By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran
"The least government is the best government. We should have just as little as we can get along with"–President Harry Truman
We have glimpses of the unimportant among the constitutional changes contemplated. However, what has been revealed is not what we need.
It is like watching an awkward, Burqa-clad cabaret dancer, determined to perform without revealing anything the male audience wants to see! The President has enough votes now to ensure passage of contemplated constitutional amendments through parliament. However, we have no idea of the extent of the changes contemplated. While constitutional changes are not required to cure what ails our country, what is bound to emerge is likely to disappoint many discerning and caring citizens.
There has been no public debate on the proposed amendments. The least necessary changes are being peddled as the most necessary. It is bound to be a fait accompli. In any country that is worth her salt, constitutions are conceived, debated and written by thinking, far- sighted, knowledgeable and wise persons. The wider and long-term interests of the country would be their guiding light. Constitutions should transcend the political imperatives of the day and define in concrete terms the vision that guides a nation. In the USA, the architects of the constitution are called the 'Founding Fathers'. The larger public is made part of this debate and gets educated on the meaning and implications of the ideas being considered. A representative assembly thereafter debates and approves it, with amendments if deemed necessary.
Any constitutional change proposed and accepted by politicians of the type we have, can only be one more chapter in our unfortunate political history and would not serve the long- term needs of our country. Horse- trading to garner the required votes in parliament should not definitely be an option in constitution making, as it destroys the moral basis of the constitution itself. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her leftist friends not only messed up an excellent opportunity to build a united nation, but also laid the foundations for a civil war. They also undermined a wiser constitution – Soulbury's- that could have served us better in the long- run, if understood and operated in the right spirit. J.R. Jayewardene's edition-which gave him all the power except the one to change the sex of a person- was the ultimate insult to our national intelligence and has become the dream of politicians aspiring to be omnipotent. Constitutional changes in Sri Lanka appear to be no different to those imposed by military juntas!
It does not matter whether we have a presidential system of governance or a parliamentary one-both have been tried, and have failed. It does not matter whether the term of office of the president is two or unlimited. J.R. Jayawardena ruled for long years, under the guises of Prime Minister and President, but smothered everything that was of value in our society- rule of law, democracy in its true sense, human rights, decency, honour and accountability. J.R.Jayawardene's 'Dharmishta rule' criminalized not only politics but also the country!
We had a Senate and it did not serve its function. This senate was abolished when it was considered an obstacle in even its enfeebled state by the ruling clique. A new Senate will not do better. It will be one more refuge for unelectable or discarded politicians. We had recourse to justice in the Privy Council, which was discarded, after the Kodeeswaran appeal, because it became an inconvenient obstacle to the politicians of the day. The reason given for discarding the mechanism was that it impinged on our national pride. We did not mind being short on common sense and being caught with our pants down!
We have a Supreme Court, which rarely had the spunk or the spine to stand up for the constitution, the rule of law and the rights of citizens. The judiciary as a whole has been degraded and enfeebled. It is a shadow of what it was in the early years of our independence. Constitutions remain a sheaf of papers, unless we treat them as sacrosanct, and function within the parameters defined by them. We are unfortunately in a country where constitutions have been considered a barrier to political ambitions, than a beacon to be guided. The two editions of homegrown constitutions we have had, sound great, but are full of deliberately made holes, which have tripped us as a nation very badly. Expediency and opportunism have triumphed over constitutional rule for too long. This has also become a bad habit that will be difficult to weed.
We have had the Provincial Council system for the past twenty-three years. However, these Councils have been rendered impotent from their very beginning. They do not serve the purpose for which they were contrived and are composed largely of men and women who are incapable of doing what they have to. The public at large would not notice a difference if these Councils disappear overnight. I do not envision politicians at the centre will ever devolve any meaningful power to the periphery. This reality, however unfortunate, needs to be accepted as part of our fate. Unbridled and centralized power is also a bad habit that cannot be easily weeded from the political scene, especially in a supine society.
The parliament as it is today reflects the decay that has progressively destroyed almost all institutions in our society over several decades. Our parliament has very few persons of stature and even fewer persons of character. Parliamentary debates are not reproduced in the newspapers any more, because they are not worth publishing! Our politicians are mostly opportunists, self-seekers, liars, thieves, thugs, criminals and braggarts. They are incompetents at best. They are parasites sucking the blood of the nation. Decent persons dare not enter the portals that have become their lair! Politics has indeed become the last abode of the rascal in Sri Lanka. Politics and politicians have crept into every aspect of our lives, and have tainted, devalued and degraded everything that matter to us as a people. This trend has been a curse for Sri Lanka. The proportional voting system has also distanced the politician from the electorate, and diluted the accountability of the elected to the voters. All these factors have contributed to power being concentrated by design in the presidency and by necessity in the hands of the few men the President trusts- principally his two brothers, who are no doubt intelligent, talented and very able individuals. However, is this the direction we should take in the future, though inevitable at this point in time?
The public services are corrupt, lethargic and bloated. They have been deprived of authority and emasculated. The public servants have been made the boot-lickers of politicians and they in turn have gladly become politicians' servants- a symbiotic relationship that is the bane of our nation. The police service is just about the worst any country could have. The police service needs policing in Sri Lanka! The police serve themselves first and the politicians and criminals next. The police service is distrusted by even men at the helm of our political structure! The last place any decent person would like to step into is a police station.
Religions are increasingly becoming a charade. They are a badge to wear and fight over, than instruments to make us a better people. Our institutionalized priesthood harbours perverts, paedophiles, violent men, criminals, war- mongers, rabble- rousers and terrorist-supporters. Where are the decency, tolerance, kindness, forgiveness and charitableness in a society that professes the world's greatest religions? These attributes are becoming harder to find in a society, where they were once in abundance. The more we talk about religion, the less religious we have become!
Teachers – whether in the schools or the universities- are rarely what they should be. They are also a frustrated and neglected lot. What sort of young men and women would come out of such institutions? We have cram shops of increasing intensity from the kindergartens to the universities. Are our schools providing an all round education to identify and develop the unique potential of each student? We have made private tuition a parallel money spinning industry, at the expense of our schools. I have heard of university students going for private tuition! Who is setting long- term objectives in our education system? On what basis are school curricula formulated? What is the vision that guides our education system?
Should our universities – increasing in number by the year- be called polytechnics instead? Do they deserve to be called universities, any longer? Should we have more technical colleges and vocational training institutions than the so-called universities? We have more literates, but fewer educated- a tragedy that is taking its toll on our society. Unless we produce better-educated men and women through our schools and universities, we cannot hope to improve our political institutions, public services, religious institutions and the police service. We have to move away from a failing quantitative education system to one that is based on quality, talents of the students and the needs of the country.
We as a society have created conditions for working girls from poor families, to become part-time prostitutes to make ends meet. We are a society that exports our women to become modern day slaves. We are a society with one of the highest rates of induced abortions in the world. We are a society that makes poor children the victims of sex tourism. We are a society where poverty forces families to sell or abandon their infants and drown their children. We are a society where alcoholism is not only rampant, but has also become fashionable. We are a society that has first world aspirations and a third/ fourth world economy. We are a society in which the disparity between the haves and have-nots is widening. We cannot forever take solace that we as a country are better off, than those around! Do we want to be the deaf man who became the leader of the blind? We should not also forget that we have slid back in most parameters that matter to a society, whereas our neighbours have progressed rapidly.
We are a country living beyond our means. We are a country of pretenders ('Boru' Show). We are a country of shallow thinkers. We are a country without long- term goals. We are a country that has not defined itself in terms of what it is and what it wants to be. We are a country without a soul. Every leader we have had, attempts to re-design the country in terms of his/ her shallow and often stupid perceptions. We are a country that does not function as one nation. We are floundering as a people. We have learnt to live for the short term and are suffering from self-induced amnesia.
We are a country with leaders, who are suffering from delusions of grandeur and the divine right to rule. We are a country that has made politicians our masters and have abdicated our rights of citizenship and sovereignty. Our country is not a democracy, but one that has opted to elect un-crowned Kings and Queens, to be our benevolent patrons! We are also a country that does not understand democracy and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. We are literate, but not politically mature.
We are a country that has just come out of a 30-year civil war, which has left in its wake, thousands of displaced and maimed people, and widows, orphans and imprisoned. A significant proportion of our population has been pushed back at least a century in terms of social and economic parameters. The destruction left in the wake of the prolonged civil war, would take decades for even a rich country to remedy. The psychological wounds suffered will take generations to heal. There is yet no national debate on what went wrong and why a civil war came about. The parties to the conflict yet blame each other for what transpired and are unable to acknowledge their share of the blame. There is no attempt yet to find solutions to the ethnic, communal or majority -minority problems, real or imagined, that have been our unfortunate burden over several decades. Despite the tremendous pain and cost at which the civil war was concluded, there are no concerted efforts to heal the wounds and resolve outstanding issues. We are indeed a nation of lotus-eaters!
Vital infrastructure development projects have no doubt been successfully concluded, are underway and are being planned. The highways, ports, airports, bridges and power supply plants that will come on stream will have a positive impact on economic development. The conclusion of the civil war and these infrastructural projects are no doubt the great achievements of the Rajapakse government. Unfortunately, the human and institutional factors necessary to bring about the economic miracle and social development we expect are receiving scant attention. Human resource development, institution building, ensuring true democracy and rule of law, the pillars that are needed to support sustainable economic development and underline the success of our nation remain seriously neglected.
Would the new constitutional changes help remedy the critical problems and make us truly a nation of great people? Would the proposed constitutional changes help depoliticize our country and confine our politicians to their designated arena? Would these constitutional amendments make politicians reflect the essential decency of our people and set them an example? Would the new constitutional changes lay the foundations for a more efficient and less corrupt public service and a disciplined police service? Would the new constitutional amendments bring about greater amity amongst the diverse citizenry? Would the new constitutional changes criminalize bigotry, and linguistic, religious and ethnic/ communal hate mongering? Would these constitutional changes create a society that provides equal opportunities, encourages meritocracy and ensures security for the law-abiding? Would these constitutional changes bring about a more even distribution of wealth? Would these constitutional changes ensure an even development throughout the country? Would these constitutional changes ensure that development does not degrade the environment, forestry and waterways, and destroy wild life? Would these constitutional changes create a just society that is governed by the rule of law and compassion? I doubt it.