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Sri Lanka Needs an Intellectual Leader Grown out of Democratic Politics

By Kusal Perera

While President Rajapaksa left the issue of elections steaming hot on the plate without any forks or spoons for popular consumption, the main opposition the UNP has been left grinding their teeth, with Gen Fonseka, their prize catch, breaking away on his own, in deciding his reasons for retirement. He has apparently changed the agreed draft of his retirement letter, prepared in consultation with key players of the opposition alliance, before handing it over to the President's Secretary.

As reported in the Sunday Times (of 15 Nov), what most of us had therefore been commenting on as Gen SF's retirement papers are those drafted by these opposition power brokers and not that which was actually handed over. Gen SF had thus proved to the UNF and all those who want him to be the “common” candidate to abolish the executive presidency, that the final decision is with him and with no body else. (Gen. SF's passion for power was analysed by me in a previous article). He showed he would not have all the niceties about media freedom and democracy, in sending out his own edited version of the letter to the President, requesting his retirement.

Despite what the opposition wanted, he the “Tiger wiping” General, stood by what he said earlier. The media is an “unpatriotic media”. (2008 Jan 02/Dinamina interview). So, he did not want to talk of “those who stage protests with unshaven beards, long hairs and wearing costumes like in fancy dress competitions (they) are not scribes who are clamouring for media freedom, but a gang of thugs.” His perception on democracy and that of media freedom is a “Sangakkarian” simple. “These so called media guys are not responsible to the people and they are not entitled to such media freedom.” (for more, -

He proved his consistency in being anti democratic and a ruthless decision maker, of his own making. For those who wish to see this country as one that re-emerges as a democratic country with an assurance for future development, as one that affords equal opportunity for all in a secular, inclusive State, the General proves he is no “common” candidate. Therefore the issue at hand is to move out of dichotomies – support war or be a traitor / support SF or you support MR – conventional petty thinking and search for a new alternative that would be valid for long term democracy and development.

Unfortunately the UNP as the major opposition that any would expect to come up with a futuristic programme for holistic development in a new democracy, with an alternative to the MR regime (that without doubt needs replacement) lives in shambles. Both organisationally and in intellectual thinking.

After successive defeats, it has fractured during the past few years to the extent the SLFP was, during 1990-92, when the brother and sister were washing their dirty linen in public and the mother was indifferent to all crisis, happy she ousted the party general secretary to install her pet in that seat. The UNP is now a similar “collective of conspiring groups” than a formally functioning party.

The JVP has lost their popular mass base to President Rajapaksa, they once thought they were leading from the Sinhala, “Unitary” State platform, campaigning for war against “separatist Tigers”. They are now left with their usual cadre based trade union and student fronts, battling their way out for a loud presence, on street protests and pickets.

Together the UNP and the JVP now have only one common aspiration and that is to save face if an election is thrust upon them. They are proving they are only interested in grabbing power and not in development programmes. As such, on their own they cannot face elections, as alternatives to this MR regime. Their strategy therefore is to work on the same Sinhala psyche that MR and his “Unitary” platform of Sinhala extremists developed for the war and is still considered the popular platform. They could only face that challenge now, through a Sinhala “common candidate” against Rajapaksa, if it is a presidential election.

This alliance nevertheless can not sit together on a common platform to feel strong, for long perceived antagonistic politics. The UNP as a political entity is yet uncertain what their development programme could be, other than talk proud of pioneering free economic policies three decades ago, in Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe has also not talked about any new approaches in development even after the 'global slump' and seems still confident, he could revive the economy on World Bank / IMF economic packages.

This may hold true for a short period of time, once some sanity is brought to financial management, cut back on huge waste and corruption and with some investor confidence. Yet it is now proved, the “neo liberal” market policies have failed, equally badly as the former “Soviet”model. None holds hope for the future.

The JVP too has not deviated from its “old fashion” socialist thinking, although their '71 insurgency veteran, Amarasinghe, vowed on a private TV discussion, they believe in a strong combination of a “private – public partnership”. This has nevertheless not rid them of their anti-capitalist, anti imperialist rhetoric and their old socialist mindset in cementing a rigidly regimented cadre.

While neither is certain what their parametres are in development politics, where these two divergent political entities could meet at least temporarily is, “for democracy” in principle. That democracy has also been wholly reduced to the slogan of abolishing the Executive Presidency, hyping it as the only malady in the country. Thus it is one slogan that could conveniently put together an alliance between the UNF and the JVP in search of their “common” Sinhala candidate. For there is also some truth in it that makes the slogan somewhat marketable, for want of a better democratic governing system.

The type of executive presidency created by the Jayawardne leadership has provided total immunity to the person who sits with those powers, even after the person relinquishes the post. Jayawardne did not include any safeguards to even check constitutional arrogance of a president elect. That immunity is what makes the presidency an all powerful executive office.

Why Jayawardne wanted such a powerful, unquestionable executive presidency in 1978 and how he was able to reason it out, was on the basis that the parliamentary system with a Prime Minister had been ineffective and incapable in developing the country for 30 years since independence, under 05 comparatively capable Prime Ministers.

He therefore argued for a stronger national leadership with executive powers to achieve development that the parliament and the PM failed to deliver, even with change of governments in 1956, 1965 and then again in 1970 with a two thirds majority. Failed thereafter from 1972 with a republican constitution that reduced the bi-cameral parliament into a single chamber, thus claiming people's sovereignty in full.

After that 30 year failure with a pro parliamentary system with a PM, the failure in developing this country as a conflict free, democratic country, continued during the next 30 years too, with Jayawardne's executive presidency. His presidency turned the governing system into a new malady of power conflicts. It is not what it was told, it would be. With every change of person as elected President, except for Wijetunge the substitute, the presidency has become too savagely problematic with its attached immunity alone making the person irresponsible and arrogant to all constitutional and legal authority, other than with what he or she decides to abide by.

Thus today, while accepting that this is too powerful a presidency to allow Generals with a passion for authoritarian rule to sit on, getting back to a parliament with a PM heading it, would not be a new answer, having experienced that model as inefficient in delivering to the people.

After all these mistakes over 61 years, it is now common sense, that this country needs to see beyond dichotomies. This country now needs to talk alternatives with a comprehensive socio development programme and that does not include a “common” candidate of Sinhala popularity.

This society has to think of alternatives to re-democratise the governing structures and remove all immunity afforded to the presidency, thus holding the person elected to this high office constitutionally binding to answer to an independent high profile constitutional forum (or a similar provision). It should now be the understanding that just a powerful PM with a parliament is not what this country needs, but an intellectually strong national leadership which accepts and provides a provincial governing structure to the provinces. Provincial power even for the South that has been left out as a poor rural society all these 61 years, to decide on their own development and accommodate their local political aspirations within a single, national constitution.

This UNF leadership it is certain, is not heading that way. It lives in dichotomies and sees no third aspect in solutions. Sloganised and camouflaged programmes have always been fakes and they are never seriously discussed in society. President Rajapaksa's hesitancy in deciding on an early presidential election at least provides the UNF with time for a social discourse on an alternate programme, if they so desire.

But if its power they want to grab at any cost, then even an incorrigible General out of uniform would not be tall enough, against a President who works for power on a popular Sinhala platform. Surmounting popular Sinhala sentiment that's fashioned by unbridled State power under this executive presidency, from a similar Sinhala platform, is one that would never materialise. 'Duplicates' even in Panchikawatte is priced low.

This crisis can only be challenged by convincing the people on a rational social democratic programme for development. One that would bring about an economic development with State guidance and intervention on a market economy, with due consideration given to the now emerging Asian economies. For Sri Lanka, the model could be a more functional democracy than even India, if a serious discussion is begun. But all that needs more than a popular leader. Needs an intellectual leader, grown out of democratic politics.

Pity this thrice blessed country by Lord Buddha, that has three wheeler autos and rickety private buses displaying 'stickers' claiming this land belongs to “Gauthama Buddha”, but sadly lacking any credible leader for its future development. Over the last few decades, the society as a whole has degenerated in social values, conduct and intellect and lacks collective thinking that now, it could only produce leaders with neither hindsight nor foresight.

This society is one that can not therefore even feel comfortable saying “hindsight is better than foresight”.


I can not understand Kusal's grudging against our patriotic president and his family. These people sacrifised their all lives for the country's cause,even with an immense threat to their lives.
In that sense is it not unreasonable to pick pocket some money out of our treasury? Who does not do in Srilanka from the highest priest of Daladamaligawa to the little labourer?
After all these toil of elemination of LTTE, why can not them misappropriate a meagre sum of money?
This is the jealousness that Buddha adviced us to get rid of!

Posted by: dananjaya bandara dissanayake | November 17, 2009 10:00 PM

As stated by the writer we are sadly lacking in leadership material which would get us out of the current morass. A Leader who will put the Nation before Self. A Leader who would rise above petty party politics and work for the betterment of all Sri Lankans irrespective of Party, Religon, Race or Language. A Leader who would not fear to devolve powers to Parliment and Provinces. A Leader who will not interfere in the workings of Government, unless required, thus enabling the people to develop and utilise their knowledge and capabilities to the fullest.
Unfortunately we are caught in the Trap of Petty Politics with no Leader of Vision who commands the respect of the masses. Rather all are bent short term policies to come into or stay in power.

Posted by: SriLankan | November 17, 2009 10:12 PM

Displaying stickers in vehicles with Buddhist identity propoganda is not new. Some used to display the slogan "Buddha`s way, the path to freedom" in their vehicles, but They were the worst drivers. Similarly, the General has started his new journey from a Buddhist temple, which was the centre of conspiracy in 1950`s when a popular Prime Minister was assasinated by a monk. The uncomfortable feeling we had after hearing of General`s political ambitions are proved to be real now. The lengthy articles we read here will have minimum impact on the real politics in the country. The general view among pro-General forces seem to have the misconception that he will bring prosperity to the country by introducing discipline-taugh rules and iron fisted administration. This seems to be the popular thinking among youth, who hate the existing currupt political culture. There is a point- the undeniable stagnation of affairs-dirty politics -nepotism and the practice of favouritism. On the othr hand, the General has a large military-their families. This is rationally a larg portion of the society. The desperate opposition supporters and the JVP will again consist of a large vote base for him. Therefore it cannot be ruled out that he may become the next Head of State. The million worth question is whether he can bring prosperity to the country? To find the answer you have to look at his eyes - the ruthlessness, ego, rigidness- combination of a dangerous and umcompromising character. It wiil take long years for Ranil-Mangala-Somawansa trio to riverse the course.

Posted by: Thalpa | November 17, 2009 10:22 PM

There is no fixed policy or strategy in politics. Some changes happen gradually and some are overnight. Srima Bandaranaike’s SLFP policy got changed in 1994 by Chandrika. Similarly we see totally a new policy and handling from 2005 onwards. Again we are witnessing many changes and shifts within the same Government from 2005 until now. This is a normal phenomenon. This writer himself changed a lot within last one year. Why this writer cannot accept the change of behavior, policy and strategy of SF or Ranil? Writer doesn’t want to miss even a tiny change of SF or opposition but deliberately missing all major changes of his favorites. This is pathetic and unprofessional way of interacting with others.

Posted by: Common Sense | November 17, 2009 11:29 PM

Hello (a)Kusal,
How about Wickramabahu Karunaratne?

Posted by: veera | November 18, 2009 09:43 AM

Some interesting thoughts and an equal measure of self-criticism of our weaknesses,shortcomings and the ineptness of our string of successive leaders.

JRs argument for a strong Executive President as a panacea of most of our ills was relevant then but the country needed a Lee Kuan Yew and less saboteurs as JRs Cabinet colleagues to have achieved the desired results.

One cannot deny JR made the country prosperous and took our Per Capita from the US$200s to over
US$1,000 during his time. JR managed to settle the haemorrageous Indian Citizenship issue which would otherwise remained another festering sore in the body politic.

It was allowed to remain like the beggar’s wound” by the unholy alliance of Buddhist priests-extreme Sinhala supremacism their own fond “kaduwa” Ghana, Botswana, Costa Rica, Brazil, Indonesia are other lesser examples than Singapore to have come out of the cold by decent politics.

Another problem we have is the less than mediocre political leadership. Take a look at our “leaders” in the main Cabinet. Other than the President, GL Peiris, Amunugama, Tissa Vitharna, DEW Gunasekera, Prof Warnapala most of the others do not have what it takes to be even Deputy Ministers under normal circumstances.

Moragoda, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Mrs Ashraff and the reticent Thondaman could be minor exceptions but their forte is unbridled opportunism where is we are talking of serving the country in a measure of moral fidelity and intellectual ability.

A safeguard provided in the Westminster system of governance is an educated and able Administrative service where even in nstances when the Minister does not measure up the Secretary makes it up. It’s a total let-down here.

Time was when Subjects Clerks then were more efficient and productive than today’s Ministry Secretaries – barring few exceptions. The other safeguard of the judiciary has been twisted and mutilated so much in the past few years the man who held the highest office is now being hounded out for being in dire want of serious judicial, moral and even pecuniary rectitude.

Magistrates, HC judges caught for various offences – including stealing – have become common. So it is in every aspect of society including medicine, education, law and enforcement have all failed the people and the country.

So – what the intrusion of politics into public life has done is to virtually destroy it in totality. Like Cuba unsuccessfully tried, we must make our own efforts to produce “a morally correct citizen” Our hope is the next generation and for that we must start now. Can we?

As to our main issue, I share the thoughts of many of my 3 score plus genre if the country is to remain what it is, the Tamils in the North East should be allowed to rule themselves under a two-nation policy in an undivided country – however viscerally unacceptable to the Sinhala mind. If they (Tamils) get their act together hurdling over their traditional caste and other weaknesses (which the LTTE placed high on their agenda) at least that part of the country will be a model for the South to develop subsequently.

The present conspiracies of humiliating the Tamils by keeping them under barbed wire forcing them to beg for food, water and medicine more to satisfy Sinhala sadism to reap benefits in the next elections has only widened the gap between the two races. The organized Tamil diaspora is the main cause that created the conditions for the release of the IDPs here by their well-organised, dedicated day-night vigils in many parts of the world that require collective effort and sacrifice.

Govts in these countries were forced to use pressure on the UN, EU and other influential global bodies to "warn" GoSL to give in to reason. This had nothing to do with MRs 64th birthday or his sudden love for the Tamils. The organized Tamil diaspora is now the substitute of the milion + Tamils which Sinhala extreme politcs drove out of their land and the country since the 1980s. Last weeks events in Zurich establishes they are now a force to be reckoned with in Lankan politics.
See the number of current and past Ministers in attendance there. The original intention of allowing PC Councils only to the North East should be resurrected. PCs in the rest of the country has only harmed and rendered grotesque our local political system. It is also time we learn India has no intention to divide the country.

Mr, in his present incarnation, will testify to that - thanks to N.Ram of The Hindu. We must accept such a course will be against Indian interests. Tamils of the North East have no appetite to want to go separate - unless pushed. If they are allowed to run their affairs without undue interference from Colombo they are likely to be more useful to the country than their Southern cousin.

The day the majority of the Sinhalese realize this will be the day of the beginning of Sri Lanka’s march to peace, unity, political stability and prosperity. Gen Fonseka’s strange metamorphosis sympathizing with the Tamil IDPs and the need to solve the Tamil problem is further proof the Tamil Question has so far been merely a “football” to be kicked around to win elections (as the late Amir was to compare) I think with this “change” of mental stance “we can” and we must “overcome” That seems to be the key that will unlock Sri Lanka’s future.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | November 22, 2009 08:51 AM

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