By Anura K. T. De Silva –
With over 2000 years of a Monarch system and over 4 centuries of colonial rule, most people have been led to believe that only an authoritarian government employing rigid disciplinary methods could govern an already oppressed human society. However, because people have an innate desire for freedom, the forces of liberty and oppression have been in continuous conflict throughout history. Sadly, politically frustrated people, even in our nation, who recently responded just like the times of Hitler voted to return to old authoritarian rule without understanding its repercussions.
Ceylon in 1931 was regarded as the oldest democracy in Asia in terms of universal suffrage but gradually became a paper tiger by mostly conducting regular elections in spite of repetitive oppressive regimes since independence. It regressed into a hybrid regime in 1977 and returned to democracy in 1989 for a period of 20 years, after which it regressed into a hybrid state again between 2010 and 2014.
In 2015, a coalition of various opposition parties won a landslide electoral victory, which led the country back to democracy. But petty issues among childish leaders cost them the unique opportunity to embrace stronger democratic attributes in par with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. As a result, Sri Lanka has experienced undemocratic interruptions since their re-transitions to democracy in 2008 and 2015, respectively, after going through hybrid hiatuses. Hence, there has been many warning signs that our democratic gains remained fragile and need to be consolidated to avoid repeated regression.
Hence our nation has been suffering from democratic fragility that a recent incumbent even attempted to seek a third term by changing the constitution to scrap the two-term limit. It was only since the 17th and 19th amendments that took steps to reduce excessive powers in our institutions. Hence, any attempt to abolish or partially dilute the 19th amendment will only push our nation to the brink of regression on a slippery slope towards undemocratic rule. As most people didn’t taste the true benefits from the 19th amendment coupled with the blunders of “yahapalanaya” and a struggling economy, some even questioned the value of democracy during. We have now reached a folk if our representatives would strengthen the prevailing democracy or weaken the democracy by voting for the 20th amendment to the constitution. If that occurs, our nation will deteriorate into a low performing undemocratic nation, much like the nations of Afghanistan, North Korea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.
Today, the elected government is attempting to dismantle even the limited powers that was devolved with the 19th amendment to rule the people authoritatively rather govern our nation in the name of development. It is true that democratic governance requires skills and is more complex than autocratic governance as democratic governance requires dealing with diversity of thoughts and idea, diplomacy and dialog than division, conflict and monolog. Hence, democratic governance should not be attempted by weak leaders who believe governance can be performed by increasing their positions of power even to adopt authoritative rule. Effectiveness in governance requires a good framework, solid structures, free and independent institutions, effective processes, systems, clear roles and responsibilities. Without these, it will be not long before the emergence of peoples’ power movements. Overthrowing dictatorships will show indisputably that the human race can neither tolerate nor function properly under tyranny.
It has become a sad reality that while our constitution divides and excludes communities and citizens, those we elect at each general election gathers excessive powers and leads to destroying themselves while a few loots the national coffers. As a result, people have been blaming each other and have become a socially divided nation with confused masses grouping emotionally based on language, culture, religion or/and caste in the name of nationalism, with nationalism often converted to chauvinism by the politicians. Economically, we have over 75% of the population living on subsistence agriculture. For them, political movements have had little if any importance. Our Governance is lopsided as it exploits the people undemocratically with excessive powers and unaccountability. It has failed repeatedly to perform its primary function to serve and protect the people. The Executive still remains above the law of the land and to demonstrate the newly attained powers of immunity, the present Executive abolished all judicial cases against him before the people even fell asleep soon after the election results were announced. The Legislature is dictated by divided political mobs than as a unitary parliament with independent voices of the people, while the judiciary remains as a subservient branch of both the Legislature and the Executive. Therefore, not only our electoral process dysfunctional, but the entire government from the foundation up as there is no commitment or accountability to protect and serve all citizens. Hence, we truly need to turn things upside down and do things differently than replacing the same types of cronies with wolves in different clothing. We truly need to reform our constitution and start with a clean slate that contributes to an improved quality of life for all the people. More than any time before, it is we the people who need to build a new constitution of the people, by the people, for the people, in a bottom up process to ensure the individual powers of any branch of the government will not be greater than the collective powers of the people.
Our current predicament
Instead, we are faced one more attempt to amend the only article in the constitution that has some teeth to minimize abuse of power by the Executive. Recently, the aggravated citizens sent a message that they were not happy with the ‘yahapalanaya’ and wanted ‘change’. Since election, the new government seem to be interested in moving away from self-governance by starting from militarizing the agencies and now to grant all powers to an authoritative military leader. They are progressing faster than Hitler, who grabbed absolute powers by pledging to restore prosperity, create civil order (by crushing industrial strikes and street demonstrations), eliminate the influence of Jewish financiers, and make the fatherland once again a world power.
Even though some of the voters who expressed their frustrations at the voting booth may be aware of the historical outcome of such authoritative dictators from foreign nations, and colonial rulers and Kings from our own history and how they ruled (than governed), they are probably now contemplating if they wasted their votes. Very soon, we may realize the damage of this crucial mistake as no change in faces or change in political labels can fix a structurally dysfunctional system that is now attempting to turn the people’s democracy on its head and could even be worse than how the colonial masters and Kings ruled.
It is true that we need to rebuild our foundation and restructure the pillars of our failed nation to address the multidimensional crisis we face from many fronts. But sadly, it is much challenging for a nation of people with tempered patriotism who think with nationalist emotions to be objective. Nevertheless, we need to build a new nation that can not only establish a strong and levelled foundation for all citizens to participate in, but enable progressive values, free and independent self-governing institutions and systems of governance to become the engine needed to build a brighter future. Therefore, we will need to establish new norms towards becoming a strong democratic nation by transforming from inequality to equality and equity, unaccountability and irresponsibility to accountability, responsibility and transparency in governance, disrespect among the people but respect, tolerance and nonviolence, dependent and disharmony to independent, exploitive and hopelessness to self-reliance and solidarity of the people, unfairness, discrimination and injustice to fairness and Justice, conflict and war to peace and harmony, weak human and civil rights to strong individual dignity, destructive environment to creativity, widespread crime, fraud, corruption and hatred to empathy and generosity, exclusivity to inclusiveness and become an enabling and vibrant nation we all deserve, far away from the widespread poverty, fear, favor, threats and divisions to name a few of our social ills.
Fundamental problem is that we never changed from our original norms of the colonial masters, other than the labels we pasted to dress up the new name Sri Lanka as a Socialist, Democratic Republic, a flag that depicts racism with an animal not even native to our land, with a wonderful national anthem which could lift pride and patriotism yet be mutilated by the rulers against the author’s wishes. Since then, we have been a nation mislead by every ruler elected to govern with not much difference than the colonial masters other than their skin tones. Therefore, we can easily conclude that the failures are less to do with the individuals but mostly to do with the institutions, systems and processes we established to govern, and our electoral process to elect the wrong representatives. The media and the political parties that act as the voice of the people has not been much of a help either. In fact, they have colluded and exploited the dysfunctions in our governance for their personal favors or partnered with the politicians to strengthen their own powers, favors and diverted the public wealth into their personal accounts.
Who are we as a nation?
We have been changing constitutions, conducting elections, electing the same political parties to power but ending up with worse outcomes. Therefore, we clearly are a dysfunctional nation. Most people are not even aware ‘who we are as a nation’, ‘what are the core values of our nation’, ‘what must be critically important to us to hold our nation together’ and ‘who we need to become as a community of citizens’. As a result, politicians rock the boat at each election by one party to the left and the other to the right and as a result, people end up seasick after each election. We need to figure out how we can rise up as a born-again nation we all deserve. Therefore, we need to go beyond voting and rise up from the grassroots for civil actions and rebelling against the status quo of how we have chosen to govern ourselves. Our electoral process has failed to elect the right people to govern, but the wrong people to loot our nation. We need to embrace many things we have in common to unite us and become the one nation we all deserve. We should become the one nation: socially cohesive and liberated from fraud, corruption and crime, anchored in social justice with a shared set of ethos for everyone to embrace and enjoy a quality of life that can lift individual dignity and confidence of all citizens.
Without such core values, demagogues have been using our emotional fears even to exploit the silly idea of ‘dual citizenship’ to blur human logic for intimidation and prohibition and shepherd the tribes. Instead, by establishing a core shared set of strong values, we should encourage anyone who doesn’t have a criminal record and interested in embracing our shared set of values to become not only one of our own citizens and contribute to the nation but even to represent the people honestly and productively and lead the nation to prosperity.
We are all so fortunate to have been bestowed a beautiful nation with bountiful natural beauty and natural wonders surrounded by an infinite ocean, nutrient land, tropical climate, fresh water and air, and a year-round sun which very many nations are deprived of. Yet, those nations in proximity to ours have prospered by many folds even when they started much later. We failed to divorce ourselves from the old colonial oppressive mindset of rule by division by any means. As a result, race, language, religion, caste, poverty, education development, political power, employment and everything has been used to dominate individual superiority than solidarity across our nation. As a result, politics, elections and governance has never been based on policies but games of fear, handouts and promises often partnering with competing political mobs, priesthood, business mafia and the crony media for their individual favors. As a result, politicians do their best to keep us separated and, often with violence, to keep the real or imaginary “others” just a “concept.” Because if we spend time with “others”, talk to them and eat with them, they are concerned that we will learn that they are also like us: humans with all the strengths and weaknesses that we possess. Some are strong, some are weak, some are funny, some are dumb, some are nice and some arrogant.
Demolition caused by our Political Parties
Our current system of government is based on binary political party system bargaining within and among each other than searching for the optimal values and solutions for the people they are supposed to serve. Therefore, our political party systems advocate less democracy for themselves and to the people, and as a result, people are left with not much choices. Hence, political party groups focus on segments of the population favorable to the party rather than allow the voters to elect their favorite candidates willing to serve the people. If we are to continue tolerating political parties any further, we need to ensure they represent all the people and function more democratically within smaller electoral representation and much more transparently with their finances on a level playing field than as private clubs owned by private entities.
Furthermore, political affiliations or political parties that exploit race, religion or other socially divisiveness will need to be outlawed to avoid polluting the true humanity of the society and the democratic process. As a result, political party groups will have no incentive to behave like political mafia groups who use all forms of crime, fraud and corruption to win elections and even propagate violence and civil wars. Consequently, people will have more options to elect better representatives and refrain from electing tyrants to rule or criminals with no accountability to the people.
Yes, it is difficult to lead a democratic nation and keep a lot of people happy by doing things that are generally good for the society as a whole. Therefore, leadership within a nation should not be hijacked by hook or by crook by weak people dressed in leadership attire. In autocratic systems, leaders have to keep only a much smaller portion of the population happy. When it’s a Monarch, they have to keep only their family, friends and relations happy, while the majority of the people will be bound to serve the monarch as slaves or immigrant laborers like in the Middle East. Therefore, autocratic rulers don’t have to worry about doing things good for at least most of the people but do things that are good only for their cronies, even if they have to sell parts of the nation to hold on to power.
A Nation we all deserve
We must find ways to become the one nation, truly democratic under a common set of laws, with shared set of values and by making our representatives more and more loyal and responsive to the people than to their respective political herds. By changing progressively, we can start to empower strangers to become brothers and sisters and to build their own hopes and aspirations than holding them subservient for multiple more generations. We need to build a new republic by restructuring our governance where our nation can truly become a public entity than as a private entity camouflaged by the political mafia, priesthood, commercial entities and the mass media mafia organizations. Our governance consisting of the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary should attain its primary position of power limited within a republic through democratic norms. It is contrary to the public good to have excessive power concentrated at the central government where the power rests in a single branch or within a family similar to a monarchy. Our democratic branches of government should stand free and independent, so they can be responsible and answerable only to the people rather than to any other branches holding the greatest powers. This would be the beginning of a move away from feudalism but towards a modern democracy.
Even the concept of holding exclusive power by a majority political party in the parliament diminishes the voice of at least 49% of the people. Hence, we need to abolish the party favoritism or the political tribalism within the parliament. Even with 2/3 majority, 1/3 of voices will be drowned destroying the basic tenants to uphold democracy. Therefore, each representative of the central parliament should stand free and independently as the representatives elected to reflect the most natural representation of all voters in the country. As the only basic human representation of people are their age groups and the gender, the parliament should ideally be 51% of women as representatives. Sadly, despite the 51% of voters, women are underrepresented throughout Sri Lanka’s political and electoral process at all levels. Currently, only about 5% of Parliamentarians are women. This is a catastrophic violation of democratic representation in our central governance, although we have become so immune to this discrimination.
Similarly, we have lacked representatives of the younger generations in our parliament for the past 72 years, even after multiple youth uprisings due to the lack of representation or their needs not being addressed. It is time we restructure to ensure we appoint representatives from those elected to the central government based only on the core human identities of age and gender in proportionate to the population from each province for brief periods (say 1 year) in rotation. As an example, our central parliament could comprise only of 155 representatives to legislate based on age groups and gender from each of the 9 provinces, without any preferences or exceptions to political affiliations or adopted race, religion, caste, ethnicity or other societal groups. When needed to listen to voices from special interest groups, they can be invited as needed to present their cases to select committees in publicly open forums, prior to the voting is counted in the parliament:
Therefore, by giving preference to the basic human identity of all citizens than political affiliations, we can eliminate the constant bickering of majority and minority disorders among bipolar political parties that has been holding back the nation from evolving and allowing an opportunity for independent representatives to agree, disagree and work together for common causes without political manipulations to strengthen political party power. Most importantly, there will be no reason for political parties to exploit communalism anymore that has decayed our nation for many decades when political party powers are diluted and mandated to function democratically.
Let’s build the diversity in our representatives based on humanity as this can provide the most homogenous representation in our complex plural society consisting of various forms of majorities and minorities to override the prevailing communal loyalties. This scheme will also give rise to constitutionally accepting race, religion and ethnicities as private as they are purely personal matters, while human dignity can be elevated as the central theme for good governance. With stable government institutions and remodeled processes, it could be the first-time humanity could lift us above our social vices to build a common loyalty to our beautiful nation. Along with cleansing our governance, government should be constitutionally mandated to provide all public services in all 3 national languages by educating the next generation to become trilingual in integrated school environments. Furthermore, within a Humanity dominated constitution, we should also declare mandatory minimum allocation of funds from the national budget towards, Education, Healthcare, Transportation, Housing and Rural Development as essential public services before any other expenses can be met.
Democracy and Buddhism
Some believe that Sri Lanka is not culturally conducive to democracy. Sadly, that is not because of our ancient culture built on the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhist teachings and Democracy share common values and are rooted in the common understanding of equality and potential of every individual. Furthermore, the institutions Lord Buddha established for the sangha or the monastic communities functioned on largely democratic lines where individuals were equal, independent of their social class or caste origin, and the sangha served as a model for social equality by sharing resources in a democratic process.
There were many fine examples of when Buddhist values integrated into the government process to produce transparent democratic states. However, when religious leaders served as government administrators without forfeiting their religious authority, they encountered unchecked power. After the 16th century in Tibet, Buddhist leaders were inseparable from government administrators. The concept of Samayas (vows to the guru) became a tool for suppressing people’s rights and manipulating political authority. As people put unquestioning faith in their spiritual leaders with very little room for critical judgement of political decisions, they deviated from the core teachings of Buddha and used its teachings to practice blind faith: commonly practiced today in Sri Lanka as Buddhism.
One can argue that true Buddhist teachings and true Democratic principles need each other due to the emphasis on process, inclusiveness and human dignity are instilled with many of the qualities and insights of the dharma. Therefore, one could wonder, can there be TRUE democracy without Dharma in the broad sense and can there be nothing more needed in public life than the Dharma? The Tibetan 14th Shamarpa Rinpoche proposes a transparent democracy where each citizen has self-reliance and empowerment through a decentralized government system. Rather than a top-down centralized control system, in which power flows down from national, to state to city, the proposed system builds from village level up. Local units on the village level, combine to form the higher levels of government as well.
Most importantly, the bottom up system promotes the idea of banning of all top down political propaganda and the dissolving power in the political parties. It introduces an education system that teaches competence of multiple languages, governance, civil liberties, and human rights while children learn other subject matter to search the truth than to memorize preconceived notions dictated by prerecorded instruction. Furthermore, transparency and self-reliance are indeed Buddhist values, but also universal. Where Shamarpa’s proposal becomes distinctly Buddhist is his definition of the function of law. Protections are provided to the (1) Earth, natural environment, (2) ALL human beings, and (3) All Living beings: humans, plants and animals. The Earth itself serves as the model for an ideal government, and it is the international community’s responsibility to protect the natural environment.
Seeking a new future
Ultimately, instead of tinkering with pieces of our constitution for self-greed and increased power for those holding the reigns, it is time we scrap our entire constitution (which was a derivative of the colonial mindset) and develop a new constitution of the people, by the people, and for the people. The constitution should not be based on individual personalities nor direct emulation of other constitutions but an indigenous legal framework for free and independent institutions to function in harmony within a set of common laws designed to serve and protect all its citizens by means of self-governing.
As a means to express the positive values of our identity, we should express our national values based on the fundamentals of Buddhist teachings consisting of a common law of the land, shared values with equality for all, independence in the judiciary, tolerance and inclusiveness, personal and political liberty, stronger personal rights, constitutionally assured access to quality education, health & wellness and housing as basic necessities to all citizens, followed with commitment of providing nutrition and special care for children, the disabled and the elderly. Most importantly, we will need to reform the electoral process to ensure people are rightly represented with limited powers in the central government by devolving excessive powers to the regional economic units/provinces. It is evident that nine small provincial wheels with a medium central engine could propel our nation much more effectively and with agility than a single, heavy central wheel could only end up spinning 72 more years in the same place.
We can not only build a true democratic nation within a unitary constitution but also transform the nation of people with larger patriotism to one nation than to their tribalism. Through devolution, we should finally be able to meet the cost of our central government out of the productivity of the people from all regions/provinces than pawning our nation to predatory lending nations. Let’s rewrite the rules to save our nation for self-determination instead of playing musical chairs with excessively corruptible top-heavy central government currently campaigning to further increase their corruptive powers.