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In Pursuit of a genuine Republic

Sri Lanka cut its cord to Monarchic rule forty nine years ago: with it came a change of name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and a new constitution. Voila, a new Republic was born!

In a Republican State, all public institutions, governments included, must be people friendly and people-centric. They are supposed to exist for the good of the people, not the other way around.

In a Republic, sovereignty lies with the people, while it is a right of a King or Queen of a Monarchy.

Therefore, in a form of government where the people are sovereign, all institutions, including the government must be subject to regulation. Even the so-called Independent Commissions.

But the opposite is true of Sri Lanka.

We have freed ourselves from monarchic rule in name only; and yes, the colour of the skin of the rulers has changed from white to olive brown, brown, dark brown let’s just say various shades of brown.

However our servile attitude remains.

The people, these “sovereign” people, are convinced that they must revere and venerate every politician and public official. And no one lifts a hand in protest. In fact, politicians and public officers bask in that glory.

Many Sri Lankans live on government handouts, welfare payments and more than 60 percent of the workforce is employed by the government. This has bred the culture of servility because the local MP and the top bureaucrat in the area known as the District Secretary have the keys to the handouts. State-sector jobs require minimal work, come with tax-free wages and everyone gets a pension at 55 years of age.

Co-author of the “Sri Lankawe Swadeena Rajya Komisan Sabha (Independent Commissions of Sri Lanka)”, Senior Lecturer at the Arts Faculty of the University of Colombo, Dhamma Dissanayake says it is time to critique the State.

Without doing that, a genuine Republic , where power actually lies with the people cannot be built. It is not the sole right of the Parliament, the Executive or the judiciary. Such institutions should play the role of facilitator, to help people achieve their aspirations, he explains.

Writing in “The 1972 Republican Constitution in the Postcolonial Constitutional Evolution of Sri Lanka,” Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy states that ‘Qualitatively, however, the actual nature of participation in Sri Lanka’s democracy had some unsatisfactory features. Its operation in a developing society such as Sri Lanka was often perverse. In some instances, the feudal system of patronage which existed before independence, now merely shifted to the Member of Parliament. He became the provider of jobs, was symbolically venerated at all public functions, and was seen as the main vehicle for the advancement of individual ambition. Unlike the traditional feudal lords, he could be rejected every six years, but during the interim his will was seen to be sovereign.’

February 4 this year marks seventy three years since the country became independent of colonial rule.

There will be the usual fan-fare limited to only those who wield power. The minions who are supposed to be enjoying independence, will at the most, watch the celebrations ensconced in their homes, on television. And that is not because Covid-19 prohibits large gatherings!

It’s been the norm for at least forty years. We, the people, must get out of the way, neither seen nor heard, and leave the ‘celebrating’ of our independence to the chosen ‘patriots.’

Sri Lankawe Swadeena Rajya Komisan Sabha traces the history, character, power and duties of Commissions, and the many changes Sri Lanka has seen since the time of the Donoughmore Commission.

The book tells us that ever since Sri Lanka won Independence, the best example of an independent institution has been the Public Service Commission, which was both administratively and politically the closest body to the functioning of government. Ministers of the day acknowledged the commission’s impartiality and independence.

In later years, there had been an expectation by politicians that commission members would comply with their aspirations. But friction was avoided, simply because the authors quote Professor Wishwa Waranapala, who says in the Sri Lanka Civil Service report that both groups shared common class and economic backgrounds.

The government of 1956 had changed all that. Members of Parliament were made up of diverse backgrounds, while civil administrators remained stoic in their refusal to bend to the wishes of the former. When the 1972 constitution was introduced, the workings of the Public Service Commission was handed to the Cabinet. The 1978 constitution reversed that, establishing not only the Public Services Commission, but also the Judicial Service Commission. But, the powers remained with the Cabinet.

Since then, there have been attempts to truly depoliticise the Public Service Commission through the 17th Amendment and later the 19th amendment to the Constitution. The 18th amendment stifled whatever independence the commission had through the 17th. And now we have the 20th Amendment to the constitution, which confers all powers to the President of the country, and with it the Public Service Commission and the Judicial Services Commission all come directly under him. So the Executive President has the power to appoint all the senior bureaucrats as well as the Judges.

So servility will continue. We will continue to have Public Servants who do not stand up to politicians but who will do their bidding, and then expect the people to grovel at their feet.

So could we turn Sri Lanka into a genuine Republic?

That is possible. But, and that is a big But, only if the people wake up from their slumber. Stop going with the flow. Think for themselves, and not get caught up in all the lies, twisted rhetoric or see conspiracy theories behind every initiative proposed. Because that is what politicians and their media puppets want.

Critique the workings of the Commissions, say the authors who recommend yearly reviews; that’s a good start. Sue the media to act professionally, to educate the public on the role of commissions in upholding democratic principles. Highlight drawbacks and weaknesses so those issues could be addressed. Let be entrapped in the politics of distraction.

And heed the call of the authors- start with a change of attitude. It applies to public officials and the people; the public servant is just that, a servant of the public!

To a Republic that works for the People!

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