By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“All threats to his own authority he resists with absolute ferocity”- Machiavelli
When we observe Buddhist monks full of rage and lust for the exercise of physical power going about the country with a creed of hate and a call to arms against Muslims and other ‘non-believers,’ the sight of a sagely monk calmly, serenely, peacefully and intelligently campaigning for a change in the constitution that will benefit all and restore peace, it is much more than a breath of fresh air. It is the very embodiment of hope for a nation in an era of hopelessness; a beacon of value in times that are being stripped of values; a solid and noble sentry that’s watching, concerned over a nation that is tearing itself away and drawing toward a perilous end.
While men and women in prominent positions-in the academia, in the Public Service, in business,in media and in the NGO system have opted out of fear or possible gain to remain bystanders and while a good many of the Sinhala Diaspora are parroting the rhetoric of the Buddhist Taliban here is a benign soul who has thrown in his lot with the future of our island and the long-term welfare of its people. Revd Maduluwave Sobitha would unmistakably stand to gain in all material trappings like luxury cars, trips overseas and some financial deals to boot had he chosen to ignore his conscience and gone with the official line as some of his corrupted colleagues have done. Yet, he has put the nation and the people above himself. There is no agitation in him; no impatience with those who have chosen to prostitute the Dhamma. Yet, he keeps pressing softly and gently exuding a measure of the radiance of the Great Master. He knows he has found the solution.
In the Cunda Sutta the Buddha told Cunda, the smith:
“there are four kinds of monks, not a fifth. One kind has won the path; one expounds the path; one lives the path and one defiles the path.”
It is a matter of serious concern for true Buddhists that there are such large numbers of defilers wearing the robes of the well-conducted monks. By their incendiary rhetoric the latter variety of monks are able to gather mobs around them that become destructive. One of the monks belonging to these raucous, Buddhist Taliban called upon every monk in every temple to act as a cop “on behalf of the Buddhists.” Muslim traders are being intimidated; mosques and churches attacked. One media image of a raging monk was particularly disgusting.
Revd Maduluvawe Sobitha’s mission is of a totally different kind. He was quick to diagnose that Sri Lanka’s disease is a fault in the system or a systemic flaw. The root is the document that bares out the rules of the business of running the country or the social contract between people and their rulers. From this systemic blemish all current evils flow. If this script is not discarded all political actors now and in the future, whatever the color, will dance the devil.
Revd Sobitha rallied around him some eminent persons not tied to any political party, formed the National Movement for Social Justice and has now drafted proposals to amend the constitution of Sri Lanka. The drafting committee was headed by constitutional lawyer, Jayampathy Wickremaratne.
In 1978 JR Jayawardena introduced the constitution that prevails to this day in a self-hallucinatory moment when he thought he could be kept in power by a document until he dies. The pre-1978 Westminster-type constitution gave our island peace and genuine development without epithets like ‘Gam Udawa,’ ‘Divineguma,’ ‘Deyata Kirula,’ ‘Mathata Thitha,’and so on. It was under the Pre-1978 constitution that huge Sri Lankan infrastructure like the numerous irrigation networks had been built; that massive colonization schemes had been set up; that Madya Maha Vidyalayas and Maha Vidyalas had been erected; that universities and Technical Colleges had been founded; that a vibrant healthcare system had been instituted and so on and so on. Sri Lanka had no pretending patriots those days; no claims of ‘aascharyas’. DS Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Sirimawo Bandaranaika and JR himself for the first part of his rule, dealt with positive construction and positive development. Also, the great revolution of the liberalized economy, the Free Trade Zones, and the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme etc-were all done or planned before the bahubootha vyawasthawa. Structural changes had been introduced and indeed the country was looking forward.
Alas! JR’s madness came down on the nation and the country began a slide to authoritarian rule where one man knows the truth and where one man takes the decisions for the people. Decision-making is at the center. The trend that JR’s constitution led to has reached logical culmination in nationally catastrophic proportions under the current regime. The new scenario is that the man in the center will decide that there must be a harbor in Hambantota, and an airport in Mattala disregarding the need for proper prior study. Hey presto these projects see the light of day with willing Chinese loans. In the same vein the center decides to nail and jail Sarath Fonseka, once described “the greatest army commander in the world,” and Fonseka converted overnight from national hero to a jail- bird. Also, the center decides that the Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake must go home and it is done. No questions. MPs put your hands up! Hang due process and send the rule of law and natural justice on a holiday! Nobody checks the center and nobody dares check.
To quote an apt example from outside Lanka we have a dictator in North Korea who has decided that he must go to war with South Korea and shoot down America, too. Even in the face of a crumbling domestic economy Kim Jong-un decides that the priority is war. He is rallying round patriotism for this cause. The media is being shaped to persuade the populace that the “Dear Leader,” has found an incarnation in Kim Jong-un.
Under this absolutist constitution all power is concentrated at the center. All government agencies are subsumed under the center and there is little space for institutional independence that alone can bring truly creative and productive decisions for the people. Furthermore, the seductive power of a powerful center will complement the constitutional proclivity for authoritarian rule. Centralized decision making is inherently flawed because by eliminating or discouraging inputs from independent external contributors the nation is put into a very vulnerable situation. The path is laid for a corrupt tyranny acting at its will and pleasure and consulting with only a favorite circle before making decisions that affect the welfare of people.
The central plank in Revd Sobitha’s proposals is the abolition of this absolutist constitution and its replacement by the Westminster model of more collective decision-making. The Prime Minister in Britain is said to be primus inter pares or ‘first among equals’. This has, however, not meant a weakening of the center in countries like Britain and Australia that follow the Westminster model. In effect, British Prime Ministers and Australian Prime Ministers have been virtual presidents and their election campaigns are done in presidential style. When Kevin Rudd led the Labor campaign in 2007 the slogan was “Kevin 07.” How did that differ from Obama’s campaign? On the other hand, the office of the president of Sri Lanka is something overpowering and capable of invading the whole government apparatus once parliamentary control is obtained. This appalling invasion is what discerning Lankans see taking place today. Parliament, judiciary, elections, Attorney General, Auditor General, police and all institutions that are expected to keep an independent presence to check an executive that can go wrong are under the president’s heel.
This is why Revd Sobitha’s proposals are also aimed at returning the independence of the judiciary, elections, Public Service etc so that the rule of law is restored.
Revd Sobitha, next, invokes the return to the First- Past- the Post- system of elections that Lanka had enjoyed pre-1978. Under the prevailing proportional representation (PR) system all that a candidate for parliamentary elections need do is to have his/her name put in the party list. He need not have an electoral base and he can be any bandit or drug dealer. The party bureaucracy (in effect, again the president) decides. Under the old system a potential candidate is tied to a particular electorate and he must always be accountable to that electorate. The accountability is lost under PR. MPs can behave any way they desire and even disregard the people that elected him as all they got to do is to please the party and the president.
The campaign of Revd Maduluwawe Sobitha and his National Movement for Social Justice has got to reach widespread popular appeal before it can succeed. The political ruling class-both those in office and those praying to get into office- have far too much to benefit by the current system and will not yield unless forced. The damage of absolutist rule has more to complete its course before people can awaken.
*Shyamon Jayasinghe, a Peradeniya University graduate in Philosophy, worked as a public servant in Sri Lanka specializing in Management. He subsequently worked in Australia where he is now domiciled. A frequent commentator on social and political issues in Sri Lanka, he is renowned for his astonishing role as the Narrator (POTE GURA) of the original production, in 1956, of Ediriweera Sarchchandra’s theatre classic Maname. His interpretation of this role has become the model that all performers of the role in subsequent plays of this genre have emulated.