Can a two-thirds majority determine moral rectitude?


By Sarath De Alwis

"Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for having taken too much risk. Instead they are believed to have had the flair and foresight to anticipate success and the sensible people who doubted them are seen in hindsight as mediocre, timid and weak. A few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader with halo of prescience and boldness."

Daniel Kahneman

The Cognitive Psychology

Professor who won the Nobel prize for Economics

in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow (2012)

The current debate on the 13th amendment is, more than an exercise in futility. It is an exercise that forms the sum total of our accumulated folly that covers 65 years. Those are the Locust years wasted in molding a nation state out of the former British Colony of Ceylon. Dr. Sumanasiri Liyanges laments in the ‘Island’ on Monday 1st of July that if "the decision to dilute the 13th Amendment if put into practice" would be the most immoral and dissolute act in recent Sri Lankan political history. This rather utopian indictment prompts me to engage in this otherwise futile exercise.

It was only a few days ago that the Rhodes Scholar and fellow of All souls College Oxford G.L.Pieris told an international gathering that he is not at all ashamed to say that the 18th Amendment to the constitution has ensured political stability in Sri Lanka. The necessary corollary to that is that independent commissions that would ensure a separation of powers are a recipe for chaos.

I do not recall any academic or public thinker who opposed the 18th amendment describing it as immoral. Even the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka who presided over the bench that ruled it as requiring only a two thirds majority in the house and no referendum failed to see any immorality in the 18th Amendment.

I say this because Sumanasiri Liyanage singles out two politicians for praise over their stand in the current debate on the 13th Amendment. They are Doctor Rajitha Senarathne and Mr.Dilan Perera who incidentally played a major role in the impeachment of the 43rd Chief Justice, an act that was widely opposed but was not pronounced as immoral. Another who earns the praise of Sumanasiri Liyanage is Mr.Vasudeva Nanayakkra whose Faustian compact was read in to the Parliamentary record by him with a quote from the Bard during the impeachment debate "Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all."

What makes the Impeachment of the 43rd Chief Justice an amoral political act and the repeal or amendment of the 13th amendment an immoral act unprecedented in our parliamentary history?

What makes the 18th amendment an amoral political act and the repeal or amendment of the 13th amendment an immoral act?

I fear that as a people or as a nation we seem to have a protean notion of morality. Our post colonial moral paradigms were decided very early. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 was a law passed by the first Parliament that denied citizenship to 780,000 people or 11% of the then population. Subsequent history tells us that it only rendered those people stateless for nearly four decades until their rights were restored not as a measure of redress but again as a measure of expediency. The nation state decided quite early that majority dominance was what determined moral rectitude. The trajectory we later observed as a nation state was what Lao Tzu said a few centuries ago. "When virtue is lost, benevolence appears, when benevolence is lost right conduct appears, when right conduct is lost, expedience appears. Expediency is the mere shadow of right and truth; it is the beginning of disorder"

Sumanasiri Liyanage should not beat his breast over the morality or the absence of it when parliament decides on any given issue with the requisite two thirds majorities.

The militant defenders of the nation seem to concede only a Sinhala Buddhist nation. A recent diatribe by Venerable Elle Gunawanse against some members of the cabinet who dared to express their misgivings on the suggestion to repeal or amend the 13th Amendment was a cogent reminder of how retrogressive Sinhala hard line opinion, post military success, has become on the issue of nationality, The idea of a Sri Lankan nation is confined to speeches and editorials. The plural composition of our island population is a reluctant acknowledgment made sparingly.

A substantial segment of our people opposes the 13th Amendment. They maintain that it is an Indian imposition. To them, it symbolizes the eternal peril that has confronted our island home since the Chola invasions in the 9th century.

Another group believes that the 13th Amendment was a compromise that was intended to appease the separatists. Hence, the physical elimination of the armed separatists has made it irrelevant.

A minute minority of the Sinhala majority believe that the 13th amendment would devolve political power to the provinces permitting the minority communities living in sufficient numbers within a province to exercise some limited and defined political authority within the province.

Still another segment of opinion makers are engaged in a game of cat and mouse politics with the government. They do not seem overly worried about reconciliation. They would rather see some noses rubbed on the ground by Dr.Man Mohan Singh which is most unlikely since he is so busy keeping his own nose out of reach.

The principle of power devolution is not the contentious issue in the current controversy over the 13th amendment. Even some of the most vocal opponents of the 13th Amendment such as Mr. Udaya Gammanpila of the GHU remain not only as members of provincial councils but also as Provincial Ministers.

The total military annihilation of the LTTE was preceded by a successful military operation that cleared the eastern province of all terrorist activities. I avoid the term liberation which was fashionable at the time because it is a tacit admission of an occupation by an enemy. Immediately thereafter provincial council elections under the 13th Amendment were held in the Eastern Province. The war in the North was still on although the end was in sight. There were no calls for a review or a revision of the 13th Amendment. The present brouhaha then is an essentially post war phenomenon.

The two major political formations – the UPFA and the UNP contested the elections taking under their wing several regional and ethnic groups. The SLMC was in alliance with the UNP and the TMVP was in alliance with the UPA. In the elections held on 10th May 2008 the UPA ruling at the center won 20 seats, with the UNP winning 15 seats. The JVP and the Tamizh Democratic National Alliance won 1 seat each. Mr. Sivanesathurai Chanthirakanthan alias Pillaiyan was anointed as the Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council in a UPFA administration.

Then the war proper ended. The Eastern Provincial Council Elections held again in 2012 served to confirm what devolving power to the periphery implied. The Tamil National Alliance won 14 seats with the SLMC winning 7 seats. The UPA obtained 14 seats, with UNP gaining 4 and the National Freedom Front gaining 1 seat.

Here was the text book opportunity for national reconciliation in post war Sri Lanka. The results seemed to endorse the classic case for devolution. The post colonial nation state resorted to centralization to respond to national unity. The decentralization that was later imposed or introduced was intended to respond to the demands of diversity.

Tribal instincts are not a Sinhala Buddhist prerogative. Other tribes smaller within this geographic entity but much larger in their global reach also have their tribal instincts for survival and preservation.

Every civilization has its own legitimacy. They differ in the emphasis of the principles of legitimacy. Here lies the conundrum. The western or Christian civilization place a premium on individualism. The Buddhist civilization is more centric on collectivity.

A plural democracy with a Buddhist majority has to evolve a balance between the two or opt for an Israel type ethnic democracy. If we do not know what we stand for, we can stand for anything as the Cheshire Cat told Alice. As some clever mind observed " Pretending that moral law can be adjusted based merely on attitudes and feelings of the moment guarantees that a train wreck is coming."

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