By Basil Fernando –
One of the interesting things about Sri Lankan politics since 1978 is that the people do not remember their former Presidents with any respect. Of course people do not remember even the heads of the States of earlier times with much affection, though they do remember them with some good humour. The former Prime Ministers like D. S. Senanayeke, his son Dudley, John Kotelawala and the two Bandaranaikes, maybe target of many criticisms but they are still remembered with some good sentiments.
That is not the case with the three former Presidents, Jayewardene, Premadasa and Chandrika. There are hardly any celebrations for them even by their own party members. Their memories are mixed with remembrance of excessive greed, gross abuses of power, memory of killings and blood spilling and many ill-humored remarks about arrogance.
Perhaps this is because of the general dislike of humans for excess. It is like the way people dislikes excessive eating as gluttony, excessive drinking as alcoholism, excessive sex as debauchery and the like. There is something ugly about doing things in excess.
The problem of excess is the absence of restraint. Anything that lacks restraint is looked down by everybody and treated with contempt. Restraint is at the core of any human achievement that receives admiration, whether they be art or any other human activity.
The problem of the executive presidency that exists in Sri Lanka is the very absence of any kind of restraint associated with the exercise of any of its functions. The Executive Presidency has institutionalized excess of every form. It’s a kind of excess that makes one a maniac. Whether it comes to accumulation of personal wealth, use of cruelty and personal arrogance the former Presidents of Sri Lanka have become examples of doing any of these things without any kind of restraint so long as they could hold on to power.
The originator of this idea of the Executive Presidency, J. R. Jawardene, was known throughout his political career for his excess of ambition. The leaders of his own party in the past had kept him down due to their recognition of his incapacity for restraint in pursuing his own glory. It was at the point when his party lost his grip with the population. And as a consequence when there were no leaders left, Jawardene was able to achieve his fond hope for ascending to the highest post. Once he got there, within the shortest possible time he made the Constitution within which all the elements of restraint which is usually known as checks and balances was removed. Thus, this thing called the Executive Presidency, which could turn anyone into a political maniac, became a real political institution. That was what has made it possible for all who got into his shoes, to lose all restraint so long as they could hold on to power.
Thus there is no surprise as to why people do not remember any of those who held such power in any other way than people treat those who are incapable of restraint.
All glory, all gluttony and all cruelty and arrogance so long as they hold on to power and utter contempt when they lose power. That is the destiny of anyone who becomes the head of the State under the 1978 Constitution. This of course is not just a tragedy of such leaders but of the tragedy of the Sri Lankan people as a whole.