Post-independence politics in Sri Lanka: Challenges, hurdles and victories | Daily News

Post-independence politics in Sri Lanka: Challenges, hurdles and victories

Sri Lanka’s journey since independence has been marked by challenging times, upheaval and uncertainty but the country and its democratic systems have survived and prospered due to the tenacity of its people and its faith in democracy. As the nation celebrates the seventy-third anniversary of freedom from British rule, landmark events in its post-independence history merit revisiting.

The first major change in the country’s political landscape came shortly after independence. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, perhaps realising that his political ambitions will not reach the desired heights in the United National Party (UNP) formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951.

Within five years, Bandaranaike was able to cobble together a coalition, styled the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, and register a resounding win at the 1956 general election, winning 56 of the 95 seats in Parliament. Bandaranaike campaigned on a nationalistic platform, calling upon the ‘pancha maha balavegaya’ or the ‘five great forces’ of the clergy, physicians, teachers, farmers and workers to unite, portraying the UNP as a capitalist entity. He also pledged to make Sinhala the official language of the country, replacing English, which came to be known popularly as the ‘Sinhala only’ policy.

First woman Prime Minister

Unfortunately, Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959 by conspirators within his own party. That saw the ascension of his widow, Sirima Bandaranaike to the premiership, creating history as the world’s first woman Prime Minister in July 1960. Ms. Bandaranaike was elected Prime Minister several times

Sri Lanka’s first real threat to democracy came in 1962 when a group of officers in the Army and the Police attempted a coup. This was thwarted when an alert Police officer who later became the Inspector General of Police, Stanley Senanayake, tipped off government leaders. Thereafter, Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike was instrumental in foiling the coup.

The coup also led to the removal of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as the Governor General. He was replaced by William Gopallawa who later went on to become the first appointed President of the Republic of Sri Lanka a decade later when the Republican Constitution was promulgated in May 1972.

1971 insurrection

A year earlier, Sri Lanka endured yet another tumultuous event, an insurrection launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by Rohana Wijeweera. Launching the insurgency by attacking several Police stations in April 1971, the rebels were able to capture and hold several towns and rural areas for a few weeks until they were recaptured by the armed forces.

The official death toll from the insurrection was placed at 1200, but this was thought to be a very conservative estimate. Leaders of the insurgency were tried by the Criminal Justice Commission appointed to deal with the suspects. Wijeweera was imprisoned for life, a sentence that was to be later commuted.

In 1975, Ms. Bandaranaike extended the life of Parliament which had been converted to a national State Assembly by virtue of the Republican Constitution that was enacted in 1972, amidst protests from the opposition. Then Opposition Leader J.R. Jayewardene resigned his seat in Parliament in protest, triggering a by-election which he won.

UNP victory

A major change in the political establishment occurred with the landslide victory of the UNP in July 1977, handing the J.R. Jayewardene-led government a five-sixth majority.

This enabled Jayewardene to replace the 1972 Republican Constitution with an Executive Presidency. This Constitution has survived until now, despite the many calls to abolish the Presidency.

The other key feature of the new Constitution enacted in 1978 by Jayewardene was a change in the election system, replacing the Westminster style first-past-the-post system with a proportional representation system.

The Jayewardene government also appointed a Special Presidential Commission which probed alleged misdeeds of the previous government and their recommendations led to Ms. Bandaranaike, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and others being deprived of their civic rights.

The 1978 Constitution has radically altered the country’s patterns of government. Power which changed hands at almost every election from 1948 to 1978 between the UNP and the SLFP has since tended to remain with one party. The UNP ruled uninterrupted from 1978 to 1994 and a SLFP-led coalition governed the nation almost uninterrupted from 1994 to 2015, barring a brief period of UNP-led rule in 2001.

In 1982, after winning the country’s first ever presidential election, Jayewardene decided against calling a general election, conducting the country’s first- and as yet, only- referendum which allowed him to extend the life of Parliament.

The ’80s were marked by unrest, both in the North and the South of the country. In July1983, ethnic unrest which had been simmering in the North and East erupted with riots in the South, following the killing of thirteen soldiers in Thirunelveli in Jaffna. Rioting and widespread looting continued for a week before it was brought under control. Estimates of the death toll varied between 3000 to 4000.

The ‘Black July’ riots brought the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka to worldwide attention. It also led to Tamil civilians fleeing the country seeking refugee status in western nations.

Among those who remained, there was enthusiasm to join the many armed Tamil groups among which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the predominant organisation.

Indo-Lanka accord

In an attempt to diffuse the Eelam war that ensued President Jayewardene entered into the Indo-Lanka accord in July 1987 which led to the creation of Provincial Councils as the instrument to devolve power to the regions. As a part of the Accord, an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was invited to occupy the North and East of the country.

The ’80’s came to an end in the South of the country in bloodshed with the JVP, led by Wijeweera who was freed from jail by Jayewardene, again staging an armed insurrection. The party was able to cripple the country with a series of strikes and ad-hoc work stoppages. Their campaign was also marked by the killing of officials and artistes thought to be loyal to the government.

The insurrection co-incided with the end of the second term of J. R. Jayewardene as President and the advent of Ranasinghe Premadasa to that office. The insurrection was crushed following the capture of key JVP leaders, most notably Rohana Wijeweera, who was apprehended while masquerading as a civilian residing in an estate in Ulapane.

Premadasa’s tenure as President was market by tumult. Initially, he succeeded in returning the IPKF to India. However, dissatisfied by his style of governance and after being sidelined by him, key ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake were instrumental in organising a motion of impeachment against him in September 1991. Premadasa was able to thwart the impeachment against him but that led to Athulathmudali and Dissanayake breaking away from the UNP and forming the Democratic United National Front (DUNF).

Ironically, Athulathmudali, Premadasa and Dissanayake all fell victim to assassinations by the LTTE, the former two within a week of each other. Dissanayake was killed while attending a campaign rally running for President against Chandrika Kumaratunga. Thus, the entire second tier leadership of the UNP groomed by Jayewardene was eliminated by the LTTE.

Defeating the LTTE

The next pivotal turn in the country’s history came in 2009 when the LTTE was defeated, with its entire leadership including Tiger Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran being killed. This followed a series of military operations pursued under the direction of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Secretary of Defence and Sarath Fonseka as Army Commander.

While the military establishment is credited with winning a war that many believed was unwinnable, the political determination of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to pursue the military option, notwithstanding tremendous pressure from countries such as Britain and France is seen as a key factor in successfully concluding the thirty year long armed conflict that cost thousands of lives.

The events of 2015 that brought Maithripala Sirisena to power was probably the most unexpected election result in the country, defeating the then seemingly invincible President Rajapaksa who was running for a third term. However, former President Sirisena will be remembered for his aborted attempt in October 2018 to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and then dissolving Parliament, moves which were declared as ‘unconstitutional’ by the Supreme court.

Ten years after the end of the Eelam war, Sri Lanka was again confronted with the scourge of terrorism with the Easter bomb attacks in April 2019 that left more than 250 people dead across several hotels and churches in the country.

These attacks have made authorities realise the reality that the global phenomenon of Islamic terrorism has infiltrated Sri Lanka as well.

Several commissions of inquiry are still probing these events and the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pledged to counter this swiftly and effectively.

It is with such a turbulent and eventful history that Sri Lanka celebrates its 73rd year of independence.

The next major political event on the horizon is likely to be the drafting and adopting of a new Constitution where major changes are contemplated to the election system and the system of provincial councils being used as a unit of devolving power.

Sri Lankans will hopefully have a better idea of these changes when the country approaches its Independence Day next year.