to ensure accountability and strengthening independent institutions.

Of these, ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘e’ are hard to object to. They are easily written as well. Everyone wants stability, everyone wants root causes addressed and everyone wants corruption ended, accountability ensured and independent institutions strengthened. The other two, ‘c’ and ‘d’ are the giveaways. 

I can understand ‘economic recovery’ or ‘economic stability’ as an objective (which of course is already in ‘a’), but it is puzzling that the BASL thinks seeking IMF support is an objective.  A suggested means to an end would have been defensible. More on the IMF (as per the specifics in the BASL proposals proper) later.


Proposals:  
The proposals are framed by a clearly stated ‘overarching requirement,’ viz “a stable Government with the ability to implement reforms domestically and the ability / credibility to negotiate with the IMF, other multilateral agencies, and friendly countries to help Sri Lanka get out of the economic crisis.’

The first part is almost intuitive. We do need political stability and a government capable of implementing domestic reforms. The second part is about seeking outside support, again understandable. Why the IMF though? And why is it an ‘overarching requirement’? Cannot the BASL see beyond the IMF? Is the BASL aware of what that particular path to salvation has resulted in? Surely the post-1977 history of Sri Lanka has taught all of us that the IMF is a) part of the system that got us into this mess, and b) is a problem and cannot be part of the solution? Is neoliberalism, discredited and proven untenable on multiple counts, some kind of overarching touch-me-not for the BASL? It would be interesting to know a) if the BASL sought and obtained advice from economists, and b) if so, who these economics are (as it is said, ‘before studying economics, study the economists).

Let’s move to the proposals proper. The first is a useful and important caveat. The BASL demands adherence to constitutional provisions. More critically, the BASL insists that ‘transitional provisions’ recommended not be used as precedent. If any of these proposals are worked into policy at this time, such caveats should be included and emphasised.  
 
Proposals 2-6 relate to constitutional reform. Proposals 7 and 8 are about an interim operational architecture (logically, these should have preceded constitutional matters, given the initial and cautionary note). Number 9 refers to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimisation during the Yahapalanaya years. This seems to be a cherry-picked issue (a first year law student could come up with several dozens of issues similar to this). Proposals 10-12 are nuts and bolts stuff pertaining to a Common Minimum Program (CMP) put together by the the proposed ‘Cabinet of National Unity (CNU)’, in consultation with the proposed ‘Advisory Council’ which would be appointed as per Proposal No 8. The last, i.e. No 13, sets timelines: the duration of the ‘Government of National Unity’ and when parliamentary elections are to be held. Let’s consider these sets of proposals.

Constitutional Reform (Proposals 2-6) via a 21st amendment:
With respect to immediate amendments, it’s essentially a matter of repealing the 20th Amendment and restoring the 19th while retaining the current number of judges in the higher courts. Provisions regarding the Constitutional Council (CC) and Independent Commissions (ICs) are to be complemented by, the BASL proposes, enhanced financial independence, transparency and accountability.

The following needs to be stated, if only parenthetically:

[The passage of the 19th Amendment made a mockery of judicial review and set a very bad precedent which, interestingly, was not leveraged in the passage of the 20th Amendment. An article published in the Daily Mirror on the 21st of February, 2019 titled ‘Constitutional Council and the poverty of independence, intellect and integrity’ elaborates on this. Then there’s also the issue of dual-citizenship. The 19th effectively blocked dual-citizens and the 20th removed it. The former was politically motivated and the latter too. The fact remains that this country has been wrecked by citizens as well as dual citizens. Most importantly, those in whose hands the BASL, among others, wants to put the country and its future, the IMF, is not run by citizens or even dual-citizens but foreigners].
 
The BASL has ignored completely the fact that the composition of the CC completely reneges on the spirit of the 19th Amendment, i.e. clipping the wings of the President and inserting independent oversight. Seven  out of the ten members were to be parliamentarians. The other three, nominated jointly by the Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister were to be ‘persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public or professional life and are not members of any political party.’ The majority of ‘independents’ who sat on the CCs from the time the 19th was operationalised were ideologically/politically aligned with the then ruling coalition. In effect then, the CC of the 19th Amendment was no better than the Parliamentary Council of the 18th Amendment (which of course was an even worse piece of legislation for other reasons).

The CC, then, would inevitably be a slanted body. The impartiality of the ICs that the CC sets up, would be, again, inevitably compromised. We know in hindsight that the conduct of the various CCs in appointing ICs was marked by political bias and incompetence.  Independence (or otherwise) is dependent on the process of selection and if the composition of the CC and the constitutionally sanctioned process are flawed, it is hard to obtain. The BASL ought to have paid more attention to the relevant clauses of the 19th Amendment.  

Next the BASL suggests additions. Necessitating approval of the CC for appointments of the Governor of the Central Bank and the Monetary Board, certainly broadens the process. This is not necessarily a bad thing except, as mentioned, the CC as per the 19th is necessarily a politically compromised body. If the composition issue is fixed, then it’s fine, one could argue. Then again, why only the Governor and the Monetary Board? How about the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and heads of similar institutions? The BASL need not have been selectively specific. The proposal could have been worded in general terms to cover all such posts. On the other hand, why leave it to the whims and fancies of a group of people oddly chosen? Couldn’t the BASL have proposed the setting up of robust mechanisms to affirm meritocracy?  

The last sub-proposal, that of the CC-recommended body recommending presidential pardons, seems to have been hurriedly inserted. There is already an established procedure for presidential pardons. A revisit wouldn’t have harm. Shifting the power to give the final green light from the president to some other body would make the term ‘presidential pardon’ ridiculous. One wonders if the BASL took into consideration all the powers of the Executive Presidency or responded to what the BASL knows about or what has had media traction over the past few years.  

Next (No 4) comes appointments of ministerial secretaries and the ICs. These are routine exercises. No 5 forbids the President from holding [cabinet] portfolios. Since the 21st seeks to turn the President (who, by the way, secured way more votes than any politician in Parliament and, unlike anyone in the ICs and the three independent members of the CC, is accountable to the people of the country) into a rubber-stamper of the new executive arrangement (Prime Minister and Cabinet), this makes sense. It, however, violates the entire spirit of the current Constitution. Ideally a new constitution or abolition of the executive presidency (which the BASL recommends and which we will discuss presently) should precede these kinds of changes which, essentially, amount to constitutional tinkering.  It is also disconcerting that the BASL has not taken issue with the fact that ‘National Government’ as per the 19th Amendment remains undefined. The problems of this vagueness came to the fore during the Yahapalana dispensation, especially at the time of the parliamentary crisis in 2018.
No 6 sets a timeline for abolishing the Executive Presidency. It may require a referendum though since the incumbent was elected by the people. The Supreme Court would have a say, no doubt. Attributing all ills to the Executive Presidency is downright silly. Curtailing of presidential powers is defensible, but calling for the abolishing the office without addressing important safeguards embedded in the Executive Presidency on other matters amounts to gross negligence. The BASL appears to be unaware of the implications in relation to the (illegally ‘enacted’) 13th Amendment. If the BASL had proposed relevant caveats/amendments or even a repeal of the 13th, the demand could be half-way legitimate. They have not. Indeed, if the BASL proposal is implemented as is, it opens the path not to federalism but to separation. The BASL has not addressed this serious issue.

Now, is an executive presidency by definition made for error and curtailing of freedoms? Are systems that do not have executive presidencies necessarily better and do they ensure countries don’t go bankrupt and are insured against political crises? It's all about checks and balances, but these need to be discussed and carefully crafted. The BASL has not proposed any new checks and balances. They have gone with what they, erroneously, believe to be a fantastic piece of legislation, the 19th Amendment. They are so wrong.

The operational architecture (Proposals 7-9):
'The immediate’ is laid out in Proposal No 7. The BASL proposes a cabinet of 15 ministers in an Interim Government of National Unity. The swearing in of Ranil Wickremesinghe has of course scuttled the idea of unity. The BASL proposes that in the absence of ‘unity’ a vacancy be created to shoo-in an outsider. We are no longer talking about legitimacy and mandate given ‘exigencies of the situation,’ so this could also be considered. If Wickremesinghe's government collapses that might be an option that will be brought back into the discussion. Overall, there’s nothing seriously wrong with No 7.

Number Eight is where the BASL does itself the greatest disservice. Here, the BASL proposes an independent Advisory Council (AC) consisting of 15 qualified professionals from disciplines corresponding to the 15 ministries.  The BASL insists, ‘All major policy decisions of the Government to be taken in consultation with the Advisory Council in a transparent manner.’

What is this Advisory Council? The BASL says the AC will be appointed following consultation between the Interim Government and ‘all relevant, independent, apolitical professional/trade/civil society organisations.’ Is the BASL going to guarantee relevance, independence, the apolitical nature of these organisations and the people who run them? And to whom, pray, are these organisations and their bosses answerable? Certainly not the people of this country.  

We have seen what ‘advisors’ can do. We have seen what additional centers of administrative authority can do to the institutional arrangement and the institutions therein. Pundits and punditry are ace put-offs. We do have an administrative service and therefore each ministry will have a secretary with specific functions. Where needed, there is provision for such individuals to obtain advice from relevant experts. At the end of the day, if the BASL proposals are implemented, ’experts’ will call the shots but they won’t land anywhere close to the intended target.

The ninth proposal seeks the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry mandated to investigate allegations of political victimisation rescinded. Implied here is that the BASL believes there was no victimisation whatsoever during the Yahapalana years. However, if one assumes that the BASL, although this is not spelled out, objects to the possibility of witch-hunts, Number 9 makes sense. The BASL could have gone beyond this measure and insisted on provisions to ensure that such witch-hunts don’t get off the ground.
 
The Program (Proposes 10-13):
Number 10 is about preparing a ‘Common Minimum Program (CMP)’. The Cabinet is required to design this in collaboration with the AC. Even if we assumed (and we are being generous here) that the AC is ‘independent’ and have ‘expertise,’ the BASL essentially straight-jackets the AC and the Cabinet by way of an operational framework.

The CMP ‘conditions’ have some valid features such as enacting necessary amendments to the Monetary Law, strengthening the independence of the Central Bank, immediate resolution of the shortages of essential goods and services, upholding the Rule of Law, recovery of state assets, campaign finance, declaration of assets and liabilities, revisiting the Prevention of Terrorism Act, timeframes for elections etc. Essentially the BASL wants problems alleviated, fiscal discipline, professionalism and accountability. The BASL stops short of demanding better measures to audit one and all, not just politicians the President downwards, but, say, professionals such as lawyers, doctors, tuition teachers etc. Yes, those are ‘details,’ but then again in this document the BASL does fiddle with details on occasion.

The meat of the BASL brief with regard to the CMP is economic. Again, the IMF is seen as a saviour. Not surprisingly the BASL wants to sell off state assets. It’s perfectly fine to ensure that awarding of tenders is conducted in a transparent manner. Such procedural caveats are good. However, the BASL does not seem to understand or care about the fact that the IMF is a part of the system, that the Bretton Woods institutions keep systems/countries on the edge, ensure scandalous value appropriation by a few at the cost of disempowering the vast majority of the particular population.

Number 11 proposes that the CMP must include the abolition of the Executive Presidency. We’ve discussed the matter above. Number 12 insists that the Interim Government presents a budget based on the CMP. This goes without saying and in the saying we will have all the problems raised above adequately mirrored. It cannot be a pretty picture.

The last proposal is about the tenure of the Government of National Unity, 18 months. So, the incumbent president will be out in 15 months, and as things stand Ranil Wickremesinghe would have free rein for three months plus six weeks as head of a caretaker government overseeing General Elections. Enough time to obtain a decisive edge over political rivals.  An insurance policy written for a preferred political force, then? The BASL could have done better.


Conclusion:
Taken as a whole, the BASL proposals have merits and demerits. That they were accepted without reservation by political groups such as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya says a lot about the seriousness of that political party and anyone else which doffed hats to the BASL. All that said, it is worthy of study, but only if it is considered to be nothing more than a ‘discussion paper’ for a program that seeks to resolve the multiple crises Sri Lanka is ridden with. An uncritical embrace would be out of order.

malindadocs@gmail.com

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]






12 May 2022

පුද්ගල චරිත මතුවේ, නිර්පාක්ෂික හැව ගැලැවේ, අරගලය ඉදිරියටම....

 

අදේශපාලනික අරගලකරුවන් සිටිය නොහැක. නිශ්චිත නොවුනත්, දේශපාලනික පක්ෂ සහ ඒවායේ අරමුණු සමග අනන්‍ය නොවුනත්, අරගලකරුවා දේශපාලනිකයි. අදේශපාලනික අරගලකරුවන් සිටිය නොහැකි නමුත් නිර්පාක්ෂික අරගලකරුවන් සිටිය හැක. 


නිර්පාක්ෂික අරගලකරුවන් අනිවාර්යයෙන්ම නිර්පාක්ෂික නොවූ අරගලකරුවන්ට වඩා උසස් වන්නේ ද පහත් වන්නේ ද නැත. එහෙත් යම් දේශපාලන සංවිධානයක් සමග අනන්‍ය වී ඇති අතරම තමුන් 'නිර්පාක්ෂික' යැයි කියන, 'නිර්පාක්ෂිකයෙකු' ලෙස හැසිරෙන අරගලකරුවන්ට වඩා සැබැවින්ම නිර්පාක්ෂික වූ අරගලකරුවන් සදාචාරාත්මක වේ.   

'ගෝටාගෝහෝම්' ලෙස නම් කර ඇති අරගලය තුළ නිර්පාක්ෂික සහ නිර්පාක්ෂික නොවූ අරගලකරුවන් සිටිති. අරගලයට වත් සමස්ත අරගලකරුවන්ට වත් මෙය ප්‍රශ්නයක් වුයේ නැත. ඒ, ගෝටා පන්නා දැමීම හෝ/සහ ඒ හා බැඳී සිස්ටම්-චේන්ජ් එකකට මේ දෙපිරිසම අප්‍රකාශිතව එකඟ වූ බැවිනි.  

#ගෝටාගෝහෝම් තුළ #සිස්ටම්චේන්ජ් ලෙස හැඳින්විය හැකි යටිපෙළක් ඇති බව ඉතා පැහැදිළිය. එහෙත් දැන් දැන් ඇතැම් අරගලකරුවන් සිස්ටම් එකෙන්ම නිර්මාණය වූ, සිස්ටම් එක නිසා ගොඩ ගිය, සිස්ටම් එක තුළම සිස්ටම් එක නඩත්තු කරන සහ එයට න්‍යාය සපයන දේශපාලන සංවිධාන සහ චරිත යෝජනා කරන්නට  පටන් ගෙන ඇත. එසේ නැතිනම් සිස්ටම් එකෙන්ම නිර්මාණය වූ, සිස්ටම් එක නිසා ගොඩ ගිය, සිස්ටම් එක තුළම සිස්ටම් එක නඩත්තු කරන සහ එයට න්‍යාය සපයන දේශපාලන සංවිධාන සහ චරිත යෝජනා වනවිට ඒවාට දැඩිව එරෙහි වන්නෝය.

උදාහරණයකින් පැහැදිලි කරගමු. රනිල්, මීළඟ අගමැති වීමට ඉඩක් තියෙනවා යැයි රාවය මාධ්‍යයේ සටහන් වූ වහාම ඔහුට ඇති ජනවරම ප්‍රශ්න කරන්නට බොහෝ දෙනා ඉදිරිපත් වුහ. ඇත්ත. ජාතික ලැයිස්තුවෙන් අමාරුවෙන් පාර්ලිමේන්තුවට ආපු රනිල්ට වඩා ඉතිරි 224න් අති බහුතරයකරට 'ජනවරමක්' ඇත. ඒත් එසේ තර්ක කරනවා නම්, එක ඡන්දයක් වත් ලබා නොගත් අරගලකරුවන් ගෝ හෝම් කිව්ව පළියට ඡන්දෙන් පත් වුන කිසිම කෙනෙක් ගෙදර යා යුතුද?

කෙසේ වෙතත් රනිල්ට විරුද්ධ වන අය අතරේ 'අනේ ඇයි සජිත්ට නොදෙන්නේ,' 'රාජපක්ෂලා එක්ක ඩීල් ගහලා සජිත්ව අන්තිම මොහොතේ පැත්තකට තල්ලු කෙරුවා' වගේ දුක හිතුන කතා දොඩවන 'අරගලකරුවන්' ඇති බව සමාජ මාධ්‍යයේ සටහන් වලින් පෙනේ. ඒ වගේම 'අනුරට දුන්න නම් හරිනේ' කියන අයත් දැකිය හැක.

තමන්ගේ දේශපාලන හැව ගැන වඩා සැලකිලිමත් වන අය 'මේකෙන් විධායක ජනාධිපති ක්‍රමය ආරක්ෂා වෙනවා, කළ යුත්තේ 'ගෝටා අස් වෙලා පොහොට්ටුවේ නොවන කෙනෙක් අගමැති කරන එක' වගේ තියරි ඉදිරිපත් කරති. ව්‍යවස්ථාව ගැන සහ පවතින ව්‍යවස්ථාව තුළ කළ හැකි නොහැකි දේ ගැන එයාලා දන්නා තරම ඉන් පැහැදිලි වේ. අරයට-මෙයාට කතා මෙන්ම මෙයා හොඳයි එයා නරකයි කතා වලින් ද ගැළවෙන්නේ කාගේ කාගේත් අදේශපාලනික හැවමයි.

'රනිල් ඊස් ද මෑන්' කියලා දැන් කියන අය එවැනි දෙයක් කලින් යෝජනා නොකළේ මන්ද? 'රනිල් ඊස් නොට් කේපබල්, සජිත් හැස් ද නම්බ(ර්)ස් ඇන්ඩ ලේජිටිමසි' කියන අය අරගල භූමියේ වගේම සමාජ මාධ්‍ය වලද 'අපි නිර්පාක්ෂිකයි' කිව්වේ මන්ද? බොරුවටද?

අරගලයේ මෙන්ම ඉන් පිටත ද ගොටාගෝහෝම් සටන් පාඨය යටතේ ක්‍රියාත්මක වූ සියලු දෙනා ෆේක් කියනවා නොවේ. ෆේක් වුනත් කමක් නැහැ පසුව හෝ රියල් වෙනවා නම්. එහෙත් දුෂිතයින්, වංචනිකයින් පළවා හැරීමේ ව්‍යාපෘතියක බොරු කාරයෝ ඉන්න එක ප්‍රශ්නයක්.  ඒක ප්‍රශ්නයක් වන බව හොඳටම පැහැදිලි වී ඇති නිසාදෝ දැන් දැන් එක එක පක්ෂ අරගලයට අයිතිවාසිකම් කියන්න උත්සාහ කරති. වෙස් මුහුණු, හැව, මේක්-අප් ගැළවෙන එක හොඳයි. සැබෑ දේශපාලන සංවාදයක් ඇතිවන්නට නම් ඒ විවෘතභාවය අවශ්‍යයි. අරගලකරුවන්, විශේෂයෙන්ම, අව්‍යාජ ව අරගලයේ යෙදෙන නිර්පාක්ෂික අරගලකරුවන් සහ තමන්ගේ දේශපාලන අනන්‍යතාවයන් විවෘතව ප්‍රකාශ කරමින් අරගලයට ශක්තිය දුන් අරගලකරුවන් මෙය තේරුම් ගෙන ඇති බව විශ්වාසයි. 

 ඔවුන් අතර එවන් සංවාදයක් මුල සිටම තියෙන්නට ඇතැයි විශ්වාස කරමි. සිදුවන්නේ කොළේ වහගෙන දේශපාලන සෙල්ලමේ යෙදුනු අයට 'මචං ලා මේකයි ඇත්ත...මම අහවලා, මගේ සැබෑ දේශපාලන වුවමනාව මෙයයි, මම උත්සාහ කරන්නේ අහවලා නැතිනම් අහවල් පක්ෂයේ වුවමනාවන් ඉදිරියට ගෙන යෑමටයි' වගේ දෙයක් කියලා එම සංවාදයට එක් වන්න අවසර සැබෑ, නිර්පාක්ෂික සහ විවෘතව තම දේශපාලනය වෙනුවෙන් ක්‍රියාකරන අරගලකරුවන් ඉඩ දෙනු ඇත. අරගලයේ ඉතාම සුන්දර ස්වභාවය එයමැයි.

මෙවැනි විරෝධතාවල ස්වභාවය මෙයයි. සංවාදය ද විසංවාදය ද ඒවා තුළ ජීවමානයි. නිශ්චිත අයිතිකරුවන් නොමැති බැවින් තමන්ගේ මතවාදයට දේශපාලන සංවිධානයට අරගලය නතු කර ගැනීමට උත්සාහ කරන අය ද අරගල භූමියේ සරති. මේ සියලු දේ සිදුවන අතර අරගලය ගමක ස්වරූපයක් ගෙන ඇත. ඒ ගම තුළ, ඒ සමස්ත ක්‍රියාවලිය හරහා වෙනම රටක සිතියමක් ඇඳෙමින් පවතී. පැයකින් දෙකකින්, දවසකින් සතියකින් නිමා කළ හැකි සිතියමක් නොවේ එය. ඒ කෙසේ වෙතත් මේ නොනිමි සිතියම රෆ් ස්කෙච් එකක් ලෙස හෝ ඉදිරිපත් කළ හැකිනම් වටී. විශේෂයෙන් නිර්පාක්ෂික නොවූ එහෙත් නිර්පාක්ෂික වෙස් ගත් අයගෙන් අරගලය ආරක්ෂා කිරීමටත්, ඉතා ලස්සනට සිත්තම් වන අලුත් රට පටු දේශපාලන වර්ණ වලින් දුර්වර්ණ කිරීම වළකාලන්නටත් එවන් ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමක් වැදගත් වනු ඇත.

හෙට අප දන්නා අඳුණන, අහලා තියෙන, අඩු වැඩි වශයෙන් දේශපාලනිකව කිලිටි වූ කෙනෙක් අගමැති වෙනු ඇත. අරගලයේ අවසානය එය නොවනු ඇත. අරගලයට එවන් පත්වීමක් නැවැත්විය නොහැක, එහෙත් පත්වන අගමැති සහ ආණ්ඩුව මූලික කොන්දේසි සපුරාගත හැකි යම් නිශ්චිත වැඩපිළිවෙළකට අවනත කිරීමේ හැකියාව පවතී. එය අරගලය තුළ වෙසෙන නිර්පාක්ෂික-පාක්ෂික අරගලකරුවන්ට, රට ප්‍රතිනිර්මාණය කිරීමේ මුල් පියවරක් වනු ඇත. පොත්තක් නොව එය පෙත්තක් ම වනු ඇත. ෆේක් නොව රියල් වනු ඇත. අදේශපාලනික නොව දේශපාලනික වනු ඇත. නිර්පාක්ෂික නොවන, ෆේක්, අරගලය ගසා කෑමට උත්සාහ කරන අයගෙන් අරගලය ආරක්ෂා වනු ඇත.  

11 May 2022

The Aragalists and the challenge of re-mapping Sri Lanka

 




It was expected and yet shocking. Expected, because that’s what history has taught us: those in power, having enjoyed all the luxuries that come with power, and especially through abuse of office, are lulled into believing that power is permanent, and therefore rudely shocked when they realise otherwise, seldom exit peacefully. They fight back, typically. They did.

Here are some interesting facts to keep in mind. The attack on the agitators at Galle Face (the ‘aragalists’) was carried out not by the Police or the Army; those arms of the state were adjuncts or bystanders. It was a blatant act of thuggery orchestrated by key members of the ruling party. Whether the Prime Minister, who is reported to be in ill health, had a part in it is yet to be established. Regardless, the Prime Minister was complicit; the goons were clearly invited. Nevertheless, the goons were clearly invited to Temple Trees and it is from there that they proceeded to unleash violence on citizens, mostly young men and women, who had for an entire month expressed their political views/demands peacefully. 

If someone came to my house and then proceeded to leave it only to beat up people who had gathered to protest my conduct and that of my immediate family, any law enforcement entity inquiring into the attack would, among other things, question me. Indeed, in all likelihood I would be arrested and questioned while in detention. Didn't happen in this case.

The perpetrators weren’t stopped by the Police. They were dealt street justice, so to speak. Those who mobilised them and deployed them remain untouched by the law. It reminded me of a popular poster-line in the late eighties: paalakayini, thopi thopema neethiya kada karanne nam, apa eyata avanatha vanne kumakatada? (Rulers, if you break your own laws, why should we submit to it?).

I disagree, though, about whether our ends justifies our means. Self-defence is justified. If the perpetrators are around, chasing them is also understandable. In a situation where the law and law enforcement are absent, where a citizens’ arrest makes no sense simply because there’s no place and no one to hand over the miscreant, rage quickly transforms into a delivery of justice. Understandable. Angry mobs seeking out those who sent the goons in the first place is also understandable. However, the absence of the law  does not give license to untramelled hooliganism, vandalism, theft, arson, and murder. Sadly that’s what happened on Monday.  Anyone and everything associated with ‘the enemy’ were taken as legitimate targets. Reminds one of the proxy arrests of 88-89.

If ‘Rajapaksavaadaya’ (‘Rajapaksism’) was what was being objected to, and if this was about abuse of power, theft, thuggery, and murder (as has been claimed), indulging in the very same acts albeit on a smaller scale, essentially turns the objector into a Rajapaksavaadiyaa (Rajapaksist). There were aragalists who immediately called for blood. Many who advocated for violence on social media have come to their senses and are today calling for restraint. They’ve removed posts and stories, but the trace still exists in the following form: ‘this content is not available.’ 

The thugs and their masters clearly underestimated things. They may have believed that ‘Galle Face’ was where the problem exists and if removed, all would be fine. However, the response to the mob attack clearly indicates that Galle Face is an expression of widespread discontent. It is a movement, it is not containable or erased with an attack on the physical structures that housed the people. 

There are many serious dangers if things are allowed to spiral out of control. First and foremost, it gives those who have the keys to the coercive state apparatus  license to unleash further violence. After some time, who fired the first shot is only of academic interest. Remember 88-89? Anarchy results. Bloodbath is what is likely to happen. As serious is the possibility of conditions being created for external powers to intervene. Remember the way the USA has moved in on so many occasions to ‘restore democracy’? They essentially took control of resources, established puppet regimes and turned populations into (glorified) slaves. Let’s not forget that India is the proxy of the USA in the region. Sinophobia is what drives the USA, Japan, Australia, and India (the ‘Quad’). The EU openly and unabashedly wants Sri Lanka to sever ties with China so that the US-led policy on the Indo-Pacific region can proceed without any hiccups.

In the midst of all this, we have a serious political crisis. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has come up with some proposals which are not bad if they constitute nothing more than a discussion paper. However, the BASL has arrogated upon itself the role of Economic Expert, advocating acceptance of the IMF doctrine and thereby endorsing the neoliberal model that has turned us into easy prey for the import mafia, and compromised energy and food sovereignty. The BASL wants the 20th Amendment repealed and the 19th restored, never mind the fact that the latter was a weak document and one that was driven by narrow political interests. In the name of clipping presidential powers, the 19th set up a Constitutional Council whose composition ensured that the interests of the ruling party would prevail in all ‘independent’ institutions.

Neither has the BASL said anything of the need to define ‘national government’ as per the 19th Amendment. The BASL has called for the abolishing of the executive presidency, but saying nothing of what this could do, considering the provisions of the 13th Amendment. It’s almost as if M.A. Sumanthiran (who famously said ‘it’s ok not to use the word federalism if we get federalism in effect’) has drafted the BASL proposals.

And, in the midst of all this, we’ve forgotten that the political crisis was precipitated by an economic debacle for which few have any mitigating proposals, not for the immediate, not in relation to the long term.

And yet, we don’t have to retire hope. The aragalists rebuilt. It’s not a ‘gama’ that they are building. It’s a country they are forging. What we are seeing is a prototype. It’s a blueprint for a tomorrow that's very different from yesterday and today. They are cartographers who have the potential to re-map the entire country, taking into account all the contours of class, caste, religion, and other identifiers, and finding the unifying threads between all of those

They’ve shown courage, creativity, leadership and organisational skills that are clearly exceptional. They got two cabinets to resign. They got a prime minister to resign. All this without throwing a single stone. They were able to do this because the people by and large, got out of their way and let them lead, and also stood with them. They proved they can re-imagine Sri Lanka. They have the ability to change things. They can see through and sideline all those groups peddling outdated theories and pernicious designs even as they tolerate such racketeers. They are not a political party but as a pressure group their role is particularly significant. They have, most importantly, the will and ability to contain the potency of their energies to degrees beyond which things could become uncontrollable and disastrous.

For a month, apart from the tragedy in Rambukkana and a few occasions when teargas was used, the aragalists were allowed to do their thing. What would JRJ, Premadasa, Chandrika or Mahinda have done is a question that needs to be asked. So there's some credit that should go to the President.  Nevertheless, it is clear now that the President has not been able to unshackle himself from family and party. What happened on Monday, one could argue, was not only about the political survival of the perpetrators, but a clear attempt to sideline the President altogether.

For now, there’s sanity. The thugs are silent. The over-enthusiastic and pernicious sections of the aragalaya have been contained. We cannot predict what tomorrow will bring, but if we are to see a different and more beautiful Sri Lanka, it will largely depend on how the aragalaya keeps transforming itself and the extent to which those with political power can dialogue with the aragalists, one way or another.

malindadocs@gmail.com.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.] 

 

ලෙයට ලෙය වෙනුවට ආලය

මසක කාලයක් ගෝල් ෆේස් හි ගොඩනැගු ගෝටාගෝගමෙහි දහස් ගණන් තරුණ තරුණියන් මෙන් ම නොයෙකුත් මතවාදී ධාරාවන් නියෝජනය කරන අන් අය එකට බැඳ තැබූ සුන්දර වරපටය ආදරයයි. එකට එක් වී වැපුරුවේ ආදරයයි. යෙදුනේ හෙට දින රට හදන ව්‍යායාමයක පෙරහුරුවකයි.  අහිංසකත්වය, අවිහිංසාවාදය, නිර්මාණශීලිත්වය, එඩිතරකම, ඉවසීම, සාමුහිකත්වය යනාදියෙන් අරගල භූමිය සුවඳවත් විය. එවැනි අහිංසක, අවිහිංසාවාදී, නිර්මාණශීලී, එඩිතර අරගලයක් මතක ඉතිහාසයේ නැති තරම්ය. අපේ රටේ හෙට දවස පිලිබඳව සුභවාදීව හිතන්න අරගලකරුවන් සියලු දෙනාට බල කර සිටියා මෙන් ය.

ඊයේ මැර ප්‍රහාර එල්ල කරන ලද්දේ අරගලකරුවන්ට පමණක් නොව, ඒ සුභවාදී සිහිනයට මෙන් ම මේ ගොඩනැගෙමින් තිබුණු අපුර්වත්වය දෙස ආදරයෙන් බලා සිටි සුවහසක් හදවත් වෙතය. මැර කණ්ඩායම් මෙහෙය වූ අය තක්සේරු නොකෙරුවේ මෙයයි. ගෝටාගෝගම යනු රට පුරා විහිද ගිය ආණ්ඩු විරෝධයක එක් ප්‍රකාශයක් බව ඔවුන් නොසිතුවා විය හැක. මැර ප්‍රහාරවලින් සිහින තුවාල වන්නේ නැති බව ඔවුන් දැන සිටියේ නැත. කෙතරම් දරුණු ලෙස පහර දුන්නත්, අරගලකරුවන්ගේ අධිෂ්ඨානය පලුදු කළ නොහැකි තරමටම ඝනකම්ව අරගලකරුවන්ගේ ආදරය වර්ධනය වී තිබිණ. සිහිනයේ බ්ලු ප්‍රින්ට් එක ඉතා වේගයෙන් නැවත සකස්වුනි.          

වෛරයම වපුරා, ප්‍රචණ්ඩත්වය යෝජනා කර, විහිංසනයේ මාවතම තෝරාගෙන ක්‍රියාත්මක වුවන්ට උපේක්ෂාව හෝ අනුකම්පාව නෙළා ගැනීමට අවසර නැත. ජනතා විරෝධය ජනතා කෝපය බවටත් කෝපය ප්‍රකෝපය දක්වා වර්ධනය විය. සංවිධානාත්මක පිරිස් ප්‍රභූ නිවෙස් ගිනිබත් කිරීමට කටයුතු කළා යැයි විවිධ මත ඉදිරිපත් කරන කිසිවෙකුට බැහැර කළ නොහැකි කාරණය වන්නේ ඒ සියල්ල සඳහා මාර්ග බාධක ඉවත් කරන ලද්දේ මැරයන් ම සහ ඔවුන් මෙහෙයවූවන් බවයි. අද වන විට මහින්දගේ සහ ඔහුගේ දේශපාලන සගයින්ගේ ලේ ඉල්ලන තැනට සියල්ල තල්ලු කලේ ඔවුන් ම මෙහෙයවූ ලේ පිපාසිත මැරයින්ගේ ක්‍රියාකාරිත්වයයි.

ලේ පිපාසය පෙරළා ලේ පිපාසයම අවදි කරන බව ඉතිහාසය කියා දෙන සරලම පාඩමකි. සොඳුරු සිහින බොඳ වෙන්නේ එහෙමයි. 'ලෙයට ලෙය' දරුණුයි, එක්තරා ආකාරයකට මුග්දයි. පහරදීමට එරෙහිව පහරදීම එකක්, පහර දුන්න අයට පහර දීමත් 'පහර දීපිය' යන විධානය දුන් අයට පහර දීමත් තේරුම් ගත හැක, එහෙත් 'සතුරා' සොයා ගැනීමට අපහසු වූ විට සතුරා සංකේතවත් කරන සියලු දේ සහ සතුරාට නෑකම් කියන සියලු දෙනා විනාශ කිරීමට යොමු වීම 'සටන' භයානක පැත්තකට තල්ලු කිරීමක් වේ. එය දැනට උද්ගත වී ඇති තත්ත්වය තුල මීට වඩා බොහෝ දරුණු මිලිටරිකරණයකට අත වැනීමක් වැනිය. විශේෂයෙන්ම මතක තියාගතයුතු වන්නේ එවැනි 'තත්ත්වයක්' කෘත්‍රිමව නිර්මාණය කිරීමට වැඩිම හැකියාව ඇත්තේද ගැටුම ලේ ගැලුමකට පරිවර්තනය කිරීමට අවශ්‍ය පාර්ශවයන්ට බවයි. ඒ සඳහා හැම විට ම විභවය සතු වන්නේ මර්ධනකාරී රාජ්‍ය ව්‍යුහය හසුරවන්නන්ට වේ.   

අරගලයට ඇති ප්‍රධාන ප්‍රාග්ධනය සදාචාරයේ වාසියයි. ප්‍රධාන අවිය ආදරයයි. ප්‍රබලම ශක්තීන් නම් සාමුහිකත්වයයි, අධිෂ්ටානයයි, සිහින දැකීමට ඇති හදවත් සහ සිහින සැබෑ කිරීමට අවශ්‍ය ආත්ම විශ්වාසයන් වේ. ඇමති මණ්ඩලය නොව ඇමති මණ්ඩල දෙකක් ඉවත් කරන්නත්, අගමැතිවරයෙක් ඉල්ලා අස්කරවන්නත් එය ප්‍රමාණවත් විය. රටක් ජනතාවක් අවදි කරන්නත්, අරගලයට කැඳවන්නත් එය ප්‍රමාණවත් විය. මේ සියල්ල ක්‍ෂණයකින් ම්ලේච්ඡත්වයෙන් මකා දැමිය හැක.  නැවත කියන්නෙමි 'ලෙයට ලෙය' දරුණුයි, මුග්ධයි, අරගලයේ සදාචාරාත්මක වාසිය පලුදු කරයි. 'ලෙයට ආලය' ලයාන්විතයි, මෘදුයි, අරගලයට පණ පොවයි. මැර ප්‍රහාරයෙන් අනතුරුව ගෝටාගෝගම පුරා නොකියවෙන එනමුත් සියල්ල වෙළාගෙන ඇත්තේ 'ලෙයට ආලය' විසිනි. අරගල භූමිය හරහා තවමත් හමා යන, අරගලකරුවන්ට ශක්තිය පොවන සුවඳ එයයි. ගෝටාගෝගම වඩාත් ලස්සනට ප්‍රතිනිර්මාණය වුයේ ඒ නිසා ය.

අරගලයක ආරම්භය කවියක් වැනිය. අරගලයක හුස්ම හිරවෙන්න පටන්ගන්නේ අරගලයෙන් ආදරය ඉවත් වූ විටයි. ආදරය 'ලේෆ්ට්' වුනොත්, සටන්පාඨ සමග බිඳුණු සිහින පමණක් ඉතිරි වේ. වෛරයට වඩා ආදරය ඝනකම් විය යුතුම වන්නේ මේ නිසයි.

05 May 2022

Tomorrow, tomorrow and so forth...


Even in uncertain times, especially times of political turmoil marked by continuous and widespread agitation as well as unmistakable confusion regarding governance and indeed governability, there is clarity on certain matters. It is clear, for example, that for all the political brouhaha of parliamentary intrigue and agitational grandstanding, what brought the citizen out and pushed the politician against the wall, is an economic crisis.  

There’s a lot of debate about root causes including mismanagement, erroneous policy and hanky-panky, not to mention of course the elephant in the room: in a word, capitalism, but if you want details, it’s about scandalous fixations with discredited economic theories, state-led subsidising of capital interests, sustained buttressing of an import mafia, absolute reluctance to encourage export-oriented industry and deliberate scuttling of all initiatives to secure food and energy security and sovereignty.

As is usual in the case of any crime, if we ask who benefited, the easy answer would be ‘audit the politicians and you’ll find out.’ The word in the street would be ‘The Rajapaksas.’ Auditing is good, but selective auditing is essentially a scapegoating exercise. If anyone wants a clean and accountable country then he/she cannot stop with El Politico. One could ask a few more questions.

Who benefited from the tax breaks? If someone accepted bribes, who bribed them? There are 225 parliamentarians and one president — if the thousands of officials in the public sector couldn’t prevent them from mismanagement and theft, is it because they were lazy, weak, incompetent or themselves pilfering the kitty? Shouldn’t professionals including doctors engaged in private practice, lawyers who never issue receipts for money obtained for their services, tuition teachers etc., be audited too?  And how about all politicians, from President to each and every member of a local government authority?

For all of the above, the focus is on the politician and rightly so. They crave limelight, they are credited for successes — they richly deserve to be faulted for failure. And, moreover, in the politics of the moment, it is typical and even expedient to trim things down to manageable proportions. The larger issues are the stuff for declarations, legislative enactment and such. Agitation and agitator can get lost in the relevant broader picture. That said, agitator and agitator cannot misplace the larger picture either.

The target has been a person, not a system. It is after all #gotagohome and not #burythesystem that’s been stitched onto the agitational flag. On the sidelines one may encounter a few who would say ‘it IS about the system and the person is taken as a symbol only,’ but there’s always the danger of forgetting what the symbol represents in the rush of blood and the obtaining of objective.

So we have, essentially, a move for a name-change and perhaps at best a hurried and therefore inadvisable tinkering with the constitution. That would be the granting of political relief to those who believe they are politically aggrieved. It would set a precedent and a bad one too for it would encourage those who perceive grievance to corral the perceived miscreant. In one case, say this for argument’s sake, one might offer, ‘we had no option’ or ‘this is a necessary first step’ or ‘we cannot wait for the due process of the law and therefore have to go with “guilty unless proven innocent.”’ This, if widely and frequently referenced, would subvert justice and also wreck the basic foundation of the social contract.

So here we are today. There's determination to topple a leader and a government. Here we are today, contained by a constitution that will necessitate replacement of one leader with another, one government with another and absolutely incapable of answering with a resounding ‘yes’ the following question: ‘is the replacement endowed with a greater degree of legitimacy; a history without blemish in terms of management, accountability and honesty; armed with a plan to correct constitutional flaw, deliver the people from multiple deprivations and implement a development plan that is sustainable and ensures energy and food security?’ 

One could also argue that none of these are as important as seriously considering whether the ruling nebulous global octopus greatly prefers the incumbent or the potential replacement. Anyone who has taken the trouble to study the history of agitation, regime-change, brutal suppression of dissent, revolution etc. (and that's a non-negotiable for 'revolutionaries' by the way), would have to take such things into account. Otherwise, they aren't serious. Sorry.

Anyway, there’s agitation. And it is beautiful. There’s energy, radicalisation, creativity, the forging of solidarities, increasingly intense engagement with issues that go beyond political order and personality and so many other things that might persuade the easily persuaded to call it ‘revolutionary moment.’  A closer look reveals a far more complex mosaic.

It’s a carnival, certainly. No one said revolutions have to be humourless and need to be dressed in drab colours. On the other hand, just as sporting events attract pineapple-sellers, ice-cream vans, fast-food carts, gram-sellers etc., this ‘Galle Face Carnival,’ if you want to call it that, has attracted all manner of vendors. We see all of the above sorts as well as flag-sellers and horn-sellers. We also see vendors of a different kind — vendors peddling ideology and pet political projects with track-records and political histories that are far from being squeaky-clean. It is indeed to the credit of the committed, nonpartisan, idealistic and determined young people occupying Galle Face that they’ve not fallen prey to on false prophet or another but rather ensured that they have every right to be there as anyone else, only they cannot hijack the overall project nor subvert the thrust of the agitation.

Today there’s talk of people drafting a ‘Galle Face Declaration.’ No document is perfect and no doubt such a piece of prose would be critically assailed as well. If ‘Galle Face’ is shorthand for Sri Lanka and indeed anti-systemic sentiment, then the document should be signatured by it. Galle Face is not Colombo, Colombo is not the Western Province, the Western Province is not Sri Lanka; if any lesson needs to be or has been learned through ‘occupation’ it is this.

The young people have tasked themselves with drawing the blueprint for a different Sri Lanka, a new tomorrow. ‘Tomorrow’s Declaration,’ if one may call it that, would delve into histories both political and economic. It would contain a dissection of the system that allows for the discovery of fault lines and designing correctives.

The young, clear-eyed and determined people who see flaw in politicians and citizens, system and stakeholder, the other and themselves, have demonstrated that they have the guts, the wisdom, the intransigent spirit that’s a revolutionary must and immense volumes of patience. They will drive the nation to a fresh tomorrow. There are many dark hours still to fight through of course. As long as they continue to be inspired by deep feelings of love and compassion, they will see us through. 


This article was first published in the Daily Mirror (May 5, 2022).

malindadocs@gmail.com. 

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

Related Articles:

A season of (il)legitimacies

The brink and beyond

Spontaneity and its discontents

Elections, electors and elected

Vasalas and brahmanas



29 April 2022

A season of (il)legitimacies


Politics is about claims and counter-claims. It is about profit-seeking through exaggeration and pooh-poohing. It is also about wild extrapolation of conclusions wrought in echo-chambers. It is as much about deception as it is about self-deception. Perhaps an example would illustrate the point.

Way back in 2010, a few weeks before the presidential election, a diehard UNP supporter said, ‘this time Mahinda is finished, you wait and see!’ I asked, ‘on what basis do you say this?’ ‘Everyone is saying it,’ was the emphatic response. I asked, ‘All these people who told you that Mahinda is finished, who did they vote for in 2005?’ The answer was quick, firm and once again emphatic: ‘Ranil!’ Emphatic conclusion was tested and proven false a few weeks later.

Elections. That’s what gives finality to contending perceptions of general drift. Elections, courtesy certain elements in the 19th Amendment retained in the 20th, cannot be called this early on whim but only under special circumstances.

That said, there are often signs which can’t be easily dismissed simply on account of inability to ascertain public sentiment perfectly. Dissatisfaction is too stark to be ignored. Widespread and open dissent is not just visible but it is continuous. The current quibbling among parliamentarians and political parties, the call for resignation and interim arrangements as well as constitutional amendment clearly indicates acknowledgement of a crisis.

It was all put in a nutshell thus by a university professor: ‘The size of the barricade is proportionate to the magnitude of fear of the person hiding behind [it]. These are unmistakable signs that the message of the “struggle” is more powerful than the bombs and bullets of ruthless terrorists.’

Who and what are behind the barricades is a question that has an easy as well as a complex answer. ‘Obviously those who are being targeted by the protestors,’ would be one. The objection however is not just to a single individual — there’s rejection of not just the ruling party but all parties, party politics and the entire political system and culture. These however get less play; after all a catch-all target is easy to aim at and makes for easier mobilisation of objectors.  Regardless, legitimacy has not only been questioned, it has been rejected outright.

The illegitimate, common sense demands, should make way for the legitimate. That’s where we hit a wall. Is there any individual or collective that can claim the legitimacy mantle exclusively? Let’s consider the claimants or rather those considered by some to be pretenders to the political throne.

Is there any individual in Parliament who can claim that he or she has a greater claim to the big seat than anyone else, incumbent included? Well, the person who polled the highest number of preferential votes would still only have the results of a district to show. A party? Which? Even if we put aside the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or ‘Pohottuwa’) on account of, say, ‘visible illegitimacy,’ can the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or any other party represented in Parliament claim to have the confidence of the people to seize power? No.

Perhaps this is why there’s some traction for the proposal for an all-party interim cabinet or a cabinet made of experts in key areas brought in through national lists emptied voluntarily by the relevant political parties who would, ‘in the interim,’ back them to take firm if difficult and unpopular decisions to put the country back on track.  Again, though, legitimacy could be questioned. It is of course obtainable, theoretically at least, only upon delivering tangible results, economic in the first instance and political reforms later, perhaps.

Legitimacy is also an issue on the other side of the barricades. In the political ‘overall’ of practice the question of precedence can be raised. If, for example, incumbent politicians have to ‘go home’ each and every time they are corralled by objectors, the same logic could be applied for calling bosses of all kinds to resign: students could hoof out teachers, teachers could ‘send home’ principles, congregations could throw out priests etc., etc. Protesting is a right. It is legitimate. Neither is it illegal for calling someone or some political order to question and demanding resignation. This is normal: one asks for much and settles for less.

On the other hand, if one is intransigent on the ‘much’ then one would probably have to raise legitimacy to a higher level. An eclectic group gathered simply on account of commonality of a singular objective (resignation of incumbent, say) may frighten someone or some political entity to submission, but in this case, given the legitimacy deficiency of would-be successors, the very same group is likely to provoke new barricades by the newly barricaded. That’s unless they are just pawns of someone or some group that seeks to prey on uncertainties and displeasure to further narrow interests.

I prefer to be optimistic. I prefer not to see conspiracy at every turn. It would be presumptuous to advise the protestors. I would not say, for example, ‘give us clarity on leadership and programme.’ After all, sometimes, the barricaded want leaders identified. ‘Sitting ducks’ thereafter. I prefer for them to figure out what's what, what can be and how to get to wherever they believe they should go. However, if legitimacy is something they have at heart, then they would do well to obtain it, one way or another. As of now, legitimacy is contained within the ‘articulator of dissent’ parameters. Splendid in and of itself. Necessary too, obviously. Not sufficient, I would say.

malindadocs@gmail.com.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]
   


 



 

24 April 2022

The brink and beyond….




A line has been crossed. That’s the title of a note doing the rounds referring to the ongoing protests and specifically to the fatal shooting of a protester in Rambukkana.  

Yes, a line has been crossed. If anything marked the agitation until this point, barring of course the odd incident of mutual provocation leading to words and fisticuffs, it is the commendable determination of the agitated, especially at Galle Face, in maintaining the parameters of peaceful protest. This has been equalled by the absolute determination of the armed forces and police to keep a distance, metaphorically speaking. This is commendable because historically, it has never taken this long for spark to burst into flame and flame to be responded to with flame-thrower, so to speak.

Historically, of course, one could argue, this was scripted. It takes one ill-tempered individual, regardless of which side he or she is standing, to set things ablaze. It is also true that at times, the besieged need things to move from random altercations to fisticuffs and open clashes. Arguments and speculation are easy. One could say the STF, in Rambukkana, was provoked. Another could say, the alleged provocateurs were provoked by intolerable economic conditions. Either way, that things are, for most, 'intolerable,' is a fact.

Now, this could have happened at Galle Face. It could still have a Galle Face version. ‘Rambukkana’ could be replicated elsewhere. If anything, the politics of the eighties clearly demonstrate ‘process’ and that this has social and economic prompters. Process implies histories and the tracing of histories, if one is serious about it, would take us back across regimes and decades. Agitation and indeed political efficacy do not require the long gaze into the past. It focuses on the moment and the short-past, the political leadership and the government of the time. A given, this. Reference to antecedents and culprits who have come and gone are important but largely irrelevant when it comes to sorting out heightened tensions as such we witness today.

One could logically argue that the true temper of a population has to be obtained through elections, but as the government itself has acknowledged the scale of the protests clearly indicates levels of dissatisfaction that just cannot be put down to agent provocateurs and conspiracies, local and/or international. All that’s there, clearly, and should be expected too, but to pin it down on such individuals, organizations or agendas would be absolutely myopic.  

The problem or, say, crisis, has two faces, economic and political. It is essentially something to do with political economy of course, but let’s take them separately for ease of dissection. 'The Economic' is what hits and hits hard and deep. The political structures 'The Economic' in part and is a manifestation of economic wounds inflicted.

Perhaps the best indicator of how harsh economic woes are is the fact that we see unprecedented numbers of the upper and upper middle classes taking to the streets. They are not starving by any stretch of the imagination. The richer segments, unless they were born before 1977, have not known queues; that’s what drivers and domestic aides are there for. They do have depravations in terms of lifestyle preferences. They may speak of the woes of the less privileged, but then again, such people are not absolutely unused to harsh realities and hand-to-mouth existences. Regardless, they are out there and they have added their voices to the larger voice of dissent or, as some may argue, fired the first vocal salvoes and helped embolden others to join the chorus.

We have heard lots of accusations regarding economic policies including tax breaks (who benefitted and what other benefits have these beneficiaries enjoyed is not asked nor answered), the ban on chemical fertilizer and so on. The talk is about the dollar crisis, sovereign bonds, debt burden etc., all with extensive histories; the crux of the matter is energy and food insecurity as well as the trade imbalance. Solutions, then, should include combatting the import mafia, promoting local manufacturing and weaning the country from dependencies to the extent possible. Such were promised but for numerous reasons the government failed to deliver. So, we are where we are now and all solutions proposed to economic ills to a lesser or greater degree are reduced to the acronym IMF. Not a word about what the International Monetary Fund stands for and has done. There are libraries-worth literature on that monster but then again, both slothful and wide-eyed will not bother to read. They could, however, check out the YouTube videos of Yanis Varoufakis, particularly ‘Capitalism will eat democracy’ (on TED Talks) since the ‘political’ is the heart of the agitation, as it should be.

The political. There are essentially two pathways, constitutional and unconstitutional, the latter being ‘revolution’ attended of course of uncertainty (so what’s wrong with that, since things aren’t clear anyway!), anarchy (inevitable and sometimes a necessary precursor to the establishment of sanity) and a pretty high likelihood of bloodshed. As for ‘change within the constitution’ there are two ways.

First, constitutional reform. There’s talk of an enhanced ‘19th’ but without knowing what these ‘enhancements’ are one cannot really pass judgment. The 19th was a weak, partisan and illegal piece of law despite the rhetoric. The 20th strengthened the presidency, but as the past seven  years have shown, the strength can only manifest itself if the president has control over his/her party and the party has parliamentary sway. A 21st Amendment that matches rhetoric with provisions for independent institutions (drawing from the 17th and 19th) would be good. That way, you could have ‘Gota Going Home’ in effect and the advocates can be thrilled if indeed they truly believe it would help sort all ills or even be a necessary first step towards Kethumathi.

Some are calling for the President to resign. A note on that is warranted. Yes, he can resign. The Constitution then demands that Parliament elects by simple majority someone to replace him, theoretically 113 votes sufficing. If we added all the votes each ‘aye-sayers’ polled, it would still fall short of what Gotabhaya Rajapaksa obtained in November 2019. As for the candidate, he/she would at best have polled just slice of a single district! Yes, only an election would really prove popularity. Right now, in a situation where the SJB, JVP, SLFP and UNP don’t dare hold up party-posters in Galle Face and where Galle Face is claimed (by some) to be the epicentre  of agitation, how on earth can anyone claims a face-change of this kind would help?

Constitutional reform isn’t easy and the point need not be elaborated. Pending such reform, measures can be taken and some of what’s been advocated makes sense and is doable. The President can ‘step down’ in effect, although it is never a good thing to go with assurances. That may be, for now, the best option, if one is realistic and truly wants to see resolution of the political impasse. He could request party leaders to clear their respective national lists and appoint professionals with immaculate track records (just 10 would do, really), request MPs to elect one of these individuals as an interim Prime Minister, mandate the premier and cabinet to design strategies to resolve the damning political and economic issues, and appeal to one and all to urge their representatives to fall in line. He would have to give an assurance (not ideal, but perhaps the best option right now) to retire executive provisions.  

This may not be acceptable. ‘The people,’ amorphous entity, a term open to manipulation, especially by those who are organised and have well-defined political objectives (noble or vile), will decide one way or another.

How things will unfold, it is hard to predict, but this much can be said: if things get worse, people will die and it would be good to remember that most of the born-again agitators conversant in English probably remember a man called Richard De Soyza but not Ranjithan Gunaratnam, and that in 1988-89, in Sri Lanka (as has been the case, before and after, in other countries), typically, one or maybe a handful of Richards died but the Ranjithans died in their thousands.

Rambukkana, then, may get replicated all over the country, but unlikely so in the plush residential areas in Colombo. Proportions notwithstanding, we cannot afford even a single death. We’ve lost tremendously in Rambukkana. The onus is on one all all, the President included or indeed, one might say, ‘especially the president.’  

malindadocs@gmail.com

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]