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19A: Moment in History

The Buddha told his foremost Disciple, the Venerable Ananda, that "... as long as the Vajjis call frequent public assemblies of the tribe; as long as they meet in concord, conclude their meetings in concord and carry out their policies in concord, so long they may be expected not to decline but to flourish...". That was with reference to the early republicanism of the Vajji confederacy.

The Tathagatha will surely approve of the legislative concord exhibited in our Parliament last week when the 19th Amendment to our own Constitution of the Second Republic was made law. Whether he would, however, approve of the behaviour of some members of this 'assembly' is a moot question.

Most of those very same parliamentarians who 'played pandu' in the House the previous week tamely voted in favour. Others brought in numerous last-minute revisions to the Amendment Bill, most of which were cosmetic while some negatively diluted this long-awaited and long-needed legislation, all just to cut a distinctive figure, possibly with their personal political survival in mind. These MPs, too, ultimately said 'aye'.

All of these same parliamentarians equally tamely - if noisily - voted in the opposite direction barely five years ago to pass the 18th Amendment Bill that simply worsened the constitutional dictatorship that was our executive presidency.

Such wild swings in the political philosophy of many of our parliamentarians beg the question whether the intelligence and deliberative skills expected of political leaders by the Enlightened One actually thrives in our supposedly thrice blessed, Dharma-filled Dveepa. Antics and political opportunism apart, it is the first time since the Dominion Constitution gave us freedom from colonial rule in 1948 that a major change in the country's political system was brought about not through a majority vote of the legislature but a near-consensus among all major political forces in the country.

The first republican Constitution of 1972 was originally intended to be passed through a process of an all-inclusive 'constituent assembly' but this very democratic process fell through when the main Tamil-led parties were virtually thrust aside in the zeal by the Sinhala-led parties to give prominence to a single language and religion.

Thus our second constitution was passed not by consensus or near-consensus but by a political majority that excluded a whole ethnic community. Is it surprising, therefore, that the very same ethnic community began to act towards its own exclusive polity a decade later?

The process for the third constitution of 1978 did not even bother with such an inclusive process of a constituent assembly. Drunk with the power of a large parliamentary majority achieved in the 1977 general election, the government of the day crudely resorted to a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament in its process to establish not just a new constitution but one which took the country away from the Westminster model to a radically different system that seemingly copied France's Gaullism but was actually far more authoritarian. The steamroller majority that pushed through the Presidential system also ignored minority interests, probably adding to the fires that finally flared up in separatist insurgency very soon after.

While the provisions of the 19th Amendment are epoch-making in that they fundamentally transformed the polity from an executive presidency with near-dictatorial powers, the near-consensus in the national legislature more closely resembled the inclusive process that is desirable for such a fundamental political exercise.

It was not since 1948 that the ethnic minority parties and also the Left parties and other fringe political parties have participated fully in, and supported, the systemic reform. Movements that were once in insurgency or tied to insurgency all participated in the process.

The entire nation, therefore, could be said to have achieved this historic change. It is such a moment in our history that provides vast opportunities for further measures that need to be taken. This 'maha sammatha' (great consensus) must be seen as a social unifier in a nation that was once violently divided. Political unanimity can, and must, bring social amity.

This is the moment, then, for even greater deeds - perhaps on the epic scale of the Mahavansa's Dutugemunu - that will further liberate this island from the bondage of authoritarianism, divisive ethnic supremacism and, socio-economic deprivation.

In addition to the proposed 20th Amendment that will transform the electoral system towards a genuinely representative one, this moment of political consensus should inspire citizenry and political leadership to explore the viability of a completely new Constitution and a polity that will celebrate cultural pluralism and social democracy.

On this Vesak Day let us move on towards innovative and liberative changes.


World Press Freedom Day

Given the iron grip on power by the previous government, not many would have thought last May 5 that the servility of the country's news media would be ended in the course of a year. Ended, it has been and, in circumstances that provide, today, for the establishment a new framework that might guarantee the non-return of the country's media to that state of abject servility.

True, the socially and economically powerful owners of the corporate news media also must account for their own lack of initiative in resisting - to the extent that their social power provides - such enforced servility. Worse, some news media corporates seem to have copied the abusive and manipulative style of the ancien regime. In fact, some yet try such tactics.

The publicly owned news media - what is also called the 'state media' - has been freed up today as never before. Can the public sector media take up the challenge of being model communicators of news - of reporting, caringly and inclusively, the events of the people, their joys and sorrows, their demands and pronouncements?

After all, World Press Freedom Day is meant to be a moment for reflection and retrospection on the state of our news media. The news media must flex their newly freed muscles in the service of the whole society as well as in the special support of those disadvantaged and marginalised. The media must not be solely the slaves of either politics or the market, nor, of the selfish interests of the privileged and powerful. The festival of Vesak, too, coincidentally inspires.

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