Alice in wonderland might have described this as curiouser and curiouser. But to those in Sri Lanka it would surely be much more than that. It should be a reason for jubilation. Still what is intriguing is the general silence over a recent news report which should have been greeted with firecrackers and a liberal [...]

Sunday Times 2

Referendum would further diminish democracy in Sri Lanka


Alice in wonderland might have described this as curiouser and curiouser. But to those in Sri Lanka it would surely be much more than that. It should be a reason for jubilation.

Still what is intriguing is the general silence over a recent news report which should have been greeted with firecrackers and a liberal dishing out of kavun, kokis and kiributh — even at today’s market prices.

A local English-language newspaper reported earlier this month that the Government will not hold a referendum to extend the life of this parliament by another six years.

It was quoting Petroleum Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa as saying so to the media following a meeting at SLFP headquarters.Unfortunately the report does not say whether the minister’s remarks had any connection with the meeting.

What is worrying is that if he had said so to the media how come that this significant statement has not been widely reported. After all when there is so much speculation about what the Government might or might not do to breathe new life into a parliament that is better left to end its natural life such a categorical rejection of the referendum option should have made the headlines.

Yet I have not seen Minister Yapa’s remarks reported in any other English-language newspaper in Colombo nor in any of the many websites that carry news on Sri Lanka and can be accessed abroad. The original report referred to above was republished in the Infolanka website under the headline “No referendum to extend parliament”.

This leaves one wondering whether the report quoting the minister was indeed correct and, if so, why it has been virtually buried at birth.

I have not seen any statement to the contrary or clarification by the Ministry of Information, any relevant government institution or by the minister himself, unless of course I missed it all together.

This makes the report on the purported remarks of Minister Yapa even more intriguing. Why is it that the minister’s words which would have most citizens of Sri Lanka offering their thanks to whichever deities they worship for answering their prayers, been greeted with such deafening silence?

He is reported to have said that it was the view of the SLFP and the UPFA that no referendum would be held to prolong the period of the present parliament adding that “the Government has hadunpleasant experiences” following the only referendum held so far and was “still reeling from its effects”.

At the same time Minister Yapa had quashed an earlier claim by Public Recreation Minister Jayaratne Herath that a referendum would be held to extend the term of parliament by a further six years.

That would of course mean the present MPs could continue to enjoy the benefits lavished on them by successive administrations, for another six long years denying the people of Sri Lanka the right to elect their representatives at regular intervals which is a democratic right they should have.
It is interesting that this idea has been publicly articulated for the first time, though of course it might have been privately discussed, by the minister for public recreation as if the citizenry of Sri Lanka would have loved to participate in such recreational activities.

However Minister Yapa is said to have dismissed his colleague’s announcement saying that “his is just an opinion”. I would have thought that the Public Recreation Minister’s words were more than his opinion.

It sounded to me more like a fervent prayer and hope that he would be spared the onerous task of appearing before the people once more with a sheaf of promises and appealing to them to send him back to that House by the Oya so he may fulfil those promises like all the others he and his colleagues made prior to the last election.

It appears that associated with Minister Yapa at this meeting with the media was his colleague Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister of Disaster Management.

Not too much attention appears to have been paid to his presence by the side of Minister Yapa. There was the Petroleum Industries Minister refusing to add fuel to the fire of controversy started by the minister in charge of botanical gardens who, some might conclude, may have been trying to lead us all up the garden path.

There seems to be great symbolism in the presence there of Minister Amaraweera. While not in the least minimising the suffering of the people of Koslanda and in fact sympathising with the people affected by this tragedy, it might just have been that Minister Amaraweera was trying to assure the people of Sri Lanka that he will do his utmost to prevent another tragedy from overtaking this country.

A referendum to prolong this parliament would indeed be a disaster. This country has already experienced the machinations of the late President Junius Richard Jayewardene who foisted the executive presidency on this country via his 1978 constitution.

It is because he had a five/sixth majority in parliament that he was able to do so. Having tailor-made a constitution to serve his purposes he cynically used a referendum as a means of perpetuating his parliamentary majority.

In doing so he denied the Sri Lankan people the right to choose their own representatives at a general election. Not that many people today know who their representatives are given that they are now elected through a system of proportional representation that has unfortunately cut the umbilical cord that once tied the MP to his electorate unlike today.

By extending the life of the then parliament by another six years JRJ extended the tyranny of his unprecedented majority over the people and some of those rejuvenated MPs ran rough shod over the very people who elected them.

If Minister Yapa’s remarks really reflect the thinking of the SLFP and the UPFA and the government leadership has no intention of holding a referendum for the purpose, then a silent prayer is indeed warranted.

That 1982 referendum exercise was an experience that should never be forgotten because it was such a disastrous and unavoidable episode in the political history of this country. Next year came what is now known as “Black July”, the anti-Tamil riots in which thousands of Tamils were victims of a government that refused to condemn the violence.

It was former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who ousted the war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who described the referendum as a “device for despots and dictators”. Hitler and Mussolini used the device to good purpose and enhanced their power.

At a time when Sri Lanka is under siege from powerful elements in the international community and even our closest neighbour is watching us with some trepidation, it would be foolhardy to cut the ground under our own feet by diminishing further our claims to representative democracy.
This is how it will be perceived and what it will really mean, not withstanding Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam’s recent claim in the New York Times that we have “enjoyed uninterrupted democracy since 1931″, which appears to be a case of memory loss.

A referendum would naturally be welcomed by those who would benefit from an extension of their legislative life span. But would one conducted for the sole purpose of extending parliament’s lifetime be taken seriously by those who already question Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials and, more importantly, by the people for whom this is no life-affecting issue.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma’s statement after his recent visit to Colombo should be seen as a warning sign, not dismissed with some casualness and casuistry as External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris sometimes is wont to do when Sri Lanka finds itself under the international microscope.

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