SRI LANKA: The thirteenth anniversary of the violent death of a gross human rights abuser

On the 1st May, 1993, R. Premadasa, the executive president of Sri Lanka, was killed in a massive bomb blast while participating in the May Day public activities.  The blast also killed and injured many others.  Before becoming president he was the prime minister to J.R. Jayawardene who came to power through a huge electoral victory in 1977 and who, in 1978, declared himself as the executive president under a new Constitution created by him in order to drift the country away from democracy into an authoritarian path.

Jayawardene and Premadasa were collaborators in the development and the implementation of a political scheme in which the primary objective was their own survival in power, hopefully for the rest of their lives.  It was this political scheme that was to turn Sri Lanka into one of the most violent, unstable and lawless places on the face of the globe.  Their period was marked by mass murders in the south as well as in the north and east.

This violence and instability continues until today, where the state structure has so collapsed that it is unable to resolve any problem either in the south, north or east.

One popular argument is that the two presidents only retaliated to the violence generated in the south by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front) and in the north by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  However, developments from 1978 shows that the initiator of the ruthless and complete violence was the state itself and in turn it brought upon itself and society lethal retaliation where assassinations and violence became the medium through which the state and its militant opponents conducted their ‘dialogue’.

The ruthless nature of the two first executive presidents has not yet become a major theme in the written discourse on Sri Lankan affairs, although in the oral discourse there is no end to the curses heaped upon these two ambitious individuals who risked everything for their own political survival.  It is hard to find examples similar to these two who did not represent any sort of national interest or even a misguided idealism.  It can be said of Pol Pot that he was a ruthless communist who destroyed his own nation, and a large section of its people, in trying to pursue an ideal in a crazy manner.  The two Sri Lankan presidents only pursued their own personal ambitions and nothing more.

The 1978 Constitution created the position of the executive president which is a position of absolute power with no controls or checks and balances.  The executive president cannot be brought before any court, even for personal crimes let along acts of abuse of power.  Any incumbent in this office is not answerable to the parliament, courts or the people.  Jayawardene and Premadasa collaborated in the scheme that they called ‘the closing of the electoral map of Sri Lanka.’  In 1982 they held a referendum to extend the period of the parliament for six more years without an election as required by law.  Through overt violence they succeeded in getting their way.

Both presidents knew that their schemes could not be successful without large scale bloodshed and extreme oppression against any opposition.  In pursuit of this they pushed the JVP, which by 1978 had joined the democratic opposition, underground and then pursued them with no other alternative but death.  Forced to die as sitting ducks, such organisations also took to ruthless violence thus providing political legitimation for the extreme forms of repression these two men pursued.  A similar policy of total extermination of opponents created similar reactions in the north and the east and the ethnic issue became a ground for violent contests leaving no room for a democratic solution.

A lesson that can be learned from Sri Lanka as to what happened when the state, which is the legitimate agent of the use of violence, abuses this position and makes violence the only means by which it communicates with its opponents.  In these days when globally even nations with greater democratic institutions take to the use of violence in the name of fighting terrorism, Sri Lanka should become a case study of the ultimate results of this approach.  Some features that such a study will demonstrate is how the public institutions, which are so vital to the survival of a society, collapse under such circumstances.  Civil administration can be so completely destroyed that the normal services people are accustomed to getting from the state such as investigations of crime, proper adjudication in courts, maintenance of public accounting and auditing, services as expected in hospitals and educational institutions can fall to the lowest depths from an organisational point of view under these circumstances.

The dark legacy of these first executive presidents still lives.  The institution of the executive presidency still survives.  Both major political parties do not want to abandon the executive presidency and return to a democratic form of government.  The limited reforms brought about by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 2002 by way of the creation of a Constitutional Council and several independent commissions with a view to ‘depoliticizing public institutions’ have been abandoned.  The present incumbent executive president also wields absolute power as did Jayarwedene and Premadasa.  The country is still on the same dangerous path and the events of the last two weeks have once again, unfortunately brought to the surface this ugly reality.  There is hardly any significant organised voice in Sri Lanka calling for democracy and the abandonment of the authoritarian path envisaged in the 1978 Constitution.  However, the only way out of the present situation lies in the abandonment of the path created by these two political gurus and the return to democratic politics where people can collective intervene by various means to resolve their problems.  Without this there is no solution to any of the country’s problems including the ethnic issue.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-090-2006
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Judicial system, Rule of law,