With Sri Lanka facing a multitude of political and socio-economic crises and conflicts within conflicts and democracy itself in danger of a breakdown, this may be the time for all our people to reflect sincerely and deeply on the warning of the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. “A people may prefer a free [...]


Are we fit for liberty?


With Sri Lanka facing a multitude of political and socio-economic crises and conflicts within conflicts and democracy itself in danger of a breakdown, this may be the time for all our people to reflect sincerely and deeply on the warning of the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill.

“A people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it,” the philosopher said more than 150 years ago, though it is strikingly and shatteringly relevant for Sri Lanka today.

In this time of destiny when we are facing the moment of truth what we do or fail to do will decide the fate of innocent generations to come. We also need to reflect on the guidance given by one of India’s greatest and most enlightened leader B. R. Ambedkar, who became a Buddhist after challenging the caste system in orthodox Hinduism. Dr. Ambedkar, a jurist, philosopher, anthropologist, historian, orator, economist, teacher, and editor, was also the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution. In his final speech to India’s Constituent Assembly, he warned against an unthinking submission to charismatic authority and quoted John Stuart Mill.

In the light of the wisdom given to us by these time-honoured philosophers, we need to accept the truth of our hearts and ask ourselves whether we are fit or unfit for the liberty and political freedom which we received in 1948 after we had emerged as a model country fully qualified for independence with self-rule measures from the early part of the last century and universal adult franchise from 1931.
After the adoption of the 1972 Republican Constitution and the 1978 Constitution which introduced the Executive Presidential System, and especially during the past three years after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealm (LTTE), we have seen a gradual erosion of the principles of separation of power among the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. We have also seen a subversion of other democratic principles such as checks and balances, accountability and integrity, transparency, good governance and the Rule of Law.

Most independent political analysts and observers believe the root cause of most of these crises is the absolute power given to the Executive Presidency. When the 17th Amendment – widely regarded as one of the most enlightened pieces of legislation since independence – was passed unanimously in 2000, there was new hope for more democracy, good governance and accountability. But the implementation of this amendment was diluted and delayed due to dissension over the composition of the Constitutional Council. This continued for several years till President Rajapaksa in the wake of the war victory virtually repealed the 17th Amendment and enforced the 18th Amendment which gave him absolute powers, unlimited terms in office and did away with the independent commissions.

With little or no accountability and large sections of the mass media under direct state control, corruption and the criminalisation of politics have reached serious levels. Last week, the Sunday Times revealed two of the hundreds of horror stories where ruling party politicians and others are plundering the wealth and resources of the people and where political leaders or top officials are twisting and turning the law as they wish. Our lead story last week was that members of Parliament would now be officially allowed to sell their duty-free vehicle import permits which they get once in five years. They could earn upto 20 million rupees from this sale, adding to their overloaded list of perks and privileges at public expense.
The other story on our front page last week was that Customs Director General Neville Gunawardena had been fired and sent back to the Treasury amidst a probe on who leaked to the media the report on how the powerful Treasury Secretary P. B. Jayasundera had stopped a Customs investigations on how persons were making millions of rupees by importing alcohol for dummy cosmetic companies but selling it to distillery giants.

The Treasury Secretary and Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal along with Government leaders still claim of a sound economy and high growth rates with a per capita income of more than US$ 4,000 a year being projected, but a Minister acknowledged at a meeting in Kandy recently that the Government might have to print money or get more loans on high commercial interest rates with the interest on loans already taken known to be in the region of trillions of rupees.

Wags are quipping that if a politician drowns in a river, it is pollution. If all of them drown, that is solution! Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other, according to Oscar Ameringer, the Mark Twain of American Socialism. With the impeachment crisis in a deadlock, that could mean a death blow to democracy and with the economy in the doldrums, we need to go beyond the surface or superficial issues. If we are fit for the liberty that was given to us, we must have the courage and conviction to speak out for an immediate review and eventual repeal of the Executive Presidential system.

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