Colombo Telegraph

Politics Has Hijacked Our Vocabulary

By MA Sumanthiran

M. A. Sumanthiran MP

Why does a dark cloud of derision continue to linger in Sri Lanka with no signs of dissipating?

The problem lies with our perceptions. Our political reality is mirror of how we as citizens view our neighbours, our government and ourselves. The political notion of ‘unity’ is hollow if we fail in the simple task of seeing each other as equals. The notions of ‘representation’ and ‘accountability’ are vacant if we come to view government as the source and not the steward of power. It is in these simple tasks that we as Sri Lankans have most tragically failed. Instead of defining our politics, we have become a society defined by politics.

Politics has hijacked our vocabulary. It tells us that the collapse of state power is the dictionary definition of “power-sharing.” Politics tells us that “de-evolution” is a four letter word and inimical to nation building. In similar fashion, much of the language that dominates national discourse has become politicized to the point of distorting intended meaning. The tragedy is that in many cases, these distorted words were our first words.

Modern Sri Lanka defines ‘sovereignty’ as a matter of State autonomy. In that context, it is no wonder that calls for Federalism and de-evolution of the power of the State is viewed as a threat to the same. But a true description of sovereignty is found in our Constitution, Article 3: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” Sovereignty, properly understood, lies with the people of Sri Lanka; the government is only a steward of that sovereignty. It is for this reason the Constitution assigns to the people all legislative, executive and judicial powers, which are to be exercised out of logistical necessity by government instruments. The Parliament, the Presidency and the Courts are properly seen as tools of the people.

There is no escaping the fact that the people of Sri Lanka have differences. These differences naturally manifest in our representative tools of government. It is the task of government to represent and consider these differences with the aim of arriving at equitable accommodation of all constituent interests. This process is predicated on the understanding that cooperation creates mutual benefit in much the same way that trade creates wealth. However, if the differences of the people are poorly managed or represented by government, then the mirror of politics – whose task is to reflect constituent values – becomes instead a magnifying glass serving only to amplify and potentially ignite divisiveness. For this reason, it is important that the people of Sri Lanka accept their differences but clearly and publically put aside their prejudices – especially when it comes to political vocabulary. That is the standard that the people must hold themselves and their government accountable.

Peace is possible, but it has to start with the citizen. Sri Lanka must get back to her first words. When you poke through the ashes of civil conflict you will commonly find embers of skepticism and mistrust. The approach of the Sri Lankan Government has been to sweep that smoldering ash under the carpet where they hope it will be smothered. Instead their efforts have created friction and stirred discontent. If we are to realize a strong society we cannot run from the past. We must acknowledge the past and be reborn from it together.

Sri Lanka had no unifying War or Conflict to conceive a national identity. Post-colonialism, Sri Lanka inherited a system that was neither uniquely suited nor organically grown to meet the needs of a bifurcated society. The insufficient accommodation of distinct political entities was inimical to fostering a national identity. Instead of forging a singular vision, the Island reverted to segregate imaginations. Now some sixty years later, we still have not learnt our lesson. Any viable long-term solution to Sri Lankan politics must seek to create a national identity not by imposing a uniform whole, but by acknowledging and empowering the diverse parts. The imposition of one identity over another will always be perceived and opposed as subjugation. In contrast, acknowledging the parts creates a demand for participation in a common system. This participation alone can foster a sense of national identity. This process is not the enemy of a united Sri Lanka. It is the only viable means of attaining a united Sri Lanka.

In this context, it is clear to see that the efforts of measures like the 13th Amendment to accomplish the goals of devolution are wholly inadequate. The 13th Amendment does not devolve Executive power to the people or even to their elected regional representatives. Instead Executive power is ‘devolved’ to the person of the Governor who is appointed and maintained by Executive. The devolution of legislative power is stymied by its subjection to the approval of this unelected official. The ability to make statutes is likewise limited by the profound caveat that the Central Parliament has overlapping and superseding jurisdiction. This is not the sort of acknowledgement and empowerment that demands participation of the parts in the whole. The scant measures of the 13th Amendment do not return power to the people and will not beget national identity. Sri Lanka needs a homegrown solution that reflects the political reality that “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law (Article 12).”

Prior to the failure of the Sri Lankan State is a failure of the Sri Lankan Peoples across every tongue and creed. We have forgotten our first words. We have come to accept as immutable reality the centrifugal nature of State power which seeks to compound and consolidate. Sri Lanka has further accepted the subsequent whirlwind of infringement that has disturbed every sector from the Economy to Education.

We have come to accept measures like the 13th Amendment as “the best the Government can do.” But it is not the best the government can do because it is not the best Sri Lankans can do. The Peoples of Sri Lanka must exercise their power to reclaim the language of ‘equality’, ‘representation’ and ‘popular sovereignty’. If the dark cloud on Sri Lankan politics is to be lifted, Sri Lankans must be reborn from their shared history and reclaim their first words.

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