20 July 2017

Re-size cabinet to specified subjects in the national interest

Elections are fought over all kinds of issues.  The winners typically secure the rights to interpret mandate.  “This election was about A, B, C or D,” they would say and often give their own interpretation of A, B, C and D, amending the same as per prerogatives of the particular political moment.  

If you were to ask 10 random people what would be the key issue in 2020 would be, you would get more than a single answer, most likely.  Give the same 10 people a list of ten key issues and ask them to pick three and you would probably get many combinations.  Theoretically, if one were to conduct a survey of a decent sample of the electorate, it is possible to figure out what could reasonably be expected to capture the imagination of the voter. In other words, the issue that matters most to the majority or the set of issues that get their goat, so to say.    Put it all in one sentence and bingo!  

So it’s not about ideology, the commitment to doing the right thing, designing the ideal society etc., etc.  It is typically about capturing (or retaining) power.  They won’t tell you that, though.  They will boil it down to something that sounds nice and makes you feel good.  Like dharmista samaajaya (which J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP translated as ‘A just and free society’) or yahapalanaya (Good governance).  Sure, the wheels come off sooner rather than later, but hey, that does not worry the winners because the primary objective has been achieved.  Yes, winning.  

What is so attractive about power, one might ask.  Well, it could be ego; some people like to feel important.  They might get their kicks ordering people around, altering structures, changing processes etc., never mind if it’s for the good or bad, whether it is sustainable or not.  Then there’s the profit motive.   

There’s bucks in politics and we need not labour the point.  

Good governance was meant to correct system-flaws and thereby checkmate those who are in politics for profit.  The Yahapaalanists, it is abundantly clear now, were never interested in yahapaalanaya and have demonstrated that they are not even capable of palanaya (governance), forget the yaha (good) of it.  The generous view would be that they had the heart in the right place but just don’t have the head for such things.  Maybe they knew the word but didn’t know what it meant.  At any rate, we can safely conclude that the word and the idea was not what mattered to the majority in January 2015, but the need to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa.  

This does not mean that we don’t need yahapalanaya (the concept, that is, and not the political formation that claimed copyrights to the term and eventually turned it into a cuss word).  it does not mean that we must continue to suffer egotists and racketeers.  We need good (or at least ‘better’) governance.  And we need to reduce drastically the size of the cabinet.  

Cabinet-size was an issue.  It was always an issue.  Why is it an issue?  Well, the arguments against bloated cabinets has mostly been about the burden on the taxpayer, but it is also about inefficiency flowing from redundancy, lack of clarity and the compromising of streamlining.  Again, we need not labour the point beyond saying ‘think “external affairs” and “Development Lotteries Board”.’  

There is also the problem of ‘executive feel’ if you want to call it that.  We have a political culture where even a member of a local government body believes he or she has executive power.  Parliamentarians see themselves not as lawmakers but as executors.  Just imagine how ministers see themselves!  This is why crossovers are about portfolios.  This is why those clamoring for ministerial posts have argued that regions (provinces and districts), castes, religious affiliation, political parties (in the case of a coalition) and ethnicities etc should be represented in cabinet! Yes, ‘gender’ doesn’t figure as prominently in post-election agitation for portfolios.  

These are political realities.  The logic of parliamentary arithmetic counts, we are told.  A majority has to be cobbled together, it is argued by way of explaining bloated cabinets and institutional distribution that defies all logic.  

So, yes, there is sense in the call for constitutional amendment to set a ceiling on the number of cabinet portfolios.  The 19th had the words but had additional words that made the relevant words irrelevant; the ‘additional words’ being ‘national government’.  What was meant to be limited to 30 is now over 50.  The ceiling was removed, in effect.  

To get back to the issue of ‘election issues,’ if cabinet size and all the attendant ills were to be revisited (as they should) then we have to bring back the discussion on limits.  But would that be enough, is the question that also needs to be asked.  The answer is ‘no’.  What can effectively make parliament an uninviting place for would-be racketeers and people with inflated egos would be to legislate a specific cabinet-size and most importantly to name the relevant subjects.  

In May 2014, Narendra Singh Modi named a 23-member cabinet, the smallest in India since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 21 member cabinet of 1998.  The first cabinet of independent Ceylon had 18 members.  Theoretically, some of the subjects of that cabinet (and of course the Indian cabinet of Prime Minister Modi) could be collapsed.  It is possible to reduce the number to 10 or even less.  

What would this do?  It would mean (assuming there are, let’s say, just 10 ministries) that 214 MPs in Parliament would have no portfolios and would be forced to do what they are supposed to do (on paper): legislate.  No ministries, no special budgetary allocations for individual MPs, and we won’t have legislators thinking and acting as executives.  Of course all candidates would aspire (given the current political culture and the big egos that are unfortunately inevitable appendages of candidates) to become cabinet ministers if the particular party wins the election, but we can reasonably expect the overall number to decline over time.  Legislative competence or potential could become a factor in an election once again.  

Does all this resonate with the electorate?  If not, could the electorate be convinced of the importance of a limited cabinet with specific subjects written into the constitution?  Would it be a hard sell?  We don’t know.  However, if elections, democracy and politics is about a conversation and about ideas and the testing of their worth, then perhaps it is not something to be ignored.  
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.

13 July 2017

Let’s define “National Interest” as “A Sustainable Nation”


There’s a descriptive that was liberally used not too long ago to describe Sri Lanka: “failed state”.  Those who used that term not surprisingly were (at the time) ardent cheer-leaders of that 21st Century version of ‘White Man’s Burden,’ R2P (Responsibility to Protect).  The ‘failed state,’ managed to record a comprehensive victory over terrorism, free several hundred thousand citizens held hostage, put a halt to abduction and enforced conscription and made it possible for Tamil politicians to recover voice, dignity and citizenship.  These things didn’t count of course.

The plan was to use the failed-state thesis to legitimate intervention (of any kind) by global powers led by the USA and the EU to get rid of a regime these ladies and gentlemen loved to hate.  There was a hitch: the people of Sri Lanka didn’t buy into all that. Eventually they (the people) did it their way; not because of what such people did but in fact in spite of them. 

It was an easy term to throw around.  In fact such terms are useful for those who object to a given regime.  It is part of a game of vilification.  It misleads and even compromises legitimate objection on account of silliness,  pettiness and mischief-intent.   But let us not lock ourselves in the rhetorician’s tool cupboard.  Let us instead talk of our nation and its national interest, conceding of course that ‘national interest’ is also a close relative (in rhetorical sense) of ‘failed state’.  

We have to acknowledge that children are not safe in our country, that women are vulnerable, that we have agreed by consent or silence to be poisoned and inflicted with all kinds of diseases, and that we have opted for a development paradigm that yields serious natural disasters that destroy property and lives.

What kind of nation are we if we cannot protect our children from preventable horrors, if we allow our waterways and soils to be poisoned and if we destroy our forest cover?  How sustainable are we as a nation, if we consume more than we can afford, waste what we can reuse or recycle, and let a garbage problem literally erupt before our eyes?  Is this also not a nation with a constitution that does not protect the citizenry but in fact encourages wrongdoing, celebrates arrogance and ignorance, and shields the wrongdoer?  What kind of longevity can we reasonably expect as a society if the various communities living on this island treat each other with suspicion, feel insecure and vulnerable, and if their leaders privilege rhetoric and emotion over fact and reason?  

What kind of nation are we if ‘sustainability’ (in practice) is about the continued exploitation of the poor, the humiliation of the weak, the fixation with moment, the non-factoring of future in strategy and implementation, and the pursuit of and indulgence in pampered lifestyles that cost among other things, the environment that is common to all citizens?  Why is it that crisis of one kind or another is portrayed as an anomaly and not symptom of system failure? Why does it seem that politicians need crises for its distracting potential, the one making us forget the one that came before only to be erased from recollection by the one that follows?  
Children. Water. Trees.  We could reduce it all to these three factors.  If we want to go further, we can factor in ‘the health of 4 generations down the line’.  

We can also have a timeline with specific targets such as ’30% of agriculture to be organic by such and such a date’ with that percentage going up by specific degrees in specified time periods. We could do this for renewable energy.  But all this requires holistic approaches when formulating economic and social policies.  We can keep the concept of ‘growth’ but we must ensure that it is the servant of sustainability.

A sustainable nation will be a political and social collective that does not leave anyone behind.  It will see difference as something natural and not as an aberration or threat.  It will see people standing without fear within slapping distance because that is the very distance that makes for embrace.  

A sustainable nation will put out new branches, push itself upwards and seek the cross-pollination offered by all the winds from all the directions, but it will also take care of its roots which, if severed, means death.  A sustainable nation will appreciate history, learning from both the glory and the ignominy, and will have space for each generation to write its own chapter.

A sustainable nation will recognize failure and even as it does will look for solutions.   The true question then is not whether Sri Lanka is/was a failed state but whether or not it is a sustainable nation.  If the answer is ‘it is not’ then the only relevant political question is ‘how do we make Sri Lanka a sustainable nation on all counts?’  


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com

09 July 2017

The true meaning of ‘Disce Aut Discede’

[A tribute to Lanil Kalubowila]


The first time I heard the words ‘Disce aut Discede’ not only did I not know what they meant, the fact of my ignorance did not bother me one bit.  The truth is, I didn’t understand most of the words among which these three Latin words were couched. I heard people sing the college song at the Royal-Thomian, I read the lyrics in the Royal College souvenir published to commemorate the occasion, but I didn’t understand.  

I assumed it was English partly because there were many English words that I recognized and partly because I didn’t know that there was a language called Latin or that languages could be mixed.  I knew more about cricket than about the intricacies of language use.  I had heard the word ‘out’ associated with cricket and when faithfully recording the ‘results’ of book cricket played with my brother, I remember writing ‘all aut’ at the end of the innings before adding up the scores of the batsmen and the extras.  

I don’t know when knowledge came to me, but I believe that it took all of us a while to figure out what was what about that which was Latin in the language called English which was quite Greek for many of us.  Most of us learned the college song at the Royal-Thomian.  In later years, the school’s public address system would play it every morning and I suppose that’s how young Royalists learn their school song these days.  

I don’t know when exactly or under what circumstances I learned that ‘Disce aut Discede’ was the motto of the school and that it meant ‘learn or depart’.  I am pretty sure that had I read it before hearing it, I would have butchered the pronunciation.   I did recognize the motto had been embedded in translation in a Sinhala school song (which was not really a translation of ‘School of our Fathers’).  It said උගනිව් නැත පිටවෙනු (‘uganiu netha pitavenu’), a fair enough translation of ‘learn or depart’.  And that’s what it always meant.  You are required to learn and if not it is recommended that you leave.  

Now ‘Disce Aut Discede’ does not belong to Royal College.  It is a common enough motto that many institutions of learned have adopted.   King’s School, Rochester, founded in 604 AD, has it, for example, although we really don’t know when this motto came to be associated with this school.  In Royal’s case, it is said that the motto was first mentioned “during the regime of Principal Todd (1871-1878) who constantly reminded the students that they must learn or get out.”  However, the stone engravings at the entrance to the main building, said to have been obtained from the original building of the school founded in 1835 and then called Colombo Academy, does carry the ‘Disce aut Discede’ legend.  

Knowledge comes slowly in these things. To begin with we didn’t know what a motto was and didn’t know we had one.  Then we found out that we had a motto but didn’t now what it meant.  Then we figured out what it meant or were made to learn the meaning by teachers or prefects.  And by and by we learned that Latin and English were two languages and that there were no native speakers of the former.  There were some Latin lines inscribed in the wall behind the stage in the college hall and some of us noticed them.  Some knew the words, some knew the pronunciation and a few knew the meaning of ‘Palmam qui meruit ferat’ (‘let whoever earns the palm bear it’ or ‘may the person who deserves the crown, wear it’ implying the probably more importantly 'if you don't deserve the crown, don't wear it!') and ‘Labor omnia vincit’ (‘work conquers all’).  ‘Disce aut Discede’ of course was positioned above all else in the matter of maxims picked by the early educationists.   

The motto is in the news these days and a lot is being made of a mispronunciation.  But if we really picked up something from that motto, I believe there’s very little to laugh about.  Let me explain.

Traditionally the Head of State was usually the Chief Guest at the school’s prize giving.  One year (I believe it was either in 1979 or in 1983), President J.R. Jayewardene made a reference to the motto during his speech.  Observing that one has to depart whether or not one learns, he expressed the hope that the relevant authorities would change the motto to ‘Disce et Discede’ (‘learn and depart’).  A batchmate of mine, Lanil Kalubowila, convinced me many years later that we had all got it wrong.  

Lanil was handling Human Resources at the Customs at the time and said that he had seen hundreds of mottos over the course of many years. 

“There were results sheets, leaving certificates and character certificates,” he explained.  

“I am not saying this because I went to Royal, but our motto is the best,” he continued.  

He had by that time gone beyond school and all other identifiers including ethnicity, religion and nation.  My friend Kanishka Goonewardena and I who had known Lanil for more than three decades knew he was being honest about lack of bias.

“There is only one thing that is of true worth in life and that is the acquisition of comprehension.  If you don’t want to ‘learn’ you might as well be dead; in fact you ARE dead.”

That’s what Lanil Kalubowila told us the last time we saw him, about three years ago.  ‘Disce Aut Discede’ is of course open to simple interpretation.  JRJ wasn’t wrong, if one were to take it literally.  But then again, words have multiple meanings and phrases can be read in many ways.  

I prefer Lanil’s interpretation which resonates well with some of the values we picked up during our schooldays and certain lessons, simple lessons, such as this: there’s no glory in ridiculing someone on account of ignorance or an error.  

Lanil Kalubowila departed not long thereafter, but not on account of a refusal to learn.  I like to think that he had gathered all that he could in this lifetime given circumstances that are tragic as well as heroic but which do not require elaboration.  He learned, he taught and he departed.  We learned and are still learning.  And among the things we are learning is that ‘Disce Aut Discede’ is no laughing matter (whether or not those who picked it among many possible mottos, were aware of all this) 

  






06 July 2017

No government in the country or no country in the government?


The Mahanayaka Theras of three Nikayas and other Sangha Sabhas, expressing their opinion on constitutional reform, have made it clear that they are opposed to moves "that could generate crises".  

While calling for immediate electoral reform, this Sangha Council headed by the Mahanayaka Theras that met in Kandy recently has urged that the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (“Convention on Enforced Disappearances” henceforth) through a bill in Parliament be postponed in order to give parliamentarians more time to study the same.  They have also asked that a special committee be appointed to look into the grievances of Buddhists with regard to religion and culture in the context of ‘prevailing racial and religious unrest’, pointing out also that religious places of archaeological importance should be protected.  Finally, they’ve called for  speedy resolution to the ‘SAITM crisis’.  

Let’s focus on constitutional reform.  Constitutional reform is a serious matter and demands sober reflection on proposals followed by intelligent debate among law-makers, ideally complemented by public discussion on the relevant subject.  That has not been the tradition in Sri Lanka, unfortunately.  

The 13th Amendment, following the Indo-Lanka Accord was introduced in part while the people were kept in the dark about the contents.  Just before the United National Party lost the two-thirds parliamentary edged secured through the shameful Referendum of 1982, the government led by that party muscled in several partisan amendments.  Mahinda Rajapaksa bulldozed through Parliament with the 18th Amendment.  

Even the relatively progressive 17th and 19th Amendments were hardly debated, the former perhaps due to the parivasa circumstances that birthed it and the latter probably because the President wanted certain powers retained and the parliamentarians wanted sway in appointments to the independent commissions.  

This partisan history naturally raises doubts over clarity and intention.  The case for reform has certainly not been helped by vicious and vindictive way in which this administration has gone after military personnel accused of numerous violation even as it has mollycoddled known terrorists and has bent over backwards to please the political and administrative ‘near and dear’ of the LTTE.  

The Mahanayaka Theras, then, are expressing a set of concerns that many nationalists groups have raised.  The concerns are legitimate for other reasons too.  

Those who have backed bills such as this have at times also called for federalism, have demanded that the LTTE be given parity of status, bemoaned the military offensive against the LTTE (even though the LTTE was holding hundreds of thousands of Tamils hostage) and have been marked by a manifest and rabid anti-Buddhist rhetoric. 

However, what mostly strengthens the argument for caution in constitutional reform is the sloth, arrogance and mal-intent demonstrated by this government on this subject.  We already mentioned the 19th Amendment.  It was designed to keep the cabinet inflated through the dubious clause called ‘national government’.  It made the ‘independence’ of independent commissions a joke.  And quite in contrast to solemn campaign pledges, it left the executive presidency pretty much intact.  Even today with a single and modest tweak, the President can turn the political equation upside down.  That ‘privilege’ tells us how much ‘reform’ was deemed ‘enough’ by the reformers.  To the detriment of the citizen of course.

Then there is the zero-action on electoral reform.  This, by the way, is what gives legitimacy to the declaration by the Mahanayakas.  In April 2015, the President vowed to supporters of his party gathered at Vihara Maha Devi Park that he will see election reform through.  It’s more than two years now.  There isn’t even a murmur on this subject.  

Local government elections keep getting postponed for reasons that cannot be denied — this regime is scared to open itself to assessment by the people and each passing day the fear increases.  

The only security (in a relative sense) that parliamentarians have in terms of their political future, under these circumstances, is the very proportional representation system that electoral reform was supposed to do away with or at least amend.  

The Government should, logically and morally, first deliver on promises made to the people of this country before ratifying through legislation international protocols or conventions it has seen fit to endorse.   President Maithripala Sirisena has said ‘anyone watching TV [would] feel that there’s no government in the country.’  He is dismayed that ‘development activities, people's welfare, the peaceful situation in the country’ are not being covered.  

Well, all these claims can be contested and they have for good reasons too.  However the ‘no government in the country’ principally flows from the fact that this government seems answerable to unknown non-nationals and is deaf to the pleas of the citizens.  In other words, there’s no country in this government.  The Mahanayaka Theras’ plea, one could read, is one which argues for the re-inclusion of nation in this government. A tall order at this point, one might say, but then again this is what might give longevity and relevance to this regime.  


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene

30 June 2017

Legitimacy of the coercive power


Protests are part and parcel of a healthy democracy.  Another crucial element of a functioning democracy is the Rule of Law which includes legal protections, enforcement where necessary and recourse to the courts in the event of perceived infringement of rights.  So we have the executive, legislative and judicial arms of the state to attend to these things.  Where there is failure, therefore, we must first and foremost look to the faults of the system or the errors of those paid and/or mandated to keep the system functioning.  

The detractors of the government, especially the Opposition, naturally point out flaws and errors.  There is exaggeration in this exercise and also the typical political blindness to flaws created or ignored when in power and of course the errors. That’s politics.  President Sirisena was part of the previous government, so he can’t point fingers.  There are others in this government who were like him key members of that government.  They don’t have the moral authority either.  As for those who were then in the Opposition, well they also governed this country.  They can’t complain about selectivity.  

In any case, this government pledged to correct these wrongs.  Their competence has been reduced to periodic laments about the legacy that the Rajapaksas bequeathed upon them.  If, as key members of this regime whisper, the Rajapaksas have been condemned to the dustbin of history, it seems that this is a government of scavengers.  

Forget the Opposition and its traditional role of criticizing anything and everything; there are people who supported President Sirisena and the United National Party who are using descriptives that actually echo the Opposition.  They criticize the government for indecisiveness, vacillation and policy paralysis.  That’s my fellow columnist Ranga Jayasuriya, by the way.  

In an article titled “Protests and strikes: What would MR have done if he was in power?” where he also throws in names such as Augusto Pinochet and Deng Xiaoping, Ranga Jayasuriya argues that whether or not they are ideal types (in terms of being democrats) “leaders have to take tough decisions if they are to truly serve the long term interests of their people”.   This side of white-vanning, he interjects.  

Ranga proposes that where it is mandated  [the Government] should make use of legitimate coercive power of the State to make its future vision for the country a reality.  ‘Legitimate coercive power’ is a problematic term.  From where is legitimacy obtained?  What kind of legitimacy flows from mandates when one also uses terms such as policy paralysis, indecision and vacillation (to which of course we have to add incompetence and corruption)?    

Gazetting the Development Lotteries Board under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is enough to stop all talk of competence. That word cannot be used to describe this Government any longer.  Nepotism is thriving under this Government.  

There was a Facebook post recently that puts the issue of corruption in perspective: if you want to rob, go for the big bucks and make sure you tie a politician to your project.  Big bucks were made in the Central Bank bond issue scam.  Politicians are implicated.  Good governance has been observed in the breach.  Time and again.

If this is the case, what moral right does this government have to use coercion on anyone?  Cracking down on protests has boiled down to political survival.  Nothing else.  Today there are protests to protest the use of force on protestors.  We have seen discussions being followed by petitions and petitions being replaced by boycotting of lectures.  There have been other discussions, more protests and a general escalation.  When someone says ‘the students will have to resort to armed struggle’ it is not advocacy but a common-sense prediction.  Of course the protestors are not gaining any moral high ground by breaking the law.  They have damaged public property and they have intimidated journalists.  These are and have to be read as signs of desperation and cannot be be pooh-poohed as international conspiracies, the result of incitement by those condemned to political dustbins and such.  

What is worrying is the likelihood (given political history) that this is the one scenario that the government needs at this point, i.e. the ‘need’ to coerce.  

This is what the eighties were all about: the July 1980 strike and the crackdown on trade unions, the intimidation of the Opposition and rigging of two key elections in 1982, a look-the-other-way approach compounded by unleashing the union of the ruling party on Tamils in 1983, the shooting of two students in 1984 and other such moves sent agitation underground.  When J R Jayewardene capitulated to Rajiv Gandhi is July 1987, the ideal conditions were created for an insurrection.  That Government survived.  The cost to the UNP was deadly, literally.  And we know how the country and the citizens suffered. 

The crisis here is legitimacy.  That which took Mahinda Rajapaksa almost 10 years to lose, this Government started losing in the very first week after Maithripala Sirisena was elected President.  The rate of losing ground increased before the much talked of ‘100 Days’ was over.   The Government has two options.  It must go before the people for a fresh mandate even in the form of the delayed local government elections.  It can also talk of “legitimate coercive power of the state’.  That however involves the acknowledgment that the good governance rhetoric was a cheap lie.  Moreover, few will buy the ‘legitimacy’ claim.    

We are at a critical political junction.  There are vultures in the middle and vultures approaching the middle.  No prizes for guessing the inevitable prey: the people.  


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene.



22 June 2017

The small problem of the big parties


How many times have we heard that there’s no room for any third party in Sri Lankan politics?  ‘Third party’ as in an entity other than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party or else coalitions led by one of both.  True, parties with extremely modest strength have on many an occasion effected change, played king-maker and even been part of governments; but always, always, it has been either the UNP or the SLFP that has dominated.  Withdrawal of support or threats of support-withdrawal have often made the particular ‘big party’ in power jittery but invariably the dominant partner has prevailed or else the bringing down of the particular government has resulted in the other ‘big party’ moving in.  

These parties are resilient, no doubt.  Both have on occasion been condemned to the dustbin of history.   Interestingly, the United National Party which has not captured absolute power (Kumaratunge was President when the UNP ruled from 2001-2004 and Maithripala Sirisena is the chief executive now, both individuals leading the SLFP) in 23 years and having been associated with this ‘dustbin,’ making a veiled reference to the Joint Opposition talked about ‘political forces relegated to the dustbin of history’ just the other day.  They are resilient; this has to be acknowledged.

Are they invincible, though?  First of all the notion of invincibility rebels against the well known dictum, ‘all things are transient’.  All things (people, collectives, geographical boundaries and even ideas) are born, suffer decay and perish.  Sooner or later.  The UNP and SLFP are old.  They were formed before most people in Sri Lanka were born.  It is natural then to mistake longevity for immortality.  

We must not forget, however, that the SLFP of Bandaranaike was not the SLFP of his daughter and certainly not the SLFP of Mahinda Rajapaksa or Maithripala Sirisena. The same goes for the UNP.  Ranil Wickremesinghe is certainly not a D.S. Senanayake.  

And of course the country has changed.  The economy has changed.  We have less forest cover. Development priorities have changed as too the thinking on development.  Even the name has changed.  

And yet, we have these two parties.  The older left made its run and one might say squandered excellent chances.   The not-so-young-anymore left tried armed insurrection and thereafter electoral politics but is still nowhere near capturing power.  As Chiranjaya Nanayakkara observed at a rally supporting the United Socialist Alliance presidential candidate in 1988, Ossie Abeygunasekara, ‘the left has helped these two parties into power and helped them out of power’.  The wish, at the time, was for a Left that could stand on its own.  Well, that has not happened and one could attribute this to being out of touch with reality, ideological and political errors or something else.  The fact remains that ‘The Left’ has always been a weak factor in the political equation, at best a wrecker (the JVP in 1971 and 1988-89 for example) or a prop to one of the two major parties.  

Communalist parties have played roles similar to those played by the JVP and it’s fellow old-left parties such as as the CP and LSSP — critical in presidential elections and in general elections where the major parties don’t get clear majorities.  They are less amenable to inclusion in the ‘possible alternative’ category for sheer demographic reasons.  

So on the face of it, regardless of trasience-truisms, on the face of it we have this phenomenon of  the major political parties as permanent fixtures with one or the other always in power.  

Given their track records it is legitimate for anyone to feel despondent.  However, despondency is a close relative of ‘disillusionment’.  There’s where there’s hope.  

The gut reaction could be (and has been) to look to a different party.  This is why other parties get some votes. However, we cannot escape the sobering fact that even at its best showing even the JVP got only 5% or thereabouts of the total votes.  There were more votes spoiled than the amount the JVP secured.  The non-voters also outnumbered the JVP vote.  

What happens, then, is what has been described as the default-option factor.  People are voted out of power rather than being voted into power, typically.  The proponents of this method use the easy (and erroneous) line ‘first things first, we have to get this lot out!’  But politics is not something that begins when Parliament is dissolved or a Presidential Election called.  It does not end when the Elections Commissioner announces the result.  

In the understanding of the political that is longer, i.e. goes beyond ‘elections,’  political parties have failed the people and more worryingly, the people have failed themselves.  If, for example, people abandoned political parties, they sink.  

More importantly, if the idea of political parties was dropped, people win.  They recover some semblance of self respect and dignity.  Since representation is a myth and since what transpires in parliamentary politics is less representation than mis-representation, such an eventuality can only enhance the worth of the citizen.  

So how does this work or rather how can it be made to work?  First, we need to draw a lesson from the fact that exchanging a sooty pot for a sooty kettle still leaves us defaced with soot.  We have as a voting population dirtied our hands by raising them to vote one set of incompetent rogues into power in order to defeat another set of incompetent rogues.  We have to therefore get political parties out of our heads because ‘political parties’ is like a pet parrot, a pet rabbit, a pet puppy or kitten that we love and feed in our minds.  Unless we stop cuddling and taking care of the notion of ‘political parties’ we really don’t have a moral right to take issue with the dominant mode of politics.  

There’s a lesson to be learned from France too.  A coalition led by President Emmanuel Macron’s one year old party ‘La République en Marche (Republic on the Move, or REM)’, won the parliamentary election.   A 42% voter turn out prompted the leader of the party ‘France Unbowed,’ Jean-Luc Mélenchon to observe that the French had ‘entered a form of civil general strike.’  Of course REM is a party but perhaps we can see that tendency as a positive development against the tyranny of ‘big parties’ (and of course their small-party enablers).  What Mélenchon has missed is that when you add the number of those who did not vote to those who did vote for REM, the rejection of the ‘here forever’ political parties is astounding. 


Invincibility of a single political party is a lie and is recognized as such.  The invincibility of ‘political PARTIES’ is a myth that is yet to be acknowledged.  That’s not the fault of the political parties.  We can be a ‘republic on the march’ and certainly not one that sees Macron and REM as heroes for anything other than debunking the French version of invincibility.  

We can be a republic on the march only if we recognize that recovering the republic has to happen first and that nothing inhibits such recovery than the stubborn refusal to evict ‘political parties’ from our minds.

15 June 2017

A non-political citizenry for a no-politician democracy

"The most radical idea at this political moment could very well be the notion of a no-politician citizenry, i.e. a movement of the people, by the people, for the people, with or without the state."  

දේශපාලනයේ 'අපි' කව්රුද?

Tilak Disanayake and Hilmy Sally who describe themselves as ‘design engineers and concerned citizens’ have proposed a concept which they call ‘No politician democracy (NPD)’ (see ‘No politician democracy’ in the Daily FT, June 14, 2017).  It is a blueprint (in the making) of a new Sri Lanka which will be, in their words, ‘unitary, secular and sustainable, and will have a thriving, inclusive economy affording opportunities for all its people regardless of gender, race, age, religion, caste or sexual orientation.’

Ask any politician or anyone else for that matter and very few if at all would object to residency in such a republic.  Tilak and Hilmy have promised to detail the ‘how to get there’ of all this shortly and I await eagerly what promises in the very least to be a good read.  They have hinted that their ‘plan’ can come into force if 151 Members of Parliament purchase it.  Given the enormous benefits that politicians have reaped and continue to enjoy one might think it is a hard sell, but this engineering duo believe that the benefits of change would outweigh the costs and the said MPs would be ‘swung’.   

That the country requires radical change is a no-brainer.  That it is urgent is clear.  And yet, for all the need and all the ‘blueprints, the resilience of the institutional arrangement and the current political culture is certainly formidable.  

Lying politicians are certainly responsible for sabotaging the reform agenda that they themselves pledged to implement, but theirs is essentially a part role.  There are structural factors that stand in the way.   

This obviously pleases the politicians who were never serious about reform for they can always blame it on the system (when they are not blaming everything on the Rajapaksas that is).  It won’t be easy to convince 151 MPs because easy money is a happier prospect that hard-earned money.  The carrot called ‘freedom from prosecution’ may look delicious but it will nevertheless be compared to the infinitely more delicious goodies that arrive from tenaciously defending a system that does not prosecute.  

The issue perhaps is about how deeply embedded the individual MP is in this corrupt system. We have to understand that some have invested heavily in all this and those who haven’t secured adequate returns will not feel the prosecution-free pull.  

That’s only part of the problem.  When Dullas Alahapperuma decided not to contest the 2001 General Election he offered the following reason: ‘We [I] are [am] too white; there are too many brown people and their brownness is most evidenced when there is a white contrast.’  He has a valid point that has outlived his political ‘whiteness’.  The more serious issue is that we don’t really have a white (or ‘clean’) citizenry.  In that sense perhaps we do have a decent enough  ‘representative democracy’ and this is something we need to recognize.

Our NPD advocates acknowledge this pervading ‘brownness”:  

The mostly dishonest, incompetent politicians (and their parties) that we elect via easily manipulated polls have ruined the country over the past 69 years.  And we the people have been complicit by electing them.’  

If 151 MPs stand up for NPD it would not be a revolution, it would be a coup.  Given that such a coup would immediately get us a different constitution it could revolutionize the system of governance and pave the way for transparent and efficient institutional arrangements and processes. I am sure that there are many people who would share the vision for Sri Lanka that Tilak and Hilmy have outlined.  They probably have shared their thoughts with movers and shakers.  Perhaps they have even won some of them over and who knows, even convinced some MPs.  Perhaps they could do with some help from below.  

The history of social transformation demonstrates that given certain objective conditions what is required is not a citizens’ majority.  We don’t need, happily, ‘two-thirds plus one’ of ‘the people’.  A critical mass is what is required.  An organized critical mass, one might add, or at least a number of people/groups who although they may not work together are in concert in the matter of action.  

The proposition is mouth-watering given what we’ve had for so many decades.  A ‘no politician democracy’ is a cry that rises from everything vile that politician, political party and politics denotes.   

We are, as Tilak and Hilmy imply, a ‘serial monarchy.’  A republic without meaningful citizenship, a population that is not also a citizenry.  

And yet, it is not that ‘the people’ have not counted.  They have stood up, they have challenged, and they have died. Those who say that independence was won without a drop of blood being shed are ignorant of all that has happened from 1815 to 1948 (and that’s only if we count the British period).  We have seen flashes of the kind of citizenship that Tilak and Hilmy probably envisage, but in non-political terms, especially in times of tragedy.  

It is of course not easy to mobilize the energy, capacity, tenacity and attitude demonstrated in such situation for what is essentially a political project, even though the objective is a no-politician democracy.  This does not mean that it should not be attempted.  

The most radical idea at this political moment could very well be the notion of a no-politician citizenry, i.e. a movement of the people, by the people, for the people, with or without the state.  

Anarchy?  It may look like that, but perhaps such a tendency would be the ‘stick’ that would force those critical 151 individuals in Parliament to take the carrots offered by Tilak and Hilmy.  

They’ve set a ball of ideas rolling, these two.  It’s a big object and one that requires more than 4 hands to keep it going in the right direction.  There’s a lot of space on that surface for many more hands.  One thing is certain:  established political parties and professional politicians are unlikely to lend their weight. 

See also:


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene

09 June 2017

Is the Government pressing the ‘Snooze’ button on arson?

Inaction on ‘Aluthgama’, near silence on Bodu Bala Sena (BBC) rhetoric and a government servant (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) not being taken to task for accepting an invitation to open the office of a political organization (BBS), and other acts of omission and commission raised the ire of Muslims in Sri Lanka.  That was during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and some claim that all this pushed the Muslims of the country to vote for Maithripala Sirisena en bloc.  

Crime and punishment, one can call it.  Not through accepted legal processes but through the vote; the crime being complicity by way of silence/inaction.  

But that was a long time ago.  That government was defeated.  The new government, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe outfit I mean, vowed to end all that. For a while it seemed that they were half way serious.  Not any more.  

Ven Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero, the voice of the BBS is still at large although there’s a warrant for his arrest.  Is this purely incompetence on the part of the police or is there some truth in the rumor that a powerful minister in this government is protecting him?  We don’t know.  

Meanwhile, Colombo Telegraph puts the problem in graphic terms: ‘

A shop, a day’.  That’s one Muslim-owned shop being torched every day.  That’s a rate of violence.  That’s a rate of violence that has a communal signature.  

Let us not be hasty and point fingers just yet.  We cannot say ‘the BBS did it’ although their rhetoric and past record clearly indicates ‘incitement’ which could have spurred someone or several people or even an organized group to indulge in arson.  ‘Incitement’ is not a crime since we don’t have anti hate speech legislation and probably cannot have such ‘safeguards’ without also banning religious texts such as the Old Testament and the Quran. We can ask why the Mahanayaka Theros have been silent on Ven Gnanasara Thero because they are mandated to apply the vinaya rules on the bikkhus, but non-application (for whatever reason) is no crime.  

We an leave all that aside if we want, but it is still a discussion that needs to take place.  

However, if we stick to the basics of law and order and choose to be blind to the communalist mark of these violent and increasingly disturbing acts, we still have to ask ‘what is this government doing about all this?’  

As of now, the only logical answer to this question (What is the government doing?) is, ‘nothing’.  

When ‘Aluthgama’ happened, in an editorial published in ‘The Nation,’ I made certain observations where I blamed the then IGP for irresponsibility and called for his resignation.  A quick recap could be useful and for this reason I reproduce the following sections of that piece:

If there was convoluted justification of last Sunday’s violence and if justification spurred further violence the blame falls squarely on the IGP for making the following (irresponsible) statement: ‘Three Muslims in a trishaw assaulted the driver and the Buddhist monk. The Buddhist monk was in hospital receiving treatment for two days and then discharged.  He was to be taken to the temple in a procession when the incident occurred.’ 

The IGP offered speculation as fact. That’s incompetent and irresponsible. Yesterday the Muslim-owned ‘No Limit’ outlet in Panadura was torched.  While it is not clear how it all happened, it is clear that the sequence of events prompt people to connect dots and reach conclusion, wrong though they may be.  Tinkering with the truth and lying outright causes friction, throw out sparks and cause infernos that are hard to put out.

It is wrong to blame it all on one person, but it is equally wrong not to point out those who provided fuel and matchstick, tossed in extra firewood and refused to douse it even though they had all the water necessary to do the job.  We have to take issue with the IGP.  He must resign forthwith.

There are dots here and they will be connected.  Wrong perhaps, but disturbingly, perhaps correctly too.  All the more reason to err on the side of caution. All the more reason to spare no pains to ensure that culprits are brought to book not because this is the most effective way of insuring against future attacks of this kind (it may be or it may not be) but because it is the right thing to do and what this government solemnly pledged to do.  

We can of course debate about one extremism feeding off another and ponder the chicken-or-egg conundrum.  One could argue that this is a relevant discussion and I will not disagree.  One can say that extremism should be objected to and insist that such objection should be lawful.  That is however a different matter as far as the rights of citizenship and the responsibilities of relevant state agencies are concerned.  

The Police must act.  The Ministry of Law and Order must act.  The Minister must act.  The primacy of the law should be clearly evident.  This is not the moment for sloth (if that’s the case).  It is certainly not the moment for sweeping things under the carpet (as seems to be the case) and especially not for purposes of political convenience (a government with an abysmal performance rating needs distraction — this we know).  Failure to do so would see ‘useful distraction’ bleeding into inter-communal violence and eventually to anarchy.  

Alright, let’s say ‘that’s going a bit overboard’.  Fine.  Still, if are required to be stone cold sober and leave ‘the political’ out of it, we still have a question of blatant disregard for the law.  Arson is a serious matter.  Destroying private property is a serious matter. When the destroyed properties happen to belong to members of a particular community it is an even more serious matter.  

“Arrest this!” 

This is what we have to demand of the government at this point, even as we (as citizens) remain alert and support all efforts to a) prevent such acts and b) support the law enforcement authorities in their work.  

“Tomorrow, where?” is a question that many are probably asking.  If it is not answered, tomorrow we will see a report saying “here”.  Surely, this government can do better?  It must. Or else, its complicity will be suspected.



This article was first published in Colombo Telegraph on June 9, 2017