They walked this road in seasons past
When all the skies were overcast,
They breathed defiance as they went
Along those troubled roads of Gwent
They talked of justice as they strode
Along this crooked mountain road
And dared the little lords of Hell,
So that the future should be well
Because they did not count the cost
But battled on when all seemed lost
This empty ragged road shall be
Always a sacred road to me.
Idris Davies (1905-1953)
A couple of weeks ago, many were taken by surprise when in a suburb of Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, hundreds of young people rampaged through the streets in some of the worst rioting the city has seen. For nearly a week, stone-throwing mobs clashed with the Police and, indiscriminately as in all mob violence, attacked public and private institutions, including shops and schools. The clashes were sparked off by the Police shooting dead of a Portuguese immigrant who was apparently wielding a machete in the suburb. The anger was over alleged heavy-handedness by the Police in dealing with crime in immigrant neighbourhoods.
But what took the world by surprise was that Sweden has long enjoyed a reputation as a model welfare democracy. The people enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. But in recent years, that image has taken a beating. The current centre-right government made sharp cuts in welfare benefits and largely privatized the school system. All this has resulted a widening gap in income levels between different classes of its citizens. Homelessness and unemployment, particularly among the rising immigrant population, is also on the increase. Long described as a model social democracy, the Financial Times says the country seems to be edging away from welfarism. ‘Having once swung too far in one direction, Sweden is is now over-compensating in the other’ But despite these problems, Sweden remains a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world with the distribution of wealth more equal that in most developed countries. Why then the recent unrest in that country? The answer lies in that most people are not satisfied with just material benefits. And that is true both of developed countries as well as the not so developed ones, including Sri Lanka.
Here in our country, President Rajapakse and those around him never fail to mention at every possible opportunity, the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Is it that they have not much else to boast about? Undoubtedly, the crushing of the northern insurgency has been a blessing to the ordinary citizen of this country, whether in the North or South, East or West. The insurgents terrorised the ordinary people. People not only within Sri Lanka but our people domiciled abroad also lived in fear. Let us however not forget that those who who were part of the leadership of this terror outfit now hold exalted positions in the government. It is meaningless to pretend that those individuals have now reformed themselves. Every individual who has committed crimes against humanity must be held accountable. This was the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission. Yet nothing hasd been done and nothing seems likely to happen to follow-up on the recommendation of the LLRC.
Democracy and Elections
Another of the recommendations of the LLRC was that an election should be held to elect members to the Northern Provincial Council and that the Council should be set up and allowed to function in terms of the law of the land. President Rajapakse also gave an undertaking to the United Nations and to others that this would be done. But various attempts were tried to have a group of political sycophants stand for election and “win” the election. But the principal party representing the Tamils appear to have shown that they are made of sterner stuff. The Colonels and the Masters who were earlier part of the LTTE outfit now seem to have thrown in the towel. One of them who was promoting his sister to be the Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council failed badly and could not get his favoured candidate elected even as an ordinary member of the Council. Another has been more shrewd.. He appears to have surveyed the ground situation and seems to have given up hope, notwithstanding powerful political patronage. He has sounded other parties intending to contest the election, no doubt with the blessings of his present political masters, but has so far found no takers.
President Rajapakse finds himself in a quandary. Intelligence reports point to an overwhelming anti-government vote but that is not going to sustain the myth that the Tamil people are grateful to him for having eliminated the LTTE menace and are with him. He will also find it difficult to retract from the pledge he has given to hold an election to the Northern Provincial Council. So his brother. the JHU, and other soul-mates around the Sinhala Buddhist banner are now making noises that the election should not be held as scheduled. But these nationalists seem more powerful, as has been shown in recent times, than the President himself. Wimal Weerawansa has announced that a constitutional amendment will shortly be introduced to remove police and land powers from the Provincial Councils. The all powerful Defence Secretary and Presidential sibling Gotabaya Rajapakse has also gone public saying that the NPC Election should not be held under the prevailing Constitution. The situation becomes curioser and curioser when only the previous day, the cabinet spokesperson announced that the election to the NPC will be held as scheduled in terms of the prevailing 13th Amendment. It does not require much political intelligence to know whose political will prevail in the end.
Ahead of the cabinet meeting scheduled for this week, it is reported that Mohan Pieris, who functions as the de facto Chief Justice had advised President Mahinda Rajapakse that ahead of the NPC Election the 13th Amendment could be amended to remove the provisions relating to (a) the merger of any two Provinces, and (b) the requirement that any amendment to the scheduled list of powers of Provincial Councils requires the concurrence of all Provincial Councils. If this report is true, it is amazing how Mohan Peiris can advise the government on this. Such advice should be sought from the Attorney General and not from a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court. If these proposed changes are brought before Parliament, they can then challenged before the Supreme Court and only the sitting Judges of the Supreme Court can hear submissions and rule on the constitutionality or otherwise of the proposed amendments.
But curioser things have happened in our system of justice. When the Parliament decided to go ahead with the flawed impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, Parliament was acting as the complainant, prosecutor and judge. It is no doubt for that reason that President’s Counsel S L Gunasekera was then to remark that in those circumstances, no self-respecting person would accept the office of Chief Justice. That is now history.
To avoid Sri Lanka becoming a failed state in terms of the rule of law, we hope the news report in the Colombo Telegraph with the headline’Exposed: de facto CJ advises President to amend 13A’ is not true. But time and again, the government has shown that it is insensitive to public opinion and to good governance or even to a show of following the rule of law. Perhaps the most we can expect is a denial that the President’s 45 minute discussion with Mohan Peiris was not on this issue but on some other private matter.
Michael Foot on Amartya Sen
Michael Foot was one of those intellectual giants who consciously strayed into politics, He became the leader of the Labour Party in 1980 succeeding Prime Minister James Callaghan but resigned from the leadership of the Party when Labour Party lost the General Election of 1983. In 1999, Foot reviewed Amartya Sen’s new book ‘Development as Freedom’ for Tribune of which he was then editor. In his review, he wrote : “After hellish long years of suffering at the hands of imperial masters, India set off on its own path of democratic hope. Never before had the voters, men and women, been able to use their power to such purpose. They have been doing it ever since, not only for their own benefit but for the world at large. To prove how democracy works can truly be said to be the paramount question for civilised people everywhere.
The country our author knows best, the democracy he knows best, is his India: come to his analysis and indeed his grand solutions in a minute. Immediately it is the terrible problems are never allowed to escape his attention. Poverty, a deeply entrenched poverty, seems incurable.. sometimes the modern disease of combined crime and corruption is interpreted by interested parties as if it were the solely the responsibility of the governments in the individual countries. Some of the real criminals have a special interest in fostering the idea that the worldwide disease is ineradicable. Amartya Sen’s book is the best civilising response to this particular kind of reactionary nonsense. And this amazing streak of topicality is only one reason that his voice must be heard. A worldwide disease which if it were not properly detected and the remedy sort could indeed overwhelm us or, even before that, destroy any claim that we have built a real and lasting civilised society. It is the old horror described by Karl Marx but quite often also by other socialist philosophers both before and after him – the deepening poverty which seems to afflict societies which take adequate measures to combat it. Here in our own country we had made some advances in closing the gap between rich and poor but in recent times the progress has shamefully been put in reverse.. sometimes political philosophers usually offer deeply reactionary nature have sought to use this supposedly incontrovertible evidence to prophesy disaster if their reactionary policies are not meticulously followed. Malthus who prophesised around the year 1800 that food supplies would infallibly be outstripped by the growth in populations. He is Amartya Sen’s chief bete noire. Sen indeed offers a quite different prospect for the human species. Wherever men and more especially women have been able to choose for themselves, a great new prospect of freedom as open before them. The liberation of women and the practical evidence of the fruits of it, say in his own Indian state, is one of his principal themes.. his title only is too modest. Development as freedom is accurate enough, but here also are described in these pages the practical means whereby mankind and womankind set out on a new course. Among the authorities Sen calls in aid is ‘my illustrious countryman Goutama Buddha’. Indeed a new lustre runs through every page in this book. Not a trace of the old religions maybe detected in it. It is indeed a new voice for humankind as a whole. He writes with a new authority not only about the wealth of nations but the even greater wealth or our single humanity.. the fact that independent India has succeeded in preventing the kind of famines which caused devastation before, as recently as 1943. Since then there has been no famine, thanks to India’s democracy. Sen himself witnessed that as a boy and he records here that Winston Churchill, who was still in charge of policies for India, had this to say in London: ‘it will make you as ashamed as we should be of the whole imperialist story’.
Foot’s sharp political comments and Sen’s economic prescriptions have relevance to us in Sri Lanka. If we arer to avoid political and economic disaster, we need the fullest democratic freedoms to be felt and exercised by the people.