14 August, 2022


Sri Lanka A Banana Republic?

By Suren Perera

Suren Perera

Sri Lanka’s present constitution (the 1978 constitution), defines Sri Lanka as a democratic and socialist state, as distinctly unitary, and as a state governed by a semi-presidential system, i.e. a mixture of a presidential and a parliamentary system. According to the Article 3 of the 1978 constitution, in the Republic of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is with the people and is inalienable. And, sovereignty includes the ‘powers of government’, fundamental rights and franchise.

However, people do not directly exercise ‘powers of government’ in Sri Lanka. Article 4 divides power as a) legislative power, exercised by parliament and people at a referendum; b) executive power, exercised by the president; and c) judicial power, exercised by parliament through courts, tribunals and other institutions. The president and the parliament of the republic are elected by the people.

In Sri Lanka, even though sovereignty rests with the people and is inalienable, a relevant question is whether, ‘powers of government’, as exercised by parliament and the president, are fulfilling the desires of the people? In other words, has this indirect or representative democracy made Sri Lankan democracy ‘misrepresentative’?

A recent incident, which took place in Dahaiyagama junction in Anuradhapura, may help answer the question. Dr. Chamila Herath, attached to the Anuradhapura Teaching Hospital’s Cancer Treatment Unit, was attacked by a group of supporters of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on the night of August 30, 2012, at Dahaiyagama junction. According to the Anuradhapura police investigation, UPFA supporters, in a drunken state, blocking traffic on the main road, who had finished decorating the adjacent UPFA party propaganda office scheduled to be opened next day, were responsible for this attack.

Dr. Chamila Herath has no links to any political party. The matter is thus simply one of rule of law, which is paralyzed by ‘powers of government’ vested in the sovereignty of the people. This attack has been ultimately carried out by the ruling party of the country, appointed by the people of Sri Lanka to exercise their ‘powers of government’. The logical question is whether it is the ‘desire of the people’ to attack a non-political doctor while he was on his way to the hospital to respond to an emergency call?

Now, let us consider another recent incident in order to answer our question.  A few weeks ago, the head of the local authority in Tangalle, W.G. Sampath Chandrapushpa, accused of killing a British tourist and raping his girlfriend, has been reinstated to his party positions in SLFP, despite still being in jail. According to press reports, 32 year old Zaman and 23 years oldVictoriawere inSri Lankato celebrate Christmas and New Years together in the picturesque town of Tangalle. Chandarapushpa, who is an important cog in the Rajapaksa electoral machine in the Hambanthota District, and close confidante of MP Namal Rajapaksa, allegedly stabbed Zaman to death at The Nature Tangalle resort, while the victim attempted to settle a brawl between the politician and a local restaurant owner known as Ryan.

Zaman and Victoria were cut several times with broken bottles before they ran for their lives. Chandarapushpa and his men followed the couple with a T56 weapon and broken bottles in hand. They killed Zaman and stripped and raped Victoria mercilessly although she was bleeding from her head.

This inhuman behavior of Sri Lankans was widely reported all over the world.

Even though, Sri Lankans are world famous for their hospitality, these Sri Lankans killed and raped people who should have been treated with hospitality as foreigners. Moreover, this foreigner was killed while he was trying to help the Sri Lankan restaurant owner, who was not able to get any help from other Sri Lankan bystanders. Is this the desire of the people who elected this Chandrapushpa as chairman of Tangalle Pradeshiya sabaha? Did he represent the people who elected him to such a high position? If yes, is this the hospitality Sri Lankan people are known for worldwide?  Hasn’t the people’s sovereignty been misrepresented by Chandrapushpa, in his killing of a foreigner who came to help a Sri Lankan in trouble, and in his raping the foreigner’s girlfriend although she was bleeding from the head? What is the message people get when this Sri Lankan is reinstated by the ruling party of the country while still in jail.

On the other hand, how many ordinary people are attacked, and how many girls raped, by government party members, supporters, and thugs in the last few months? How many custodial deaths, like the case of Nimalaruban, have been taken place in this country?  Is it the desire of the Sri Lankan people, who have the sovereignty of this republic? The obvious answer is a resounding: No!

Therefore, our representative democracy has become ‘misrepresentative.’ We are victim to this indirect democracy. In this context, what can the Sri Lankan people do to recapture people’s power to determine their own fate make our democracy representative?

To reiterate, according to the 1978 constitution, sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. Most of the time, we fail to notice the word ‘inalienable’ when we talk about sovereignty, something Jean Jacques Rousseau drew much attention to in the 18th century. If sovereignty is inalienable, i.e. not transferable, can the Sri Lankan people exercise their ‘powers of government’ merely by voting? And, if merely voting is not allowing them to adequately exercise their sovereign powers, and make democracy representative, are not the people obliged to do more? In corollary, if, given that democracy has become misrepresentative, and the powers of government are being exercised contrary to what the people desire, have the Sri Lankan people lost ‘sovereignty?’ Are the Sri Lankan citizens, really citizens any more?

Such questions and arguments are the crux of the problem facing democracy, not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world. And, they direct us to the idea of ‘participatory democracy’

In the modern world, participatory democracy emphasizes the need for individuals to become more engaged in the powers of government. But, this is distinct from direct democracy instruments, like referendums, which Sri Lankan executive president J.R. Jayewardene used for entirely undemocratic purpose, to extend the life of parliament in 1982. In today’s context, civil society movements have a key role in participatory democracy.

South Koreais a finest example for a country with a powerful civil society, having a large number of civil society organizations. According to People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) – the largest civil society movement in South Korea– “the truth realization of democracy could only be achieved by the people who ordinarily participate in politics and closely watch the abuse of power of the state and the corporate.” The PSPD was founded in 1994 by activists, scholars, and lawyers who had engaged in various democratic movements during the decades of military dictatorship. It has been working on institutionalization of civil participation in democracy, state power, and socio-economic reform.

One of the significant distinctions between these civil society movements and Sri Lankan NGO’s is principles of finance. Most of the South Korean civil society organizations operate primarily via membership fees. In contrast, almost all Sri Lankan NGO’s operate with international funds. Hence, this distinction creates a huge gap between Korean and Sri Lankan organizations. As a direct result of these financial principles, thousands of people gather around Korean organizations that are financially independent. While Sri Lankan NGO’s collapse due to lack of international funds, Korean civil society organizations are not mercy to the whims of international donors, due to a stable domestic financial base, and their independence from both government funds and that of private corporations.

Sri Lankan NGO’s suffer from a lack of solidarity in civil society. Rather than getting civil participation, Sri Lankan NGO’s attempt greater proximity to international donors in order to get funds. ‘Solidarity’ is the most common word among Korean civil society groups, and civil participation is an important feature in their activities. In PSPD, for example, the Center for Civil Education runs a Civil Academy for providing citizens with civil education on democracy, liberty and humanity. While people rally around Korean civil society organization for ‘issues’, Sri Lankan ‘civil society’ rallies around NGO’s for the international funds that can be feasted upon.

Korea was established in 1948 as a democracy, but the work of civil society didn’t end there. The several uprisings South Koreans have had against military dictators since, has further strengthened civil movements for democracy in the country. The Korean Democracy Foundation is a non-profit organization which was created with the legislation of the Korea Democracy Foundation Act. It was passed by the National Assembly with the belief that the ‘spirit of democracy movement’ should be extended, developed, and acknowledged as a critical factor in bringing, maintaining, and furthering democracy in South Korea. This foundation set up for the purpose of enhancing Korean democracy through a variety of projects aimed at inheriting the spirit of the movement.

Sri Lanka, in contrast, is a country that never had a significant struggle for democracy. South Korea adopted an American style of constitution in 1948,Sri Lanka adopted a British style of constitution, and both countries developed their alien democracy principles without having a prior social agreement for democracy. However, the South Koreans gained a lot of social understanding while fighting against military dictatorship, which resulted in an implied social agreement to have democracy. In the Sri Lankan context, to date, there has been no social agreement or major debate regarding democracy since 1931.

In 1953, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake resigned as a result of a ‘hartal’, mainly organized by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Although, it was a mass political action against the government, it cannot be considered as a civilian movement for democracy. Yet, the hartal provides evidence that Sri Lankans had a better democratic political culture at the time. Even though, about 10 demonstrators were killed in this hartal, there is no much commemoration either about this incident or people who died in this hartal.

On the contrary, South Korean people never forget their past struggles and commemorate as well as continue the spirit of struggles and solidarity. As an illustration, May 18th Memorial Foundation is a non-profit organization in South Korea, established on August 30th, 1994 by the surviving victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, the victims’ families, and the citizens of Gwanju. This Foundation is working on numerous projects including organizing memorial events, disseminating information to the public, publishing relevant materials, building international solidarity and awarding The Gwangju Prize for HumanRights.

Democracy is not something that can be achieved merely from a constitution. There must be a social agreement to strive to greater and greater democracy. Even though, thousands upon thousands of Sri Lankans face tragedies akin to, or far worse than, Dr. Chamila Herath, none of the people understand this as a problem of democracy. As Sri Lankans, we have to upgrade our democracy not only by voting better and passing laws; we also have to change mind-sets through education about democracy in order for more and more Sri Lankan people to actively participate in real democracy.

*Suren Perera – Attorney at Law

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Are elections in South Korea,fully fair and free?
    How are they conducted?
    The electoral process is the bedrock of democracy, when people elect whom they like, without any constraints.

    • 0

      Elections in Sri Lanka are increasingly only a facade of democracy – a circus performance of a rotten democracy. Ironically, elections in this land like no other, is a cover up by a despotic regime that is destroying democratic institutions and checks and balances. Elections usually are a sign of a working democracy but in Lanka its just another sign of a rotten democracy..
      Elections masks and covers up the brutal regime and its local level and national level thugs and war criminals including Pillayan. Look at the Berty Prmalal fellow who wants to be Chief Minister of North Central Province with so may charges against him…
      Civil society must revolt and put a stop to this charade and demand that Northern Provincial Elections be held this year.

      • 0

        Democracy and democratic institutions have been hollowed out in Sri Lanka and today there is only the shell, the facade of democracy projects through the circus of elections where state and public property is used and abuse by the ruling regime to get its crooks and thugs from family dynasties of crooks and thugs elected.

        And the UNP with that horrible greedy dictator who has lost every election is no better than Rajapassa – indeed they support each other.
        Lanka needs a new generation of principled political leadership, who understand the meaning and substance of democracy

    • 0


  • 0

    I agree with Suren Perera’s analysis to a great extent. I believe that the President and the Govt are doing a great job in regard to the economy and integration of the SriLankan society. However, many influential supporters of the Govt are unfortunately common thugs behaving like thugs with impunity. In this respect we need to blame the President and the responsible authorities for not ensuring law and order is maintained by those responsible. Whatever good the Govt does, those dirty things done by its supporters as well as others stand out, only because of the inaction on the part of law enforcement agencies. We need to protect this progressive Govt by eliminating or at least reducing significantly corruption and thuggery. Having got rid of the most brutal terrorists of recent times, enforcing the law against criminals should not be such a difficult task for this Govt.

    • 0

      At least you see something good in our aanamaalu republic.

    • 0

      MR Raja

      Like you, I agree with Mr Suren,
      but not with what you stand on;

      ;#### I believe that the President and the Govt are doing a great job in regard to the economy and integration of the SriLankan society ####

      What great job president and your government doing for Economy,
      where is our economy heading, pls let all readers know?.

      ## influential supporters of the Govt are unfortunately common thugs. NOT ensuring law and order is maintained by those responsible ###.

      Who are these influential supporters,common thugs?.
      Who are manipulating and break the law and order?.
      Who is responsible to maintain law and order?


      #### We need to protect this progressive Govt by eliminating or at least reducing significantly corruption and thuggery ###.

      From Which and what way, you got the idea of this progressiveness of the government?.
      Nos of ministers,and M PS, their amassing wealth, providing security from tax payers money,
      nos of vehicles and value of they use and their families. what type of life they are living and where they holidaying.

      Who are all these criminals,LOOTERS OF GOVERNMENT COFFERS, corrupters, kudu mudalalis and thuggers?.

      should we the masses of Sri Lanka,should remember them, [president and Parliament or who ever responsible] to enforce the law against criminals?.

  • 0

    A well written article on democracy. Lets hope all right thinking Srilankans will be awakened and will take responsibility for the state of affairs in the country. Lets rally together to change our “Banana Republic”.

  • 0

    Suren, great post. Education in Sri Lanka is dominated by mechanisms of patriotic propaganda based on Sinhala Buddhism and anti-west slander. Democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and thought, are all taught to Sri Lankans as ‘non-Sinhala Buddhist’, and as such, evil ideas from the west.

    The problem is a catch 22. Mass society in Sri Lanka are largely uneducated, and ignorant of the realities outside of the country. In their minds, Sri Lanka is paradise, and the west, is sinful. Thanks to such mindsets, the propaganda of our leaders are easily bought into.

    To educate our society of democracy and human rights, we must first get them to open their eyes to the fact that our country, and society, do not represent paradise, or a truly ‘Buddhist’ society. But try to tell them that, and they will abuse you and chase you down, and treat you with the same level of ‘hospitality’ those poor foreigners in Tangalle were treated to… All in the name of preserving the good name of the motherland!

  • 0

    Hey welcome to reality. I guess it is better late than never.

    Some of us reached this conclusion 6 years ago !

    The problem is that …all good men remain actionless !!

  • 0

    Why we can’t organize PSDP in Sri Lanka.There are lot of people
    who wish to contribute on monthly basis

    Most of NGO members of this country try to make money
    for personnel consumption

  • 0

    Suren Perera has highlighted the fundamental problems with the government, civic society (I prefer the word civic to civil) and the NGO phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Ours is a perverted democracy, which elects a monarchy- which can be a benevolent dictatorship at best and a malignant one at worst- at regular intervals. Ours is a society that looks at the government as a benovolent patron rather than one elected to govern them justly and lead them to a visionary future, spending their (the people’s) money. Can a society that at large does not pay direct taxes, realize that the government is accountable to them and is obliged to perform efficiently using public money and debt?

    Does our society at large understand what democracy means, beyond the right to vote? Does our educational system teach and media inform the fundamentals of democracy and the meaning of the peoples sovereingty? Can our system of government that has enpowered politicians very much beyond the norms prevalent in other proven democracies, at the expense of the public service and judiciary, ever be truely democratic and effcient? Can a largely servile and immensely patient public ever exercise their right of sovereinty? Does the noise of ‘Çolombites’, which dominates public discourse in Sri Lanka, realy reflect the views and needs of the larger population?

    Can a country where public servants have been transformed into ‘Public masters’of a sort, ever be responsive to the needs of the powerless and influenceless? Can a venal public service that has made the slaves of their political masters, ever be reponsive to the voice and needs of the influenceless public?

    There is definitely a need for financially independent civic society fora and a vibrant grassroots media to educate the masses on their civic rights and duties, and mobilize them on a mass scale to make grassroots democracy vibrant, expressive and effective.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    Good stuff Suren, excellent analysis of the Colombo civil society and its running after donors for fund and trips out of the Banana Republic called Sri Lanka.. Civil society organizations has been destroyed by donors and have forgotten their purpose is to educate people on social issues, civil rights and participation.. so Lanka is indeed a Banana republic run by the Rajapakse family of uneducated uncultured morons and cronies like Nivard Cabraal at Central bani, who are looting the public wealth and in-debting the country..
    So too is the political opposition UNP led by the greedy power hungry Ranil useless. Opposition parties civil society is fragmented and so FUTA seems to be doing the work of the opposition in Lanka today.. Hope all lawyers and professionals will join them.

  • 0

    Good enumeration of stuff that’s been happening. A bit skewed due to absence of historical memory and the uncritical use of the term ‘Banana Republic’. That’s pretty loose and not very useful.

  • 0

    Hi Suren,

    I am proud of you. A well written article.

    But try to look at positive points as well as negative points as you did for IELTS writing.

    True. I am at a loss to understand why this Powerful President is unable to take any disciplinary action against any of his supporters. In contrast, the opposition leader is all out to take disciplinary action against anyone.

    However, Sri Lanka looks much better than what it was. At least no trend to kill each other.

    Hope and pray that more sincere people(not educated Lawyers) will get an opportunity to enter parliament in future for the benefit of our people.

    With lots of love.


  • 0

    Suren says:

    “As Sri Lankans, we have to upgrade our democracy not only by voting better and passing laws;”

    The state does not work for the people and it is not for the purpose. Therefore people must break the state and build it again.

    The path to building a democratic state is not a bed of roses.

    The majority Sinhala/Buddhist think the state belongs to them and they are the chosen people. Tamil/Saivaite think they are historical owners of North East. Saudi Arabia thinks parts of Sri Lanka belongs to them. The Chinese believe Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean. Pakistan in the meantime acts as though they are the regional power – just because they have the nuclear bomb and a hold on India through Jihadis.

    The aspiring “world power” India somehow wants to own the whole of Sri Lanka and thinks Sri Lanka is the Sinhala state of India. Oh well USA together with UK wants to be the masters of universe.

    There are many competing interests through which the stupid Tamils and stupid Sinhalese are forced to negotiate. Obviously the Tamils and Sinhalese always make the wrong choice at the wrong time. Their choice always leads to self destruction, for the sake of destruction.

    There is an alternative to self destruction, which Joseph Schempeter eloquently named it “Creative Destruction”.

  • 0

    Well whatever the definition is, Sri Lanka has become a corrupt land, run by one family, who hold over 200 top government jobs in the country, with journalists and activists killed, threatened or missing. There is absolutely no democracy when citizens cannot criticize or question the government, and white vans are said to terrorize the people who do. It seems nepotism and corruption go hand in hand in this country.
    The country is run by brothers donning red scarves and putting on a big facade of progress, with cricket matches, bollywood starts and road races, while the people live in fear and cost of living soaring high.
    If that is what a banana republic is, then we can call it so.

  • 0

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  • 0

    Southeast Asian farmers first domesticated bananas. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea suggests that banana cultivation there goes back to at least 5000 BCE, and possibly to 8000 BCE.::`^

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