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

Finding a Moral Compass: Citizenship After the 18th Amendment

Loss of Moral Certainty
It’s often seems hard to find a reasonable discussion in Sri Lanka about right and wrong, especially when it comes to questions of how our society is governed.  I wonder if part of the reason is that too many of our social institutions and frameworks that shape how we draw our ethical judgments have been compromised for decades.  Our religious institutions have been debased by hateful politics of various forms, offering interpretations that often run counter to core doctrinal values.  A cowed and complicit media distorts more than it reflects realities of Sri Lankan life and its polity.  Educational institutions peddle dogma rather than foster the capacity for even-handed critical thinking.  Law enforcement often itself operates outside the law, and there is little confidence that legal judgements are independent of political influence.  Communities and workplaces are rife with mistrust and animosity that makes it hard to believe that others say what they mean.  In the absence of moral certainties, some seem to choose simply to endorse what is personally expedient, whilst others hitch their judgments to the views of personal or public authority figures.  Still others cling more tightly than ever to religious dogma, the authorized news, taught ideology and the law of the land.  It seems to me, however, that if the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on 8th September 2010 can teach us anything, it is that citizens can no longer look to Sri Lankan law for guidance on ethics. What the highly secretive and rushed amendments to Sri Lanka’s constitution underlines is that the problems with the law are not just in its implementation, but sometimes with its very substance.

Faith in the Law
Aside from staunch partisan support, belief in the authority of the President, ignorance about the substance of the amendments, inability to understand their implications and some frankly baffling reasoning, one of the main sources of acceptance of the 18th Amendment amongst Sri Lanka’s citizens seems to be their view that its introduction was lawful.  For many people in Sri Lanka, the fact that the process of ‘urgent’ Parliamentary debate appears to have narrowly followed the letter of the law and was endorsed by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka means that the events that took place on the 8th of the September are legitimate.  This view pays attention only to a specific sequence of events over a period of the past few days, and misses out a broader context of systematic suspension, bypassing and erosion of procedural  and institutional safeguards that could have halted or altered the recent amendment process.  It also fails to realize that our existing constitution (like many of our other laws) was already deeply flawed and that following its rules would not guarantee protection of the sovereign rights of Sri Lanka’s citizens.  At another time, we might discuss what a constitution for (and hopefully of and by) the people would look like, but for now we must consider how we should live under a regime of governance that is formally legal but is actually an ethical crime-in-progress against this country’s citizens.  It is particularly urgent that we do so, given that the 18th Amendment will likely bring in its wake a host of new changes and applications of Sri Lanka’s laws that will further distinguish what is legal from what is moral or good.  Simply being law-abiding citizens will hardly guarantee our moral integrity in the months and years to come; in some instances it will have an entirely opposite effect.

Citizenship Beyond the Law
The question of how to live under fascist or totalitarian regimes has of course arisen many times before in history, indeed also in parts of Sri Lanka.  The unprecedented nature of the 18th Amendment notwithstanding, the truth is that Sri Lanka has experienced its share of repressive governance over the past four decades at the hands of armed movements as well as national governments.  In villages and towns across Sri Lanka, from East to West, from North to South, there are people who have survived these reigns of terror (often sanctioned by legal or quasi-legal frameworks) and even resisted them in important ways, emerging morally intact and sometime ennobled as human beings. From Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the most compelling accounts of how to retain moral integrity have always located the answer to this difficult task in the hands, hearts and minds of the individual human being.

Reserving space in your mind for critical thought, preserving the yearning for freedom and capacity for compassion for others, and retaining the ability to carry out for small acts of solidarity, subversion and defiance are all a part of this.  This is the work of everyday men, women and children, not of special leaders.  It is based on the actions of individuals, but is fundamentally socially oriented. In fact, it might be described as a form of advanced citizenship, where in the face of violations of the social contract by those who govern, private individuals or groups step in to address these gaps where they can.

The point, I suppose, is that laws are only as moral or ethical as those who draw them up – and where lawmakers fail us as citizens, we are obliged to question, resist or even act in spite of the law in order to be moral persons.  This break with the law must not be taken lightly, but rather with great thoughtfulness and care, if we are to avoid shallow lawlessness.  Whilst each citizen must determine their own actions, it will be necessary to build small and then larger moral communities.  This process will require work by each of us, personally.  The first bit of hard labour will be that of mapping out the fundamentals of what we consider to be just and fair – for ourselves and for our fellow citizens.

This will require us to question our taken-for-granted assumptions about how we think about these issues, and to invite others to join us.  This will have to be done with spouses, children, colleagues, friends and relations.  We will have to reach beyond our own experience – and must take time to read deeply, travel to unfamiliar places and really talk to other people.   Tasks we might usually leave to politicians or policy-makers will have to become our own to solve – in theory and in practice within our own communities.

No Alternative
There is little hope of magically putting the genie back in the bottle; of easily reversing the decline of how this country is governed.  The truth is that there is no party political opposition that will come to the rescue. There will be no intervention from the international community (however you choose to define it).  There will be no people’s revolution.  For now, it seems we are truly on our own, stuck with a crooked regime that can now make its own rules.  It seems to me that the best that we can do is to stake a claim on our own lives and actions, and to slowly enlarge the space within which we can bring about some changes for good.