SRI LANKA: The changing meanings of system change

By Basil Fernando

One of the most popular phrases that is being talked about in Sri Lanka is the need for a system change. Often in media interviews, various people are asked about what they mean by a system change. Varying answers are given by persons depending on their ideologies, perspectives and above all, on the thought that they have devoted to articulate what is meant by these words.

Under those circumstances, it may be useful going into the manner in which these words have been used in Sri Lanka in the past and how those articulations made in the past and those that are made now are different in meanings.

Perhaps the earliest groups of people who introduced the words system change into Sri Lanka were various groups which came under the overall category of those who called themselves “Marxists” or “socialists”. This started almost around 1935 when the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India and Sri Lanka was formed. Then, it spread into the Sama Samaja movement and also other groups, which, one over the other, identified themselves as socialists.

For this group of people, system change meant the ending of capitalism and the building of a society based on socialist principles. Often, this group of people explained themselves not so much in terms of the contexts of Sri Lanka but in terms of the international terminologies which was a party of the socialists’ movements at the time. Hardly any of these groups including the Sama Samaja Party which was for a long time the major group to represent this view had a very detailed idea of what socialism would mean in Sri Lanka. However, they constantly talked about the rejection of capitalism and the introduction of socialism. Thus, the actual meanings of what this would mean remained weak.

Then around the ’50s, the meaning of system change changed considerably among another section of the people who were developing their capacity to express themselves politically from a nationalist point of view. They articulated a system change to mean the displacement of the elites meaning the English speaking and colonially bred middle class from important positions, and allowing space for persons with rural backgrounds to enter into more active professional lives. The competition between the colonially bred middle class and those who sell themselves outside their class led to intense social complexities. The emerging new class of people articulated their idea of system change to mean the possibilities of the use of local languages in place of English and also bringing about a new social ethos into the country.

This later developed into having more ethnic dimensions, where the conflicts between what was called the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the other minorities were portrayed as having different social interests and also having different social identities. Within this context, system change often meant certain changes that were proposed in favour of a particular group of persons rather than changes that will affect the entirety of the nation.

As against these earlier ideas of system change, a new kind of consciousness about system change began to emerge from around the 1960s and this has continuously expanded over several decades. This new consciousness often expressed itself in terms of antagonism against the former Parliamentary democracy that has developed in Sri Lanka and the need for a change of this entire political system. This idea of system change in terms of the development of a different political system has a history of several decades. The emergence of newly educated young generations which came up as a result of pre education were among those who were giving expression to this idea of a system change, meaning a change of the political system.

However, even at this stage, why the old system should be changed and what should replace it was not very clearly articulated. Various kinds of grievances against the existing system and frustration on the basis of various deprivations suffered by various groups of people were getting articulated under the overall term of system change.

However, by 1978, the idea of system change attracted the more right-wing elements. The 1978 Constitution was formulated in terms of a very radical notion of system change. This Constitution wanted to replace Parliamentary democracy altogether in favour an all-powerful Executive. Justification for that system change was that such an Executive could act more efficiently and without hindrances from those who would oppose such changes. Incorporated into this idea of social change was a heavy enlargement of the national security laws. In order to achieve a kind of system change particularly in terms of the economy which was to be what was termed as an “open economy”, it was considered that the suppression of the Opposition was an essential ingredient. Thus, measures were taken to remove the civil liberties of the former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and some of her close associates on the one hand and also laws which were used heavily against the trade unions and organized labour opposition. 1980 marked the weak point of implementing this approach. Thus, this right-wing concept of system change meant the restriction of the freedoms of the people under the pretext that it was a requirement necessary in order to develop the economy. Although there was no real improvement in terms of the economy as a result of the implementation of this concept of system change, this conception lasted for quite a long time.

It was in opposition to this right-wing notion of system change that a popular consciousness was growing in the country over the last few decades. Although the expression of the discontent was slow, there was very continuous trend of opposition to the notion of system change that was introduced by President J.R. Jayewardene’s regime which was followed by the other regimes to come.

If the meaning of system change is to be measured by the changes of social consciousness among the population as a whole, the history of that change of consciousness goes back several decades. The expression of that social consciousness could be seen in various elections which happened, particularly since 1970.

The overwhelming victory of the Government led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in which the two major parties were also partners, that is the Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party, was a very powerful expression of a change of consciousness which was taking place among the working populations in Sri Lanka. The Government articulated its vision of system change in terms of the attempt to improve the local economy and strengthening the local purchasing power by the improvement of the country’s foreign exchange capacities. The Government required certain restrictions for a short period of time with the promise that the improvement of the economy which could come as a result, could create a more stable economy which in turn will improve the conditions of life of the people. However, the various circumstances including the 1971 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna revolt which unfortunately led to large scale bloodshed and a massive campaign that was against this regime, brought about the situation which disrupted the process of the development of the economy that it proposed. The second wave of the discontent of the people was expressed in the opposite direction by bringing into power the regime of J.R. Jayewardene whose idea of system change was not one in favour of improving the conditions of life of the people in the short run. In fact, many welfare measures were cut down like for example, the rice ration which was till then was one of the reliefs that was available for the people to avoid a food crisis. The open economy did not lead to any improvement of the local production and neither did it increase the inflow of foreign capital as it was expected. The slow beginning towards a major economic crisis thus began during the period of the United National Party regimes.

Unable to develop local resources in order to meet with the external expenditures required for imports and other purposes, the habit of borrowing started and gradually flourished. Thus, in this process of system change, in terms of what was called the facilitation of the open economy, came also the idea and the practice of the displacement of the country’s legal system. All obstacles to the system of governance were based on all powers being in place on the Executive, without limits, and it was necessary to curtail the powers of the legal system to control the Executive. Thus, interference into the country’s basic legal institutions began to happen ever since the introduction of the 1978 Constitution and it enlarged as time went by.

The right-wing notion of system change meant that the country’s criminal justice system should be so controlled in a way that it will pose no obstacle to whatever that the Executive wanted to do in whatever manner that they wished. This gradually got to be interpreted to mean that all legal limitations that were placed against corruption have to be subdued or eliminated altogether. In order to do that, it was essential to suppress the criminal investigation systems in a manner that a political control could be exercised over the administration of criminal justice. For any stable political system or economy, one of the essential preconditions is a viable and functional criminal justice system which is rooted in the notion of equality before the law. No one who commits a crime should be spared being investigated and if there is adequate evidence, being brought before courts. This basic principle was gradually undermined. Thus, there was a radically new system change that took place in Sri Lanka during this entire period and as time went by, the level of displacement increased and enlarged. Today, Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system in particular and the entire justice system as a whole is one of the weakest in the world. A weak legal system and stable political system and a stable economy are incompatible. It is this incompatibility that the people began to experience increasingly during the last few decades.

The hardest hit among the institutions were the prosecutor’s department which functions under the Attorney General’s Department and also the Judiciary. Judicial institutions were weakened in many ways by the removal of some of their powers like for example the power of judicial review and also the suspension of the powers of the courts through such laws as emergency laws and anti-terrorism laws like the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. All these legal changes had a direct impact on the political system and the economic system.

The functioning of an economic system with efficiency so as to provide for a stable economy requires that all the basic laws for the running of those institutions and regulations are strictly being conformed to. If the major financial institutions in the country are open for corruption and the abuse or misuse of power, then the economy cannot function in a manner that will serve the purposes of a nation. Instead, it will serve the purposes of various individuals who wish to benefit from this situation.

This loss of discipline in the institutions that control the economy like the Central Bank, the Treasury, the Inland Revenue Department, the Customs and all other major centres of the economy was a direct result of the destabilizing of Sri Lanka’s legal system.

All these factors that have gone into creating this stability came sharply into focus with the crisis of being unable to pay the foreign debts which surfaced during the last few months. As there were queues for obtaining gas, oil and for almost everything else, it dawned on the people that the long-term suspicions that they had about the collapsing of their economy was in fact true. It was no longer possible to escape from the realization that they are facing a major threat to their lives, livelihoods and the futures of their children. As for the middle class and the upper classes, they also suffered from the same deprivation and it also dawned on them the realization that this economic instability would also result in a threat to their own wealth and possessions. There has thus emerged a kind of social consciousness which is very common for the entirety of the people in Sri Lanka in a manner that has never been seen before.

Thus, today when the people talk about a system change, they are talking about a very complex phenomenon. On the other hand, above all else, if stability is to return to Sri Lanka, the legal system should be brought to a position where it could establish a control of the entire system within a framework of the law. The issue is not so much the absence of laws but the collapse of the law enforcement machinery in terms of the Police investigating systems, the prosecutorial branch organized under the Attorney General’s Department and the weakening of the Judiciary and everything that goes with those problems.

Thus, the immediate need that the people feel is in terms of reducing their economic burdens such as the ever-increasing price of food and other essential items. However, given the nature of the economic collapse as it is faced in Sri Lanka, this immediate objective is not realizable unless it is accompanied with other measures such as the basic reforms of the legal system and also bringing about discipline throughout all sectors and in particular, in terms of the control of finances.

It is not a surprise that one of the popular demands of those who are protesting all over the country is that a proper and well-functioning Auditor General’s Department should be established in Sri Lanka as a pre-condition for ensuring economic stability in the country. Not only is the idea of the auditor’s function emphasized but there are also discussions about the defects of the existing auditing systems such as the need for the improvement of the confidence of auditors to deal with more complex matters which require expertise and various fields.

However, even a well-functioning auditors’ system could take place only to the extent that there is a well-functioning criminal justice system in particular and a legal system in general.

Thus, the idea of system changes as understood now is a much more complex one. The political changes that need to be brought about should be placed within the context of these larger concerns. The mere change of persons or the appointment of some more clever or efficient persons itself is not going to bring about a radical change in the economic situation of the country. Even for good people with confidence to work, there needs to be an overall environment in which the law is respected.

Thus, this notion of social change that is imbedded in the present-day discourse among the people throughout the country should be more carefully articulated in order to bring about a clear comprehension of what kind of system change that is needed to stabilize the economy as well as to bring about a more rational political system and to ensure social stability for all.