The 18th Amendment
I don’t know whether I’m more angry or sad at the way in which patently undemocratic constitutional amendments are being rushed into law. I feel as if I’m watching my country being strangled, slowly, in the grip of self-serving and short-sighted men who have little love for Sri Lanka or its people. I don’t believe that the changes to the constitution will immediately make themselves felt in our daily lives. In some ways, the will simply legalize many unconstitutional practices that are currently in place. However, the changes in law will solidify these and establish new, even lower norms for the way Sri Lanka is governed. My fear is that by the time the implications of the proposed 18th Amendment will become fully apparent, it is likely that many of our fellow-citizens, our friends, co-workers, relative and frighteningly perhaps our children may have come to have such low expectations of their rights as citizens that they can’t see what’s wrong with an executive with unfettered powers. Some would argue that this has already happened. The erosion of the sovereignty of citizens of Sri Lanka has been going on for decades, and my worry is that even a referendum on the proposed 18th Amendment (rather than the illegitimate ‘urgent’ bypass operation being attempted’ would confirm that too many Sri Lankans believe in authority more than themselves.
The tragedy of the architects of the proposed 18th Amendment is that they will not enjoy its benefits for long. I doubt that Junius Richard Jayawardene anticipated the powers of the Executive Presidency being used to lock his party and his anointed nephew out of power for decades. Similarly, it is likely that when Mahendra Percy Rajapakse is long gone, his chosen son might find himself in the Sri Lankan political equivalent of Siberia – courtesy of constitutional wheels put in motion now.
Who is to blame?
But, of course, in the flurry of headlines it’s easy to forget this is not about political dynasties or the failure of the opposition or the opportunism of the political classes or even the integrity of the Supreme Court judges. These are really symptoms as much as they are causes of our current predicament. Responsibility for the loss of the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka actually lies at our own door, the result of our abdication from our roles as citizens. We gave up our duties to hold our elected representatives accountable for their actions in order to vote for party over conscience, for caste over policies, for a bottle over integrity, for a powerful fixer over a not-yet-corrupted independent, or for alleged murderers or rapists over solid citizens. Too many of us backed the prosecution of a war at any cost, not realizing that it was also being used to cut away the ground from beneath our own feet. Too many of us stayed away from polls thinking our votes donÃt really count, when they could have. As the horse-trading in Parliament reaches a fever pitch, our awakening to the enormity of what we’ve done feels like too little, too late. And it probably is, as far as the 18th Amendment goes.
What can we do?
So what do we do to resist the further slide downwards? To reclaim our citizenship, it seems to me that a first step would be to publicly and personally refuse the legitimacy of the proposed 18th Amendment if it is not put to a free and fair referendum. A second would be to start on a process of detoxification of ourselves from complicity in the noxious politics that has characterized Sri Lanka for too long. Decades of tolerating corrupt politics and enduring autocratic rulers has compromised our own values and conduct. Tacitly we legitimize political criminals and thugs when we do business with them, ask them for jobs or favours, watch television shows on which they feature, refer to them by familiar nicknames or show them respect in any way. Authoritarian and undemocratic regimes, just as any other, function on the basis of the consent and cooperation of the population they rule over. Even if we do not yet have the means of standing against them, let us at least withdraw our cooperation in our subjugation. A ruler, however powerful they seem, depends entirely on the smooth functioning of layers and layers of state machinery all the way down to the ground. As much as we sometimes need this machinery to get things done, it also needs us in order to function. Turn in your registration forms late. Ask at checkpoints if they are really still necessary. Argue with government officials and refuse to bribe them. Encourage officials who seem sympathetic to air their grievances. Honk whenever a VIP convoy sweeps you off the road. Question the expenditures of public money on MPÃs cars or on government vanity projects. Explain to your children (or other peopleÃs) what abuse of power is. Use every vote you have on a candidate of principle not power. Share your views with other people, and build their confidence to dissent. Talk about how things should be, not just what’s wrong with the way they are now.
I know it doesn’t seem like much, but I’ve started to feel a bit better since I started my personal campaign to restore myself as a properly functioning Sri Lankan citizen. It’s about the only thing I can do, so I’m trying it.
I can only recommend that you try it too.