Walking the talk! | Daily News

Walking the talk!

It was the first time that a reporter and a poetess were appointed to a government commission by the Executive. Subsequently she and I were among the seven who inquired into youth unrest and rebellion, primarily in the predominantly Sinhala south in 1988/89 and told the then Second Executive President R Premadasa that our people wanted the abolition of the executive presidency.

Monica Ruwanpathirana the Sinhalese poetess is no more. She translated that report into Sinhala. Premadasa knew that like all government commissions before us, we worked and talked in English, and he was not going to go before the nation without a Sinhala translation, like the competent translation of Monica on which the public credibility of that sensitive report depended.

R Premadasa under siege was still the practical man in every sense. He was under siege as no other head of state since Independence. The LTTE was in control of much of the north and the east. Indian troops (Indian Peace Keeping Force) were in control in many areas concurrently, and the Sri Lankan armed forces were in camps. With the BBC-led western press virtually talking the language of an emergent separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, the JVP-led the Sinhalese youth in rebellion, saying the Indian troops were here to create another Bangladesh.

When I assisted Monica with her translation, it was pleasure to invoke the poetess in her with the words of Wordsworth “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven” .Wordsworth was in France at the dawn of the French Revolution and believed that the flow of blood would eventually result in a more just social order he would live to see, I told her. All of us within the commission wanted to believe that “somehow” we were on the threshold of a new dawn, and that we had been entrusted to write its script.

The two heavyweights of the commission were G L Peiris and Radhika Commaraswamy, armed with doctorates in Law from Oxford and Harvard. Lakshman Jayathilake, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, an Engineering don and Chairman of the Commission was an intellectual in his own right.

When the “Jayathilake Commission” opened its doors for public sittings opposite Temple Trees (next to the Colombo Swimming Club), the JVP was one of the first to send its killer squad, the DJV to intimidate us. The young man who walked in unannounced flaunted his credentials and said, “if anything was to happen to me while I am here or on the way out, none of you would live till tomorrow”.

He preached to us that a human body consists of cells which were constantly destroying themselves, and when the JVP was “removing” unwanted elements from society, they were only accelerating the natural process of the destruction of cells, for the greater good of society. I watched as Jayathilake listened and spoke calmly as a monk. “If it was your father’s cells that you were asked to accelerate in the process……would you….”

The DJV “gunman” was visibly rattled, as much the rest of the members of the commission. Before he left Jayathilake told him we have been commissioned by the Executive President to seek the opinion of the general public, and we will answer the call of duty of the incumbent government. As he made his hurried exit the messaging to the JVP leader Wijeweera was clear. The Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Youth Unrest and Rebellion was on its way.

President Premadasa was a tough taskmaster. The government was communicating to LTTE leader Prabhakaran that we needed to sit in Jaffna, and that it was a genuine independent effort that he as the Executive was initiating. The commission was asked to sit in public in the north and in the south, where blood flowed freely, and the bodies of young people were burning on tyre pyres, and submit a report of its findings in three months.

In our public sittings in the south Monica Ruwanpathirana (also a poverty alleviation catalyst) and renowned educationist the late R I T Alles played a key role at sensitive moments of discourse, with the confidence they could inspire with their public reputation and experience in handling young people. In the north and the east that role was played by Commissioner Mohamed Ali, a senior executive of a state bank who was fluent speaker of Tamil.

The man who was tasked with the logistics of the operation was a senior Foreign Service officer, Lal Warnakulasooriya. He was assigned a single-handed round the clock operation due to security and other concerns, and remained the unsung hero of the commission who made it all possible.

The commission made an early breakthrough when the LTTE announced that Prabhakaran had accepted Premadasa’s proposal. In a sensational turn of events, the Sinhala press reported a government commission was going behind enemy lines. We were hurriedly flown to Jaffna in a military transport aircraft.

At Pallali the army put us in an Air Force chopper and flew us to an IPKF controlled area, and the IPKF drove us to the outskirts of Jaffna and handed us to the LTTE. We were driven to the Palm Garden Hotel by Tiger child soldiers, with sub machine guns and wearing cyanide capsules around their necks.

The underlined cause of youth unrest and rebellion in the north and the south had a complex, often unspoken qualitative difference. It was about Tamil nationalism or racism and about Sinhala nationalism or racism. In a corresponding plain there was a commonality in the demand for greater democratization of the political process, and radical reform to the mismatch between education and employment, which created the frustrations that could easily be made the fertile ground for recruitment for causes advocated either by the LTTE or the JVP.

My involvement in the commission, as its youngest member, probably had its roots in my Peradeniya days in the early eighties. As the Secretary of the Arts Faculty Student Union in those turbulent days when an undergraduate was shot dead by the police on campus, most of us in student politics failed to realize that we were seeing the early stages of a second Sinhala uprising in the making.

The JVP activism which some of us opposed had yet to have the control of the Universities. In the early eighties when Prime Minister R Premadasa drove through Peradeniya, my generation of undergraduates jeered at him.

JVP activists did not take kindly to the village re-awakening (Gam Udawa) programme aimed at building a million houses for the poor, as it would seriously damage their vote base.

Premadasa had wanted one of the rebels to sit on the commission, and he had been looking for a Peradeniya graduate, after the Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya University was chosen as its Chairman.

I got to know President Premadasa as a Daily Mirror reporter covering his village re-awakening across the land. When I was asked to serve on the commission, he was aware that it was my generation at Peradeniya that was leading a Sinhala rebellion for a second time since April 1971. Many of the student activists I had known and ideologically opposed at Peradeniya in student politics, perished in the 1988/89 uprising and I met many others behind bars in rehabilitation camps.

The commission laid emphasis on recommendations made to it by experts on the cause and effect of education and employment, as it was the practical way forward. The Chairman of the Commission later became the first head of the National Education Commission and pursued the implementation of these recommendations of the commission from 1991 to 2001.

As much as the national question or nationalism or racism remained beyond the mandate of the commission, its key recommendation was of a political nature calling for greater democratization primarily aimed at the transfer of power from the executive to independent commissions.

The commission summoned and sought the expertise of those who could address this vital political position, and decided it will recommend to the Executive that there was a public demand for the democratisation of the powers of the Executive, as the concentration of such powers in the Executive and the abuse it had led to, was perceived widely as a root cause that perpetuates youth unrest and rebellion.

The only living individual we did not summon before the commission, but thought it fit to visit and explain our stance was the former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. We visited her at her residence at Rosemead Place and briefed her that we would be advocating the dismantling of the executive presidency, as was the aspiration of the greater general public.

Neither Premadasa nor Bandaranaike as a former head of state opposed this key political recommendation of the commission of 1990. As a fundamental transfer of power from the executive to the people, the commission sought the setting up of a constitutional council which in turn would set up independent commissions in a greater process of democratization.

This was to lead to the 17th Amendment under the Chandrika Kumaratuga government in 2001, its reversal under the 18th Amendment during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in 2014, and finally to the reversal of the 18th Amendment by the 19th Amendment under Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government in 2015.

On February 14, 1990, President Premadasa announced the acceptance of the commission’s 51 proposals to end youth unrest in Sri Lanka. The report said in the past two years, violence from extremist youth groups bent on overthrowing the government and retaliation from government security forces and unofficial vigilante groups have devastated the country.

It said, political power had been abused in the recruitment of personnel for public services, in the granting of public contracts and licenses to supporters of the ruling party and in the undermining of existing democratic institutions, and cited political interference in the day-to-day administration of government institutions.

President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE on May 1, 1993.

In 2001 the Chandrika Kumaratunga’s UPFA government which enacted the 17th Amendment to the constitution made provision for the setting up of independent commissions incorporating the key recommendation of the commission. G L Peiris as Foreign Minister, who along with President Chandrika Kumaratunga survived an assassination attempt at the hands of the LTTE, during their time in office of the same UPFA government, never fully implemented the key recommendation of the commission.

Subsequently the Mahinda Rajapaksa government actively dismantled the provisions of the 17th Amendment with the passage of the controversial 18th amendment in 2014. It was then left to the SLFP-UNP unity government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe to reverse the 18th Amendment with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 2015, and re-establish the independent commissions in the most meaningful manner to date, stemming from the Youth Commission recommendations.

The amendment was a result of promise made by President Maithripala Sirisena leading up to the 2015 Presidential Election. The main prospect of the amendment was to repealing the 18th Amendment which gave the President extreme powers and to reinforce democracy in the country. It establishes a Constitutional Council which will exercise some executive powers previously held by the President. The 19th Amendment restores many components of the 17th Amendment letting the Constitutional Council to set up the proposed Independent Commissions:

1. The Election Commission.

2. The Public Service Commission.

3. The National Police Commission.

4. The Audit Service Commission.

5. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.

6. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.

7. The Finance Commission.

8. The Delimitation Commission.

9. The National Procurement Commission.

10. The University Grants Commission.

Radhika Commaraswamy as a member of the Constitutional Council which is instrumental in appointments to the independent commissions still survives within the process of greater democratisation created by the Youth Commission in 1990.

Ironically, now in 2018 the JVP is to bring in a 20th Amendment to the Constitution as a private members motion, to abolish the Executive Presidency.

My reporting for the Daily News in the aftermath of the Youth Commission, on issues raised by the commission report was interpreted by interested parties within sections of the government as pro-JVP. Following the murder of Richard de Zoysa, a one time fellow reporter for the Daily Mirror and state television (SLRC) allegedly linked to the JVP, my reporting on matters connected to his death led to my being sacked from the Daily News. The next day there was a front page “box story”, asking the general public to disregard my recent reporting, as it was “the work of a subversive element”.

Premadasa had been “very angry” about my sacking and the way I was sacked from the Daily News. By then my friends in The Island (where I was a founder staffer) wrote an editorial calling it a political sacking, and those who determined that I was a subversive element, issued me with death threats, “if you do not ask your friends in The Island, to shut up.”

Looking back over the last quarter century similar recommendations for reform as those contained in the Youth Commission Report have been brought to the forefront by other forums such as the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) and the most recent Lal Wijenayake led Public Committee on Constitutional Reforms which transformed parliament in a constituent assembly, once more advocating greater democratisation and the abolition of the executive presidency, in preference for a Westminster style democracy.

But there are many within the house that is hell bent to prevent it, in the name of Race? Religion? and Caste? without saying it exactly on those terms! or as Brecht said, “For we went changing our country more often than our shoes”.

- The writer was a member of the Special Commission of Inquiry into Youth Unrest and Rebellion 1989 appointed by President R. Premadasa


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