By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Kumar Ponnambalam, whose death we commemorate today, was a good friend to the Council of Liberal Democracy. That was the think tank Chanaka Amaratunga started in 1981, and it was the foundation on which the Liberal Party was established in 1987. The Council however itself continued active, and was responsible for a series of seminars on Constitutional Reform. The proceedings of this were published as a book in 1992, and an edited version of this came out a few years back, encapsulating ten principle themes.
The ideas contained therein, novel when we presented them, are now widely accepted. It was the Council that first spelt out the fact that an Executive Presidency should not have unbridled power. We were the first to point out the need for a Mixed Electoral System, which led President J R Jayewardene to claim that we were trying to impose foreign ideas on Sri Lanka. We spoke of the need for a Second Chamber of Parliament and for restrictions on the numbers in the Cabinet. We discussed the need to strengthen the Judiciary, and to enhance accountability mechanisms in Parliament, something the opposition coalition is now pledged to through strengthening of the Committee system.
One reason for founding the Council was that, before its existence, Sri Lanka had not had a tradition of political thought from a perspective that privileged freedom. In general Sri Lankan political parties have no ideological base, which is why it is so easy for politicians to cross from one party to the other. The only ideological base that existed was based on a statist perspective, and by the 1980s it was clear that this, which the Left Parties had pressed for, was no longer seen as practical by the Sri Lankan people.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party did indeed have a basically liberal approach, but it had never articulated this, which is why it came so easily under the influence of doctrinaire socialism. And whilst J R Jayewardene catered to a real need in opening up the economy in 1977, he did not at the same time entrench the level playing field that a liberal democracy needs. So it was easy for less scrupulous elements in the private sector to engage in rent seeking, and the foundations for the crony capitalism that the present government has privileged were set in place then.
When we started what then was the first serious discussion of political ideas that invited inputs from across the spectrum, we found many politicians anxious to contribute and to listen to others. Gamini Dissanayake and Colvin R de Silva addressed us from right and left, and we also had Mrs Bandaranaike and Ronnie de Mel. Most involved though were two then comparatively young Tamil politicians, whose fathers had been leaders in the previous generation. These were Neelan Tiruchelvam, son of Senator Tiruchelvam who has to date been the only Cabinet Minister from the Federal Party, and Kumar Ponnambalam, son of G G Ponnambalam, who had been a Minister in the first Independence Government.
They belonged to two different parties, for G G and then Kumar had kept going the Tamil Congress, from which the Federal Party had split way back in the forties. Sadly Kumar and Neelan saw themselves as rivals, and it was a pity that Chanaka, who got on very well with both, found it impossible to bring them together.
The next Tiruchelvam generation indeed joined the Liberal Party and, before he went to Singapore to work, Nirgunan Tiruchelvam was Deputy Secretary General of the Council for Liberal Democracy.
Earlier though it had been Kumar who worked more closely with us, and he was a seminal influence in the Democratic People’s Alliance on which Mrs Bandaranaike contested the 1988 Presidential Election. Indeed the manifesto on which she ran was described by its opponents as the Kumar-Chanaka Manifesto. This was intended to be derogatory, but now it is widely acknowledged that its proposals with regard to the national question were amongst the most enlightened ever presented, and might have proved widely acceptable had not more extreme forces come to prominence in the nineties.
Unfortunately, after Mrs Bandaranaike lost, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party repudiated the proposals. It moved back to a more left wing position, that led to establishment of the People’s Alliance, which did involve an enlightened approach to the national question. But there had been a hiatus during which more nationalistic forces asserted themselves, and during that period Chanaka moved closer to the UNP, and was responsible then for drafting the Manifesto on which Gamini Dissanayake contested the 1994 Presidential election. But Gamini was assassinated, and the election campaign of the UNP stressed this aspect so that, though Mrs Dissanayake campaigned on his Manifesto, it was not well presented. Sadly the UNP then repudiated that Manifesto, though again several principles laid down there have now come into common parlance.
Neelan worked closely with the PA government but discussions proceeded slowly and, by the time President Kumaratunga was ready to put forward proposals to settle the conflict, she met opposition from both the UNP and the TULF. The latter was under pressure by then from the LTTE, that increased its stranglehold on the party through assassinating Neelan in 1999.
Kumar by then had begun working with the LTTE, which struck me as extremely sad. I still recall the last conversation I had with him, when he dropped in to see me at my house with regard to another project the CLD was implementing. When he left, I told him that it was dangerous for him to work so closely with the LTTE, which made no bones about its rigid authoritarian approach.
I shall never forget his reply. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘ I have told the boys that I know they will use me like a wet rag, and squeeze me dry, and then throw me away.’ He rolled his hands together as he said this, and then imitated a man throwing something aside. ‘But what alternative do I have?’
Those lines reverberated in my mind, then, and when he was killed a few months later. How had someone who had been so committed to ideas, and to the exchange of political thought, felt obliged to throw in his lot with intolerant extremists? On the one hand we know that the LTTE had systematically eliminated opposition in the North. But I think parties in the South must also accept some responsibility for this easy acceptance of an intolerant political culture.
Those who dealt with the LTTE too readily accepted their insistence on being acknowledged as the only representatives of the Tamils. This was on a par with the refusal to deal seriously with other parties in the South by the party in power at any particular point. Mahinda Rajapaksa has now taken this to a fine point in refusing to deal seriously even with other parties in his coalition, but that should make those parties too recognize the need for an inclusive political culture.
Such a culture develops when proper parliamentary systems are in place, in particular committees that encourage collegiality. When such committees are chaired, not by those holding executive authority, but by ordinary parliamentarians, and in particular by members of the opposition, people tend to listen to each other, and to seek compromise rather than the imposition of their own point of view. I am glad then that the opposition coalition has stressed this point in this manifesto, and I can only hope that, if or rather when we win, we will build on the amendments to Standing Orders that I proposed some time back, but which were suppressed by the Speaker, in contradiction indeed of the Standing Orders he is supposed to uphold.
I go back then to the discussions we held at the CLD Seminars, and at the meetings, initially in the house of Dinesh Gunewardene, and then at Woodlands and elsewhere, when the Democratic People’s Alliance was born. Engagement led to understanding of other perspectives and a willingness to compromise, compromise based not on giving in to the wishes of others but on respecting their reservations.
Today I hope that all those who revere Kumar’s memory, including his son who I think still keeps the old Tamil Congress going, will try to revive that spirit of mutual respect and understanding. I hope that we have made that the foundation of the opposition coalition through which we anticipate a great change in Sri Lankan politics this week. The more inclusive that change can be, the better, for the nation and for the various strands that make up this wonderful country.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Nirgunan Tiruchelvam was Deputy Secretary General of the Party. That is incorrect – Nirgunan Tiruchelvam was Deputy Secretary General of the Council for Liberal Democracy.
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