The political culture of our times our times

"The distempers of our times would make a wise man both merry and mad. Merry, to see how vice flourishes but a while, and, being at last frustrate of all her fair hopes, dies in a dejected scorn; which meets with nothing, in the end, but beggary, baseness, and contempt. ..To see how men buy offices at high rates, which, when they have, prove gins to catch their souls in, and snare their estates and reputations....Mad, on the other side, to see how vice goes trapped with rich furniture, while poor virtue hath nothing but a bridle and saddle, which only serves to increase her bondage. To see Machiavelli’s tenets held as oracles; honesty reputed shallowness; justice bought and sold."

Owen Felltham, the seventeenth century essayist and poet, got it right when he referred to the erratic and idiosyncratic ways in which wise and intelligent people conduct themselves when faced with the challenges and often unsavoury ways of the world. What he wrote nearly four hundred years ago of man’s frailties still remains very valid. The diminishing ethics and values of that time are being further eroded with each passing generation. We need to remind ourselves and our leaders of this undermining of our social and political standards and values particularly at this time when we prepare for a General Election in just over a month’s time.

In his now famous address in Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln defined the democratic objectives of a nation as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Any nation that emerges from an internal conflict should have a new birth of freedom and all her citizens should dedicate themselves to the task of ensuring the survival of liberty and equality as the continuing foundation of that nation. That is also why the founders of the United Nations Organisation felt it proper, at the end of the last great War, for the nations of the world to subscribe to a Charter that ensured our common commitment to the rule of law and to basic freedoms and human rights. It was to provide for a new beginning of peace and reconciliation at the end of a conflict that engulfed the whole world.

What was good for the world body should have been equally good for a country like Sri Lanka. We came through three periods of internal conflict – two insurgencies in the south and one in the north, the first of which was almost exactly thirty nine years ago to the day of the date fixed for the forthcoming General Election in our country. But the end of all three conflicts did not result in a new beginning. Although it must be acknowledged that whilst the crushing of the first insurgency did take away many young lives, it was also followed by some attempt at reconciliation and rehabilitation. But each of the two subsequent insurgencies has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, including many non-combatant civilians. There can a new beginning or a new reconciliation only if there is a commitment on the part of the nation and its leaders to liberty and equality that Lincoln referred to. Worse is when the nation and its leaders are in a state of denial that non-combatant civilians have been killed. Reconciliation and peace becomes possible only if we resolve, in view of pictures and credible stories that are increasingly coming out, to have something on the lines of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a means of healing the nation.

Is Sri Lanka a real democracy?

Sri Lanka has been holding periodic General Elections since 1947, with one unfortunate aberration in 1982. But the mere holding of elections does not mean that we are a truly functioning democracy. It is not democracy when the governments in power violate the election laws of the country with impunity; it is not democracy when leaders of government quite brazenly state that the prevailing Constitution of the country, or parts of it, are defunct; it is not democracy when law-enforcement are so politicised that they do not apply the law equally; it is not democracy when media and civil society personnel are arm-twisted, intimidated and subject to violence, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and even assassinations, if they do not conform or engage in writing that is critical of those who wield political power. Instead of a new political culture that takes us forward to our becoming a fuller democracy, we have the sad spectacle of some academics and professionals turning apologists and sycophants to justify the unjustifiable. Owen Felltham refers in the essay from which we have quoted to the ‘idle compliments current among some that affect the fantastic garb, as if friendship were nothing but an apish salute, glossed over with nothing but the varnish of a smooth tongue.’

Sri Lanka must move forward. To move forward, all political parties and all leaders of society must accept that the basic pillars on which our country can be built is ethnic, religious, gender and social equality and economic equity. There cannot be mere lip service to upholding these principles. At the last presidential election, communal slogans were raised that Sarath Fonseka had a secret pact to sell out to the Tamils. This did much to divide our people when they were called to exercise the vote. We know that no evidence was ever presented, during the election campaign or after, of the existence any such pact. Unscrupulous politicians will no doubt raise similar slogans to confuse and mislead our voters at the forthcoming election too. We need to guard ourselves against such mischievous allegations by mischievous politicians.

Questions for the political parties

At the last Presidential Election, CIMOGG, the citizen’s initiative that works towards good governance, presented a questionnaire to the candidates seeking their response to certain important questions concerning good governance. Prior to the 1977 General Election, the Civil Rights Movement made a plea for firm commitment from the contenders for governmental power on human rights and democratic rights. "We feel that the citizen, whatever his or her political persuasions and whatever party he or she wishes to support must take the utmost precaution to ensure that all contenders for power make the firmest commitment to the protection of our basic rights, and that such a commitment must be made in terms not of sweeping utterances or loose generalisations but of particular enactments and governmental practices.

"To this end, the CRM has decided to propose an open and broad discussion of some matters vital to the issues we have raised – that is civil liberties and democratic freedoms. We invite the rank and file and the leadership of all parties to study these questions seriously, honestly and critically and to reach conclusions which they are prepared to state publicly in the form of firm pledges. And we invite the citizen in turn to pose these questions to all parties, their members and candidates, in order to draw out specific commitments."

We have combined some of CRM’s questions with those of CIMOGG and present them as being relevant to the choice the country is required to make at the forthcoming election:

1. What amendments, if any, to our Constitution do you consider necessary to more adequately define and secure fundamental rights? Do you consider it necessary to pass laws conforming in full to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocol and the Second Optional Protocol which have been ratified by Sri Lanka?

2. Will you undertake a serious review of the whole question of the exercise of emergency powers? Do you agree that a strict check is necessary to prevent the abuse of emergency powers?

3. Do you feel the rights and grievances of the minorities, and the rights of the persons of Indian origin (in particular the plantation workers), are adequately provided for at present. Do you feel that the 13th amendment (devolution of powers to the Provinces) and 16th amendment (implementation of official languages acts) are being adequately implemented? If not, what measures do you propose to grant and secure these rights as a political solution to minority grievances?

4. Do you consider the independence of the judiciary to be adequately safeguarded both in law and practice? If not, what steps do you propose?

5. Do you feel that an executive President should enjoy legal immunity for his executive actions? If not, will you take steps to press for the repeal of this clause in the Constitution.

6. How will you tackle the continuing problem of police assaults and deaths in police custody? Do you agree that the 17th amendment providing for the setting up of an independent effective machinery for good governance should be implemented?

7. Do you think that at present there is sufficient provision for the citizen to seek redress against arbitrary or unfair acts by government officials? If not, what provision are you prepared to make for this?

8. Do you regard the present situation satisfactory as regards the freedom of the press and the functioning of the state media, both print and electronic? If not, what particular reforms do you advocate or what specific undertakings are you prepared to give on these matters.

9. Do you feel that adequate steps are being taken to tackle the growing problem of bribery and corruption? Do you agree that the Permanent Commission to investigate allegations of bribery and corruption should be independent and be provided with adequate resources? Do you agree the law should be amended to make it compulsory for anyone seeking elected public office to make a declaration of assets and liabilities, and once elected, to annually update this declaration?

10. Are you prepared to give a solemn and public promise that should your party come to power no person will be victimised whether in respect of his/her employment or otherwise on account of his/her political beliefs and allegiances, and that there will be no discrimination as between those who supported and those who worked against you?

As the CRM and CIMOGG would agree, these questions are not exhaustive nor are they the only questions that arise at this moment. But these questions focus on the broad general issues that are relevant at this time. There will be specific issues that arise, mainly on the abuse of state resources, the violation of election laws, the ethics of the arrest and detention of Sarath Fonseka and his associates, etc. In the weeks leading up to election date, those issues will also become open to public debate.

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