Laksiri Fernando

Laksiri Fernando, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, is a specialist on human rights having completed his PhD on the subject at the University of Sydney. His major books include, Human Rights, Politics and States in Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka; A Political Science Approach to Human Rights; Academic Freedom 1990; Police Civil Relations for Good Governance; Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict in the Global Context among others. Having served as Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS Colombo), he is a promoter of post graduate studies.

Sri Lanka: If no elections, there can be a democratic uprising!

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In a month’s time, the future of Sri Lanka will be decided not only in democratic terms but also in economic terms. There will be a strong democratic uprising if the government fails to hold the local government elections scheduled to be held in March 2023. By next month, whether the government allows the Elections Commission to hold the elections will be clearer. This is going to be the litmus test.

Democracy and Free Economy are like twin sisters. No parent should try to neglect one against the other. Both are necessary to address people’s economic needs, human rights, and social wellbeing. Although Sri Lanka has been one of the pioneer countries to introduce universal franchise (1931), and democratic governance (1947), since the introduction of a presidential system (1978), democracy has taken a strong downturn, the predicament of which is experienced throughout the country by all sections of society.

Past Character of the President?

It is no accident that the present President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has now come to power by accident, was a strong supporter of the presidential system that his uncle introduced in 1978. Therefore, there is no further surprise that he now makes his full efforts not to hold local government elections, clearly realizing that his party or his (Rajapaksa) allies will not be able to win the elections.

It is well known that his popular support is minimal. An overwhelming majority of his UNP party broke away in 2020 and formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya(SJB – United People’s Movement) under the then deputy leader, Sujith Premadasa.

When Ranil Wickremasinghe contested from the UNP for the Colombo District in 2020, he obtained only 30,875 votes (2.61%)! Therefore, some people called him ‘two percent leader’!He, however, obtained a nominated seat in Parliament through the ‘national list,’ a much controversial system that his uncle J. R. Jayewardene introduced to distort the electoral system in the country.

Now he is the President! This situation itself shows that there is much distortion in the democratic system in Sri Lanka which must be corrected as soon as possible with the support of the international community. Does this situation have any economic repercussions? Yes, this is my observation and opinion. Let me raise the question who brought him to this power? It is well known, but some people forget that it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a war criminal, who brought him to this situation.

Of course, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a popular backing of 6.9 million at the last presidential elections. But this does not apply to Ranil Wickremasinghe. Among the poor-quality political leaders of the country, RW appears to have some knowledge of economics! But his ideology prevails over this knowledge or ability.

He talks about a ‘social market economy.’ But practicesa ‘pure market’ yet depending on friends and associates. He was directly involved in the Bond Scam in 2015. He is also largely responsible for the present economic crisis, being the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance during 1915 and 1919. Didn’t he know about the unbearable debt obligations that the country was burdened with by that time? He repeatedly took loans and even sold the Hambantota port to China!

Aragalaya and the President

There is no question that the burning of his house in Colombo during the Aragalaya (struggle) last year was reprehensible. No democratic struggle in the country should go to that extent although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights warn the governments that “if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” (UDHR Preamble). 

Could there be any doubt that the rule of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was like ‘tyranny and oppression’? He was not elected for that purpose in 2020. People do make mistakes in voting, but democratic systems allow people to correct them through democratic discussion, dialogue, regular elections and believing in human rights. However, I have never heard Wickremasinghe talking about human rights even as deception! This is no surprise because he is a member of the International Democratic Union (IDU), which was founded by people like Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. The members of this group call themselves ‘center-right,’ perhaps to avoid the more realistic characterization of ‘far-right.’

The last stages of Wickremesinghe-Sirisena rule in 2019, the Easter Sunday attacks happened like ‘Sri Lanka’s holocaust’ and until recently no iota of justice was served. Sirisena is the other culprit of economic-political disasters of the country like Gotabaya, Basil, and Mahinda Rajapaksa. All these people should go away from politics, and if not, they should be completely thrown out. Like Sirisena, Wickremasinghe also should be responsible for the Easter attacks.

Look at the way leaders in mature democracies behave. In New Zealand, Jacinda Arden was elected as the Prime Minister in 2017 from the Labor Party. She has now given her resignation allowing another leader to take over. Few months before Sri Lankan ‘holocaust,’ two Muslim mosques were attacked by a single terrorist on the other side. Arden stood for justice firmly. Almost everyone admired the courage and impartiality of her.

During the last couple of years, many countries faced similar crises and challenges with Covid 19, economic depressions, terror attacks, and global warming. Except people like Donald Trump or our lot, many leaders did not stick to power but duty. Duties are something that our political leaders are probably unaware of. When people have rights, the leaders have and should respect their duties. Otherwise, they should go home.

Importance of Local Governments

The local government institutions are the base of our democracy with ancient roots. Throughout centuries, people used to rely on GramaSabhas (Village Councils) for their day-to-day necessities and functions. When I was a child, I clearly remember what the Moratuwa Urban Council (now Municipal) did for our community. Collection of faeces and disposing of them; maintenance of roads and cleaning them; and looking after health of the people through PHI’s, Midwife’sand Dispensers are some I can closely remember. There were no major political rivalries. The best people were elected, but mostly left-oriented ones. No one appeared to make money or be involved in heinous activities.

During my academic career (1969-2010 with intervals), I have been involved in research on the local government system with colleagues and students in Monaragala, Badulla, Kalutara and Mahiyanganaya. The potential of Pradeshiya Sabha’s particularly in democracy and economic development were very clear. Visits to Jaffna and Kilinochchi had confirmed the same. This is what Ranil Wickremasinghe, and the Rajapaksa gangs are now trying to destroy.

Wickremasinghe’s uncle, J. R. Jayawardene, also postponed the local government elections in 1978 and thereafter, on the pretext of introducing a District Council system. I was in Jaffna in 1981 and experienced the repercussions just before the burning of the Jaffna Library. It was to the credit of R. Premadasa that the Pradeshiya Sabha Act could be passed in 1987 and resurrect the local government system again with a clear link to the social and economic developments in particularly the rural areas. Premadasa’s background in the old Labor Party perhaps engineered this connection. Wickremasinghe’s background in this respect was and is the opposite. 

For a Peaceful Uprising

I again would like to reiterate that the burning of Wickremasinghe’s house in Colombo and other houses of Ministers and MPs is completely reprehensible. The occupation and damaging of the President’s House and Presidential Secretariat also cannot be approved whatever the anger of the people and youth. These violations happened in line with Donald Trump’s instigations and politics in the USA.

However, Wickremasinghe should not lead the country in the same manner. If somebody named ‘Anil’ was involved in those burnings and violence, Ranil should not follow Anil, and abuse people’s political power and democratic system. If that is the case, the people have every right to protest and stage a democratic uprising. To avoid that,Wickremasinghe should allow the holding of local government elections without any interference. Otherwise, in my opinion, it would be his political suicide.

A peaceful and democratic uprising would be the most effective and legitimate. I would propose the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya to gettogether in this democratic and peaceful venture. The support of Tamil and Muslim parties also should be sought. Any Aragalaya (struggle) without a clear direction and leadership would be hijacked by unreliable, anarchist and misguided sections.

Where are we heading in 2023?

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One mistake we normally make in analysing the situation or crisis in Sri Lanka is to do it in isolation. Sri Lanka is unfortunately only a part of a world system. Although this situation is valid to almost all other countries, smaller or weaker a country, larger are the effects of external factors. Strategic importance also playing a part of the equation. Even before colonialism, there had been waves of civilisational expansions from major or larger countries into surrounding areas and countries. These happened in regional contexts until the advent of colonialism.

Colonialism and accompanied capitalism are the major trends that brought the world into an interrelated system where Western countries apparently dominate until today. Nevertheless, countries like China, Russia and many parts of the Middle East resist and confront Western influences although there is a clear symmetry between the West and them in terms market economies and capitalism. The role of India is much more nuanced.

Global Realities?

Are there possibilities of socialism in Sri Lanka or any other country soon? It is quite unlikely although the country’s name remains as the ‘democratic socialist republic.’ What might be appropriate is to promote ‘socialist’ or ‘social democratic’ values within society and economy beginning with the educational system. Although this advocacy may appear theoretical, given the enormous problems that the poor and the disadvantaged people face today, there is space and need for such a promotion. This could be done both in the name of socialism and/or human rights in the socio-economic sphere. Nordic countries are the best examples that Sri Lanka or any other country could follow. Australia and New Zealand also give examples. However, to follow those footsteps the economy should be sustainably developed.

The world and humanity are at a particular juncture today. In the year 2022 that we are now completing or even before, the survival crises that the world and humanity are facing were obvious. Of course, the scientists, paid by businessmen and politicians, might be able to transport some people into the moon, if the world becomes a place of inhabitation. Some parts are already socially inhabitable. The over-exploitation of nature and the earth is the main reason for this situation. The climate change has gone in the direction of global warming. Not only the temperatures have changed, but also the weather patterns. The main reasons are the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and cutting down of forests. At present, Americas are facing extreme cold or ice waves.

Even countries like Australia have seen uncontrollable forest fires and devastating floods. America is the same with many other countries. Among other factors, what has been neglected or unrecognised is the geographical change. The world today is experiencing probably the highest possible number of people living on the earth, exceeding eight billion. Of course their living conditions are uneven from rich countries to the poor ones. There is no question about building houses and other buildings for their necessities. However, the world is competitively building cities and metropolises covering the earth with concrete and cement without allowing the earth to absorb rainwater. Uncontrollable floods are the result.

Some Principles to Promote

Without gas for cooking, oil for transport and coal for electricity at reasonable prices, ordinary people in Sri Lanka cannot live a decent life. However, all these are the causes of global warming and climate change. Just war in Ukraine cannot be blamed for all these scarcities and price hikes. The ever dragging on war in Ukraine in itself shows the crisis the world community facing today. The UN has terribly failed on this matter of peace keeping and peace promotion.

The world is in a terrible crisis. Not only Sri Lanka. This should moderate our responses while steadfastly promoting our democratic values and principles. What could be our principles? Some of them in my opinion are follows.

1. Uniting all citizens in the country transcending ethnic, religious, gender, generational and other differences. Uniting with citizens of other countries again irrespective of above and other reginal or historical differences. India is our closest friend and country. Common humanity and universalism should be our principles while protecting cultural rights of all communities and regional diversity.

2. Poor and their grievances should be our policy priorities also focusing on the disadvantaged, marginalised, and the neglected sections. Not only the advocacy of women’s rights but also practical programmes to protect them should take primacy. Family violence against not only women but also children should be eliminated. Reforming of men’s values and practices should be one area through education and dialogue.

3. In the political sphere, defence of democracy and democratic values should take prominence. It means the practice of democracy not only in the political sphere but also in the family, educational system, industrial relations, and personal matters. Elections should be held regularly and timely. Man made economic crisis or difficulties should not be an excuse for the delay or not holding elections.

4. Economic crisis is the main reason for the current and recent political crisis. What has been proved is the inability of the Ministers responsible, and the Secretaries and other key bureaucrats (i.e. Governor of the Central Bank) responsible for the managing of the economy, balance of payments and income-expenditure or the Budget of the country. In the case of foreign debt, it is revealed that different past governments have not even been keeping the records properly. What has been the reason for this irresponsibility? Irresponsibility itself is one. The background of that undoubtedly comes from politics, political manipulations, duplicity, and double-dealings. These are not unknown to other countries. But Sri Lanka has come easily to the top of the list.

5. How come that Sri Lanka has degenerated to this much of low level? There has been a deep moral degeneration among the educated and also among the people. There have been discussions on who is primarily responsible for the country’s economic disaster. Of course, people are also greatly responsible for the country’s predicament. But the politicians should take the primary responsibility as they are elected to manage and develop the economy. There should be a strong movement against bribery, corruption, fraud, and economic mismanagement. That should embrace all levels of economic and political management.

Prospect for Future?

2023 appears quite bleak for the whole world. Irrespective of vaccinations or antiviral drugs, Covid 19 in many forms is spreading while giving death to the most vulnerable. China is again facing the most devastating effects while vacillating between zero Covid policy and now allowing freedom for the young to gather and go ahead with their routines. China is one of the countries which has neglected the natural geography in achieving modern development. New cities and concrete/cement structures are all over. All countries are experiencing extreme weather conditions. At present, America and Canada are engulfed in extreme winter storms unprecedented in their history.

War in Ukraine will not be subsided. Although the Western media believes that Russia is at the receiving end, the strategy of Putin appears to be different. While the new recruits and old armaments are overwhelmingly used, the strategy appears to be to modernise and strengthen the armed forces and armaments in the process. We are at the brink of a Third World War with the danger of nuclear confrontations.

Equally alarming is the developing violent internal conflicts spreading even in established democratic countries. America and Donald Trump have supplied an ‘exemplary’ example! No election appears to transfer power without controversy and violence. This is something Sri Lanka should avoid although it has a history of election violence. Apart from controversies over the transfer of power, in many Western countries racial violence and conflicts are emerging or remerging. France is the nearest example. After killing of three Kurdish people on racial grounds, streets in Paris are engulfed in protests, counter protests, and violence.

The reasons for these riots and violence are not only racial, but combined with economic and social grievances. The world economy is not going to be better in 2023 than in 2022. Unless there is a strong movement to address the economic issues and calm down the people and youth, there could be violence and chaos in many countries. Sri Lanka would be the same. All political parties in the government and in the opposition, trade unions, religious organisations, and NGOs, all should try to come to a common understanding while working jointly as much as possible in the coming future. Otherwise, the prospects for the new year 2023 would be extremely bleak.

A Tribute to Winifred

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by It is not so conventional for a husband to write an eulogy or memorial for his wife. However, we have not been very conventional in life on many matters and occasions. We were born in the same area of Moratuwa, more precisely Moratuwella, in between the Panadura river and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the nature and water had some effect on our lives in a positive manner from the beginning. Only on rare occasions we had to be careful about the rising tide of the river or the angry behavior of the sea. The area was fairly clean, and the residents were less than a quarter of the present population. Her house was along Francisco Place and ours was just beside St Peter’s Church. 

It was after an initial stay in Ragala, where her father ran a petrol station, that she came with some of her siblings to stay at their ancestral home and to go to school in Moratuwa. While she went to the Princess of Wales College, I attended the Prince of Wales College. Her elder sister and one of my elder sisters were friends. This gave us the initial opportunity to become family friends. We also went to the same church and Sunday school at St Peter’s Church. 

She had an initial adventurist nature to influence others through several devices. When I met her as a teenager, one of her tricks was to read or pretend to read others’ horoscopes. Perhaps she had learnt something from a Guru. I was bypassed, until I learned palm reading. Obviously, palm reading was more effective than horoscope in conquering followers. That is how I managed to conquer her. 

We had common endeavors in studying and preparing for examinations. That is how we came closer in early 1960s. We exchanged study notes, books, pens, pencils, and letters including love letters. Those days pens were not bolt point but fountain pens. We sometimes got reprimanded by our families for these exchanges, but not necessarily for our friendship. In our family, Winitha was considered a good person and perhaps I also had the same reputation in her family. Among our topics of discussion, leftist politics started to take prominence given my close association with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – even as a school student. 

We entered the University of Peradeniya, one after the other, I opting to do a special degree in Economics, and Winitha selecting B.Ed.. At Peradeniya, apart from our studies we were closely involved in radical left politics. Our objective was to keep the left movement as independent as possible from the main (bourgeoise) parties – although it was difficult to achieve. Those days, in the student movement, there was a fair balance between studies and student activism. However, things were changing during the latter stages of our student days.  

In 1970, Winitha became a graduate teacher, first teaching at Kandapola, while she boarded at Nuwara Eliya. By that time, we were married. Our marriage was sudden and unconventional. My appointment at Vidyodaya University in June 1969 was an easy excuse for a sudden marriage. Under university rules, when a lecturer goes on overseas leave, the spouse received travel grants if they were married before the appointment. That was an excuse. We didn’t see much point in having a conventional wedding or a big ceremony, although our families were all ready for that. 

This year, 2022, we completed 53 years of married life without any upheavals. Our only son, Ravi, born in 1973, was always on our side. His birth also marked a change in our lives, from being a less responsible couple to a more accountable parents. Politics became more of a theoretical or academic matter without our direct involvement. 

We went to Canada in mid 1970s to complete our postgraduate studies thanks to Prof A. J. Wilson’s help. Winitha completed a M.Ed. We became very close to Wilson family, Susili Wilson (S. J. V. Chelvanayakam’s daughter) as an inspirer. Through experience, we came to know the futility of Sinhala people suspecting or distancing themselves from Tamil people and vice versa, one of the causes of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.               

While more of her study courses centered around educational psychology, she selected “The Development of University Education in Sri Lanka, 1963 – 1971: Implications for Employment” as the research topic. She wrote “My main conclusion is that while it is to some extent clear that the expansion of university education during 1960s, with a greater emphasis on the humanities and social sciences, was largely responsible for aggravating the unemployment situation, there is, however, the more important consideration that a greater share of the blame for the situation has to be assigned to tardy economic growth.” 

Although having a M.Ed. from the University of New Brunswick, she was not expecting any special treatment or promotion as she knew that all these are mostly done in Sri Lanka on different considerations. She accompanied me to Geneva in 1984 until we decided to migrate to Australia for the sake of our son in 1991. She was also committed to the objectives of the World University Service (WUS) as I was. 

She had completed a teaching career of over 15 years by then. Under new regulations, those teachers who had completed 12 years of teaching could obtain retirement and pension. However, she could not. When we applied for a pension, she was served with ‘a vacation of post notice.’ When an appeal was made, a person in charge of the matter said that we should go to the Minister. Although the Minister was personally known to both of us, Winitha was not agreeable to go before a politician as a matter of principle. 

In Australia, she first served at the Community Services Centre in Bondi Junction. Then she obtained a Casual Teacher position in the Western Sydney area. Thus, we moved from East to West in Sydney. When a teacher was on leave or absent, she had to go and teach. No influence was necessary for these appointments. Although it was casual, considering her postgraduate qualifications from Canada, she was given a higher salary scale.  

Teaching and teacher education appeared to make a big influence in a person’s personal character. She was calm and sober, balanced minded and moderate, and without jumping on to quick conclusions on any matter. After my retirement, our lives became much closer during the last ten years or so. We again started to exchange things like shirts and shoes, like in our young age. She was delighted to wear my shirts. 

For the last three years, we have been staying at the Bruce Sharpe Lodge in Rockdale, Sydney. Australia supplies excellent services to old-aged people particularly with health issues. Her passing away was completely unexpected. She was admitted to hospital due to a brain aneurysm. Although a successful surgery was done, acquiring Covid surprisingly in the ICU, prevented her further recovery. No health system appears to be faultless in any country today. Negligence or challenge of Covid was a major factor. 

Winifred passed away peacefully without much suffering on 12 August. Our daughter-in-law Clare, our grandson Josh, our son Ravi, and I were by her side during her last moments. She passed away at 4:33am on 12 August surrounded by music from her childhood (Sunil Santha’s songs were playing) and by her loving family. That is what she always wanted. We feel that she is still with us in spirit although not physically. 

May she Rest in Peace. 

May she attain Nibbana. 

(This tribute was written with inputs from our son, Ravi Fernando.)