18th Amendment, Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


All MPs as well as Supreme Court judges of Sri Lanka should watch Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ before the vote on the 18th Amendment. It tells the story of the trial of four German judges guilty of complicity with the Nazi regime. One of them, Ernst Janning, was once a champion of justice, yet played a major role in turning the German legal system into an instrument of Nazism. How could these eminent and apparently decent men have been complicit in the ghastly atrocities committed by the Nazi regime? The mystery is solved only when Janning makes a statement, showing how actions which at first seemed trivial and innocuous – like swearing an oath of allegiance to the Nazis – lead to deeper and deeper entanglement with the regime. Even when the full horror of Hitler’s agenda became clear to them, they justified staying at their posts with the argument that they were trying to prevent matters from getting even worse. Of course, that turned out to be a delusion. What really could have prevented matters from getting worse would have been clear opposition to the fascist transformation of the state and society, but that was the course they did not take.

An alternative perspective on the Nazi period is offered in Alexander Kluge’s 1979 film ‘Die Patriotin’ (The Female Patriot), which follows Gabi Teichert, a history teacher, as she explores the reasons why she is so dissatisfied with the way German history is taught. One of the conclusions she comes to is that it is the history itself that is unsatisfactory, and that everyone, no matter how humble, is involved in making history by his or her acts of commission and ommission. While Kramer offers an American view of how relatively powerful Germans contributed to Nazism by going along with it, Kluge shows how ordinary people could also have made a difference by organising against the Nazi regime before it became so powerful that opposition was almost certain to result in death.

These films are relevant because they remind us that we are making history all the time, by what we do and what we fail to do. In Sri Lanka today we are faced with a situation where our democratic rights, which have systematically been eroded over the past five years, are facing an unprecedented onslaught. One might have thought that it would be impossible to deliver a bigger blow to democracy than the 1978 Constitution, but the 18th Amendment does just that. By simultaneously killing the 17th Amendment and removing the two-term limit, it creates a situation where the Executive President has absolute power, including the power to decide the outcome of elections: after all, there are elections in Zimbabwe, but anyone who thinks they are free and fair has to be insane!

The president becomes a dictator the moment the 18th Amendment is passed. And all those who contributed to making our country a dictatorship will be judged by history, even if there is no equivalent of the Nuremberg trials to hold them to account. The hollowness of all rationalisations – that going along with the regime prevents matters from getting worse or allows MPs to help their constituents, for example – will be exposed. Nor should representatives of minority communities think that they are absolved of responsibility for the oppression, misery and corruption that will follow.

There are no excuses for collusion with totalitarianism.