J.R.'s Legacy & Sri Lanka's Misery


by David Soysa

Tragically and indisputably, JR’s 1978 Revolution and his legacy, have proved to be the spectre haunting and causing every major crisis in Sri Lanka from 1978 to date. The nexus is nationally recognized. Hence, the popular demand to abolish the Executive Presidency – the final and most important legacy of JR.

Somewhat paradoxically, the duopoly of UNP and SLFP, deceitfully and tactically, use an election promise to abolish the Executive Presidency once elected, as the password to the Presidency for six years. Some believe such election promises are less an example of deceit, than contempt for an audience that can be expected to tolerate with silence. Thus JR’s legacy has been amazingly sustained by the duopoly of UNP & SLFP, for over three terrible decades of crisis.

To unravel magic survival power of JR’s legacy, and the linkage to three decades of crisis, major events of JR’s Revolution have to be identified. They include – (not in chronological order) –

* Parliament passing in August 1978, the new constitution (drafted by JR and Brothers) without going through a proper Constituent Assembly.

* JR ascending the throne of Executive Presidency with full immunity from suit. (Art.35)

* JR removing civic rights of Sirima Bandaranaike on a verdict by a Kangaroo Commission.

* Dismantling of freedom’s life saving wall separating the Executive, Legislature and judiciary

* Removal of several Supreme Court judges and C.J without impeachment and replacing them with JR’s appointees.

* Stoning of a judge’s residence by government sponsored thugs, over a judicial determination.

* Assaulting of Prof. Sarachchandra, by government supporters, incarcerating potential, popular political rivals, like Vijaya Kumaratunga, for long periods without charges or court order.

* Racial riots of 1983, igniting the 30 years war.

* JR insulting Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv as "cow and the calf". India responding by training, arming and financing several terrorist groups including LTTE, to fight for Eelam.

* A trembling JR signing the Indo-Lanka Agreement (the worst since Kandyan Convention of 1815) after Indian war planes bombarded Jaffna with parippu.

* Racial riots and 1PKF occupying Jaffna. The once happy nation split into two hostile groups.

* Facilitating monumental corruption, inundating the entire administration like Mahaweli floods.

* JR declaring that corruption oils the private sector and unleash entrepreneurial zeal of the private sector. In fact it released pent up greed.

* Introduction of unregulated market economy policies on a wrong diagnosis that big government was the cause of economic crisis of the 1970’s. Sacking of 1000’s of public service employees in July 1980 for using their right to strike.

* JVP insurrection by frustrated youth and mass slaughter by security forces. No one even arrested to date.

* Immoral and unconstitutional Referendum of 1982 on a Presidential directive to extend Parliament for six years.

* United Nations appointed Shirley Amerasinghe (Sri Lanka’s most illustrious diplomat) a non-delegate as the President of the world’s biggest conference on the Law of the Sea when JR refused vindictively to nominate him as Sri Lanka’s delegate.

* A disastrous foreign policy left Sri Lanka friendless at its darkest hour when Indian war planes violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

* Introduction of corporate and state driven media culture in the TV age.

* Introduction of casinos and multi-million rupee bashes like weddings, birthday parties with VVIPs in attendance (banned by the previous administration as an austerity measure) designed for the paparazzi and public titillation.

* Introduction of hyper commercialism blinding the super-rich government politicians from the dire needs of the rest.

* Privatization of public transport, tea and rubber plantations and the supply of multimillion dollar arms for the security forces.

* Economic growth plunging to 3.2 from 6.2 (during 1977 to 1982) after racial riots of 1983.

* The demand by JR and collection of undated letters of resignations of MPs.

The laundry list of JR Revolution is unending. A comprehensive list is not attempted in this essay. The highlights listed are considered adequate to demonstrate the linkage of every major crisis country faced from 1978 to JR’s legacy.

Linkages of Crisis through

JR’s Legacy

The 30 year war was by far, the most devastating legacy of JR. The fallout include loss of over 100,000 lives, billions of dollars’ worth property damage, militarization of a once peaceful country, an economy precariously dependent on foreign loans and aid, and a country deeply driven by racial, cultural, religious and class differences and many more. As Secretary Defence often reminds us, the embers are still burning, although a determined political leadership and brilliant strategy of the world’s best army commander ended the fighting in the battle field. Tamil diaspora is today seeking, to achieve, using spin, diplomacy, money and even the votes what Prabhakaran could not achieve using violence. Hence, the single biggest budgetary allocation is for Defence even in 2013.

JRs 1978 constitution giving birth to an elected dictatorship (which cannot only make a man into a woman or vice versa according to JR) has become the mother of all crises - political, economic and social. Highly contradictory constitution like article 148 giving (full control over public finance) to Parliament, while article 44 allows the President to "assign himself any subject or function" enabled Premadasa and his successors to function as Ministers of Finance. Thus the Parliament lost the only effective control it had on both President and the country’s finance. Monumental waste of public funds on Gam Udaawa, un-sustainable sea ports, airports, national airlines deepening the financial crisis is the result.

An interesting question one may ask is, what would happen if the budget introduced by the President in his capacity as Minister of Finance is defeated in parliament. Then the president wearing the Presidential cap will have to dissolve parliament. Thereafter wearing the cap of the party chief, he will have to select the candidates for the next election obviously leaving out those who voted against the budget. Isn’t this one man show, a product of JR’s legacy?

The major political crisis affecting both the government and the people in 2013 is a direct result of JR’s 13th Amendment. The amendment (dictated by India) aggravated the distrust and racial differences, while opening the door for India to intervene in our domestic affairs. Today the 13th Amendment plus or minus, has become and nightmare.

That the 18th Amendment removed whatever that was left of checks and balances or limitations of presidential power, is plain to see. Supreme Court’s determination on the 18th Amendment has proved to be most unfortunate for the country. Corruption and greed liberally sown by JR, enabled the overcoming of road blocks to gaining a 2/3 majority to pass such an amendment. Limitation of Presidential terms to two was removed. (similar to JR’s referendum) 17th Amendment was repealed and now the President appoint the Judges, Attorney General , Bribery Commission, IGP etc. JR pronounced on a number of occasions that he alone without the Cabinet and the Parliament can remain in power. JR’s constitution has enabled that to be achieved by Mahinda Rajapaksa. This brings to mind Robert Putnam’s master piece "Bowling Alone" which explains the loss of social capital USA.

18th Amendment is the latest addition to the process of amending the Constitution begun by JR. Sixteen amendments were made between 1978-1988. Those amendments were either unabashedly for the tactical advantage of the government/party or anti-democratic in substance. The first Amendment was to deprive Sirima Bandanaike’s civil liberties and to politically neutralize the opposition. The second Amendment enabled an opposition M.P. to cross over and join the government without losing his seat. However, if a government M.P crossed over to the opposition he would lose his seat and become unemployed. As Radhika Coomaraswamy observed at a seminar held in Kandy in 1987, this process of amendments to the 1978 Constitution had the effect of de-legitimizing the Constitution. They were contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and were to serve instrumental needs of J.R’s government. The Old Fox did not envisage a Chandrika or a Rajapaksa of SLFP would one day follow his example. The nexus between J.R’s legacy and the current crisis the country is facing is clear.

Crisis after crisis generated by JR’s legacy are not confined to those from his master piece ’78 Constitution or Executive Presidency. The hype by Chandrika naming it a "Bahubutha" constitution to be got rid of, or a popular prescription to abolish the Executive Presidency ignore, that the all-pervasive JR Revolution inaugurated a new political culture, mindset, value system, media culture, hyper commercialism and the Gilded Age, where the super-rich with unbelievable wealth (mostly government politicians) enjoy the gaudy life reminiscent of Kotelawala Era. Hence amputation of the Executive Presidency or even the Constitution will not prevent the spread of cancer.

Sociologists and political analysts, may identify the following in the new culture of J.R.’S

Revolution. Turning money into power and power back to money are the two main industries of Sri Lanka today. Government and corporate sector driven media and the politicians living in splendid symbiosis, public policies, follow values that media pretend to be Sri Lankan values, the linkage of politicians / bureaucrats, private sector suppliers to the military and the security forces, plus the propaganda generated phobia of terrorism, aiding the creeping militarization of the country. Frequent military parades to display military might (with everything from bullets & boots to tanks and tents imported) shattering re-conciliation, monumental corruption and colossal waste of public funds on controversial projects designed, less to produce a return than to perpetuate the memory of egoistic politicians, Sri Lankans are on edge, wary, pessimistic and cynical; crisis of every kind are so frequent, that they have lost he power to shock; lawlessness, murder rape, incest, suicides are daily occurrences and are symptoms of social decay; vindictiveness demonstrated by JR, who deprived world’s first lady P.M. of her civic rights is perpetuated by depriving civic rights of world’s best Army Commander and dispatching him to jail minus his rank and pension; Sri Lanka’s first lady C.J. illegally and unceremoniously thrown out, to be illegally humiliated and harassed by the Bribery Commission, that allows sharks and whales to swim freely. JR’s policies released a lot of pent up greed, rather than entrepreneurial zeal infecting the political system.

The complexity of the crisis, demands more than a magic bullet or single minded solution like abolishing the Executive Presidency, or even the 78 Constitution will not be enough to regain the pre-1978 civilization.

The two main political parties, UNP and SLFP are not showing a way out of the crisis. Even when the fight between them is vicious, on issues like electricity charge hike, repeal of 17thAmendment, impeachment of CJ. They actually fight for survival (by SLFP) and to regain power by UNP. In fact the duopoly has become the main problem. No wonder it has been said that the only thing that is worse than a monopoly is a duopoly.

UNP leader’s threat to foist on the nation another constitution reminds me of the titles of three books – The Dumbest Generation, How Stupid We Are and Idiot America. Perhaps the nation’s response to crisis after crisis justifies the UNP leader’s assessment. The response to date has been so short sighted, obtuse and shocking, that it almost seems we all have a death wish.

Besides the duopoly, the children of 48 (my generation) and the children of 1956, have let down the next generation. The political class of 21st Century Sri Lanka lacks the capacity to deal with the complex issues of the IT age in a globalized world. In the 80’s JR sacked judges and thugs stoned a judge’s residence. Today the international condemnation of the removal of CJ 43, was instant and affects negatively country’s interest. The parliament is notoriously ill equipped to deal with complex problem such as electricity generation, economic problems, foreign relations and trade, national debt and budget deficits. Among the 225 M.P’s there is only one engineer, only a handful of university graduates with the average academic qualification being G.C.E. O/Level, which is also the minimum requirement for a toilet cleaner in a Government Department.

The first past the post elections helped to consolidate the duopoly of UNP & SLFP. Smaller parties are trampled. A principle political scientists call Duverger’s Law. Proportional representation to give more weight and voting power to the poor and minorities is necessary.

The duopoly is responsible and should be held accountable for the failure to save the country by pulling the plug of JR’s legacy.

Hence the obvious starting point has to be a third party to escape from the corrupted duopoly. Obstacles are admittedly real, but not insurmountable as is often believed. Emerging unity among all opposition parties irrespective of political ideologies, race, and religious differences to fight together in the national interest provides hope.

JR’s legacy sustained an elected dictatorship through three administrations of the duopoly – UNP & SLFP. Surely the obvious solution is to un-plug the legacy by a third party of youth as leaders.

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