In Pursuit of a genuine Republic
In 1972 Sri Lanka cut its ties to the British Monarchy, and officially became a Republic. Yet, it seems that both citizens and administrators continue to live in the frame of mind of the ruler and the ruled, even though being a Republic is an opposing form of government to Monarchic rule.
Co-authors of the “Sri Lankawe Swadeena Rajya Komisan Sabha (Independent Commissions of Sri Lanka), published by the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) which was released in Colombo on Monday, September 28, raise an interesting point in their observations. (English and Tamil versions of the book are in print).
The authors, Attorney-at-Law Jagath Liyana Arachchi and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Arts, Colombo University, Dhamma Dissanyake point out that public institutions in a truly Republican State are expected to be people friendly and people-centric. The government is just one arm of a Republican State, with no right to impose itself on other bodies. Public institutions, including the government, therefore must aspire to exist for the good of the people.
Speaking to Counterpoint Mr. Dissanayake further explained that in a Republic, sovereignty lies with the people, while that is the right of a King or Queen in a monarchy. Therefore, in a form of government where the people are sovereign, all institutions, including the government must be subject to regulation. The Independent Commissions too are part of this.
The tragedy, he says is that in almost all such nations which have freed themselves of monarchic rule, such regulation rarely occurs.
It is time to critique the State, he says, without which, a genuine Republic cannot be built where power lies with the people. It is not soley with the Parliament, the Executive or the judiciary etc. Such institutions should play the role of facilitator, to help people achieve their aspirations, he adds.
However, citizens continue to treat politicians and public servants with reverence, with no attempt by any of these groups to change the status quo.
In fact, Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, writing in “The 1972 Republican Constitution in the Postcolonial Constitutional Evolution of Sri Lanka,” 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.’
Certainly, that attitude has not changed, despite 72 years of so-called independence. In the meantime, a second constitution was introduced in 1978, and perhaps, there might be another in the near future.
The book meanwhile traces the history, powers, character and duties of Commissions, and discusses the many facets and changes in Sri Lanka, from the time of the Donoughmore Commission.
The authors claim that after 1948, the best example of an independent institution was the Public Service Commission, which was both administratively and politically the closest body to the functioning of government. It was hailed by Ministers for its independence and impartiality. However, while reforms had been introduced to the commission in 1943, without changing its independent nature, the authors state that there was a subtle expectation that the commission would comply with the aspirations of the ministers.
Yet, there had been no friction between the government that came to power in 1947 and the Commission they claim, adding that according to a report on the Sri Lanka Civil Service, Professor Wishwa Waranapala’s contention was that this was because both groups hailed from similar economic and class backgrounds.
All that had changed, they state after 1956, with the election of people from diverse backgrounds to parliament and the civil administrations reluctance to adapt to the persuasions of the former.
And then, with the country becoming a Republic in 1972 and the introduction of a new Constitution the functions of the Public Service Commission were assigned to the Cabinet.
With the introduction of the 1978 Constitution the Public Service Commission had been re-established and also the Judicial Service Commission. Though the independence of the judiciary is envisaged in that constitution, the authors note that in practice, the opposite occurred.
And what of the many Independent Commissions we have today? Are they functioning within their mandates and able to withstand any political pressures? Or are they white elephants?
For their study, the authors have examined 8 of the 10 independent commissions, namely the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption, the National Police Services Commission, the National Election Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Audit Service Commission, Judicial Service Commission and the National Procurement Commission.
The study which lasted from the end of 2018 to July of this year provides a fairly comprehensive information on the role, responsibility, limitations and weaknesses of each of the commissions studied and general and individual recommendations for improvement.
Amongst the common drawbacks identified, the authors point to delays in releasing decisions, lack of adequate Tamil speaking staff, absence of a complaints mechanism against commissions and that a majority of the staff comprise of retired public servants, who are unable to abandon the practices and attitudes adopted in their previous positions, thereby inhibiting progress. Civil society is not off the hook either. They point out that while civil society plays a major role in promoting the establishment of such commissions, they fail to support the work and safeguard the independence of commissions etc.
While some of the commissions lack the necessary powers to adequately perform their duties as they have not been established through an Act of parliament, the authors also state that regulations must be put in place to allow more independence for commissions when recruiting staff and determining their salaries. They also call for a Monitoring mechanism that could review their work and look into complaints against these bodies.
Meanwhile, they urge civil society to play a greater role; society must critique the working of the commissions, the authors’ state through yearly reviews. The same is true for media, which on the one hand could educate the public on the role of the commission in facilitating democratic changes and on the other, also highlight drawbacks and weaknesses of these institutions, to help improve the processes.
Most importantly, both public officials and citizens need a change of attitude they say. Pointing to the fact that the very existence of the Commissions is to protect the public service from being politicised, they state that this could be achieved only if the people and public officials change their mentality.
Left to function within the given mandate, with support from all factions of society, Independent Commissions, and all government institutions would be able to deliver their services as expected.
Indeed, as Mr. Dissanayake observes the behaviour of many nation states these past years, seems that they are galloping back towards monarchic regimes, even though they cut their ties to their colonial masters many decades ago. The same could be said of Sri Lanka.
It’s time then that Sri Lankans broke away from their slave like mentality towards administrators and politicians, and begin enjoying the real fruits of a Republic.