18 April, 2024


Why “Civil Society” Cannot Be Absolved

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

All things considered, the 52 day government shot itself in the foot by assuming that populist legitimacy overrides constitutional legality. There are times when the one will supersede the other, but such times come about only if the government in power is so unpopular that a Restoration is called for. The truth is that the Ranil Wickremesinghe government did not covet enough unpopularity for it to be swept aside by a Rajapaksa Restoration. And the makers and of the latter Project let go of one constituent element that had a say in its downfall: the independence of the system. You can argue against the rulings of the Supreme Court, but there’s no denying that, for the first time in many years, it didn’t tilt towards the man in power.

Then again, the man in power isn’t the man in power. Lakshman Kiriella and other members of the UNP’s Royalist Regency may oppose Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to keep certain Ministries under him, but they (begrudgingly) recognise his rights to such tokenistic powers. In other respects, Sirisena is powerless. Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya’s assertion about those powers being akin to a monarch’s, read in this light, is plain nonsense on stilts. The 19th Amendment did impose checks on the man, whether or not such an act of robbing a man, elected on a wide mandate, of his authority is desirable being another debate altogether.

Personally (and I say this without any hesitation), I am for the Executive Presidency. But as with every power and privilege conferred on the ruler of a country it is, for the lack of a better way of putting it, a double edged sword. On the one hand it served its purpose during those heady war years when a separation of powers between the titles of Head of State, Head of Government, and Commander of the Armed Forces would have been disastrous. On the other hand, with a series of unfortunate rulings that gave carte blanche to the president in the Rajapaksa era and even before it, it denigrated the idea of parliamentary supremacy and turned parliament into a spectacle.

Despite my prejudices against the institution, however, I will make one thing clear. In 2015 the mandate given by 6.2 million voters was to change the governance structures that had been in place since JR Jayewardene’s presidency and had been exploited to bring about sweeping powers for, and by, Mahinda Rajapaksa. But such a mandate does not by itself exclude the Executive Presidency.

This is not because past historical experience indicates clearly that other forms of governance in Sri Lanka have had their share of abuse(r)s. This is also because, given the penchant of politicians and of voters to change allegiances, an alternative to the Executive Presidency must satisfy the primary needs of a country: sovereignty of the country and sovereignty of the people. 

No one, at least no one with patriotic inclinations, will support any move aimed at abolishing the Presidency unless and until these needs are met. There is a problem, however: a country’s sovereignty, in the populist sense of that term, is best served by a powerful Leviathan-like figure, the epitome of which, in Sri Lanka, was J. R. and Mahinda (and to a lesser extent, Premadasa). A people’s sovereignty, on the other hand, rests fairly and squarely upon an institution to which lawmakers have been elected, not selected, and from which those lawmakers can be ejected. There is then a clash, a contradiction, if not contradistinction, between the arms of the State which stand for these two “sovereignties”, the Executive and the Legislature.

No, I am not suggesting here that “people power” (“jana balaya”) is at odds with nationalism. In fact far from it being so, be it in the West or the East, there are times when the two will coincide. But in the popular myth of yahapalanaya and democracy perpetuated by the present government, the two cannot be one and the same.

And why? Because in postcolonial societies like Sri Lanka, politicians look up to the ideal of a political –ism over its reality even as the other part of the world occupied by the “international community” engage in doublespeak and both champion, say, human rights AND de-validate them by propping up dictatorships friendly to them. This is a tragedy because the political debate in postcolonial countries is dichotomised between democrats and populists. It is a dichotomy refracted by the Western media: those who win elections are portrayed as demagogues, and those in the Opposition are portrayed as democrats fighting for people who never voted them in!

We saw this clearly in the 52 day Mahinda-Maithripala government. Shades of grey were abandoned, and in the rush to validate the ousted government, commentators and apologists (from the left and right) depicted the political scene as a battle between good and evil, light and darkness, decency and demagoguery, erudition and ignorance; in a word, between democrats and populists. As if demagogues can’t be decent, as if democrats can’t be populists, as if the educated are any better than the ignorant!

The yahapalana discourse is based on these dichotomies and they are, for worse I should think, perpetuated by everyone. Amila Muthukutti in an article titled “The Rise of Social Media and Fall of Mainstream Media” makes the case for the Facebook generation and denigrates the “lamestream” media outlets which were in favour of the Rajapaksas. But with all due respect, there is nothing different between the one and the other: social media activists are just as blinded by political loyalties and good/bad binaries in the yahalapanist scheme of things as the traditional media are by its fawning to such binaries in the Rajapaksist scheme of things.

I do not blame Ranil Wickremesinghe. Nor do I blame Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Nor do I blame the system. I blame the way everyone, including those who market themselves as neutral political players, has let the debate over such important issues as the Executive Presidency and good governance slip into a series of meaningless, simplistic, reductionist dichotomies.

These dichotomies are what account for the popular myth, sustained predominantly by the young, but also the “educated” middle class, that the ousted government was the last real hope they could resort to. When arguments to the tune of “We aren’t for Ranil but we are for democracy” are being made by activists who a) didn’t as much as open their mouths when the Central Bank was being robbed and b) distinguish between the ideal and the man they inadvertently champion as the best candidate to make that ideal a reality, I can hence only laugh.

The yahapalanist discourse is sadly in shambles. It is dominated by intellectuals and artists who project themselves as the superiors of politicians and ideologues. They are not. The case of Dambara Amila, Sarath Wijesuriya, and Gamini Viyangoda should make this evident for everyone and anyone. In that sense the discontent channelled by the actor, the playwright, and the intellectual over the past few weeks has been, for the most, a farce. There’s nothing to suggest, nothing substantive, that these purveyors of good governance are better representatives of the people than those we have elected. There’s nothing to bear out their low opinion of populism because their own program for a better polity, despite the resonant phrase and the outbursts of self-righteous fury (remember Manuwarna’s “kalakanni Disneylanthaya?), amounts to little.

We used to believe, when we were small, that politicians were bad and the people who rebelled against them were good. But then the politicians were people once and people also have within themselves the tendency to enrich themselves. Unfortunately for us, the yahalapanaya debate, since 2015, has been dominated by that good/bad view. In this scheme of things, civil society, from intellectuals making grandiloquent claims for neoliberal compradores to good governance activists going mum over the actions of the government, has been given enough carte blanche.

Next week I’ll explain why that good/bad rift that civil society has brought up between the people and their representatives is so simplistic that it has succeeded in concealing more insidious forms of power structures and hierarchies. For now I’ll end with a contention: no debate over the Executive Presidency, that most potent and hated symbol of the Rajapaksa Era (an era of darkness for those who have forgotten J. R. and Premadasa and Chandrika), will be constructive unless we look beyond the “we-are-holier-than-them” attitude of civil society activism.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 6

    read your article…. but mate what are you trying to say?

    • 7

      Right on UD!
      Civil society is funded and bought by Washington whose puppet, Ranil is also! The womens NGO groups that walked the streets for Bondscam Ranil and were later forgotten by him and the Colombo Human rights NGOs and civil society all live on US funding…

      This is why they have forgotten RW’s financial crimes against the people of Lanka for whic RW should be impeached and share the same prison cell with Mahinda Jarapassa. Time for younger generation to take over and clean up the cesspit parliament and its horse trading.

      • 0

        Kapila/Dinuk/ Donstanley,etc.
        Why the devil can’t you stick to one alias? At least change your spiel when you change names. You are pathetic.

      • 2

        “I do not blame Ranil Wickremesinghe. Nor do I blame Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
        However much you try to disguise it, your sympathies lie with the “nationalist” MR camp . It is clear from the way you appear to agree with “philosophers ” such as Gunadasa Amarasekera and Nalin De Silva.
        But this “nationalism” is not as pure and democratic as suggest.
        The populism of its practitioners is only a facade concealing corruption and violent authoritarianism. It may be that violent authoritarianism is what the masses are conditioned to believe is good for them. And who tells them this ? The very same demagogues who claim to “protect their religion and sovereignty”. It is true that Ranil is a pretty un-inspiring speaker, and his choice of trusted colleagues is narrow, but compare that with the patent baby-kissing insincerity of the Rajapaksa and their ilk.
        You have every right to criticize the yahapalana project, but do you really want creatures like Sarath Silva as Chief Justice and Nishantha Wickramasingha at Sri Lankan Airlines? At least now, can’t you see who has been delaying corruption probes?

        • 2

          old codger

          The boy wonder is not fit or mature enough to take in all that you said in your above comment.

          On a serious note, what is the chances of Dr Gota contesting and winning the next presidential elections?
          Would you advise him to pack his bags and go back to the USA with his brother Basil and his inspiring Guru Gnanasara?

  • 5

    What would Sri lankan democracy be without such idiotic opinions?

  • 5

    Spot on Uditha!
    Fact is, Civil society is part of the problem and not the solution. Their saviour, Washington-backed Ranil, whose neoliberal and neocon economic policies are drafter in Trumpland by IMF and MCC, must be impeached for looting the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, along with his mafia (Mallik, Penthouse Ravi K. Avant Guard Marapone, etc) financial crimes against people of Lanka.

    • 2

      “Civil Society” is a huge part of the problem. They are funded by the West and they toe the line of the West. They certainly know who is buttering their bread.

      None of these “Civil Society” groups were concerned when MS made RW the PM in 2015 in contravention of the constitution. No word when the CJ was fired in 2015 and called it an illegal appointment but his 2 years worth of judgements were deemed legal. No word when the elections were indefineatly postponed on flimsy excuses. The list goes on and on.

      None of those violations fit into the White West’s grand agenda which is to control the country through their puppet RW. We saw how quickly the West got on their high horse to rescue RW.
      Now, RW comes back and reappoints all his crooked buddies. We all know he needs to go, sooner rather than later. But, the shameless voters will continue to support him. Just for that, we deserve the misery he dishes out to us.

  • 2

    “an alternative to the Executive Presidency must satisfy the primary needs of a country: sovereignty of the country and sovereignty of the people”
    So the argument for retaining the Executive Presidency is that the author cannot think of an alternative that will protect the sovereignty of the country and sovereignty of the people.
    Has any Executive President of the country done anything to achieve that.
    Each surrendered the sovereignty of the country piecemeal to foreign powers in the name of protecting sovereignty of the country.
    Sovereignty of the people? Tell me who in any government cared!
    The parliamentary system is the very antithesis of the sovereignty of the people.

    • 4

      Uditha Devapriya the boy wonder

      What is sovereignty of the country and what is sovereignty of the people?
      Can we buy it from vendors or barter it for something else?
      What does sovereignty provide people with?

      I have another 1 million questions about sovereignty.

  • 1

    Udita Devapriya. Let us forget about you as you are a Sri lankan Journalist who is trying to make rupee. For Ranil in 2005, 2010, and 2015, the Executive presidency was good. Now he has a become FOX who can not catch the Grapes, Executive PResidency is SOUR grapes..
    I hear Ranil instructed SLBC-subharathi to get Mangala to talk about the good governence. MAngala HAd told I do not need the help of subhrathi to get publicity because CT is givig him enough publicity (God Ganesha).

  • 1

    UDITHA DEVAPRIY: Some countries that chased out civil soceity had developed fast. Browse in the web see. Civil society aka Open society aka civic Alliences are supported by MCC (Church/CIA and Zorro). their spending on good governence, Democracy, Education, Health, LGBTQ rites, and many other things that affects a country’s economy, people averages $ on3 billion a year. they destabilize coutries that are not helpful to them. iT’S APPLICATIONS ARE IN THE WEB AND EVEN YOU CAN APPLY FOR GRANTS, if you say if you say the right words. Civil society groups are there in every way, Minority support, Environment,women’s rights and every way that MCC can get help.
    If you remember TRUMP was complaining during the elelction times, Protestors were organized by the opponent political groups (actually by the deep state) and they were making problems at elelction meeting to say that TRUMP’s people are violent welfare people. TRUMP found it and spoilt it. Srilanka also had that after the Crooked Verdict. I guess as Mahinda Rajapakse willbe constesting that may come again saying Mahinda Rajapakse was violent, elections should be null and void (If not Ranil win) , and UK will have election monitors. Watch for it.

  • 1

    You should have written about why a difficult situation is solved by seven people instead of handing it over to the public who decides it. All these politicians are peoples’s representatives. what the oppenent camp, in my case, says is elelctoral district representatives are superior than the representatvie send by the whole island people. Even from the outside, it is very clear Judges are biased. So, how can we decide even from outside these seven Judges worked fair Instead of letting people decide it, why seven people deicided to establish democracy. I here so many different things all against them.

  • 1

    I am saying this because you wrtie about NGOs. America abandoned the EKALA their communication tower which they used even during the 1971 JVP insurrection. I hear now they are asking the Kokkawil Communication tower and their excue for that is they had helped Sri lanka in the past. I know kokkawil is close to North and probably can here what Chinese and Indians are talking.

  • 3

    Very good piece. Some great insights. ……… You have outdone yourself this time; young man.

    There are some holes …….. would like to pick on for the sake of argument …………but don’t have the time; perhaps later

    These things are always simplistic; my man ………. Although there were some “intellectuals” hell bent on giving the French Revolution an “intellectual bent” ……. the act itself ran on pure human emotions

    In the end it was a simple human reaction. People simply understood the wrong done by the “position of the president” ……….. and on an emotional-level could not stomach it and reacted ……….. it had very little to do with the various relevant players ……

    As with the French Revolution ……….. the “intellectuals” descend like vultures and scavengers after the carnage ……………. and try to “analyse” it to kingdom come to give it “meaning” ……… more than the usual simple initial human-reaction …….

    Otherwise, what would the “intellectuals” be doing? ………… Perhaps, more useful work, uh? :))

  • 5

    “Personally (and I say this without any hesitation), I am for the Executive Presidency. “
    Who cares the opinion of an immature baby who writes rubbish with an inflated view of himself. ? This is another juvenile jejune piece from you.
    CT Editors, please spare your mature readers by creating a children’s corner to publish this childish stuff if you really want to publish these kind of articles -Boz

  • 1

    russia and FRance have PResident had PM system. but in both countries the PM is a Puppet. Only in Sri lanka when Ranil is in Ranil tries to Push the president out and become the President. Even MS said, that Ranil enjoyed President’s limits. Ranil contested president in 2005, He chose Fonseka in 2010 and MS in 2015, now he says he gave up it two times. What LIEs.

  • 2

    Sri Lanka is not matured enough for Executive Presidency. EP for us is like குரங்கின் கைப் பூமாலை, – just like a garland in monkey’s hand.

  • 1

    Maybe the English Speaking Civil Society cannot be absolved. The rest cannot understand the legal jargon even in the Sinhala and Tamil Texts. Parliamentarian UG says that their supporters follow the leader like the herd following the shepherd and the way he interprets the court proceedings from the steps leading to the Supreme Court lobby is the proof that he is also in the herd.

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