In the mornings now the traffic on the left lane in Colombo areas moves painfully slowly. The word painfully is closely associated with life and politics in Sri Lanka. We as a nation have learned our lessons quite painfully; for example voting for a president like JR Jayewardene (JR) who created a powerful post for him called the executive president.
That powerful position JR created for himself gave him wings and made him invincible or better untouchable. That was the time the United National Party was in power and though the ‘greens’ spoke of democracy and consensus what they did to destroy the JVP uprising in the late 1980s showed how dictatorial the regime was.
Though the executive presidency was portrayed as tailormade for the UNP or the elite class doing politics and the prime ministership was a tool to work closely with the masses subsequent presidents after JR got the taste of being in this immensely powerful position and chose to safeguard it. Starting with Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena they all spoke of abolishing the executive presidency when on the ‘hot seat’, but changed their minds.
"The majority who voted at 2019 presidential polls are silent about the present head of state’s fondness to retain the presidency and give the position more powers"
The same thinking is shared by the present regime headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. What’s strange now, after so many years of frowning at this presidency, is that the majority who voted for Rajapaksa at the 2019 presidential election are silent about the present head of state’s fondness to retain the presidency and give the position more powers. Some posts on social media are scary. One post states that Sri Lankans voted for a dictator and there is nothing wrong in that.
Tough or no nonsense presidents are ok as long as they allow for the freedom of expression and democracy and consensus. One of the worst and most terrible heads of state we had was Ranasinghe Premadasa who was accused of brutally eliminating all threats that came his way.
That was a time when the insurgency was at its height and the JVP was converting the youth and making them think differently. That was a time when stage dramas were used to convey a strong message to the government. But artists involved in theatre paid with their lives. The best example was the bumping off of journalist Richard de Zoysa who is alleged to have had a hand in creating a ‘satirical play which was critical of president Premadasa’. The play was titled ‘who is he and what is he doing’. But before the curtain raiser to the play its producer Lakshman Perera went missing; he is believed to have been murdered.
One reason as to why Premadasa used the elimination system to silence his critics was the fact that he was ‘too sensitive to personal criticism’.
The people of a nation are in trouble when the President or head of state wants power and is sensitive to criticism. In this context we have to deal with the incumbent president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
It seems the present president wants to better the performance by JR and create a position for him; which would make him the most powerful president Sri Lanka ever had.
We see much criticism for the proposed 20th Amendment within the government, and what’s a bit disturbing is that some members of the government who were speaking about it at a government group meeting, as reported in newspapers, were prevented from doing so.
"In a way Gotabaya wants to be like a ‘king’ and a Sinhala Buddhist nation like Sri Lanka, is not new to this concept"
The 20th Amendment if passed would reintroduce the President’s immunity (lost as a result of the 19A) and also give him power to do among other things make appointments such as the Chief Justice and Supreme Court judges. The 20A also provides for the government to produce a second Budget if the first one is defeated.
The way things are developing in the political scene we might see little of competitive politics and more of dictatorial governing. The 19th Amendment layed a level playing field for everybody because it clipped the wings of the ever so powerful executive president.
We remember how Chandrika Kumaratunga, despite being President was made less powerful because the UNP formed a government and called the shots by having Ranil Wicremesinghe functioning as Premier. We saw the same during the Yahapalana regime where Wickremesinghe was again appointed prime minister but his presence was felt, in terms of power, because Sirisena was forced to take a backseat as president. Critics point out that the 19th Amendment had so much positives, but it didn’t work out because Wickremesinghe and Sirisena were both weak leaders and were at loggerheads. The 19A failed due to the shortcomings of two individuals more than any striking flaw in the documenting of the amendment.
In the context of Gotabaya Rajapkasa wanting to be so powerful, it’s interesting to note that the majority of the Buddhist clergy are backing him. In a way he wants to be like a ‘king’ and a Sinhala Buddhist nation like Sri Lanka is not new to this concept.
In another part of the Buddhist world, this time in Thailand, there are protests taking place where the citizens are demanding through dissent that the powers of the monarchy be curtailed. Over the years when ever there have been protests against the Thai ruler the military has remained neutral and allowed for dissent. This salient feature remains despite democracy taking a battering in this predominantly Buddhist nation; even during times of a tyrant as its leader.
"The powerful position JR created for himself gave him wings and made him invincible or better untouchable"
But we are still seeing dictatorial leaders in the world who are asserting their control over citizens with an iron fist. We’ve seen democracy take a battering in countries under dictatorial leaders like Xi Jinping (China), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Bashar al Assad (Syria) and Kim Jong UN (South Korea) Prayut Chan O Cha (Thailand) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (Afghanistan). Thank God Sri Lanka is not there, as yet!
Government leaders can be so brutal and when they receive the support of the clergy coming under such rulers can be similar to serving a master.
It’s good to look at the world around us and observe what’s happening in Afghanistan. Last Sunday the militant Taliban Group ‘demanded the creation of an elite religious council to replace the democratic means of selecting Afghan leaders in the future’. When powerful political leaders team up with the clergy people often have been at the receiving end. What should be taken note of is that the Buddhism that’s practised in Sri Lanka can also be found in Thailand and Afghanistan. Why are we seeing dictators being ‘born’ in nations like these where the Buddhist doctrine was spread with the intension of making people embrace non-violence and rulers democracy?