Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

18TH AMENDMENT: SEPARATING WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

Dr S Sathananthan

 

The Amendment has irretrievably laid to rest the myth of a Sri Lankan democracy conjured up by political dilatants engaged in a game of smoke and mirrors. The illusions of the Supremacy of Legislature and Sovereignty of the People, Independence of the Judiciary and the Rule of Law and a Presidency accountable to the people have all evaporated like the morning dew. The country stands in sharp relief as a glorified Banana Republic or, more accurately, a militarised Tea Republic. That is the singular achievement of President Rajapakse and his UPFA regime.

 

Sinhalese polity is reaping the whirlwind. And how.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution adopted by the Sri Lankan Parliament on 8 September 2010 sets the country firmly on course to a constitutional dictatorship or worse. Examples of Haiti, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, The Philippines – an unenviable choice – or a combination of one or more are bandied about as the probable destination. It is very unlikely to be the fabled East Asian ‘miracle’!

Sinhalese sycophants pitched in to shore up the moribund regime with a legal prop. One purveyed the liberal shibboleth that the Judiciary – the President’s obedient poodle – is a so-called ‘neutral’ arbiter. ‘The umpire or referee’s word is law’, he pontificated and glibly added, ‘the Supreme Court… has ruled on the matter’, of course in favour of the regime. This is the perennial sophistry of slavish ideologues:

what is wrong + what is legal = what is right.

Most Sinhalese are blind to the axiom: what is legal is not necessarily legitimate. They are hardly perturbed by the brazen grab for absolute power and in fact defend it with the rhetorical question: ‘he won the war, didn’t he?’

The Amendment of course does not concern Tamils. Long before it was a twinkle in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s eye, Tamils were slaughtered in the 1958 Pogrom, through the Holocaust of July 1983 and during the genocide in Vanni in 2008/09. The supposed ‘vibrant democracy’, operation of human rights laws and international protection under the vaunted Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have, for all intents and purposes, been non-existent. The butchery is continuing and will no doubt continue with or without the 18th.

The second, economic prop is the alleged imperative to give the President a free hand, asserted the Plantation Industries Minister, to pursue his ‘development initiatives that will make us the emerging wonder of Asia’; the Foreign Minister added: ‘to enhance the confidence in the country, to attract flagship investments, to invigorate the economy...to accelerate economic development, a fundamental requirement is a strong executive. That is an absolutely essential condition.’

This is a stomach-churning flashback to acolytes of then President JR Jayawardene mouthing similar amoral justifications to defend the authoritarian grab for power through his tailor-made 1978 Constitution. His ruling United National Party (UNP) and its fawning Tamil backers – who doted on ‘Uncle Dicky’ – had welcomed Jayawardene’s assault on the Rule of Law, the Judiciary and Labour Unions for so-called ‘pragmatic’ reasons: the country, they asserted glibly, needed a strong ruler (a) for a short period to instil discipline and order (in the working classes), (b) to push through unpopular economic policies that would bring long term development (to the oligarchy) and (c) to attract foreign investors – Jayawardene famously declared ‘let the robber barons come’ – from the west. Enough and more has been said and written on the catastrophic consequences of the liberals’ duplicity and of Jayawardene’s constitutional tyranny under which, he coyly confessed, the only power he lacked was to turn a man into a woman!

The Rajapakse sycophants pretend disappointment that, before the 18th Amendment, the Executive under the 1978 Constitution was not strong enough!

The coin is dropping, though excruciatingly slowly, among a few sections of the Sinhalese intelligentsia. One, perhaps writing (understandably) under a pseudonym, desperately cast about for ‘a broad civil rights movement uniting all progressive forces’. He echoed a Tamil politician and leader of the Democratic Peoples Front, who claimed his ‘DPF joins hands with all the democratic forces of the country in opposing this autocratic move [the 18th].’

However, the Tamil people have seen neither hide nor hair of the exalted ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ forces. Who are they? Where were they over the past half century when the Tamil people were incinerated, murdered, raped, their homes pillaged and for good measure driven out of the country? Where were they during the barbaric carnage of innocent men women and children in Mullivaaikaal?

Indeed most Sinhalese liberals and civil society in general callously condoned the tyranny unleashed against Tamils during Eelam War IV (2006 to 2009) as a necessary price to pay (by whom?) to eliminate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and supposedly retrieve democracy and savour a so-called ‘peace dividend’. In their infantile fantasy, once the ‘Tiger menace’ is wiped out the President and the ruling oligarchy would not have the imagination to trot out justifications to amass further authoritarian powers and could voluntarily divest some already acquired almost for the mere asking. The 18th Amendment shows them up to be utterly wrong on both counts and underlines their gross political naiveté and moral vacuity.

Both traits had been dismally evident when the Sinhalese civil society and its voluble liberals blissfully assented to the draconian 1979 Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA). They were seduced by then UNP regime’s assurance that the PTA is (a) a transient measure limited to two years and (b) it would be applied only against the Tamil national movement. But President JR Jayawardene not only arbitrarily made the PTA permanent but also ruthlessly invoked it against most Sinhalese activists and militants and Tamil nationalists throughout the decade of 1980s. Subsequent Sinhalese rulers up to the present have exploited the PTA to consign the political Opposition to oblivion.

So it is rather late in the day for liberals to surface, mere flotsam bobbing up from the sunken political wreck, and issue statements of protest against the 18th. The knock-kneed university academics lacked the elementary courage to call a spade a spade; so they dwelled as it were on its shape and colour. They dared not condemn the Amendment that concentrates more powers in the feared Executive Presidency; instead, as a wretched dodge, they pontificated on its ‘process’ and ‘substance’. They gripe the process is not ‘consultative’, the Amendment is shrouded in ‘secrecy’ and is being ‘rushed’ through. The Civil Rights Movement, the National Christian Council and several individual analysts dished out similar dissenting notes, perhaps well meaning but nevertheless politically impotent and therefore irrelevant.

Does the Sinhalese polity seriously expect the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) autocratic juggernaut to sensitively pause and kindly explain to the people the pleasure, under the 18th Amendment, of surviving in a constitutional dictatorship? Do the liberals and civil society anticipate absolutism-in-the-making to consult the people, to be transparent, not rush the legislation through? Confronting power is beyond these supine chattering classes who take cover behind their loquacious but vapid seminar politics.

Political ideas acquire the force of history only when combined with peoples’ power, a principal known as Praxis – which means ideas’ validity lie in how they informed action. In other words, politics is decided on the streets. Verbal interventions are of nuisance value at best if not backed by mass mobilisation around concrete issues. In the absence of popular action, liberals’ paper criticisms of the Amendment are akin to being savaged by dead sheep!

In effect they turned apologists, implying the Amendment could deepen authoritarianism when the new powers are exercised not by the current incumbent but by future presidents!  

Their jugglery with modalities and content is a meek, coffee table ploy to set up flimsy procedural roadblocks, they unsophisticatedly hoped, would arrest the juggernaut.

To mask their own political irrelevance, Sinhalese liberals and intelligentsia attacked the political opposition – mainly the UNP – for failure to lead a credible challenge to the President and his UPFA. Most of the blame for parliament passing the Amendment has been placed at the UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe’s doorstep. This is a cheap passing of the buck. If Sri Lanka is the vibrant democracy Sinhalese have garrulously trumpeted, they need not wait for the UNP. They can surely organise and safely carry out popular interventions on similar lines they did against the LTTE-led Tamil national movement during the Fourth Eelam War.

Equally banal, and despicable for it racist slant, is the share of the blame shovelled into the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC)’s court. But the party’s realist position in a nutshell is that if it does not support the Amendment, the regime will retaliate and Muslims are simply too small a community to withstand the violence. In any event, reading between the lines, the party holds the Sinhalese majority and its civil society directly responsible, beginning with their unprincipled support for the 1978 Constitution and encouragement of aggression against Tamils and Muslims, for dragging the country to the verge of totalitarianism; and that it is up to them to shackle the political monster they unwisely bred.

The fact of the matter is this. The liberals and intelligentsia in general – the chaff – (barring a few individual) have lost their nerve in the face of repression the regime unleashed against the media and the embryonic dissent in the south on a neo-fascist logic: you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us. It is a clear message of what is in store for anyone irrespective of ethnicity who dares to challenge the Rajapakse regime.

The Frankenstein monster, groomed to decimate Tamils, is lunging at its Sinhalese makers. It is a rare but unfortunate instance of the perfect absence of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion and caste.

With the 18th Amendment the regime has pulled the gloves off its mailed fist. Sinhalese polity and its civil society, including hapless Tamil fellow travellers, had patriotically surrendered their constitutional protections to grant the Sinhalese regime near total impunity during the war dreaming of a post-Pirapakaran political and economic renaissance. Their dreams are crumbling before their eyes.

The tragic blow-back is here.

Law follows reality. The Amendment is merely the legal expression of the ground reality – the reality of authoritarian practices deeply rooted in the semi-feudal Sinhalese political consciousness, reinforced by almost endless Emergency Rule, legitimised by the increasingly autocratic Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 and girded by the abominable history of dictatorial colonial rule.

As for those who point to regular elections as evidence of democracy, yes, democracies do transfer power through elections; but it is self-evident that all countries that hold elections are not democracies. All dogs have four legs, but all animals with four legs are not dogs! Does this need to be spelled out?

The Amendment has irretrievably laid to rest the myth of a Sri Lankan democracy conjured up by political dilatants engaged in a game of smoke and mirrors. The illusions of the Supremacy of Legislature and Sovereignty of the People, Independence of the Judiciary and the Rule of Law and a Presidency accountable to the people have all evaporated like the morning dew. The country stands in sharp relief as a glorified Banana Republic or, more accurately, a militarised Tea Republic. That is the singular achievement of President Rajapakse and his UPFA regime.

Where, then, is the wheat?

Fortunately a few promising seedlings appear to be sprouting. One perceptive and honest Sinhalese observer who, in his web posting titled ‘Resisting the loss of citizenship in Sri Lanka’ and without banal name-dropping (Trotsky, Gramsci, Castro, etc), simply and with prescience noted: too many of us [Sinhalese] backed the prosecution of a war at any cost, not realizing that it was also being used to cut away the ground from beneath our own feet…our awakening to the enormity of what we’ve done feels like too little, too late. And it probably is, as far as the 18th Amendment goes.’ And the author proposed several concrete, active interventions.

Woman is stronger, they say. Two Sinhalese women intellectuals have made erudite and trenchant critiques. Overlooking knee-jerk reactions to slander the LTTE, apparently as protection against being branded closet Eelamists, their vertebrate characteristics are truly refreshing. Their interventions raise hope for a sane future. One forthrightly identified the coordinates of the emerging despotism in her web posting, ‘Mahinda Rajapakse means to be President for life’; and called the Sinhalese to the barricades: ‘This is a battle’, she urged, ‘which cannot be evaded by any who abhors the thought of Sri Lanka in the grip of a tyrannous and rapacious Family Oligarchy.’

The other writer in her article ‘Rajapakse makes a move’ published in the Wall Street Journal bluntly puts the options before the Sinhalese. The President ‘focuses on consolidating his power… leaving people in the years to come with a difficult choice: total compliance or desperate revolt.’

The third voice of hope from the south is the iconic female editor of a leading English language Sunday newspaper.

There is no gain without pain. What is sorely needed are more such men and women of character and sense of history, with whom Tamil and Muslim activists could make common cause to organise public protests, to take to the streets and, if the situation demand, court arrest to slow down, if not stop, the barrelling towards absolutism.

Is that too much to ask?