SRI LANKA: Nations may not die but freedoms do – a reply to Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka 

Basil Fernando

In an article which appeared in the Island newspaper entitled, ‘Hardly the Death of Democracy or the Nation — Ten Points from a Political Scientist’, (September 11, 2010) the author, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka wrote the following words: ‘Nations are too strong a reality to be killed off by constitutional amendments’.

Nations, as someone once said are imagined communities. As such, to talk about the death of nations is to talk about an abstraction. However, the discussion about the 18th Amendment which is really about the 1978 Constitution is about the killing of freedoms. Joseph Stalin could not kill the Russian nation. However, he was able to kill the freedoms of the Russian people for a long time during his own lifetime and for many years following. The full recovery of the freedoms that were lost due to Stalin has not yet happened. Anyone wishing to know what the killing of a nation really is would do well to read the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Of course there are many other books that explain what the death of freedom means. Arthur Koestler’s The Darkness at Noon is one such example. Similarly, Adolf Hitler did not kill the German nation. The German nation has survived and has even overcome many of the problems he created. However, during his lifetime Hitler killed the freedoms of the German people and a political scientist who does not know what dictatorship meant to Russia and Germany has not understood anything about political about political science at all.

Discussions about dictatorships are a discussion about freedoms. What the death of freedom means can be seen in the actual lives of the people. Take the case of Sarath Fonseka, what kind of freedom does he enjoy? If Sri Lanka had even the limited democracy that it once had he would have enjoyed to a fair trial. The accused in the 1962 coup had this right. They were accused of the attempt to overthrow a legitimately elected government and there was enough evidence to prove their guilt. However, they enjoyed the rights that any other accused would have enjoyed and at the end on the matter of a pure technically legal argument they were acquitted from the charges.

Of course an explanation as to what the rights to fair trial means may not be necessary when talking to a political scientist. But there are many nations in which the right to fair trial does not exist. Sri Lanka has become such a nation when it comes to political trials. The possibility of charging people purely on fabricated charges and thereafter making a theatre out of so-called trials and then detaining the person in jail or subjecting him to worse kinds of humiliation, all these are deprivations of freedoms. To those who do not value freedom none of these things matter. However, what the death of freedoms can be seen if we observe these cases closely.

With the 18th Amendment completing the work of the 1978 Constitution, being a member of parliament does not matter very much anymore. With this lies the freedom to be able to have the representatives to express the views and the wishes of the people. With somebody holding absolute power, having the capacity to participate in the elections the possibilities of a free and fair election dies. Free and fair elections are a part of human freedoms. A political scientist who does not value the right of people to have free and fair elections may not believe that anything called freedom has the possibility of dying. However, those who value electing their representatives through the possibility of the vote are expressing an appreciation of a freedom to have representatives of their choice.

In this article judges are also referred to as umpires. The umpires can be effective only to the extent that their judgments can be made freely. Within a dictatorship the judiciary loses the capacity to make their own judgements on the basis of judicial considerations through the basis of rational discourse. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler had their judges! There are many countries in which the judiciary exists in name only. They are umpires by name only. When the judiciary loses its capacity to be free then those who value freedom know what that means. Those who do not value these freedoms do not see that anything has changed at all.

People who have the freedom to breathe fresh air know what it means when this freedom is taken from them. The problems of freedoms are similar. The problem of dictatorship is of a similar kind. To discuss dictatorship without discussing freedom is to have no meaningful discourse at all. What was lost by the 18th Amendment was the capacity of the people of Sri Lanka to be free. Many individuals will experience this daily. They may be ordinary individuals who want to live their lives without the favour of political patronage. They may be qualified students who want to get a job on the basis of their merits and not on the basis of patronage. They will know what it means to have freedom and what it means to lose it.

Those who have built their lives behind a political patron will see everything as right. As they have the benefits of a patron whatever they get or do not get in life is the responsibility of their patron. A dog who is used to his patron may not know what freedom means.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-093-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,