28 May, 2022


Republic Privatized? 

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

“A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” ~ C.S. Lewis

This endeavor is to put the sum right. It began with inchoate rage of students. Military Brahminism trespassing free education was the inceptive issue.

Pent up resentment has turned in to apoplectic rage of peasant, pedagogue, and priest. The state is perceived as lazy and leechlike.

The Socialist Democratic Republic has turned in to a monstrous store house of unfulfilled promises – political economic and moral.

These are uncertain times. We are in crisis. Antonio Gramsci, known as the practical Marxist thinker writing in his prison cell in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy defined the kind of crisis that nations encounter when dissent is suppressed, and plurality is repudiated.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”

We look around. We see morbid symptoms. There was a time when political power was not considered hereditary property. Nepotism existed. But not institutionalized.

On independence we adopted a parliamentary system. In 1978 the now extinct UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene imposed on us the world’s most powerful and rigid presidential system.

Parliamentary system evolved through centuries of resistance to the tyranny of an anointed monarch. Presidentialism was devised by American rebels whose immediate purpose was to be rid of mad king George and British nobility who lorded over them. Donald Trump demonstrated the fragility of the system.

Born in early forties, I recall the sixties and seventies as the happiest of times. Norms and values were different.

Of course, there was import substitution. Gillette razors were a luxury. I remember traveling to Tokyo. I did not eat the peanuts served on Cathay Pacific. I put them in my briefcase along with whatever else that will keep for a week or two for my two young children.

I have stood in queue at the cooperative store for Oster milk for my child born in the epochal year 1970 when a party was returned to power with a two thirds majority in parliament.

The new government adopted a constitution that made us a republic. But we retained the parliamentary system. Democracy though dysfunctional at times, retained its core content.

The parliamentary system permitted dissent and protest. Accountability was an imperative dictated by the conscience of those in public life.

Dante Alighieri interpreting purgatory and heaven defines what it’s like to remember happier times. “There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time when miserable.”

In sixties and early seventies, I reported parliament for the Evening Observer. When compared to present day misery, those were happier times. Parliament was a place where serious business was conducted.

Sometime in the late sixties, the opposition moved a vote of no confidence against M.H. Mohamed Minister of Labour in the cabinet of Premier Dudley Senanayake.

The opposition presented a cogent indictment. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, who was a combative debater, did not defend his minister of labour with any degree of gusto. It was obvious that his heart was not in it.

“We must give the minister the benefit of the doubt” was his final plea at which point Dr. Colvin R de Silva offered his memorable riposte.

“In this country people don’t resign. They resign themselves to the new situation”

That was the way parliament functioned then. The opposition exposed an errant minister. The Prime Minister conceded the substance of the opposition case while defending his minister.

The presidential system as practiced since its introduction has systematically eroded the principle of accountability. It has reduced parliament to a mere talk shop.

There is no connection between representatives and the represented. The appointment of a task force on “One Law One Country” concept is a sure signal that after 73 years as a nation state, on the matter of the principle of the rule of law we are totally adrift.

Tom Bigham a great British jurist who has written extensively on the rule of law offers this snippet.

Ask a man on the Strand ‘who rules you?’. If he replies ‘King James II, then he is in a monarchy. If he replies, ‘the law’, he is in a democracy.

I asked the question from one of my grown-up granddaughters now in first year in university. “Don’t be stupid“ was her laconic reply.

The rot set in with the adoption of presidentialism. Since 1978, our nation-state has quietly and surely got conditioned to cohabit with blatant, brutal injustice. In short presidentialism privatized the republic.

Injustice is a serious problem. One must either accept it or fight it. Worrying about injustice is neither here nor there.

Passage of time makes injustice commonplace. With passage of time, you get used to the Injustice. As Hannah Arendt famously said there is an ordinary aspect to evil. When you live with injustice you stop thinking about injustice.

Time has arrived for us to make an honest review of the perils of presidentialism. We must revisit the prospect of a return to a robust parliamentary system.

The presidential system which is more akin to Caesarism enables the wealthy and privileged few to define the rules of the free market behind closed doors. A parliamentary system will enable the majority to regulate the free market.

Our current conundrum with the oligopoly of rice millers is the best example.

Machiavelli was not a wicked man. He was an honest scholar who understood and chronicled human nature. He merely studied how good decent people in public life vacillated between virtue and fortune.

After his stint with the Medici family, he wrote a meticulous history of the City of Florence. Writing on the corruption of the city of Florence under the Medici family, he reiterates his faith in the optimism of the human will.

“.. do not impute past disorders to the nature of the men, but to the times, which, being changed, give reasonable ground to hope that, with better government, our city will have better fortune in the future.”

There is hope if we change the system.

Unless we are totally blind to reality, we must surely recognize that we have a national malignancy – a kind of a cruel cancer that is devouring the moral fiber of our society.

How long must we go about our daily lives acting as though nothing is wrong? How much effort must we exert to close our minds to the images of people suffering injustices?

Complacency is a luxury we can no longer afford. Since 1978, we have watched the abuse of power by successive regimes.

Now we learn that the treasury secretary under the Premadasa presidency had secret bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands.

Will that news help mitigate the alleged sins of the power couple under the current dispensation as exposed in Pandora revelations?

There was a time when the high and mighty were held accountable even if the process had its pitfalls and inconveniences.

Give the devil his due. Felix Dias Bandaranaike as Minister of Justice ensured that Sir Oliver Goonetilleke a former Governor General was brought before a Criminal Justice Commission.

For his trouble, Felix Dias lost his civil rights under the Presidency of J.R. Jayewardene

In our parliamentary democracy we had leaders – Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake who took great pains to convey a visible sense of ethical leadership.

They had their weaknesses. But they were not rotten. They did not permit flagrant rent seeking under their watch.

All that changed when J.R. Jayewardene introduced the executive presidency. To develop the country by adopting market economics he placed our parliamentary system in a straitjacket.

The executive presidency is a straitjacket. It restricts parliament to procedural niceties.

In retrospect, it was a logical move. Free market economics is moral neutral. J R Jayewardene was a modern-day Louis XIV. “It is legal because I wish it.” “I am the state.”

He knew that free market economics was moral neutral. His kind of politics had no relation to morals. The sole intent of the executive presidency was to subject it to the whims of the strong man at the helm.

Monolithic governance that followed bred hitherto unheard – of levels of corruption. Public officials found that loyalty to the regime insulated them from accountability.

The strong executive authority he set up had an inner circle of advisors. A select number of cabinet ministers oversaw pivotal portfolios. Civil servants were handpicked for their demonstrated ability to coalesce with private sector entrepreneurial interests.

The Presidential system blurred the thin line that separated the state and the elected government. It has produced heedless politicians, faceless yet arrogant bureaucrats and scheming greedy oligarchs.

The shift from parliamentarism to presidentialism spawned political personalization, irrevocably   undermining ideology, and the political party. Party ideology was replaced with presidential vision. J R Jayewardene was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte who described himself as a dealer of hope.

The direct election of the president made interparty competition a charade.

Lest the present generation forget, JR succeeded in coopting SLFP stalwarts Maithripala Senanayake and P.B.G Kalugalla to support the term extension of parliament by the infamous referendum. Opposition members who voted for the 20th amendment were following a precedent!

Coopting the opposition is not a new phenomenon. JRJ is the first to discover the double swinging saloon door.

The attitudes of the media changed. Once aggressive and inquisitive reporting and comment acquired a new reverence towards the ‘presidency’. The executive presidency was the repository of political will and state sovereignty.

The executive presidency conceived by JRJ was a constitutional dictatorship. Don’t be mistaken. “Viyathmaga” is a new label for an old idea.

J.R. Jayewardene had his ‘Viyathmaga’ around his breakfast table at Ward Place.

Ranasinghe Premadasa strongly believed in his own power and perception. He too believed that he was a creature of destiny. He had his solitary ‘Viyath Civil Servant “who knew all about our island and about British Virgin Islands.

‘Paski’ was Kautilya, Cardinal Richelieu and Potemkin rolled in to one. More than solving problems he fixed them. His civil service cotemporaries dubbed him the ultimate ‘fixer.’

With the help of the fixer, Premadasa perfected presidentialism. He ruled by edict. He was the street fighter who sharpened his craft in Colombo municipal council politics. The country was after all an enlarged version of his municipal ward St Sebastian’s hill.

Chandrika also had her “Viyath”or ‘accomplished’ group of advisors- some brave, some bohemian and some brash as was the case with singer and song writer Alston Koch who had some development assignment in the southern province.

Chandrika’s ‘Viyathmaga’ started off with abundant promise. That was short lived. It gradually debased into great disorder as was evident from the Wayamba provincial council elections.

That said, we must remember that one of her original ‘viyathmaga’ discoveries has survived and looms large even to this day in the Pohottu: firmament – a curious case of a lotus eater turned philistine.

This endeavor is to get the sum right. You have a pretty good idea of the contemporary ‘viyathmaga’. So, we go to the roots of the problem.

JRJ never forgot his defeat at Kelaniya in 1956. The defeat in Kelaniya made him the ultimate cynic. He did not see things as they were. Instead, he saw things as what they ought to be.

J.R. Jayewardene genuinely believed in the executive presidency. He was not a man for governing but for guiding.

In the Dudley Senanayake cabinet, he was more of an observer than a participant. Dudley’s economic wizard Gamani Corea did not subscribe to his free market theory.

In the 1972 Constituent Assembly he proposed the executive presidency. He envisaged an executive presidency directly elected by the people for a period of seven years.

Rejecting the proposal Dr. Colvin R de Silva the Minister of Constitutional Affairs explained

“There is undoubtedly one virtue in this system of Parliament and that is that the chief executive of the day is answerable directly to the representatives of the people continuously by reason of the fact that the Prime Minister can remain Prime Minister only so long as he can command the confidence of that assembly. We do not want either Presidents or Prime Ministers who can ride roughshod over the people and, therefore, first, over the people’s representatives. There is no virtue in having a strong man against the people.”

The presidential system is a one-way road to a privatized parasitic wasteland, hostile to reason, intolerant to dissent, ill-equipped for vibrant debate.

As Colvin warned in 1972 “there is no virtue in having a strong man against the people.”

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Latest comments

  • 11

    There is nothing wrong in privatization of loss making government departments and corporations. When privatized its third party money that’s invested (comes in to the country if foreign investment). However, the assets purchased, example land, buildings and capital assets purchased under the privatization does not leave the country, only the profit of the investor from the project will leave the country. Benefits would include more jobs, less borrowings by the government resulting in less tax and demand for more printing of the money etc. Only issue here, as we always see in all the government contracts are the loopholes left open for abuse. Its done purposely by the President, PM, Ministers and the Secretaries of the Ministries. A law should be passed, if a glaring loophole is left in the agreement, then the Minister and the Ministry Secretary who were involved in such an agreement should leave the Parliament, should not be able to get another government post and above all should not be able to become a candidate in any election.

  • 23

    The greatest tragedy and disaster to this country has been Ranil Wickramasinghe.

    It is by comparing whoever is the other side to Ranil that people voted for them-MR, Chandrika, Sirisena, GR.

    If the UNP had a different leader these people would not have won that easily.

    This guy is not only incapable but is also a fraud. Ranil never wanted to fight Prabakaran seriously. he could not even remove Sarath Silva.He never could fight MR.

    Ranil is very devious and dishonest. His closest buddies are Mahendran and Paski.

    He spent all his effort to retain the UNP leadership. He kept it but lost everything else. Today the UNP is dead.

    • 10

      You are absolutely right! Ranil is the tragedy of Sri Lankan politics since 1994, almost for 3 decades. He is the ultimate misfortune of any political party, similar to Anura Bandaranayaka, nightmare of any party devotee. Ranil has never been a winning horse but a loser always. His main problem is stupid ego and arrogance towards his own party members. Those are ideal recipe for losing election after election. The so called ‘5 times PM’ is rubbish because it was always others who put him in that chair. Be it Gamini Athukorala, Rajitha, or even SB – they all dragged him and pushed to the big chair but he never could run a government to the full term. All his PM tenures ended up in few months, or 4 years maximum. That shows what a world class loser and a misfortune he is!!

  • 14

    Sarath, not to forget, all this took place with the help of voters by creating a race / religious divide. Though there were many before 83 riots turned out to be a landmark from which the country never recovered there after.

  • 12

    Every single PM & President of SL since independence, is responsible for contributing to the state the country is in now. It would be interesting to see who tops the list
    . Would it be MR (certainly the most corrupt), GR (least competent narcissist), slimy Sirisena (ignorant & self serving), JR (most autocratic & selfish), SWRD (biggest hypocrite), Sirima (uneducated housewife lost in political wilderness), CBK (Sorbonne hype but nothing contributory), Premadasa (illiterate municipal councillor with an inferiority complex), the list goes on. Everyone has their speciality but corruption in various degree is the common factor. The true colours come to light only when in power. Corruption & incompetence evolves exponentially. Who will be the next leader to outshine them all?

  • 12

    I’m exhausted ……. when I think of Lanka my mind grinds to a halt.

    I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel ……. the tunnel extends for millenniums.

    People were taught a lesson of their stupidity …… very quickly ……. “It’s the economy stupid” ……. but for how long?

    Our journey ….. since independence …… is signposted by nothing but acts of greater and greater stupidity …… as far as the eye can see …… on a clear day, a glance of the far horizon can be terrifying ……

    A country in its lingering death knell …… a black hole falling in on itself ………….

    • 7

      Needless to say I agree with everything you’ve said. However, you mention ‘since independence’ and that is the interesting part Nimal. What about pre colonization, say before 1815? I see a strong connection of the trends Sri Lankan mentality between the post independence and pre colonization. Put another way, just take the colonization period totally off from our history and then you will see the psyche of Sri Lankans are the same tribal, island, racist mentality. Contrary to the popular misconception, I don’t believe British did the divide and rule method. What they did was bringing up the then suppressed Tamils to the mainstream public service. But then Tamils wanted everything, the other side of the Sinhalese coin! I am not charging Sinhalese only but same with Tamils and Muslims too. They all want to beat the other and never want to work in harmony towards a national consensus.

      • 6


        You have raised some very interesting points …….. and I appreciate that you haven’t taken a particular side. No side is above blame.

        Ours is a very complex “condition” ……… my knowledge of our past history is very limited …… but I will try to answer when I have a little more free time.

        “I don’t believe British did the divide and rule method.”

        Agreed. I don’t believe there is evidence to show that unqualified Tamils were chosen over qualified or unqualified Sinhalese. The Tamils, through their good educational institutions, had obtain the qualifications/education to hold those positions.

  • 9

    Raj-UK you are half right, these things , especially corruption, remains to be proved.A lot of negatives are suggested subtly by Ranil and Co to influence us.He will say MR is corrupt, GR is a killer. If so when he had the power what did Ranil do ?

    If Ranil has any moral sense why did he defend Mahendran like that and even reappoint the rascal for a second term as Governor ? Who was his Finance Minister ? Ravi K. Who was his administrative czar ? Paski of Pandora fame.

    Like a Jury, after considering everything ,the people preferred these leaders to Ranil.

    Because a misfit and a fraud like Ranil took control of the UNP, the people lost an alternative. He has been a curse on the country.

  • 2

    Privatized and Privatization, unfortunately is used in many contexts. On reading this article, I gather that the author wishes to highlight that the Government of Sri Lanka has become a “One Man Show”, instead of a body collective. Amidst a plethora of historical incidents cited, the most valuable sentence in the article is quoted as follows: “Norms and values were different.” We can have so may fine laws and constitutions but an indecent, valueless man/men devoid of norms can turn a system upside down. Dr. Ambedkar, the author of the Indian republican constitution, upon being congratulated for his excellent draft made a statement to the effect highlighting the about the attributes of those who would implement the constitution. Dr. Ambedkar is quoted as follows which are self-explanatory “not to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions” AND “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. These words speak for themselves with respect to their application in Sri Lanka.

  • 5

    Power destroyed many countries but Sri Lanka destroyed very fast. Now there is confusion where to restart, how to restart the engine which is almost dead. The engine worked for seventy five years with the same old drivers called Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalism. Don’t misunderstand that it is Buddhism wrong or Sinhala people are bad or wrong. How come you expect Lord Buddha will come and safe you when you killed Lord Buddha. You can build thousands of Buddhist statues or Buddhist Temples when you believe in violence instead of Love, Kind, Sympathy, Honest.

  • 4

    1,500 young women have been reported by families as missing in recent days. A pawn broker was tricked as she was about to be on a normal business and her jewelry was robbed and she was murdered, body was packed in a travel case, using a private vehicle to transport and body was dropped in a garbage dump. Husband & children reported the case, but the finding of the body was private citizens alertness. All these times, in the north, the Rapist Army and Rapist Police use Aava Kuzhu like paramilitary and organized gangs to launch these violent crimes. Many times, individuals of rehabilitated LTTE members, under threat of arrest, are forced into these activities to create an illusion in Colombo and to international actors that the LTTE is active again. But the current details in the media create a suspicion that these techniques are now freely employed in the south too, with an excuse that the unemployed & hungry youths are going rampant. Aanduwa is trying to turn the political attention of the masses toward the new, created crime spree. So, they are safe on their own looting spree. This is why we have been writing here that the UN has to send the peacekeepers so the Rapist Army’s grip can be loosened. We urgently need a neutral army like NATO or Peacekeepers to liberate the country.

  • 1

    The title was not appealing to me. I did not expect to see anything worthy of reading. With no worthwhile activity to kill my time I began reading it.
    I am making this comment, half-way down the article. Commenting seemed a better pastime!
    System of Government is not the problem. We are quite capable of making any system look inadequate.
    Our minds have been primed to think of Democracy as an illegitimate child!
    (I’ll carry on Reading.)

  • 4

    Half Kerala – Malayali and half Catholic Sri lankan descent J.R.J became the Sinhala fighter and ruined the country as a minister, opposition leader , Prime minister, and finally, as the President not only destroyed the country for over for 40 years but, also ruined U.N.P. by introducing nephew Ranil into the party. However, the worst is yet to happen by the American citizens Gota and Basil Rajapaksas who were brought in by Mahida ayya , now behaving uncontrollable by him. They may either mortgage or sell the country to U.S.A., China ,India or any body the highest bidder within their lifetime.

    • 0

      His ancestor was a Thambi Mudaliar, which means he was from the Tamil Mudaliar community, an upper sub caste amongst the Vellalar. Many of their Sinhalised Govgamma descendants now take the name Mudali, Eg. Athulath Mudali. Ironically another virulent Tamil hater. The Sinhalese Govigamma descendants of the Tamil Pillai community, another upper Vellalar sub caste now take the name Pilli. There was no Malayalam language when the Tamil ancestor of JR Jayawardene migrated from South India to the island. Malayalam was still considered the local variety of Tamil that was still written in the Tamil Vatteluthu script. What is now passing off as Malayalam now is the highly Sanskritised Grantha Bhasha of the immigrant Namboothiri Brahmins, written in the Tulu based Tilgari script.

      • 0

        The local Tamil dialect that was called Malayalam written in Tamil was banned by the British in the 1820s and the Grantha Bhasha of the Namboothiri’s was made the official language of Kerala and cunningly renamed as Malayalam. As they were the allies of the British and the native Tamil Dravidian population were rebelling against the British East India company. They were not Catholics but were Anglicans. All the so-called Sinhalese families that have ruled the island and deliberately created all this racism and anti-Tamil feeling are all of recent South Indian immigrant origin. Ironically descended from Tamil or Telugu origin Tamil Naickers from Madurai and Tanjavur. However, the last one that is the worst is from SE Asia of Malaccan Catholic origin, which can yet be seen in their features.

  • 3

    Mr Sarath Alwis
    Real started in 1948 with defranxhising of Indian Labor. It was not an act of patriotism nor act of Comunalism but an act of political motivation that is to weaken the left movement.
    In 1952, SWRD left UNP not because of policy issues but due Nepotism in UNP and SWRD’s personal ambition may rightfully to become Prime minister. He brought Sinhala only in 24 hours not due to patriotism but to defeat UNP. That was the beginning of end of Ceylon. From that time onwards, we slip from an envious position in Asia to current failing state.
    Milestones in that road to disaster are 1972 politization of bureaucrats by none other than Colvin with removal of 29 2 section protecting minority rights and bringing in Religion to consitution by man who believed in ‘one languge two countries and two languages 0ne country’ and ‘Religion is opium of people’ for political advantage.
    Another mile stone was of course JRJ’s constitution.
    Ir is not Presidential system but improperly implemented Presidential system. US had it for 250 years but held the country together under very difficult situations lately it did not allow Trumph to do very mad things as they have done for 70 years continuously in Sri Lanka under parliamentary system.

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