30 September, 2020

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88th Birth Anniversary of Premadasa: The Saviour-Myth, The Hereditary-Rule Fallacy And Democracy

Premadasa

“A hereditary governor is as inconsistent as a hereditary author”.
Tom Paine (Rights of Man)

Every place has its Bastille,’ wrote Tom Paine in ‘Rights of Man’. Perhaps in some places that Bastille is a psychological rather than a physical construct, a holdover from a bygone anti-democratic time, a germ festering, unnoticed, within the collective psyche of the citizenry.
Lankan democracy, even at its most vibrant, contained twin viruses: the saviour myth and the fallacy of hereditary rule. Either could coexist with democracy, and did so for decades. However, in confluence they cannot but undermine democracy from within, gradually replacing it with its antithesis: an absolutist rule by a political dynasty.
Historically countries have come to democracy in two ways. Some had to fight hard and long for it while others had it given to them as a parting gift by a colonial/victorious power.
Sri Lanka belongs in the second category. From being an absolutist monarchy she went on to become a fully fledged democracy based on universal adult franchise in less than 150 years, a historically-brief interregnum spent under colonial rule. Though there was little knowledge of democracy amongst the populace, and hardly any enthusiasm for it among the leaders, a combination of factors created an apposite climate for the new system to flourish.
Foremost amongst these was the absence of a serious and an attractive political alternative to liberal democracy. The monstrous excesses of the last Lankan king, who epitomised the evils and the dangers of absolute monarchy, constituted a strong antidote to any popular nostalgia for royal-rule. This was augmented by the fact that no ‘Sinhala’ royal-line was extant. Even if a legitimate              descendent of the last Lankan king could be found, he/she would be a Tamil and thus unacceptable to the majority Sinhala community in the new nationalistic age.
Though democracy came to Ceylon as an unasked gift, the Ceylonese, politicians and people alike, became democrats almost overnight. Political parties mushroomed, voter turnout soared and governments rose and fell. But within this bustling democracy, feudal notions of hereditary rule survived and thrived. Almost from the very inception, hereditary rule became an axiom in the two main political parties. The UNP replaced its founding-leader with his son, while the SLFP replaced its founding-leader with his widow. The traditional left mocked the UNP as the ‘Uncle-Nephew-Party’ but saw no irony in their support for the even more family-centric SLFP.
The ‘saviour-myth’ deeply embedded in the popular psyche constituted another anti-democratic space within Lankan democracy. In the South, this was manifest in the ahistorical and unreal figure of Prince Diyasena, who, popular prophesies predicted, would come down to save the chosen land of Sinhala Buddhism in the hour of its greatest need. Though the Sinhala South had no desire to return to monarchic rule because the last Lankan king was a particularly brutal one, and his descendents would be Tamil, the nebulous yearning for a ‘good Sinhala hero-king’ remained undead…..
The UNP broke out of this archaic mode in the 1970’s, when the attempt to replace Dudley Senanayake with his politically neophyte nephew failed. Family-ties would retain a degree of relevance within the new UNP but not the belief that the leader should be succeeded by a spouse/offspring/sibling/nephew. ‘I do not have princes or princesses to crown’ was a key campaign theme of J. R. Jayewardene in 1977. Ranasinghe Premadasa took this assault on hereditary rights to a new level, by becoming the first – and only – non-Govigama President and by committing his presidency to a radical project of socio-economic and ethno-religious equality, which earned for him the undying hatred of racial, religious and caste supremacists.
When President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s half-hearted efforts to nominate her politically-errant brother as her successor failed and Mahinda Rajapaksa, with his populist credentials became the leader of the SLFP, it seemed as if that party too had finally freed itself from the chains of hereditary rule. But ere long it became obvious that the SLFP had freed itself from the Ratwatte-Bandaranaike dynasty only to bind itself to a Rajapaksa dynasty pursuing its manifest destiny with unprecedented ferocity and unparalleled guile.

Democracy and Democrats

“I believe that….the best defenders of our democracy are an enlightened people,” said Ranasinghe Premadasa. “Constitutional provisions alone can never guarantee democracy… People must know what democracy means. They must acquire experience in managing it, in resolving the problems it generates. They must have a stake in it. Only then will they fight for it” (A Charter for Democracy).
A democracy cannot survive without a populace of democrats. And a populace of democrats is impossible without a commonsense which believes that no one should have a superior claim to political power or public positions based on kinship, insists that solutions for problems of democracy should be sought only within the democratic framework and demands that all citizens are ensured a liveable life via basic political freedoms and economic standards.
Any excess can endanger democracy by alienating one or another segment of the populace. The breeding of democrats and the survival of democracy requires what French philosophe Claude Adrien Helvétius termed ‘a just equilibrium’, a politico-economic arrangement which ensures a fair deal for most – if not all – citizens. It is only under such a system that citizens will value their citizenship and feel a sense of commitment to it.
Ranasinghe Premadasa knew the destructive potential of alienation and poverty. The unifying factor in his policies and practices was his belief in socio-economic and ethno-religious equity and his commitment to alleviating inequality wherever it existed. This made him support devolution of power to the minorities and adopt an economic strategy which was committed to promoting socio-economic justice by enhancing socio-economic opportunities.
Premadasa was totally committed to the safeguarding of Lankan sovereignty but his commitment stemmed neither from Sinhala/Lankan supremacism nor from xenophobia but from the principle of essential equality of nations as of people. He thus responded positively to genuine international efforts to improve human rights conditions, such as the 1991 Amnesty International proposals. As William Clarence, the head of UNHCR’s Lankan relief mission (1989-1992), pointed out, during Eelam War II, “The government accepted its responsibility to feed civilians in the war-torn north, and as it could not itself deliver food supplies to LTTE-controlled areas it entrusted the task to the small refugee agency team I was leading…..  I soon found that the fact that Sri Lanka was a proudly liberal democracy made my job much easier…..” (Global Asia – Spring 2008).
Values are not constants; nor are the value of values.
For a ruler to sustain the role of eternal saviour, a populace which is willing to play at ‘damsel-in-distress’ endlessly is a sine-qua-non. A commonsense which accepts hereditary rule and the saviour myth has little use either for equality or moderation; it would regard devolution as incompatible with national security and democracy as a weakness exploitable by national enemies.
Having gained democracy for free, will Lankans struggle to save it? Or will the Sinhala-South, blinded by the infantile yearning for a good (Sinhala) king, submit to Rajapaksa dynastic-rule, while the Tamil-North loses itself in the Eelam-mirage?

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    Ranasinghe Premadasa is cannot be considered a politician of the yesteryear nor does not live to be a present day politician. His presidency spanned the era where politicians in Sri Lanka are known to double act and double cross.

    “Constitutional provisions alone can never guarantee democracy…” said the late President. How ironic? Every liberal hated his regime known for tyre-pyres. Lucky man. No problems from Geneva human rights. The JVP did not have a diaspora though Somawansa escaped to England, thanks to his Brother-in-law the ex-minister. Excepting Soamawansa every JVP leader was extra-judicially executed during the Presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa. Hence his words quoted above are very true and demonstrated that might is right.

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      To quote from the article of Asaranee Gunasekara’s eulogy of RP for his 88th birth anniversary,’
      Democracy and Democrats
      “I believe that….the best defenders of our democracy are an enlightened people,” said Ranasinghe Premadasa. “Constitutional provisions alone can never guarantee democracy… People must know what democracy means. They must acquire experience in managing it, in resolving the problems it generates. They must have a stake in it. Only then will they fight for it” (A Charter for Democracy).

      Hypocrisy at it’s best for a man who climbed the social ladder to the top from the gutter, killing many within and outside the party who stood in his way, ably assisted by his comrade and collegue Sirisena Cooray. After he assumed position as President of a Nation spanning a culture and tradition running over a couple of thousand years, he was painted as a Messiah by this type of writer and the likes of Dayan Jayatilake, HLD Mahindapala et al. Further RP engaged the services of Bradmon Weerakoon to project a family history for himself, in a book that carried a Photo of himself as a child being drawn in a Rickshaw and of a couple where the father wearing a comb to depict that he held noble office,for the irony possibly not knowing who his father was in the first place. In Bradmon’s book of introducing RP there is no mention of any of his brothers and sisters, as then the cat will be out of the bag. The book tried to paint RP as Mr.Clean but misserably failed by another book titled what Bradmon did not write. RP was cunning not appointing Sirisena Cooray as the PM because he possibly knew his fate. Further RP was very protective of his son Sajith and showed a front that he did not like Sajith entering politics to avoid him being killed if it was known that he was grooming him. So after Sajith’s return from the UK in the late ’80s he was pushed to Hambanthota and the story was that he was studying Elephants. This undercover operation came to light once RP was killed and the man emerging as a politician from Hambanthota.

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    We got rid of VP and never ever bargained for democratic strangulation let alone kreeping dynastic ambitions.

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    Hey please do not white wash the Premadasas – they were pretty awful for their time. And now, Sajith Premadasa who is so patently lacking in wit and is in no way comparable to his father wants to rule Lanka in his father’s foot steps, but this would be a disaster. And I am not a Ranil Wickramasinhe supporter and think he should have resigned long ago!.
    THe fact is Sajith keeps talking about his father, but has done little to develop a sensibility and character and clearly does not have what it takes to be a national leader – aside of course from being the son of his father who has also implicated in all sorts of political violence.

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    suz very proud of 50000RS and the political speech does by sajith premadasa at every temples.we sure you made this son.

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    premadasa was a great man whatever said his period saw the no of houses built in rural areas, factories started to cater fot the village folk .He instilled discipline in the public service but his name got marred by the killings of others who were close to him. The LTTE made the biggest mistake beside the murder of Rajiv Ghandhi in killing a President who did most to a country than any other president.The Killings on tyre was not during his period but was before

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      Vinothan, you seem to be under the misconception that the LTTE assasinated RP. Babu was never acknowledged as an LTTEer to date by the LTTE. Besides if Babu wanted to kill RP he had ample opportunity to do so without having to commit suicide, being RP’s cook and an inmate of Sucharitha. he could have easily kept the bomb to explode right under RP’s bed itself for him to blow up and by the time it did, Babu would have escaped for good. Babu went to deliver a parcel to RP which was given by a very close confidant of RP. Babu did not know it was a bomb. when Babu peddeled his push bike close to RP at Aarmour Street, it was exploded with a remote device by someone in the vicinity. Babu never had a suicide jacket although the Police released a statement to the effect that babu was the suicide bomber. Realising that no trace of a suicide jacket will be found at the scene to confirm the Police story, the place was washed by the CMC in half an hour after the incident with the influence the party responsible for killing RP had.

      You claim that the killings on tyre pyres were not during RP’s period but before that. What is your agenda? to exonerate RP of any killings? What happened to Richard De Soysa?

      Then as for Rajiv Gandhi’s murder, true it was the LTTE that was used, but at whose behest? Certainly not at the behest of VP, because he was not so foolish to do so, knowing the wrath he would have earned from India as resulted.

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    Gamini (June 18) – Your comments coincide with many we have heard.
    The Premadasa killing and the Thotalanga blast/massacre is believed to have a common factor – according to quarters close to the UNP in the Cbo Central Electorate. The Lalith A killing too. The long and short of it is the old adage – he who livs by the sword dies by the sword. But “he who runs away lives to tell the tale another day” Interesting times, indeed!!!

    Senguttuvvan

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