SRI LANKA: The mindset of denial is the “It is not that bad” attitude 

Basil Fernando


For all Sri Lankan’s but particularly for those of the educated classes the problems that have come by way of political and constitutional change has created many emotional and psychological problems. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s remark, “Nations are too strong a reality to be killed off by constitutional amendments” reflects this same mentality. The changes which are so enormously negative have naturally created a state of denial, a sort of “things are not that bad,” attitude. In fact, this attitude has prevailed since the 1978 Constitution itself. “Did J.R. Jayewardene create that much of a change in the political and constitutional structure of Sri Lanka?”, is a problem that many people have in the back of their minds.

Many find it difficult to deal with this problem and there are many reasons for this. Despite of many statements indicating anger and even hatred against J.R. Jayewardene the full impact of the changes he brought about in the political and constitutional landscape of Sri Lanka remain a difficult problem for many people to grasp or to admit.

One reason for this is that for the conservative sections of the Sri Lankan elite classes J.R. Jayewardene was at one time their darling. He was at one time referred to as the most conscious representative of the capitalist class in the country. After all, such large numbers voted for him in 1977 that he was able to acquire 80% of the seats in parliament. He never represented any kind of a radical idea in Sri Lankan politics. The Lanka Samasamaja party (LSSP) and the leftists in general were often branded as communists and people who were possibly endangering democracy. Against them, Jayewardene was perhaps the most articulate exponent. His cry was always for the defence of democracy.

That he turned out to be the one that destroyed the very foundation of liberal democracy in Sri Lanka sounds like a contradiction. If this had been done by the leftists it would have been quite understandable as they have always been charaterised as the enemies of democracy. However, when the person who came up with the slogan, the defense of democracy, becomes the person who subverted democracy to the greatest extent, this remains a problem in the minds of many people.

J.R. Jayewardene was also the leader of the United National Party. The UNP has always made ‘democracy’ their main slogan. In the early 50s when the LSSP was still strong and there was even a possibility of it forming a government, all conservative sections, including the Buddhist clergy rallied round the United National Party in the defence of democracy. The posters that were circulating at that time of the Samasamajists trying to burn the Buddhist temples turned the election in favour of the United National Party. That the leader of this conservative party would be the person who would subvert liberal democracy so completely has also been a riddle that still confuses many people. The whole struggle against the trade union movement was made to appear as a struggle against the communists who were trying to destabilise Sri Lanka and the defense of democracy was led by JRJ who was opposed to this trade union movement.

When the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) emerged J.R. Jayewardene became one of the most outspoken spokespersons against them who called JVP as a terrorist group and he supported ruthless suppression of the JVP. He wholeheartedly supported the coalition government of Sirimao Bandaranaike in the ruthless suppression of the JVP. The massacre of the youth at the time was portrayed as a great act in the defence of democracy.

In subsequent years when the militant Tamil groups emerged these people were also portrayed as those who were trying to destroy the democratic foundations of Sri Lanka. In the militarisation of Sri Lanka over a period of 30 years all the propaganda has been in the defence of democracy.

To admit that democracy was destroyed in 1978 is to admit that there has been much that has been amiss in the entire political propaganda during all these periods. That the man who made the slogan of democracy to encourage the people of Sri Lanka to engage in the destruction of the leftist movement, the destruction of trade union movement, the destruction of the JVP and also against the LTTE was the very man who has done more to destroy liberal democracy of Sri Lanka than anyone of these groups is a difficult problem for many people to digest.

There is another reason which makes it difficult for Sri Lankan to understand J.R. Jayewardene. This is because almost everyone who has been Jayewardene’s most vociferous critics have later turned out to be his most ardent followers.

Let us recall a few:

The SLFP, as the traditional opponent of the UNP was battered by the attacks of J.R. Jayewardene’s regime and naturally became his bitterest opponents. When the SLFP opposed Jayewardene as members of the opposition they promised to abolish the constitution he had made and pointed him out as an authoritarian leader and on occasion referred to him as a monarch and a dictator. When for the first time the SLFP succeeded in gaining power after the long UNP period of rule the team headed by Chandrika Bandaranaike vowed to end the political system created by J.R. Jayewardene. However, within a short time that perspective was abandoned and Chandrika modeled her politics in almost every aspect on Jayewardene’s constitution and political style.

The second time, when the SLFP once again opposed the UNP candidate for the presidential and parliamentary elections it was under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapakse. Rajapakse also vowed to abolish Jayewardene’s executive presidential system and his political style. This was even part of the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’. However, after coming to power in 2005 he too followed the same model. However, he continued to state that he will abolish it at some time in the future. By 2010 the very talk of abolishing the system changed and JRJ’s system was made permanent by the adoption of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Mahinda Rajapakse has realised Jayewardene’s dream more completely than Jayewardene himself. Jayewardene wanted a third term as president but was unable to do so due to problems within his own party and other problems in the country. In order to ensure that he would not face the same problems Rajapakse brought in the 18th Amendment early after his election for the second term so that nobody would have any dream, either within his party or outside, of challenging him in the future. Now the Jayewardene scheme has been completely adopted by the SLFP regime.

And there were other critics of J.R. Jayewardene, for example in the leftist parties. They too have joined the government of Mahinda Rajapakse as partners and abandoned their criticism and supported the political scheme of the continuity of Jayewardene’s constitution by Mahinda Rajapakse. They continue to say that, in principle, they are opposed to the Constitution but ended up voting for it.

There were other opponents such as the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka which was a small party but at one time spoke out vociferously against J.R. Jayewardene. One of the persons who wrote continuously against Jayewardene was Rajiva Wijesinghe. Wijesinghe wrote several books, with a continuous and detailed attack on Jayewardene and his personal situation which destroyed all the expectations regarding the protection of democratic institutions. However, he too is now a member of the Rajapakse regime and voted in parliament for the 18th Amendment.

These are the political party opponents but together with them were the various intellectuals who had been writing on various political issues and many of whom for a long time opposed J.R. Jayewardene’s ideas and unequivocally talked about him as an authoritarian ruler. However, they have later come to support others who are following the Jayewardene model.

Compounding this issue is the fact that when the UNP itself became an opposition party they also began to promise the abolition of the executive presidential system. However, at the same time they were making statues for their late leader and promising to continue with his policies. Ranil Wickremasinghe, who became the leader of the United National Party, was a close associate of J.R. Jayewardene, supporting his every move during his political career. He was also a minister in J.R. Jayewardene’s party. Even after J.R. Jayewardene’s absence he has made no attempt to criticise the man’s politics or political philosophy. However, he talks about the abolition of the executive presidency and now talks about opposing the 18th Amendment after it has been passed. It would be most unconvincing to anybody that this political party has in any way changed from the overall political philosophy and style of J.R. Jayewardene.

Thus, for the average citizen it would be most difficult to know who is for or against J.R. Jayewardene anymore.

All this make it difficult for the people to admit, that the system of liberal democracy that was introduced through the first constitution of independent Sri Lanka, known as Soulbury Constitution, has been completely undone. Has that really happened? They cannot admit that things have turned out that bad.

Essence of denial is refusal to admit a loss. That liberal democracy is dead within their country, has become too much to admit. So, there is this “it’s not that bad” attitude. While hating J.R. Jayewardene, still thinking that the system he created is “not that bad”.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-095-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,