By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka is generally seen by is people as being a small country. Those inclined to oppose the decentralization of power to the provinces, especially those in which the Tamil and Muslim people predominate, are apt to even describe Sri Lanka as a tiny country. But in actual fact Sri Lanka is not so small or tiny. It is a medium sized country with a territory that is bigger than many European countries. Sri Lanka’s population makes it larger than more than half of the world’s countries in terms of population. Even geographically Sri Lanka is larger than about 40 percent of the world’s countries. This means that Sri Lanka is too big to be governed as a fiefdom and requires a good system of governance in order to survive.
The governance of societies in which there are large populations comprising different identity and class groups is an extremely complicated task. They defy the abilities of single individuals to resolve even if those individuals are supremely talented as, indeed, Sri Lanka’s present leaders undoubtedly are. Human societies have evolved from times when single individuals sought to make all the decisions to the present times, with systems and rules and lines of authority and separations of powers. The availability of systems enables complex societies consisting of millions of individuals and groups with their own different interests to survive without collapsing into widespread conflict.
After centuries of experimentation with different forms of government, the system of governance that is accepted today as being the most successful is the democratic one, in which people vote regularly at elections to decide on their political leadership. It is to the credit of the government that it is constantly willing to prove its acceptability amongst the people by holding elections. Later this week there will be elections in three provinces that are being prematurely held in order to give a boost to the government’s legitimacy to continue on its present course of action. The government has even been willing to hold elections in the Eastern Province in which the Tamil and Muslim people are the majority and its Sinhalese voter base is a minority.
However, when it comes to matters of governance, it is not only the people’s choice of whom they wish to have as their political leaders that enables the society to function effectively. There is also a need to follow systems of governance that give people confidence that injustice will be corrected and there will be accountability. These systems ensure that power is not concentrated and that institutions vested with authority to carry out certain tasks, can do so with integrity. If the political leadership of the government is believed to be interfering in the proper functioning of institutions that enable just outcomes to materialize, there can be a collapse of governance.
At the present time the people of Sri Lanka have placed their trust in a strong government leadership that has gained the admiration and respect of large sections of the Sri Lankan population and also internationally. It is this leadership that accomplished a task that few thought possible when they politically weakened and militarily eliminated the LTTE. Even international experts in both conflict resolution and military affairs thought that such a feat was not possible. But what many thought was impossible was proved to be possible within a relatively short space of three years that ended a three decade long war.
Due to the trust that the people have placed in them, the government leadership has been able to concentrate more and more power in themselves so that they appear to be accountable to no one. One clear manifestation of this concentration of power was the 18th Amendment which gave to the President the power to pick and choose anyone he wants to head the judiciary and all other departments of the government. Another open manifestation of this power is the Divineguma Bill in which the powers to develop the country from the village upwards is being concentrated in a single government ministry. This bill is before the Supreme Court and its verdict will be known soon. If it is judged to be in conformity with the Sri Lankan constitution, it will erode the powers of devolved authorities and lead to an unprecedented concentration of economic power in the hands of the relevant minister.
The experience of other countries, and Sri Lanka itself, is that no individual can determine the course of governance of a society successfully without the support of other institutions of government that are empowered to function with integrity. There are now increasing signs of systems failing in Sri Lanka. The manner in which the stock market has been manipulated and the resignation of its two previous heads due to interference from above has shaken the business community and sent a very negative message to international investors who were expected to invest in the Sri Lankan stock market and give it a boost. Thousands of motor vehicles have had their engines ruined due to the repeated import of substandard fuel, the Norochcholai power plant is constantly breaking down and there are no signs of anyone being held responsible and being dealt with.
The breakdown of systems of governance leads to an erosion of confidence in the institutions set up to deal with issues of justice and accountability. The alternative option that now appears to be taken by groups that have the capacity to mobilize for collective action is to go on strike, which is usually an action of last resort. A doctor is assaulted by ruling party politicians on the campaign trail. As faith in the ability of the police to deal with ruling party politicians is at a low ebb, the doctors go on strike even at the cost of thousands of innocent patients presumably because they feel they have no other choice. A government minister allegedly instigates a mob to attack a court house, and the lawyers go on strike as they doubt whether the investigations into a government minister’s doings will ever be a proper one. The university teachers have been on strike for over two months as the government has failed to deal with their grievances, even though the education of the next generation of the country’s most intelligent youth is severely jeopardized.
These strikes in different areas that indicate a breakdown in confidence in the ability of existing systems to deliver can one day coalesce into a common protest. It is not surprising that the 18th Amendment is breeding its antithesis. The philosopher Georg Hegel theorized about thesis and antithesis which would give rise to synthesis. The example he gave, in the first half of the 19th century, was that a state of oppression generates a need for freedom; but once freedom has been achieved there can only be anarchy, until elements of each combine to produce the rule of law. A proposed 19thAmendment that is being proposed by an array of groups who are coalescing around a prominent religious cleric is calling for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. When the presidency was set up in 1978, its supporters said that it would free the executive branch of government from “the whims and fancies of Parliament.” In the face of the downside of the concentration of power, it is a synthesis such as a Rule of Law-based executive parliament that Sri Lankan society may need to be preparing for.