By M.M. Janapriya –
This is an article I wrote on the 25th July 2020 regarding the twentieth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka which happened on the 22nd October 2020. Languishing in the depths of my computer I accidentally stumbled upon it a couple of days ago and thought of sharing it with the public.
I was at the small Bank of Ceylon branch at Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital a few days before the Kandakadu debacle. There was a little 2 x 3 feet like surface to be used as a table top and a guy was already filling a form at one end. I occupied the other end observing the one metre distance and all the other prescribed preventive measures as hand sanitizing, and wearing a face mask etc. There came a chap who whisked his way between the two of us and wanted to fill a form. I backed out instantaneously and asked him “are you not supposed to maintain the one metre distance?” He greeted my exclamation with a sardonic smile and carried on with his business. He turned back to me and asked “mahattaya where is the 1 metre distance when you travel in a bus”. I said “I don’t travel by bus, but that’s not the point. What we need to do is to minimize the chances of losing social distancing opportunities and that is your responsibility as well as mine. I am glad the military is leading the way because gentlemen like you would be Nero playing the viola while the whole country is on fire with Corona”. The man got his job done and disappeared in to the streaming crowd of hospital visitors.
This man’s behavior depicts the attitude and the behavior of a typical Sri Lankan. The question we have to answer is, is it possible to develop a country full of idiots and imbeciles such as these? The clear answer is yes but not through democracy. The country needs a good dictator who would put all these donkeys in their proper place. You may have seen on movies and documentaries how trained hounds shepherd sheep and cattle from the meadows in to their sheds. A good dictator would do the same to our `human sheep and cattle’.
Who is a Good Dictator?
Of course the phrase ‘good dictator’ needs a stringent definition. He or she should have country’s welfare deep most in his heart and topmost on his agenda. While being hard on the unruly he or she should be soft on the educated and the law abiding and let them express their fears and dissatisfactions on mass media as long as they stick to decent journalistic ethics. While he bans processions obstructing main roads he should allow meetings and protests on open spaces like esplanades, parks and playgrounds. Murder, rape and drug offences should carry a death sentence. Manslaughter by mowing down a pedestrian or another on or in a smaller vehicle should be punishable with a long custodial sentence. Judiciary should be independent ably supported by an independent educated jury when required. Country at large will be watching how the long arm of the law operates and will cooperate with the government if they wished to make changes to how justice is meted out.
JR was a decent dictator but he got all his basics in a muddle and made a mockery of 17 years of his rule. The following is an instance in which his decency is exemplified. Throughout my entire working life I have been a bit of a loose cannon. My wife used to say “under a dictatorship you would be one of the first to get eliminated because of your eagerness to criticize wrong doing”. I was on a ward round on my surgical ward at Base Hospital Matara in 1985 and something was amiss. Through sheer frustration of not being able to do my best for my patients I uttered these words for all to hear. “Bloody nonsense this is. Is this the way to treat the people of this country? Even a government of Wijeweera or Prabhakaran would be a lot better”. As you know even walls have ears they say. Much more than that there were the hospital employees who carried tales to the minion and lackeys of powers that be. However no harm came by me for the dictator was a statesman. Another instance was as follows. It was my off duty week end. A UNP annual convention was held at Mirissa in 1986 I think it was. (JR had a holiday retreat there) My colleague Dr. G.S. De Silva was on call for the weekend. DMO sent an internal circular asking all specialists to be available in station (meaning the hospital premises or within quick reach of the hospital) because of the President’s visit. As I had a weekend full of activity planned, I wrote in that notice book “This is my off weekend and I have a packed programme. President is visiting as the head of the UNP and not as the head of the state. Hence I will be going away as planned and will be back to work sharp at 8.00 a.m. Monday”. Die is cast and the Rubicon is crossed folks, so I returned to work on Monday with a degree of apprehension. Lo and behold nothing untoward happened.
Sirimavo Government & its Downfall
I am now going to talk about the early seventies. I metamorphosed from being a medical student to a young intern house officer at the General Hospital Colombo in October 1972. Mrs.Bandaranaike was running the country beautifully with of course a fair deal of austerity. Restaurants did not offer rice on two days of the week. We used to have dinner at the Park View Hotel opposite the Vihara Maha Devi Park for a change and have experienced this somberness of the venue firsthand.
Mrs B. had also curtailed most imports. Local factories both government and private were flourishing. We were producing our own clothes of all types, our rice, spices, chillies, and sugar. We even produced our own iron and steel products. Kelani tires were a product of the tire corporation. Leather Corporation produced good quality leather DI shoes and a wide array of other finished products. Mitsubishi Colt and Mazda were two good quality cars assembled here in Sri Lanka at that time. Every Tom Dick and Harry could not import a car. Only those who earned foreign exchange could do so. We were fascinated by the brand new Austin Maxi of Dr. Sirisena, our sub warden at the Jayatilleke Hall, Peradeniya. He had just returned from the UK after getting his PhD in history.
This is indeed how things should have been and the country would have slowly but surely progressed towards prosperity. However, the big businesses, and the rich and powerful who were now powerless, thought otherwise. They connived with the UNP and the UNP led trade unions like the JSS and the Association of Medical Specialists (the AMS) headed by a staunch UNPer Dr. R.B.J. Peiris and were hell bent on bringing the Sirimavo government down. GMOA of the time was headed by a gentleman call Dr.R.R.Cooke who gave unstinted support to Dr. Pieris. Propaganda machines of the UNP and the big businesses did a great deal of damage to what would otherwise have been a historic government that propelled the country towards zero poverty. Sirimavo’s down fall was in a way helped by a few of her own shortsighted policies like stopping importation of infant food like SMA. I remember as if it was yesterday how I stood in the SMA queue at Bayer’s opposite the eye hospital with my colleague-Senior House Officer, Accident Service, G.H., Colombo, to buy powdered milk for our colleague’s few weeks old infant. This didn’t go down very well with the masses and the anti- propaganda caught on in a big way. Also Sirimavo under the tutelage of Drs. N.M. and Colvin and indeed her cousin Felix took the Lake House the biggest free press Sri Lanka ever had under the wings of the government. Free press is the cornerstone of any vibrant democracy and this act of Sirimavo was the first ever red flag that fluttered over our country. Witty old Riley (Dr.Riley Fernando, a famous GP) managed to get this obituary sneaked in to the Ceylon Daily News. This clearly was one of the biggest ‘forced forehand errors’ of the Sirimavo government. (She was virtually trapped to doing this by those who wanted her out).
*D.E.M. O’Crazy. The death occurred under tragic circumstances of D.E.M.O’Crazy, beloved husband of T.Ruth, loving father of L.I.Berty, brother of Faith, Hope and Justitia. Interred on Sunday the 20th instant at Araliya Medura, Panagiyawatta, Anduruwella.
GMOA and the AMS were on a joint collision course on some 13 demands in 1976 with a government already crippled courtesy frequent strikes by members of the public service. The Health Minister Mrs. Siva Obeysekera had failed to get the doctors back to work. As a last ditch measure to obviate government crumbling down under medical trade union pressure Mr. Felix R Dias Bandaranaike was appointed to negotiate with the striking doctors. His tough stance at the beginning soon softened and despite granting almost all the demands and getting doctors back to work he could not prevent the government losing its grip and collapsing with a thud. You are getting this ‘from the horse’s mouth’ as I attended the negotiations myself, being one of the three joint secretaries of the GMOA at the time. This is an actual picture of the above mentioned obit.
JR the first ever President
The 73 years young, old fox was returned to the parliament with a landslide majority winning 138 seats out of 168. JR seized the opportunity and amended the constitution of Sri Lanka to have an all-powerful executive president with the parliament losing almost all its legislative powers. This heralded the beginning of an autocratic regime. JR regime is something all of us would like to erase like painful memory.
JR called himself His Excellency and elevated himself to the level of an uncrowned king. No one except his very close friends and allies could approach him easily. All correspondence stopped at the point of his secretary, a buffoon called Menikdiwela. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This age old adage hasn’t stood the test of time for nothing. JR, like most vested with unlimited power lost his head. He moved the Parliament premises from Fort to Kotte with the help of the Japanese who felt indebted to him for speaking in support of Japan at a UN assembly long years ago. Relocation of the Parliament building in Kotte did have a rational basis of being a difficult place for LTTE suicide cadres to approach while the old premises might have looked a sitting duck but the real reason for moving was JR wanting to make Kotte the capital city of his kingdom and name it Sri Jayewardenepura. Old fools feel doings akin to this would keep their name immortal when their mortal remains have disappeared back to earth. Do we remember JR every time the name Sri Jayewardenepura is mentioned? The answer is an emphatic No. I can talk for my own self only and let me tell you, on no such occasion have I ever remembered JR. So the old fox, the first Dictator of Sri Lanka, though statesmanlike was indeed a fool. His rule heralded the demise of Sri Lankan Democracy.
During his rule Parliament became an institution only of ornamental value. Stalwarts of the UNP like Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Jayasooriya had to cow down to the antics of the old fox. Resignation letters of all the MPP and the Ministers were in his possession ready to be dated and activated. Judges who acted independently and gave judgements unpalatable to the government had to face the cacophonic music of the JR goons. Top Judges of the calbre of Neville Samarakoon were subject to this kind of degrading treatment. I remember JR trying to impeach him in 1983 or so. Later on they were replaced by the minions and Lackeys of the administration.
All the good work done by Sirimavo on poverty alleviation were undone. Economy was opened. Hard earned rupees vanished to Japan and the west in the form of yen and dollars for importation mainly of motor vehicles. The patriotic sound of SL factories like sugar, iron, leather, tyre etc gradually fell silent. All these commodities started being imported paving way for third parties to make a lot of money and jack the government up in return. National health care service hit the rocks. Private sector took over according medical care to the country. Nawaloka from polysacs, timber etc. graduated to making his foray in to medical care. This regime watched with glee how the state sector disappeared in to oblivion paving way for the private sector to blossom in its place. In some instances the latter cannibalized the former.
Premadasa becomes the Second Elected President
There was dissension within the party. Lalith and Gamini hung on with difficulty hoping one of them would succeed the old fox. Not to be. Ranasinghe Premadasa (RP) made his way in to the presidential palace. He was worse than JR. JR’s education and family upbringing made it difficult for him to be ruthless. Premadasa had no such society friendly inhibitions. The Lalith and Gamini duo tried to impeach RP the only way to constitutionally get rid of him but failed. They got sacked from the UNP. DUNF formed by the dissidents and headed by Lalith Athulathmudali was gathering pace in leaps and bounds and RP wanted to stop them. Gamini died in a bomb blast apparently by the LTTE in which a lot of others including my friend Dr. Gamini Wijesekera also perished. Lalith was shot dead by a lone gunman at a meeting in Kirullapone virtually opposite the cop shop under cover of darkness. A few minutes before Lalith arrived at the meeting the entire Kirullaponae area had plunged in to darkness. Quite a few journalists and other well-known figures too died. Sagarika Gomes and Richard de Zoysa are two such names that come to my mind in an instant. RP’s regime was corrupt too. His henchmen became very rich. Many believed he too may have amassed money through his signature Gamudawa in which after a big ado matchbox size houses were doled out to poor people. I would give him the credit as the pioneer in trying to improve the road structure of the country. With every Gamudawa the surrounding roads were rubberized and the pavements and walkways modernized. This too may have opened up avenues for his goons to siphon national coffers away but which government contract had a clean sheet? He seemed unstoppable when his confidant Babu blasted him to smithereens at a May Day Rally in 1993. People celebrated this by cooking milk rice.
The Bandaranaikes are Back
The Bandaranaikes ruled for better part of 10 years from 1994. Even though the LTTE made merry during this period no civilian came by an untimely death for criticizing the president or the government or for posing an electoral threat to them. In this respect the B & B decade passed uneventfully.
The First Rajapaksa Presidency
Postwar Rajapaksa government sadly was a lack lustre regime as per what the country needed for development but there seemed to be no paucity of pomp and pageantry when it came to feathering their own nests. This period seemed marred by controversy on all fronts and transformation in to an authoritarian regime. People were immensely grateful to the regime for seeing an end to the 30 year war and the President could do no wrong in their eyes. Hence this would have been the ideal time to try and bring some degree of discipline back in, and set the ball rolling to develop the country. The opportunity went a begging. None of the above happened. The extravaganza seemed to be going on unabated at the expense of national coffers. Favoritism, nepotism, corruption, thuggery and acts of moral turpitude became common place. Country was hurtling down towards destruction when a breakaway group of the SLFP together with the UNP brought down the government.
The Yahapalanaya Confusion
The Yahapalanaya government though re-installed the independence of the judiciary, re-established the rule of law, brought back freedom of expression etc. was in Status Confucius. President committed `hara-kiri’ by clipping his own wings with the 19th Amendment to the constitution of the country. He and the Prime Minister didn’t sing from the same hymn sheet. President and the government had to appease the ethnic minorities as a payback for supporting them to defeat the previous President. As such the Muslim ministers in government had a free hand and under their umbrella Muslim extremism could easily translate their thoughts in to action. There was a great deal of communal disharmony between the Sinhalese and the Muslims during the previous regime but strangely and inexplicably the Easter Sunday bombings took place under the Yahapalanaya which slept on the intelligence information received from India about an imminent attack on places of Christian worship.
Suicide bombs not only blasted lives out of 259 innocent people but they also blasted the people’s confidence in the government. They were simply mortified. Feared for their own lives they voted the strong man Gotabaya to power in Nov 2019. Country wanted a leader who would usher them safety and security and they thought Gota was the right man for the job. Who can blame them? The big question is are they right? Only time will tell.