The 1960 general elections gave J.R. Jayewardene reason to believe that the British parliamentary system will not work in Sri Lanka. A poll took place in March that year after the governing Mahajana Eksath Peramuna coalition imploded spectacularly. But neither of the major parties—the United National Party (UNP) or the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)–gained [...]


Textbook autocrat who is shifting goalpost


The 1960 general elections gave J.R. Jayewardene reason to believe that the British parliamentary system will not work in Sri Lanka.

A poll took place in March that year after the governing Mahajana Eksath Peramuna coalition imploded spectacularly. But neither of the major parties—the United National Party (UNP) or the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)–gained a majority and a second election was held a bare four months later.

In 1966, twelve years before the 1978 Constitution, Mr Jayewardene publicly suggested a French-style Presidential system that would grant a politician elected by the people the powers to keep the country stable while Parliament grappled with the vagaries of political winds. But look where it has got Sri Lanka now.

The country is meandering through an unprecedented administrative conundrum. The public sector is functioning in a vacuum. There are no Ministers, no Prime Minister and no budgets. Only the Executive President.

This is the 40th year of the Executive Presidency. And despite routine bluster during elections from politicians of all hues to abolish this system, it persists with the result today of dire instability in the country worsened by shameless chicanery in political quarters.

During the second reading of the 1978 Constitution, the SLFP’s Sirima Bandaranaike made a statement opposing the Executive Presidency, saying it paved the way for a dictatorship. Lanka Sama Samaja Party leader N M Perera, not in Parliament then, wrongly predicted that the Executive Presidency would only last the term of that Parliament. And he warned that, should it stay longer, “the ensuing chaos would put democracy itself into peril”. Both Ms Bandaranaike’s and Dr Perera’s political progenies have, nevertheless, basked in the sunshine of the Executive Presidency when they got the chance.

Mr. Jayewardene’s other concern was that the first-past-the-post system did not do justice to the UNP which could get more votes than others–like in 1970–but lose the election badly. So he brought in the Proportional Representation system. There are merits in both his arguments. But the political system became much too corrupted and depraved along the way for any of this to serve the country beneficially.

Today, Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected on a platform to abolish or, in the very least, reduce the powers and privileges of the Executive Presidency—and, indeed, went around the world grandstanding that he was the one President who shed power voluntarily—has not only used the powers residing in him but usurped powers not with him!

Mr Sirisena’s obdurate refusal to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister despite him commanding the confidence of Parliament is a textbook case of an autocrat who believes the Premier must humour the whims and fancies of the President. This is an impeachable offence, even as the country stumbles forward to yet another period of uncertainty heralded by the abuse of the Executive Presidency.

In his exclusive interview to the Sunday Times a fortnight ago, Mr Sirisena said he would resolve this crisis once the majority in Parliament is resolved. Then, he began shifting the goalposts—as he is wont to do—and now says he will settle it in a week.

The President today is not part of the solution he created with his ‘October 26 Revolution’. He is the problem.

Human rights and wrongs

This week, the international community marked the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year is also the hundredth year of the end of World War I. Armistice Day just ended with elaborate celebrations in Paris. One times foes France and Germany are now firm friends and the event saw Western and Francophone leaders in harmonious attendance.

Thousands of soldiers from the colonies took part in the ‘Great War’—Indian, Turks, Africans, Chinese, African-Americans, even some Ceylonese. Many were cannon fodder.

Then came World War II. And, as the colonies became free, there emerged a cry for human rights. To say that international human rights have their roots in Europe’s wars is true but the reasons were not that altruistic. The master-slave concept is also rooted in Europe and exported to the colonies in Asia, Africa and America.

Today, France and Germany are battling nationalism couched in patriotism. White supremacy is fanned by the likes of Donald Trump. There is racial profiling and the stigmatisation of entire races and religions. The refugee crisis has bred tension with Europe refusing to be “colour blind”.

Amidst all this, the employment of human rights as a political weapon has devalued the Universal Declaration. Sri Lanka, for instance, was selectively targeted. But the West continues to support Saudi Arabia which is behind the killings of hundreds of civilians in Yemen. If it wants to teach its one-time colonies the concept of human rights, it needs to turn the searchlight inwards now.

But introspection is not a monopoly of the West, although it might claim human rights is. Sri Lanka must do the same. And today, even as the country is plunged into a constitutional and political crisis, it is worth pointing out that, in such circumstances, the position of human rights is indeed fragile. In the glaring absence of respect for the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law, the protection of human rights becomes a whimsical concept.

Like everything else in Sri Lanka at present, the political caprices of a few are holding entire systems to ransom. Today, the country still has a functioning independent Human Rights Commission only because the 19th Amendment had made provision for members of the existing Commission to continue until the assumption of office by new members. The term of the current Commissioners ended on October 31.

When a country does not have a democratic dispensation, the Constitution along with the law and institutions become instruments of political agendas. Human rights protection becomes a luxury, if not a mere notion.

Many times in Sri Lanka’s history, serious instances of human rights violations have occurred in times of political upheaval.  When such turbulence within Government is not resolved in a peaceful, legitimate manner, it gives rise—as it has done now—to fear of violence and abuses.


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