A policeman gestures as protesters dismantle an anti-government protest camp near the presidential secretariat in Colombo on August 12. — Agence France-Presse/Ishara S Kodikara
ACCORDING to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of humanity was a state of war in which life was “lonely, poor, mean, brutal and short” because individuals were in a “war of all against all”. So they had to get along. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, explicitly or tacitly, to give up some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.
The evolution of constitutional thought since the 17th century in which Hobbes and Locke lived was to find ways to regulate the powers of rulers and to protect the people from rulers. Those who have power must be controlled. They must be held accountable. If those who govern are not checked or held accountable, they invariably abuse their powers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is a truism. Over the past 74 years, we have seen leaders use their power indiscriminately, some more than others. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is an example of a law that was instituted to deal with the Tamil separatist insurgency more than 40 years ago, but has yet to protect the power of the rulers. Over the past three years, when the rulers of Sri Lanka held virtually absolute power under the 20th Amendment to the constitution, the situation in the country deteriorated. The country went bankrupt for the first time.
The current debate over the 22nd Amendment is to secure and expand the role of civil society to mitigate the powers of politicians who are in power. This is particularly important given the erosion of the mandate and legitimacy of the current parliamentary majority. A key question now concerns the three representatives of civil society who will sit on the Constitutional Council. The current wording of the amendment is that civil society representatives must be acceptable to the majority in parliament (thus giving the government the final say). Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s experience with constitutional reform points in the direction of further strengthening the powers of the rulers against the people. The so-called reforms have invariably strengthened the hands of the rulers against the people and justified doing it for the good of the people.
THE 1972 constitution replaced the constitution the country inherited from British colonial rulers. It guarantees the independence of the judiciary and the civil service and also provides special protections for human rights and non-discrimination between ethnic communities. However, these protections were removed from the 1972 constitution which sought to empower ruling politicians on the grounds that they embodied the will of the sovereign people. It has been argued that elected politicians are closer to the people than unelected judges and officials. But being away from people makes them non-partisan, a less understood value. Judges were sacked when the new constitution came into effect and treated disgracefully. The 1978 constitution repeats the activities of the 1972 constitutions. Judges were again sacked and treated disgracefully. Later, they were even stoned.
It is these cultures that we have developed that have led to the current crisis of lack of values beyond the economy itself and that have formed the basis of Aragalaya. From being a country near the top of Asia at the time of independence, Sri Lanka today is closer to the bottom. The life savings of its residents have been halved in six months and not a single politician has faced a process of legal accountability.
The 22nd Amendment belongs to the family of constitutional amendments that began with the 17th Amendment in 2001. This amendment was accepted by the then President due to the weakening of the government at the time. The amendment resulted in the reduction of the power of the president and the sharing of these powers with parliament, state institutions and civil society. The idea behind the 17th Amendment was to strengthen the system of checks and balances and thereby promote good governance in the national interest. The 19th amendment which resembles it is the work of a coalition of parties which had opposed the abuse of power by the rulers that they had just tabled by electoral mandate. But that was overturned by the 20th Amendment of 2019.
HOWEVER, the limitation of the powers of rulers has never been accepted by those who would be rulers or belong to their party. It was under the 20th Amendment which is about to be repealed that the corruption and abuse of power in the country reached its zenith and plunged the people into economic hardship and unprecedented poverty. It was these difficulties that gave rise to the Aragalaya, or protest movement, which culminated in the physical storming of government buildings and the forced resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet ministers. The shrinking middle class that has struggled all its life is now falling through the cracks and joining the poor and vulnerable created by the government in less than three years. Yet, underscoring the leaders’ priorities, none of them seem to think about compensating those who lost their savings, only compensating for what happened to a few of the leaders and their henchmen during the 2015-2019 period. or the Aragalaya period. in which the houses of the rulers, far beyond their known sources of wealth and income, were burnt down.
An Indian political analyst, Dr Maya John, wrote: “Although the Aragalaya not only targeted individual politicians like the Rajapaksas, but also all corrupt political forces – as evidenced by the parallel slogans of ‘Gota Go Home and “225 GB Home”. — most popular energy was openly focused on removing certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency of the ruling establishment to continue to dominate with the ousting of certain politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese saying goes: inguru deela miris gaththa salarial (exchange ginger for chilli), we just got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. Thus, the Rajapaksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and the same political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.
THE protest movement was a reaction to the limits of social tolerance, economic hardship, shortages, queues and steep price hikes that actually halved the general income of the people, with some suffering more than death. ‘others. But the repression against them by the rulers has been both subtle and harsh in the current period. Those who gave him leadership are taken one by one, imprisoned or released on bail for not daring to demonstrate. The unequal and discriminatory treatment of the protest movement puts on the veneer of a law the government hopes to secure through UN Human Rights Council oversight next month and preserve the economic benefits of the EU’s GSP Plus , which is granted to countries that are making a real effort to improve the lot of their people, the poor and not just the rich.
In 2018, parliamentarians who tried to stage a constitutional coup (which failed because the justice system remained firm) sat in the chair of the speaker of parliament they had forced out. They threw chairs and ripped microphones out of their sockets. But none of them were punished even when the coup failed. However, those who joined the protest movement and sat in the president’s chair are being tracked down one by one and arrested. A protester who took the deposed president’s beer mug has been arrested. But ministers accused of corruption, accused even by diplomats accredited in the country, and ministers convicted by the courts sit in government. Such unequal and discriminatory treatment is likely to increase feelings of grievance, especially when people face price hikes and shortages. They form the basis for bringing about another Aragalaya.
The current version of the 22nd amendment which gives rulers the power to choose members of civil society through a parliamentary majority that has lost its mandate and its legitimacy who will sit on the constitutional council is not a sign that the government will listen to the voice of people. In this unwillingness to be held accountable and to use power fairly, lies a recipe for confrontation between rulers and people in the future in which repression will be the response of rulers who disregard the people. This may explain why the military budget continues to rank first despite the economic collapse. Unless the voices of the people are truly represented in parliament and in political processes, which can only go through another round of elections, it is difficult to hold the system to account, which is sooner or later a disastrous formula.
Jehan Perera is Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.