By W A Wijewardena –
Part II – Liberty
Liberty has been the basic aspiration of all human beings. It denotes freedom from the servitude of all bonds with which mankind can be tied. It encompasses the freedom of thought, expression, property, and livelihood, as long as it does not infringe with the same aspirations of others. The best advocate of freedom in this sense has been the Buddha who posited that “one should not do anything to another person which one does not want to be done to himself”. In another discourse, he preached that a person who, thinking that he has powers, “beats, imprisons, confiscates, blames or banishes another person” commits an unskilful act and it should be avoided. To avoid it, the Buddha further says that one should not return harm with harm and destroy the thought to harm to another person by cultivating self-discipline. This approach to liberty is self-perpetuating since it does not require an outside body or an authority to deliver liberty to human beings. It also overrules the possibility of the presence of externality which economists today have been highlighting when it comes to the fair treatment of people in society. The Buddha’s message is that one should not knowingly exert an external cost on another person since he himself is aversive to such external costs being inflicted on him. In this elaboration of liberty, external benefits can still be passed onto other members of society since it as a whole adds to the happiness of the mankind, on the one hand, and helps the deliverer of the benefits to attain his personal ambitions, on the other. This is delivering liberty to people through ‘self-governance’ which is an effective way of ensuring liberty. The Buddha’s version of liberty was restated by the 17th century English philosopher John Locke that “no one ought to harm another in his life, heath, liberty or possessions” and also preserve as much as possible the rest of mankind. It discourages exerting external costs while encouraging the delivery of external benefits
Traditionally, the threat to human liberty came from authoritarian or despotic rulers. After Homo sapiens gave up hunting and gathering for agriculture some 10,000 years ago, new settlements were started, food plants were tamed and both draught and food animals were domesticated. Then, there was the necessity to protect land, food stocks, livestock, men, women and children from invading tribes. Initially, it was tribal leaders who took the responsibility for defending the tribe from invaders. For this purpose, it was necessary to acquire fighting power by recruiting and training soldiers and equipping them with weaponry. These tribal leaders who acquired their power through divinity were those who could decide on the life and death of the other tribal members. This was how human liberty was compromised in the initial stage for protection. Later, these isolated tribes got developed into kingdoms and kingdoms into empires. Whatever the size of the political organisation, it was the human liberty that was sacrificed in the name of protection, prosperity and dignity. The establishment of nation-states was the mechanism employed to resolve conflicts, maintain law and order and contain violence emanating from within the society and from outside. Law became so essential that it was held that whenever there was no law, there was no freedom too.
Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in their latest book, The Narrow Corridor, have documented a problem, called the Gilgamesh Problem, that threatens the sustenance of human liberty. Gilgamesh was the ruler of Uruk some 4,200 years ago. He was a merciful dictator and supplied the people of Uruk with all the modern infrastructure facilities, including an advanced city. But the city was his possession and he could do whatever he wanted with the lives of the people. He took the sons away from parents for his destructive wars with neighbours and daughters for his sexual pleasures. Since the parents could not fight with the brutal force of Gilgamesh, they turned to their main deity, Anu, for help. Anu, following a procedure similar to checks and balances being practised today, created a double of Gilgamesh called Enkidu and released him to Uruk. Enkidu’s job was to contain the behaviour of Gilgamesh whenever he tried to abuse his powers. He did a good job initially but later realised that by teaming with Gilgamesh, he could enhance his benefits package. The duo got together and unleashed their brutality on the people of Uruk. Thus, a system introduced to contain the authoritarian ruler became the source brutality and people did not have a mechanism to remove it. Hence, the prospect of liberty vanished along with the checks and balances that were introduced.
Consequently, the threat to human liberty today is the collusive activity of despotic rulers and those who have been engaged to protect the people from them. When religion and culture are established as fundamentalist institutions, there is a tendency for fundamentalist religious and cultural leaders to side with despotic rulers to oppress the people. That marriage is for the benefit of both parties. Despotic leaders can claim legitimacy to their rule by clinging onto the support base of fundamentalists. In return, fundamentalists can enrich their position by using the power base of despotic rulers. In such a state, the government is captured by militant religious leaders who want to establish a fundamental religious state. To support them, a culture which is in constant flux is twisted and presented as a fixed social institution. Anyone who opposes the militant religious sects is brutally oppressed by using state powers. Accordingly, liberty is taken away from ordinary citizens who now have been converted to a defenceless, voiceless and powerless group.
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 a 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 runs an alternative bandit rule in the infamous Golden Triangle or certain militant Buddhist monks who roam streets by taking power into 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. Two cases can be quoted to prove this point. One is the bold stand taken by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike against militant Buddhist fundamentalists in what was known as the Bavatharanaya issue. The other is the application of the rule of law by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake when a misdemeanour by one of his strong party supporters was brought to his notice.
A first-hand account of the Bavatharanaya issue has been made by the former civil servant Eric J de Silva in a newspaper article recently. Bavatharanaya (Crossing the Stream of Birth and Rebirth) was a fiction written by Sri Lanka’s renowned writer Martin Wickramasinghe on the life story of the Buddha. Immediately after the book was published in 1973, a group of militant Buddhist monks had begun an agitation campaign for the banning of the book claiming that it had insulted the Buddha. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, having read a report by Eric that it was a work of art and had nothing to do with the Buddha had dismissed the forceful submissions made by militant Buddhist monks for the banning of the book. In the second incident, Deputy Minister C P J Seneviratna, a strong UNP stalwart, had stormed a temporary police station in Mahiyanganaya and released some suspects who had been arrested by the Police for unruly behaviour. When this was brought to the notice of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, he had just ordered that the Police should do its duty according to the law.
Such principled politicians and strong-willed public servants help protect the liberty of citizens. However, an incident involving the arrest and deportation of a British woman who had a tattoo of Buddha’s head in 2014 was an example where the Police had succumbed to the pressure of religio-cultural fundamentalists and accordingly functioned as a cultural-police force. On seeking justice through Sri Lanka’s legal system, after three and a half years in 2017, the Supreme Court delivered justice to her by declaring that her detention and deportation were illegal and awarding her compensation amounting to £ 4000. Yet, after the Easter bombings in Churches and tourist hotels in April 2019, similar arrests were made by the Police on religious grounds implying that they were serving their duty as a cultural police force. When a government tolerates such acts of violating fundamental human rights, it is the replay of the Gilgamesh Problem outlined by Acemoglu and Robinson in The Narrow Corridor. In this instance, liberty is denied to people by the government and the Police which are created for delivering the same.
Part III – Social Progress
All societies today aspire to ameliorate the life of their members through social progress. In this context, social progress encompasses political, economic, social and cultural advancement of people. Prof. Herath has defined it to be inclusive progress in his book on Development Administration:
“When taken as a whole, what is expected of development is the advancement of people. In other words, development is human development. It is the progress of the whole society. It brings about a change in the progress of society. This human social progress should be a continuous improvement. In this way, the final goal of development is the progress of the whole human society. That progress should not be limited to a few individuals or a small group. It should necessarily be an inclusive progress”.
Later in the book, Prof. Herath has made the following remark:
“Material progress is very important for successful lay life. Yet, the possession of material resources like vehicles, money, houses, lands etc. will not guarantee a contented lay life. In this respect, attaining spiritual advancement will help a person to lead a contented successful life”
According to Prof. Herath, three core values have to be accomplished when planning for development by any society. They are the ability to sustain a better livelihood, live with self-esteem as a person and make appropriate choices without being forced by outside parties. What Prof. Herath has outlined as progress is helping members of society, without exception, to attain self-perfection. This is the essential element that should be inbuilt into any social progress program. The core-value of every major religion is to help the adherents to attain self-perfection, though the path to do so differs from each other. But one important pre-requisite for following the path prescribed is the existence of liberty. That liberty encompasses the freedom to think, believe, express, choose and live.
Human society progresses only if its members become inventive and innovative. Inventions involve creating new things and innovations, making them available to members. Both require one to challenge the existing order – social, technical, political, economic, religious and cultural. If Copernicus and Galileo did not challenge the existing wisdom of the Christian church, the world would still have believed that the earth was flat and the sun was revolving around the earth. The founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, the predecessor to the present University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Rev. Welivitiye Sri Soratha, is reported to have advised the undergraduates that they should be challenging, probing and critical. This wisdom has been incorporated into lyrics of the University anthem.
The forced allocation of resources through central leadership could deliver higher economic growth to society. But such economic growth becomes short-lived since long-term sustenance of growth depends on the continued supply of inventions and innovations to the system. Inventions and innovations thrive when human beings enjoy self-esteem and are free to choose, two important core values identified by Prof. Herath as necessary for sustained social progress. This was evident in the old Soviet Union. In the absence of liberty, the Soviet Union failed to replicate inventions and innovations and as a result, could not continue with the high economic growth it generated in the 1930s and 1940s. As Acemoglu and Robinson have noted, “One can pour resources into patents, universities, new technologies and even create huge rewards for success (for some Soviet scientists, the reward was to stay alive). But it is not enough if you cannot replicate the rambunctious, disorderly and disobedient nature of true experimentation”. No society has been able to manage it unless liberty is enshrined into the system. What it means is that for long-term sustained economic progress, the inputs should come from both the top-down and bottom-up systems equally. Human liberty is a sine qua non for proliferating bottom-up views in the form of inventions and innovations.
The religio-cultural fundamentalism has taken liberty away from people. When cultures and societies continuously advance, evolving into new shapes in the process, fundamentalists seek to take them backward and imprison the members in old systems. They deny the freedom of choice to members and in the process impede the drive for inventions and innovations. The social progress is the casualty and when society does not progress, the corollary is the intra-society as well as inter-society conflicts.
Part IV – Conclutions
Homo sapiens became the masters of the globe after this species developed cognitive skills some 70,000 years ago. It facilitated them to spread out to rest of the globe from the ancestral seat in East Africa, create language, domesticate both plants and animals, settle down in specific places and build kingdoms and empires. Throughout the subsequent millennia, they underwent considerable evolution not only in their genetic build-up but also in the way they behave, known as the culture. They are still evolving and one cannot predict into what form these animals would evolve in the future. However, the groups that have not been able to experience this evolutionary process safely have converted themselves to fundamentalists seeking to stop the evolutionary process and turn it backward. The corollary has been the denial of liberty to people and generation of intra-society and inter-society conflicts among human beings. The denial of human freedom has impeded the process of inventions and innovations, a must for continued social progress. This is the most serious social problem faced by societies today.
 See Dhammapada, Verses 129 – 133 (Available at: http://www.buddhanet.net/dhammapada/d_punish.htm) (Accessed on 16.1.2020)
 Mula Sutta in Anguttara Nikaya (Available at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.069.than.html) (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 Khama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya (Available at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.164.than.html) (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 Quoted from Locke’s Two Treatises of Government republished in 1764 by https://oll.libertyfund.org/quotes/497 (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, A James, 2019, The Narrow Corridor: State, Societies and the Fate of Liberty, New York: Penguin, pp xiii-xv
 Available at: http://www.island.lk/2010/05/29/satmag1.html (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 Iddamalgoda, Thilak, 2003, What a Policeman! (In Sinhala), Ratmalana Sarvodaya, p124-5
 Wijewardena, W A, 2014, “Woman with the Buddha Tattoo: Much more economics in episode than religious sentiments”, Colombo: Daily FT (Available at: http://www.ft.lk/columns/woman-with-the-buddha-tattoo-much-more-economics-in-episode-than-religious-sentiments/4-288858) (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-41995069 (Accessed on 19.1.2020)
 Herath, H M A, 2017, Development Administration (in Sinhala), Dehiwala: Sri Devi, p 2
 Ibid, p 10
 Ibid, pp 11-3
 https://www.britannica.com/biography/Galileo-Galilei (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 Acemoglu and Robinson, op cit, p 234.
Books and Journal Articles
- Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, A James, 2019, The Narrow Corridor: State, Societies and the Fate of Liberty, New York: Penguin
- Brown, Dan, 2017, London: Origin, Bantam
- Dawkins, Richard, 2012, The Magic of Reality: How we know what is really true? London: Black Swan
- Dhammaratana, Rev Hisselle, 1963, Sinhalaye Dravida Balapema, Nugegoda: Humanitarian Writers’ Forum
- Frankopan, Peter, 2015, The Silk Roads, , London: Bloomsbury
- Goonawardhana, Gate Mudliyar W F, 1973, Sinhala Vaag Vidya Muladharma, Colombo: Gunasena.
- Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens, 2011, A Brief History of Humankind, London: Vintage Books
- Harari, Yuval Noah, 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, , London: Vintage
- Hawking, Stephen, 2011, Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128222-500-existence-where-did-we-come-from/
- Hawking, Stephen, 2018, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray
- Herath, H M A, 2017, Development Administration (in Sinhala), Dehiwala: Sri Devi
- Iddamalgoda, Thilak, 2003, What a Policeman! (In Sinhala), Ratmalana Sarvodaya
- Koparahewa, Sandagomi and Arunachalam, Sarojini Devi, 2011, Tamil Words in Sinhala Language (in Sinhala) Colombo: Godage
- Sen, Amartya, 2005, The Argumentative Indian, London: Penguin Books
- Sen, Amartya, 2006, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, London: Allen Lane.
- Wickramasinghe, Martin, 2006, Buddhism and Culture, Rajagiriya: Sarasa
- Wijewardena, W A, 2012, “Cultural Nationalism: Boon or Bane?” in Daily FT (Available at: http://www.ft.lk/article/71136/Rise-of-cultural–nationalism–Boon-or-bane
- Wijewardena, W A, 2014, “Woman with the Buddha Tattoo: Much more economics in episode than religious sentiments”, Colombo: Daily FT (Available at: http://www.ft.lk/columns/woman-with-the-buddha-tattoo-much-more-economics-in-episode-than-religious-sentiments/4-288858)