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Learning Lessons: State and Society in Sri Lanka

Learning Lessons: State and Society in Sri Lanka

2011 Feb 28

To make sense of the convulsions in the Middle East one needs to have some understanding of the structure of the state in Middle Eastern societies and the relationship between state and society including the organizing principles of society as well as social and kinship structures.

In the particular context of Middle East, it is equally important to understand the role and function of the military.Given the stark differences in the nature of the military, one might group the Middle Eastern countries into neat categories: the good (Egypt), the bad (Libya), the ugly (Bahrain) and the in-betweens.

The military’s behaviour is in turn a function of its social roots and affinities – with armies having foreign mercenaries in their ranks (e.g.Libya with African mercenaries, and Bahrain with Pakistani mercenaries) behaving the worst.

The subject of Sri Lanka’s state and society and the role of the military deserves some reflection independent of the developments in the Middle East, although the events there provide us with some live comparators and measuring scales to analyze the relatively quiet situation in our country. Sri Lanka had its own convulsions until two years ago, and although the Sri Lankan state has firmly re-established its territorial control, there are still outstanding questions about the relationship between the state and the island’s ‘ethnic co-existences,’ as well as the internal structure of the state itself.

Since the end of the war, there have been quite a few media exchanges on the subject of Sri Lanka’s state, its sovereignty, and its security. Representations at the start of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) hearings offered refreshing reflections on our past misdoings and thoughtful suggestions for future changes.

Some of the more recent submissions, hawkish on devolution and more uncompromising than reconciling, are a throwback to the troubled past by people who seem to have learned no lessons and have forgotten every experience that this country has gone through in the last 30, 40, 50 or 60 years.

LLRC deliberations

The recent public lecture (Prof. J.E. Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture) by one of the LLRC Commission Members and respected diplomat, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, is a good example in learning lessons as well as enlightened thinking.

I would like to think that Mr. Palihakkara’s thoughtful public exercise would augur well for the final deliberations and recommendations of the Commission. Mr. Palihakkara and Jayantha Dhanapala before him have made it clear that Sri Lanka’s external credibility very much depends on our internal governance and conformance with universal democratic and human rights standards. A country of Sri Lanka’s size cannot compensate for lack of internal standards by external posturing and by trying to choose camps in a campless world.

As well, in contrast to Egypt and Middle Eastern countries, the nature of the state-society relationship in Sri Lanka is not a derivative of external pressures. On the contrary, Sri Lanka’s relationships to the outside world are the result of domestic political pressures which also account for the peculiarities in the relationship between the state and society in Sri Lanka.

If there is one thing in common with the Middle East – it is in the securitization of the state. National security seems to have become an even bigger governing paradigm in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE than it was before. The implications for internal democracy and political pluralism are a matter of growing experience and need no elaboration. What is doubly worrisome is the tendency to extend securitization beyond the formal apparatuses of the state – empowering ruling party hacks, political thugs, and underworld criminals.

I found another timely expression of concern over our falling internal standards in H.L. Seneviratne’s review of the commemorative volume on the premiership of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, edited by Tissa Jayatilaka.

I have not seen the book, but the editor and contributors deserve commendation for starting what appears to be a new trend in our commemorative culture by including critical reflections along with understandable hagiography of leaders who are no longer with us. Seneviratne’s brief commentary on the contributions to the volume by Jayadeva Uyangoda, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Swarna Jayaweera, and Sam Wijesinha, is another instance of enlightened thinking and a forthright attempt to identify the beginnings of the illiberalization of Sri Lankan politics during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s tenure.

In fairness to the Lady

This is not to distract from commemorating the world’s first female prime minister. On the contrary, it must be said that the follies that came after her – and keep snowballing to this day under a government of her party - have more than dwarfed whatever mistakes that began in her time. It is not a coincidence that soon after her defeat in 1977, political illiberalization found a powerful ally in economic liberalization. Under the present regime, it is difficult to say whether the economy is liberal or something else, but it is not difficult to see that politics has become more illiberal than ever. So much in fairness to the Lady

To be fairer still, the process of illeberalization in Sri Lanka had begun even before Mrs. Bandaranaike could have ever thought of entering politics. In fact, it was the political murder of her husband that brought her into politics.

The rot was already there when Mrs. Bandaranaike arrived on the scene. Diagnosed another way, it is not illeberalization that is the root of our problems, but the failure to build on what Seneviratne refers to, and many will agree, as the most liberal of our constitutions – the Soulbury Constitution. To recall the piece I wrote in December to mark the anniversary of the LSSP, the real failure of the Old Left was the failure to nurture and consolidate Lanka’s nascent democracy.

Most commentators do not reflect on the role the Old Left could have and should have played to nourish and strengthen Sri Lanka’s fledgling parliamentary democracy. But they pick as an easy target to castigate the LSSP, the 1972 Constitution which now for all intent and purpose is considered to be the beginning of our constitutional disorder.

The truth of matter is that the 1972 constitution was not a path breaking creation, either to be orderly or disorderly. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva himself, who was the chief architect of the constitution in the Sirimavo government, admitted to it many a time in the course of what he used to call "the exposition of my product.

" The 1972 constitution formalized the political status quo especially in regard to citizenship and language rights and further alienated the minorities. The recognition of Buddhism as state religion was really an infringement of the ethos of religious tolerance that most Sri Lankans respect. It was known at that time that the short chapter on Buddhism was a sop to silence the theocrats who were clamouring for much more. The inclusion of the infamous of ‘unitary’ description was in spite of Colvin and not inspired by him.

The 18th Amendment freeze

Although as the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Colvin defended all of the above, his real contributions lay elsewhere. In a famous public lecture before the 1970 election, Colvin announced that parliamentary democracy under a UF government would be characterized "not by consensus, but by leadership.

" Nowhere else was this truer than in the making of the constitution. In the same Socialist Study Circle speech at the CISIR auditorium, Colvin listed what he considered the principal defects of the Soulbury Constitution – the monarchical character, the Senate, the entrenched Section 29 clause, judicial review of legislation, and recourse to Privy Council appeal. Some of them (the Senate and Privy Council Appeal) were done away with before the new constitution, while others were left out of it.

These changes, many would argue, were illiberal changes, but in qualified fairness to Colvin, the provisions of the 1972 Constitution were easily amendable and the constitution was not only highly flexible but was also totally replaceable.

The main defect of the 1972 constitution was not its provisions, but the partisan, non-consensual process of constitution making, and the precedent it created for overhauling itself. J.R. Jayewardene was determined to create a constitution in his own image, and unwittingly Colvin made it easy for his Royal College friend and boxing rival to do just that.

The 1978 Constitution that JR built kept the illiberal aspects of the 1972 Constitution and added many more of them, but abandoned its main virtue – its flexibility and its replaceability. JR made sure that he – as G.L. Pieris said – "froze it." MahindaRajapaksa’s recent amendment (the 18th Amendment) to the Jayewardene Constitution has frozen it even more

Hibernating in a deep constitutional freeze, we can only hope and plan for a more democratic future. As I noted earlier, our crisis is not one of failing to prevent illiberal practices, rather the failure to build a proper constitutional democracy from the time the British introduced universal franchise in 1931.

In her study of "Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution (1931-1947)", Jane Russell alluded to the mischief done to Sri Lankan society and politics by what she considered to be the premature introduction of universal franchise in 1931 and granting of independence a mere seventeen years later.

Russel’s allusion many years ago has branched into competing theses of sequentialism and gradualism among current political scientists and global study scholars, who study attempts to accelerate democratization of the state and development of the economy in post colonial societies.

Those who favour ‘sequencing’ argue that the legal and institutional structures of the state should be firmly in place before universally enfranchising the people and empowering them in parliament. The gradualists criticize this as ‘putting off’ democratization indefiniteley, and instead advocate a consistent process of participatory democracy building. In practice, putting off democracy is not easy and the result of too much putting off is what we see in the Middle East now.

The economic side of the sequencing coin involves a liberalized economy with limited role for the state. This too is unconvincing for without the state’s involvement it is impossible for new economies to take off.

The issue again is not with the principle of state involvement, but the practical challenges involving the organization of the state and cultivating a merit-based bureaucracy that has institutionalized links to the engines of economic growth in the private sector.

Different countries have met with these challenges in institutionally comparable but culturally specific ways. It is no exaggeration to say that Sri Lanka comes up short in regard to every one of these challenges.

To echo what would appear to be one of Uyangoda’s theses in the Sirimavo volume, the underperforming Sri Lankan state is slowly coming under the grips of the overpowering regime. The difference between the two is getting erased, which is not a good omen either for the Sri Lankan state or society.

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