11 August, 2022


Democracy At A Crossroads: Sri Lanka Has Not Narrowed Corridor Of Liberty But Effectively Blocked It

By W A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

The Narrow Corridor of Liberty

The latest book by the duo of ‘Why Nations Fail’ fame – Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson of Chicago – titled ‘The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty’ was released on 24 September.

The narrow corridor is a concept coined by them to depict how the malfunctioning states and societies could narrow the path through which citizens could attain and sustain liberty. It is a midway path that prevents societies from moving into the two extremes, authoritarian rule by government, at one end, and lawlessness by extreme social groups, at the other.

The eternal battle for liberty

The crux of the argument by Acemoglu and Robinson is as follows:

There is an eternal battle between state and society for liberty, an essential prerequisite for people to foster personal development and attain economic prosperity. Liberty is simply a state in which people are free from violence, intimidation and other demeaning acts. When liberties are guaranteed, people should be able to make free choices without the menace of unreasonable punishment or draconian social sanctions, according to Acemoglu and Robinson. Liberties of ordinary citizens can be threatened by both the government – an arm of the state – and sections of society that would take the law onto their hands.

Strong states lead to authoritarian rule, while weak ones flourish lawlessness 

When states become strong and tend to ignore these personal liberties, nations move toward authoritarian rules. In those circumstances, personal liberties come from social struggles that societies undertake against such authoritarian rulers. For that, societies should mobilise people against the state’s suppression of liberties and people should continue to defend their rights. If they become slack, states will move back to authoritarianism.

But when people – or some sections of people – will become more powerful, it leads to lawlessness in which those powerful people will suppress the liberties of not-so-powerful sections. That leads to the other end in which one segment of society, in a weak state, will take laws onto its hands and dominate the weak. To protect the weak from the domination of such segments, state becomes necessary but the very same state could be an instrument of violence and suppression.

Hence, for liberty to expand, social groups have to contest the state power continuously. This battle between state and society, according to Acemoglu and Robinson duo, creates a narrow corridor for the liberty of ordinary citizens to flourish and sustain. But the narrow corridor will remain intact only if the battle is continued and powers between private parties and states are properly balanced. Any imbalance will make a nation tilt toward either of the two extremes – authoritarianism, at one extreme, and lawlessness, at the other. Either one is detrimental to the establishment and sustenance of personal liberties of ordinary citizens.

Supportive laws or checks and balances will not help  

The Acemoglu and Robinson Thesis is an eye opener for those who believe that personal liberties could be established by enacting laws or introducing checks and balances within those laws. Acemoglu and Robinson say that both these arrangements are not a guarantee of liberty since the state machinery or the powerful groups can violate them with total impunity.

Anyone familiar with Sri Lanka’s track record in this field will know that the duo is correct. There is a guarantee of fundamental rights in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, but the very same state machinery – the government – has tended to break it at will. Then, when the state power is weak or it has been captured by some sections in society – organised as religious or ethnic or caste groups or cultural bands – the fundamental rights are just reduced to mere words in a piece of paper with no validity. This is happening on a day to day basis in Sri Lanka.

Capture of the government by some social groups: The Gilgamesh Problem

Acemoglu and Robinson have drawn on an epic reported to have taken place some 4200 years ago in the Sumerian city of Uruk. There, the leader, Gilgamesh, an authoritarian ruler, delivered a brand new city with all modern marvels to people, but in return appropriated their liberty to himself. Accordingly, people had to give their sons for Gilgamesh’s kill-sports and daughters for satisfying his lust. People in despair appealed to their guardian deity for redress and the deity’s solution was to create a replica of Gilgamesh and make him fight with Gilgamesh whenever he tried to abuse his powers.

In the modern world, this replica is akin to ‘checks and balances’ that are constitutionally created to control the behaviour of an authoritarian ruler. The replica does a good job initially but later finds that working in collaboration with Gilgamesh will improve his conditions. Accordingly, both of them get together to terrorise the people. Acemoglu and Robinson call this ‘Gilgamesh Problem’ and it is pretty much present in all societies today. As such, those who are elected to protect the liberty of people would make friends with evil forces and suppress them together.

In Sri Lanka, the corridor was narrowed at the Presidential Election that took place in January 2015. There had been some social groups which fought against a government which they had branded as an authoritarian regime. But these social groups have become voiceless today, because the Government as well as the key Opposition parties have been captured by some militant Buddhist monks who have converted ordinary citizens into a voiceless, defenceless and powerless group. It is a repeat of the Gilgamesh Problem.

With a conniving political leadership, Sri Lanka is becoming a de facto theocracy

Thus, though Sri Lanka is not a de jure theocracy – a system of government run by religious leaders – it is a de facto theocracy. These informal theocrats have assumed the power to decide what the ordinary citizens should wear, which shops they should patronise, what they should create as work of art and with whom they should have their social relationships.

The worst outcome of these unhealthy developments is the guardians of human liberties – the political leaders – seeking to sustain their power by clinging to these self-interested power groups. Normally, military rulers in any country are considered as powerful leaders. But they can sustain their power only by clinging onto these sub-militant groups, as has been shown in Myanmar. In that country, no military ruler can sustain his power unless he aligns himself with the ‘Poppy Barons’ who run an alternative bandit rule in the infamous Golden Triangle or certain militant Buddhist monks who roam streets by taking power onto their hands. Sri Lanka’s political leaders of all hues are not an exception.

Thus, the present political leaders in Sri Lanka seem to have chosen to be lame ducks in the face of the threateningly growing de facto theocratic rule in the country. But, that had not been the case in the past as many past Sri Lankan leaders had demonstrated.

Campaign for banning Martin Wickramasinghe’s ‘Bavatharanaya’

As the former civil servant Eric J. de Silva has revealed in an article published in 2010, a similar situation had arisen when Sri Lanka’s matchless writer Martin Wickramasinghe penned the life story of the Buddha in the form of a semi-fiction titled ‘Bavatharanaya’ (Crossing the Stream of Birth and Rebirth) in 1973.

In the introduction to this semi-fiction, says Eric, Wickramasinghe had said that he wrote the book ‘in fulfilment of an idea he got into his head at a very young age that he should one day write the life story of the Buddha, rescuing it from the aura of mysticism that had been woven around it during the post-Asokan period in Indian history, under the influence of resurgent Hindu and Brahminical tradition that the Buddha himself had discarded’.

This was indeed an exercise of writers’ liberty to present a creative work of art in terms of his independent visualisation of the real world. But all the hell broke out when some sections of influential Buddhist monks, supported by equally influential lay Buddhists and Buddhist organisations, began to agitate for the banning of the book claiming that it was disrespectful of the Buddha. This group became so powerful that the government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had been cornered from all sides like a prey animal surrounded by predators.

The agitators had been supported by some of her Cabinet colleagues, political opposition, civil society leaders, Chief Prelate of Asgiriya Chapter of the Theravada Buddhist order of the country and many more. At that time, Eric J. de Silva had been a Senior Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs which functioned directly under the Prime Minister. There had been a proposal to ban the book in question under the Emergency Regulations that were in force at that time. Hence, the Secretary to the Ministry, W.T. Jayasinghe, had instructed Eric to be ready with the Gazette Notification, expecting an order from the Prime Minister to that effect.

Sirimavo’s bold stand against agitators

Eric says that he found it odd to ban a book of art and therefore asked a day’s time to file a report on the suitability of the proposed action. He had acquired a copy of the book and settled to read it through the night. After finishing the reading of the book, Eric says that he was not convinced of the proposed banning of the book.

Says Eric: ‘It was as clear as the daylight that soon began to envelop me that there was nothing in it that called for a ban. Bavatharanaya, in short, was not just another work of fiction which we usually call a novel, but a very thoughtful attempt to demystify the life of the Buddha (in fact, more than half the book deals with the life of Prince Siddhartha), which only the sophisticated reader would be able to sustain an interest in reading. It immediately raised the question in my mind as to how many of those who demanded that it be banned would have really read it! I was convinced that banning the book would be counter-productive even from the point of view of those who wanted it banned as people would want to get hold of a copy somehow to see what exactly led to the ban, and thus increase its readership.’

He had prepared a report accordingly and submitted to the Secretary for onward submission to the Prime Minister. In Eric’s own words, this is what had happened since then: ‘Later in the day, the Secretary conveyed to me the happy news that the Prime Minister had very carefully read my note and not only agreed with my recommendation but had expressed her appreciation of what I had done. Thus, ‘Bavatharanaya’ remained ‘unbanned’, while the demand for its ban continued for some time, lost its steam and gradually died down!’

Those independent civil servants and bold political leaders 

Two inferences can be made out of this story. One is that civil servants of those good old days were not puppets dancing according to the strings pulled by their handlers, but intellectuals who could express their free opinions liberally without fear or favour.

Today’s situation is pathetic as one could observe from the evidence being given by top civil servants before Special Parliamentary Select Committees or the Committee on Public Enterprise or COPE or the Committee on Public Accounts or COPA.

The other inference is that the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was a remarkable woman who had the courage and backbone to say no, when the whole world wanted her to say yes. She had looked at the issue with an open mind like an experienced statesman without being influenced by the militant Buddhist monks who had wanted her to ban a creative work by Sri Lanka’s most respected writer of the century.

Dudley Senanayake’s dedication to observance of the rule of law

A similar story has been narrated by ex-DIG Thilak Iddamalgoda in his autobiography ‘Mehemath Poliskarayek’ (What a Policeman!), relating to the former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. In 1968, when Iddamalgoda was the ASP in charge of Badulla division, Captain C.P.J. Senevirathna, a Junior Minister of the Government, had stormed a temporary Police Station established in the Mahiyangana temple and freed an accused who had been arrested by the Police for unruly behaviour. This he had done after causing damages to the Police Station.

An inquiry conducted had revealed that Senevirathna had been the main accused in this unlawful assembly, interfering with the work of the Police and causing damages to public property. But no one had the courage to take action against him since he was a very powerful politician of the then government. But Iddamalgoda had brought this to the notice of Dudley when he had visited Mahiyangana Temple the following day.

Says Iddamalgoda: ‘The Prime Minister listened to us very carefully and ordered that the Police should take appropriate action according to the law. This response of the Prime Minister should serve as an example to modern-day politicians.’

This is again an instance of the top political leader of the country upholding the rule of law, a must for the narrow corridor of liberty, as defined by Acemoglu and Robinson, to function properly. Today, that narrow corridor has been blocked without facility for the passage of people to seek liberty because the top political leadership of all the political parties choose to remain silent when the members of the de facto theocratic rule do make unlawful assembly, intimidate citizens and public servants, cause damage to public and private property and take the liberty away from people.

The ominous blockage of the narrow corridor

Thus, at this hour of Sri Lanka’s history, its democracy, liberty and governance are at a crossroads. By permitting sections of society to take law onto their hands, the political leadership is allowing the country to move toward irreversible state of lawlessness, while establishing an unaccountable authoritarian rule to serve their own interests. This has to be properly balanced and a narrow corridor should be established in order for human liberty to flourish.

But the political leadership, in collusion with these militant sections, has blocked the corridor. The first casualty in this situation will be the creativity of people. Without creativity, no sustained progress is possible. As Acemoglu and Robinson have theorised, human liberties are to be regained through a continuous struggle against the parties that are bent on suppressing the same. But what they have not seen is the possibility of these struggles becoming violent and bloody. If it happens, it would take the country backward to a few decades if not to a century. This has to be avoided at all costs. What it means is that, as theorised by Acemoglu and Robinson, the civil activists cannot get into a mood of complacency but continue their struggle to free the country from both authoritarianism and lawlessness.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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