19th December 1999

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Steeped in power they all took wrong road

When, on one windswept morning in 1978 at Galle Face in Colombo, Junius Richard Jayewardene, with his wife Elena by his side took oaths as the first Executive President of Sri Lanka before Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon he would have known he was making history. But even J. R. Jayewardene, political genius though he was, may not have bargained for the turmoil that the Presidency would be subjected to over the next two decades and indeed would have been disappointed with what ultimately was his legacy to the nation.

As campaigning ends for this year's presidential poll and the country awaits with eager anticipation the next 48 hours, the stage is being set for yet another turning point in Sri Lanka's checkered post-independence history. Ironically, five years ago, when the people of Sri Lanka unhesitatingly mandated the Peoples' Alliance and its leader Chandrika Kumaratunga with the task of abolishing the Executive Presidency they would never have thought they would be called upon to vote at another presidential election.

Tired of the I-know-it-all machinations of J. R. Jayewardene and the dictatorial ruthlessness of R. Premadasa, they responded initially to the anti-Presidency sentiments whipped up by Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali and their Democratic United National Front (DUNF). And then, following the assassinations of those two stalwarts Chandrika Kumaratunga became the undisputed focus in a tidal wave of public opinion against the Presidency. Those close to Kumaratunga say she was initially sincere in her intentions. The PA first announced that the Presidency would be abolished within a year. The JVP candidate withdrew his candidature and supported the PA because of that pledge. Then, Ms Kumaratunga even set herself a deadline- July 15, 1995- to abolish the Presidency. But then, power has peculiar powers of persuasion. So, she is telling the people now that the abolition of the Executive Presidency could only be done by enacting sweeping constitutional reforms for the devolution of power- a fact she chose not to tell the electorate five years ago. This then, on the eve of Sri Lanka's fourth Presidential election is an opportune moment to reflect on the workings of the Presidency, elsewhere in the world and more importantly in this country.

Undoubtedly today, the Presidency is the most crucial office in the country. It is so because the 1978 J. R. Jayewardene Constitution- called the 'bahubootha viyawasthaawa' by Ms Kumaratunga- vests in the Presidency enormous powers as a result of which the destiny of the country becomes disproportionately dependent upon the whims and fancies of one individual.

But there are other countries which sus tain Ex-ecutive Presidencies successfully, without hampering their progress in anyway. In the US and France for example, the President's office is the nerve centre of government. It is run by loyal, handpicked and most importantly, efficient people who are professionals in doing their job. These officials are known to the public. They are accountable to the public and even their private lives are often under scrutiny. Then, they are also answerable to the legislature- Congress or Parliament- on every issue and almost on a daily basis. The strength of the President's office in USA was amply demonstrated recently when the Clinton White House successfully weathered storms of protest over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The President's staff was in the thick of it every minute, covering every detail and answering every question. And at the end of it all, Bill Clinton emerged chastened perhaps, but still a strong and popular President. Contrast this with what has happened in Sri Lanka.

Since the introduction of the Executive presidential system in 1978, the Presidential Secretariat has been run like the Kremlin of the old Soviet Union, staffed by people blindly loyal to the leader but oblivious to the political concerns and national interests of the day. In the Jayewardene era, JRJ was known to take advice from a select few in the cabinet and a few others. Those were the days where the likes of H.W. Jayewardene, W.M. P.B. Menikdiwela, Stanley Kalpage and Ranapala Bodinagoda held sway. They were all good men, competent in their own ways and they were all faithful to JR, come what may. There is nothing wrong in such a system but it was important that the President use his own judgment in decision making rather than relying on his close ministers and advisors alone.

With hindsight it may now be safely said that of all the Presidents this country had, it was J. R. Jayewardene who did this best. He would listen to all, and then- like his favourite Frank Sinatra song- do it 'My way'. The Premadasa Presidency was totally different. Mr. Premadasa did have the knack for picking the right man for the right job and one-time Secretary general of Parliament Sam Wijesinha once described him as the 'man who did the most amount of work in office'. But his sense of insecurity led to his fall. Pre-occupied with a paranoia, especially about those within his own party, he countered it with what amounted to virtual surveillance units in every ministry, corporation and department and people like R. Paskaralingam became omnipotent, often over-riding even cabinet ministers in decision making.

In such a situation the rot had to set in, and it did. When Mr. Premadasa died, he was unpopular. It was a sad end to a man who had done so much for the people and in a sense, it was the Presidency- and the power that came with it- that ruined him. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga of course had greatness thrust upon him and didn't quite know what to do with it. That brief period was ad-hoc Presidency at its best, ad-hoc because it centered on the purpose of surviving the next election. There were favoured courtiers then but at least 'Dearly Beloved' knew when to go and went without a fuss and so earned a grateful footnote in history.

And then came Chandrika Kumaratunga, the President who promised to be the President for not more than eight months.

Nevertheless, she set up her own staff at the Presidential Secretariat and set about her work. Unfortunately five years later, much of the salvos aimed at her Presidency have been more against her advisors than her. It is a disturbing fact but ask ten Sri Lankans the names of those advisors in the Presidential Secretariat and one in ten might mention Sanath Gunatilleke or Kusumsiri Balapatabendi and one in hundred might recall Nihal Karunaratne (of the Presidential Security Division- if you didn't know!) or Tara de Mel (Health and Social Infrastructure Advisor- whatever that means!). But these are the people who in effect run the country today and the present President has indeed shown a propensity for tolerating and defending the decisions of these advisors at times to her own detriment politically.

In the Channel Nine controversy for example, there was a lot of egg on Sanath Gunatilleke's face and the issue was politically damaging to the President. There were ministers who said " apita ehema ohoma ekak vuna nam aswenda kiyayi" ("if it happened to us, we would have been asked to resign") but Mr. Gunatilleke soldiers on. Then, in the on-going dispute with doctors too the President is known to have disregarded ministerial advice and opted for that proffered by her advisor- again to her political detriment leading to a crisis which could have easily been avoided- all because an elected political leader chooses to be guided by a select few.

The other question that arises in the Executive Presidency is the accessibility of the President. Over the years and over successive Presidencies it has been clearly demonstrated that the Executive Presidency isolates the leader from the people whom he is supposed to represent. President Jayewardene was not really accessible unless one went through "somebody's somebody" but those were the days when security concerns were minimal and mingling with the public was still possible be it at a 'Vap Magula' or at a public rally. President Premadasa of course made it a point to be accessible to the people what with Gam Udawa and all and sundry could meet him at Sucharitha. Stories abound as to how he telephoned his officials at four in the morning and that was a redeeming feature of his Presidency- though it may have cost him his life. But significantly, despite his accessibility, he was so cloistered with his confidantes that he was out of touch with the political realities of his day.

Ms. Kumaratunga has probably been the least accessible of all Presidents though to be fair by her it must be said that security issues have been an over-riding factor. Even so, attending meetings usually an hour or more late has not helped public relations and good management. The President has also not held more than five news conferences for her five years in office and all these minute minuses do add up in the final analysis. The root of all these defects in all Presidencies to date has been, one suspects, a singular lack of accountability in the Presidency. One cannot question the President in Parliament nor can one even refer to his or her conduct. The President also has legal immunity and therefore his or her decisions cannot be queried in court.

It is, in effect, absolute power. So, there are clear defects in this Executive Presidential system. It is not that the concept of an Executive President is bad, it is that the Executive President has been given so much power without asking for anything in return. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance, so naturally all Presidents- some more than others- have tended to exploit the loopholes cunningly crafted into the Constitution by Mr. Jayewardene.

Accountability after all, is the cornerstone of good governance but there is none of it in this Presidential system and as a result, there is no good governance. For example, since of late, President Kumaratunga leaves the country without any 'by your leave' by the people- all under the guise of a security threat. The people who have elected their President do not know her whereabouts and no Acting President is appointed because it would ruffle feathers in the Cabinet. There are sometimes weeks in which the government runs without a Head of Government or a Head of State and no body knows where their President is. If the Executive Presidency imposes all these drawbacks on the country, why continue with the system, or why was it conceived in the first instance?

This was J. R. Jayewardene's brainchild no doubt but he had this vision of making Sri Lanka a regional economic force. And he saw weak governments- those that could be brought down by the crossover of a few MPs- as an obstacle to the stability that was needed to create economic progress. So, he amalgamated features from the French and American constitutions and devised his own.

It would have been a masterpiece if not for one flaw- JR saw only himself at the helm, so to ensure that he incorporated various clauses- two maximum six year terms of office, immunity and proportional representation- into the Constitution.

The argument in favour of the Executive Presidency now is that it provides for a stable government at a time of national crisis. The system's proponents argue that for example, in the face of an LTTE onslaught, a stable government in Colombo would be an advantage. But it may be queried as to what on earth a stable government has done about the LTTE other than complicate it further. It is indeed a fact that the Presidency- for 21 years- has been unable to galvanize the people under one flag. In fact the party flag has superseded the national flag in the administration of the country at most times over the last two decades.

Those who argue that the Executive Presi- dency is only a façade for democracy but in reality is a dictatorship under the guise of majority rule- may be correct. But J. R. Jayewardene's thinking that a strong Head of Government bereft of electoral pressures is essential for progress has its merits too. The way to achieve that would be to incorporate changes into the present Presidential system. The President may be made answerable to Parliament. The President's legal immunity could be removed or even restricted. The duration of the term of office may even be reduced to four years. The President's staff could be defined more clearly- instead of allowing an incumbent President to appoint advisors for every subject under the sun- and they could be made accountable. Their role vis-à-vis the ministries will have to be clearly indicated so that confusion and confrontation between the Presidential Secretariat and the cabinet is avoided. But all this amounts to abdicating an enormous amount of power vested in one individual by the exercise of franchise by ten million people- power that has been gained by fighting tooth and nail, enduring mud slinging, personal snipes and a considerable amount of money spent on electioneering- for which no doubt there are many IOUs to settle.

Will the President- elect- whoever it may be- be able to take those steps in the aftermath of what will be the most closely fought election in Sri Lankan history? It would require courage, statesmanship and a vision for the next generation- not the next Parliamentary election which is due in a few months. What we do not know is whether Ms. Kumaratunga or Ranil Wickremesinghe will have the inclination to do so, given the corrupted world of real politik that they exist in, but we hope for the sake of Sri Lankan people that they do. But if they do not do so the people will increasingly continue to view the Executive Presidency as a conspiracy against the masses and an affront to democracy, leading to an erosion of credibility and confidence in the body politik and to that view of "unuth ekai, munuth ekai!"

The next President-elect of Sri Lanka, he or she, will most probably not be one who enjoys an over 50 per cent vote from the people and will therefore be a lame-duck President.

But even such a President can aspire to greatness if he or she can convert the Presidency to an office with a human face and if he or she can remember at all times that the President is not only the leader of his or her party and not even just the Head of Government but Head of State and therefore the leader of all the people.

It was Bernard Shaw who once said "what experience and history teach is this- that people and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it".

For once, for the sake of Sri Lanka, we hope that Bernard Shaw will be proved wrong not only by the people of Sri Lanka and but also by the fifth Executive President of the nation.

The tale behind the toll

Shocking revelation in Army souvenir

A staggering 10,688 officers and men have paid the supreme sacrifice in 17 years of fighting between Government troops and Tiger guerrillas.

This was since October 15, 1981, when Corporal M. T.W. Hewawasam of the Sri Lanka Army was killed in Kankesanturai, the first recorded incident where Tiger guerrillas challenged State authority.

During the 13-year rule of the UNP, from 1981 to 1994 (until Parliamentary elections), 4427 officers and men were killed. Here again, only five soldiers died during the period 1981-1983. However, since July 24, 1983, (immediately after the ethnic violence) and upto May, 1985, a period of just two years, 4422 officers and men had been killed.

But during the tenure of the People's Alliance government, from August 1994 until June, 1999, officers and men killed in action rose to 6261 an increase of over 50 per cent.

The man who has run the military machine against the LTTE during these turbulent years, Lieutenant turned Lieutenant Colonel turned 'four-star General' and Parliamentarian, Anuruddha Ratwatte, has neither told Parliament nor the nation about these revelations.

From public platforms and social gatherings, he has made promises to end the war during successive Sinhala New Years. Then he offered to "shake hands" with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran soon after defeating the Tigers. That was during the conduct of the 18-month-long 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' or Victory Assured.

In Parliament, he has made statements after almost every debacle. On one occasion he declared: "The country is anxious to know the fate of our troops. General information is inadequate to conclude specifically the number killed or wounded in action. As a responsible Government, we cannot give figures simply to satisfy the curiosity of opportunists. Any figures revealed specially on Killed in Action has to be backed up with evidence."

Now, here is something Minister Ratwatte has not revealed and the tight censorship of military news a subject of crucial importance to every Sri Lankan cannot hide.

Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, during his stewardship as Army Commander, has tasted the best and the worst.

The best was the ceremonies in Colombo to mark the Army's 50th anniversary. It cost millions of rupees and most of the social events were confined only to officers (both serving and retired) as well as selected invitees. The worst the string of military reversals in the Wanni, just weeks after the celebrations were over.

To mark part of the celebrations, he commissioned a book titled "Sri Lanka Army 50 years On." The 932-page book devotes 213 pages to a "Roll of Honour." It is dedicated to the "sacred memory of all those who have sacrificed their lives in the defence of the motherland from October 15, 1981."

The list begins with a quotation from Lord Buddha in 600 B.C. which says "life is like a line drawn on water."

And this souvenir tells the untold story of those brave officers and men who have sacrificed their lives, where they died and when. The 213-page list contains the regimental number, rank, name, unit, place and date of the officers and men who laid down their lives.

The ongoing strict censorship prevents elaboration on some of the details contained in the Roll of Honour.

However, one important matter that is public knowledge (since the book is in free circulation) is the conduct of 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' , which was personally directed by Minister Ratwatte for 18 months, a sizeable part of it under a censorship.

More than 2180 officers and men have been listed as killed in the Wanni during the period of 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' the single largest military offensive in Sri Lanka's history to take such a heavy toll. This is not taking into consideration those who have been declared Missing In Action (MIA).

The figure of 2180 for a single 18-month-long operation as against the toll during the previous Government of 4427 from 1981 to 1994 raises eyebrows.

The ongoing censorship prevents any elucidation of these startling revelations.

Many truths behind the ongoing 17-year-long separatist war, like life, remain like a line drawn on water.

Only the political propaganda are given daily under a blanket censorship.

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