by Mangala Samaraweera
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” - George Orwell, 1984
As I pen these lines the knowledge bears heavy upon my soul that by the time these words go to press, Sri Lanka is well on the path to dictatorship and oligarchy: from the moment the Speaker puts his signature to the 18th Amendment bulldozed through Parliament on the 8th of September, his brother will become the constitutionally sanctioned autocrat of our troubled island. Perhaps 8/9/10 will go down in history as the day one of Asia’s oldest democracies lost her soul.
It is unfortunate that the government’s propaganda machine has been so effective as to still the consciences of the majority of Sri Lankans, most of whom are not even aware that as they go about their lives, apathetic and ignorant, their democratic rights are being signed away by the man who claims to be their liberator, Mahendra Percival Rajapaksa.
In what has been an insidious political maneuvering since he assumed the Presidency of Sri Lanka in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the ruling family have finally shown their hand in a way that makes it impossible for any right thinking citizen to ignore. That is why the newspapers, pundits, columnists, lawyers and civil society on every side of the ideological divide have made a unified plea, because not even Mahinda Rajapaksa and his talented team of spin doctors at the state media houses can disguise this unbridled lust for absolute power as an act of patriotism. Finally then the true persona of the man so many have hailed as liberator is laid bare.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution so secretly drafted and so insidiously placed upon the agenda of the legislature is nothing but an unabashed power grab by a man who has had despotic ambitions from the start; a man who has done everything in his presidency so far to arrive at this day – the day when he can secure the position of ‘President For Life’, for himself, until such time that his brothers and sons are ready for the throne. For those who gave him the benefit of the doubt when he had artistes write songs about Mahinda being a ‘Maharajaneni’ as far back as May last year, let there be no mistake now that as of September 8, 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the self appointed king of Sri Lanka.
This new Amendment which aims to reverse the progressive 17th Amendment, a historic piece of legislation endorsed unanimously by parliament and also allows an executive president to serve an unlimited number of terms in office, has been rushed through the legislative process like no other bill put forth by the Rajapaksa Administration. There is good reason for this. While protecting the presidency and keeping it in the hands of the Rajapaksa family, the 18th Amendment also ensures that all appointments to the public service, judiciary and the appointment of the elections commission or commissioner fall under the writ of an almighty executive president.
In short, the 18th Amendment is a piece of Rajapaksa legislation that ensures that the Rajapaksa writ holds sway over every single area of governance and public life, exactly that which the 17th Amendment sought to prevent by way of de-politicizing the public service, judiciary, police and ensuring independence during elections. It is indeed a strange situation we are faced with today.
For decades, the central political and public debate in Sri Lanka has been about trying to find ways to dilute the extraordinary powers vested with the executive president by the 1978 Constitution. At the last two national elections, this debate and discourse took pride of place in the plethora of political issues raised. How ironic it is then for us to find ourselves at this juncture. While all those of us in the political firmament have been determined to redefine the Sri Lankan constitution that would make the presidency more accountable to the people, Mahinda Rajapaksa has checkmated the nation by this constitutional coup to increase his powers and ensure that he and his family remain at the helm of this country for an indefinite time to come.
In short, he has managed in less than a week to change the Sri Lankan presidency into the office of an all powerful dictator. It should be recalled that some of the worst dictators the world has ever seen have tried to legitimize their positions by conducting nominal elections. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein held an election every five years where he was the only candidate. So does Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Adolf Hitler too obtained a 2/3 majority in the notorious elections of November 12th 1933; armed with this majority, within 12 months Hitler substituted his personal dictatorship for its democracy, destroyed all political parties but his own, wiped out the labour unions, stamped out democratic associations of any kind, abolished freedom of speech and of the press, and stifled the independence of the courts.
Today it has become crystal clear why President Mahinda Rajapaksa has chosen to associate himself with the worst human rights violators and dictatorial regimes in the world at present. Since assuming power Mahinda Rajapaksa has strengthened relations with the military dictators of Myanmar who brutally massacred Buddhist priests clamoring for democracy and have imprisoned democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi since 1989 when her party won an election. Rajapaksa is bosom buddies with Libya’s Mohammed Gaddafi who has ruled that country for 40 years without an iota of democracy and Mahmaud Ahmadinejad of Iran who last year squashed opposition protests after a disputed election.
In 2006, when I attended the UN General assembly in New York with the President, many were surprised when our leader embraced the Zimbabwean dictator to express his admiration for the aging tyrant. The 18th Amendment, passed into law last Wednesday ensures that all future elections are rendered meaningless, given the sheer power and control over state machinery by the incumbency.
Where the 17th Amendment upholds the writ of the Commissioner of Elections appointed by the Constitutional Council over the state media during elections, the 18th Amendment holds that the Elections Commissioner (appointed by the President) will control all public and private media, ensuring that the writ of the incumbent will also extend over independent media houses during polls. In short, a political opponent would stand no chance against the Rajapaksa juggernaut; picture the last two elections held in Sri Lanka magnified a thousand fold.
It has long since been established that candidates constantly come into presidential office swearing to abolish the executive presidency only to experience the absolute power of that office and be intoxicated by it. Few who ascend the presidency have ever wanted to relinquish it. To her credit, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga made a sincere attempt to introduce a new constitution minus the executive presidency on 3rd August 2000; history would have been so different if she succeeded then. When a man is afforded unlimited terms in that position, with full control over state machinery indefinitely, only the naive would believe he will give it up one day when his ‘vision for Sri Lanka’ is achieved.
But here’s the rub. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifestos, Mahinda Chinthana and Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dakma clearly stipulated that the executive presidential system will be abolished. In April 2010 he received nearly two thirds of a majority to abolish this system. It is therefore abundantly clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa did not win a mandate from the people to extend his term in office indefinitely. He received a mandate, both in 2005 and in 2010 to abolish the presidency and replace it with a different system of governance. So never mind his opponents, this move to extend his presidential term indefinitely is a grotesque subversion of the people’s franchise and a slap in the face for those who voted for him.
In 1977 when J.R. Jayewardene moved to change the constitution and establish an executive presidency it was the likes of Mahinda Rajapaksa and many other senior SLFPers who took to the streets claiming that it was paving the way for dictatorial government. Today those same SLFPers are supporting this Draconian piece of legislation that not only establishes an all powerful president, but changes the very nature of the state, making a farce of democracy and placing all power in the hands of a single family. There is no doubt in my mind that a majority of the opposition to this Amendment comes from within the ranks of the government. And yet, in the face of this subversion of democracy and in fact the very parliamentary system, SLFPers have chosen to be silent, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of a sense of complacency. I can only hope that they will remember that it was in their hands to reverse this, in their power to stall the Rajapaksa power trip in its tracks.
The rest of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s numbers he achieved by using the full might of the government’s financial strength, to bribe and entice opposition members to sign over a country’s democratic rights to a despot in waiting. Where financial enticement failed, the Rajapaksas employed tactics of terror and intimidation, threatening lawsuits and trumped up charges against those they needed to pass the 18th Amendment into law. It is this purchase of opposition MPs to pass this bill that will be most harshly judged by history.
The people who voted with the opposition voted stoically and determinedly against Mahinda Rajapaksa and the continuance of the executive presidency. They voted for an opposition which had pledged to abolish the all-powerful presidency and bring about a parliamentary system of governance in its stead. The opposition members who have crossed over with little moral compunction represent the interests of that section of the populace; people who categorically rejected the Rajapaksa doctrine for Sri Lanka even when they were at the height of their popularity and power. What kind of warped politicking is this? How will the MPs who have betrayed the mandate they have received answer to their electorates?
You have repaid their faith in you by signing over your voters’ rights to a President they rejected, ensuring that their votes will count for nothing ever again, given the all powerful nature of the incumbency.
All this for money? All this because you refuse to stand up to the man who has proven time and again that his word is good for nothing? There is no doubt that this is a crime for which your voters will never forgive you. You have betrayed them and signed away what was left of their freedom to a megalomaniac in return for the perks of ministerial office.
As for the minority parties who have opted to support this ludicrous piece of legislation, I can only say to them that they have dug their own political graves, by having entrusted more power into the hands of a extremist madman who will use the additional power you have gifted him to further oppress your people.
There is simply no precedent for the way in which this bill was rushed through. It was proposed as an Urgent Bill, begging the questions about why and in whose interests it was necessary to speed up the process, disallowing time for debate, protest or the creation of public opinion. Furthermore the government has opted to do away with the need for a referendum despite the fact that record low voter turn out in April meant that this government has a mandate of a mere 34 percent of registered voters.
If the government was not afraid that the people would vote against this amendment en mass, why not offer a referendum? Surely an amendment that vests so much power indefinitely in an incumbent was more than worthy of seeking the explicit opinion of the general populace? Instead, the amendment was introduced so suddenly and without any warning, ensuring that there was no time for the opposition to educate the people about how dangerous the legislation would be for the future of democracy in this country.
The President should have followed the example of his friend, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who directly went to the people to remove the two term barrier; Chavez called a referendum instead of trying to device an artificial majority in parliament through coercion and intimidation, blackmail and bribery.
The nature of executive presidencies is such that in most parts of the democratic world where the system is in place and there is legal immunity for persons holding the office, term limits are practically mandatory. Term limits offer a slight deterrent to incumbent presidents, ensuring that when their term or terms of office are ended, they will be vulnerable to legal action.
The unlimited number of terms clause put forth in the 18th Amendment nips this small safeguard in the bud, assuring the incumbent president of immunity for life. The floodgates are therefore open for the Rajapaksas, with this Amendment being passed into law, to commit all manner of sins against the Sri Lankan state and citizenry at an intensity greater than the abuses that currently occur. Given the powers afforded to the incumbent by this legislation it is more than likely that Sri Lanka will never be able to prosecute the Rajapaksas or hold them accountable for their misdeeds while in power.
This climax has been some time coming. Those of us who recognised Mahinda Rajapaksa for the megalomaniac he truly was some years ago, realised that this day would come. Ever since he assumed office in 2005, the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency has unfolded before our eyes as a truly Orwellian nightmare. When we expressed our fears then we were labelled unpatriotic and envious. Today, things have come full circle. Supporters and detractors alike have had to swallow the bitter pill that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family are only concerned about entrenching themselves in power and perpetrating a dynasty; that their lofty rhetoric about patriotism, about being custodians of this nation, it was all a means to an end.
An end in which the Rajapaksa family will finally own Sri Lanka, her people and their vote. If we are mourning the death of democracy today, we must indeed share some of the blame. Sri Lanka has been too gullible, too ready to forgive, too willing to overlook the sins of this regime, to believe it was working in the interests of this country. If the lunatic fringe has won the day, it is because the moderates have chosen silence over dissent and passivity over affirmative action. Today, Mahinda Rajapaksa stands exposed, his power lust, greed and deception is there for all to see. We cannot continue to stand mute in the face of this revelation.
Once again, I must beg forgiveness of my country and my people for having once supported this man’s effort to attain the presidency. Once, he was able to fool me too. I will rue that day as long as I shall live. And to correct my mistake, I pledge my life and all the strength left in me to make it my cause to strip him of power and reverse his dictatorial policies in order to regain Sri Lanka.
I urge all those who believe in democratic values and oppose this dictatorship to join hands with me and those of us in the opposition who believe that the future of democracy in Sri Lanka is far more important than one man’s madness and power lust. Together we are stronger than them, together we can stall their despotic march, for a few of us who uphold the principles of democracy, freedom and equality for all can take on an entire regime of despots and still emerge triumphant.
The time to unite, rise up and act is now.
“Na antalikkhe na samuddamajjhe – na pabbatanam vivaram pavissa Na vijjati so jagatippadeso – yatthatthito munceyya papakamma.” Not in the sky, nor in mid-ocean, nor in a mountain cave, is found that place on earth where abiding one may escape from the consequences of one’s evil deeds. (The Dhammapada)