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Sunday,  January 04, 2015 - 06.10 GMT

THE WRITING OF HISTORY IN 2015
By Lucien Rajakarunanayake

 

As we consider the historical importance of the Year 2015 in the politics and governance of this country, it is interesting to note that beginning with 1505, when the Portuguese first came to this country and began the colonization process, in the fifth year of the 16th Century, the triple quinary year in two subsequent centuries have been of much historical importance in this country. The colonial dominance over the maritime regions of the country that began with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505, reached its extension to the entire country more than two centuries later.

This came with the subjugation of the country by the British in 1815, bringing to an end one of the longest serving monarchical traditions in the world, and transferred it from what was then Ceylon, to Imperial Britain. 1815 saw the firm establishment of British colonial rule in the country, and the struggles for freedom that began on the very day the Lankan national flag was lowered and the British flag hoisted in Kandy.

Wariyapola Sri Sumangala Thera, an Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter at the time, is remembered for his taking down the Union Jack of the British and re-hoisting the Lion Flag, before the signing of the Kandyan Convention that gave control of the country to the British in March 1815. That was the beginning of the Freedom Struggle against British rule, making 1815 the year of subjugation and also the beginning of resistance.

1915 - Riots and martial law

A full century later, in 1915, saw the Sinhalese - Muslim riots that broke out near Kandy, known to this day as the 1915 riots. This saw the then British Governor Sir Robert Chalmers, fearing loss of the colony as the riots spread beyond the Sinhala - Muslim confine in Kandy, to clashes among the two communities in wider areas, affecting other communities too, even reaching Colombo. He saw the emergence of an anti-British trend in the rioting that took place. This led to Governor Chalmers coming down very hard on the Sinhala community, and when the country first saw martial law and the police and army ordered to shoot without trial anyone whom they deemed a rioter.

With the escalation of the violence in Colombo, Capt. Edward Henry Pedris, responsible for the defence of the city, successfully managed to disband several rioting groups after peaceful discussions. Yet, internal rivalries among sections of the Sinhalese serving the British, saw what are considered false charges being brought against Pedris and his being court martialed. He was accused, with hardly any supporting evidence, of having shot at a Muslim mob in the Pettah, and allegedly organizing a march to Colombo from Peliyagoda. The court martial sentenced him to death, and his execution took place at the Welikade Prison on July 7, 1915.

Following the arrest of Pedris and the protests from Sinhala and other community leaders, the British feared open rebellion and imprisoned more than 80 prominent Sinhalese leaders. Among those imprisoned were D. S. Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena, Edwin Wijeyeratne, Dr. Cassius Pereira, E. T. De Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Henry Amarasuriya, A. H. Molamure, making a significant impact on the rise of the later movement for freedom from British rule. Thus 1915 marked a decisive historical year in the country.

The impact of 2015

With the dawn of 2015 we have now moved into another year of much historical importance, with the holding of the Presidential election on January 8. The recent weeks of campaigning have shown an election with massive public participation and a challenge to the incumbent president by an alliance that remains one of much confusion in policy and personality, with many describing it as an alliance of failures.

The historical importance of this election, apart from it being the occasion when President Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeks election for a third term in the office of Executive President, under the existing provisions of the Constitution, it is also of much significance being the first election for national leadership being held after a period of five years, since the defeat of terrorism in the country, which prevailed for nearly three decades, and was the key achievement of the incumbent President in May 2009. The people are now able to judge the performance of the President at a distance - largely away from emotion - from the defeat of terrorism, the most important factor in Sri Lanka's recent history.

The call for re-election, two full years before the expiry of his second six year term, has given the public the opportunity to make a better judgment on his role in the defeat of terrorism, coming after five years of peace and stability; as well as his management of the affairs of State, in the years since the dawn of peace in May 2009. It is a time for judgment of the trends in economic policy, which have shown considerable success as seen from recent analyses of this country's performance on a variety of important social, economic and political issues, which have shown Sri Lanka standing at the top of them, in all of South Asia.

The stunning silence

This election is also of special historical significance as it comes with the call for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, established by President JR Jayewardene in 1978, under which we have had five Executive Presidents, two of them having served both terms then allowed, and one who was assassinated in his first term, one a president elected by Parliament, to serve the balance term, after that assassination, and Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now in his second term of office, having first won it in 2005.

A significant contradiction in the call for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, which is the main plank of the Opposition campaign, comes with the current president seeking a third term, as allowed by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. A large number of those in the opposition alliance, that is making this call, as well as its leader, are all who supported the 18th Amendment when it was passed by Parliament in September 2010, after President Rajapaksa's election for a second term the same year. It was passed with more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and had the approval of the Supreme Court on its legality and compliance with provisions of the Constitution.

Apart from those parties that opposed this 18th Amendment at the outset, when presented in Parliament, those who are now clamouring for its repeal are all parties and individuals who voted for it in Parliament, in the splash of crossovers - making no criticism of its content from the time it was adopted.

It must be admitted that there have been some community and political groups who have been critical of this amendment from the time of its proposal. But the strange silence, for nearly four years in Parliament and outside, of those now in the crossover lead of the campaign against it, certainly raises important questions about the seriousness of the demand, the content of what is presented in place of it, and the claims of rapid implementing of the move in the event of electoral success.

Serious study

This also raises the important issue of how much consideration has been given to this call for the removal of the Executive Presidency, and the related question whether such far reaching constitutional changes should not be a matter of careful and serious study by those who are outside the confines of Parliament.

It is true that JR Jayewardena, who introduced authoritarian governance to this country, did rush through the change to the Constitution, as an amendment to the earlier Constitution of 1972, after a brief debate in Parliament. But the very nature of democracy requires that a call for changes of substantial aspects of a constitution, as they are being discussed in the current campaign, to be a matter of collective consideration by a constituent assembly that has people with the knowledge, capability and experience in such work and not the hasty result of an electoral campaign. Those who oppose the authoritarianism they see in this Executive Presidency must not follow the example of the man who introduced authoritarianism to the country with a hurried change of the Constitution.

This is the historical importance of the Presidential election on January 8, the coming Thursday. Its result will either make it a day of ensuring constitutional continuance, with the related stability and security of the State, or the possibility of constitutional break, the results of which have not been adequately and satisfactorily presented to the public. The call of continued stability towards progress in peace remains the campaign call of President Rajapaksa. History awaits this landmark decision of 2015.


 

 
 
   
   
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Last modified: January 05, 2015.

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