Algama’s self-immolation - Bugle call of the hour
  • In-fighting fuels self-immolation
  • Constitution for all
  • Tamil Nadu ‘envoy’ for SL

Self-immolation is indeed a rare phenomenon in Sri Lanka, though it was considered among the Asians as the most severe form of supreme sacrifice that an individual could indulge in. Though practised as a weapon against American intervention in Vietnam, in the early ’60s, it found little favour in Sri Lanka. In India too, it was practised as a Hindu religious custom in the past, and was perceived by the Hindus as sati pooja. However, historical facts relating to self-immolation is not clear, but according to religious beliefs, it could be described as the ultimate form of supreme sacrifice.

One of the earliest cases of self-immolation as a protest, was in 1963, when a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam, immolated himself in Saigon, protesting religious persecution by the Diem regime, which acted as a proxy of the United States. It was a rallying point for political protest throughout South Vietnam, which changed her destiny. In Sri Lanka, the known case was during the assassination of popular film star turned politician Vijaya Kumaratunga, allegedly by the JVP in 1988.

Political shockwaves
Monday’s self-immolation was the second of that kind reported in the recent history of Sri Lanka. The act of self-immolation by an ardent supporter of the UNP has brought forth a stark reminder, that so long as the inconsistencies continue, the party is going to lose popular support, and that the masses who advocated the party’s policies, would ultimately be left in the lurch.

According to reports, the victim of this chilling experience, Rienzie Algama, had been a staunch party supporter who had sought unity among the feuding factions of the Grand Old Party. However, Algama’s political advent was elsewhere. He cut his teeth in politics as a member of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party led by Vijaya Kumaratunga, but later, he developed a close rapport with the UNP, and was a close associate of many top rung members, including party Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and much junior UNPers such as Ranjan Ramanayake and Opposition Leader’s Private Secretary, Sudath Chandrasekara.
Algama’s heroism has sent shockwaves, not only through the UNP, but the entire body polity of the country. It appears that the UNP hierarchy is particularly perturbed over the matter that, acting leader Karu Jayasuriya, at a hurriedly convened press conference, said that Algama was disgusted over the manner in which the UNPers are at each others’ throats. In other words, what Jayasuriya said was that the party’s rank and file keep close tabs on party activities, and that, in general, are averse to internal bickering, which could be detrimental to the well-being of the party at large.

As in Vietnam, Algama’s act could be exploited as a rallying point by disgruntled UNPers, to compel the party machinery to work towards achieving a common goal, and safeguard the interests of the common man, who is at the receiving end, due to the inconceivable policies adopted by its leaders, over a period of time. Though it is a very sad indictment on the UNP, it is really a wake up call and an eye-opener for the so called intransigent leaders of the party not to grope in the dark any further, and put the entire party into jeopardy. If Algama’s supreme sacrifice is to see the party as one entity focussed in one direction, then it is up to the leaders to ponder and turn the searchlight inwards, to arrive at its own assessment with tact and sensitivity, to determine where they went wrong. After all, if the UNP fails to act according to the wishes and the aspirations of the people, then it would be for the detriment of the party in the long run.

Algama - A foil to pseudo heroes
Algama, in his own way, had underlined his concerns in no uncertain terms, as to what is expected of a dynamic and pragmatic leadership. Living up to it is entirely in the hands of the top notches of the party. Algama, hours before committing self-immolation, had spoken to the Acting Leader of the party, Karu Jayasuriya, where he expressed his disapproval over what is taking place within the party. Jayasuriya had made a valiant attempt to pacify him and urge him to be more patient. He had spoken to many top people in the party, including the Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Sudath Chandrasekara, where Algama had told him that it could be his final encounter with him. Whether anybody took him seriously or allowed him to do whatever he wanted, remains a mystery, or is it that somebody has to die for the party to take things seriously?

UNP’s Acting Leader, Karu Jayasuriya was one, who was dismayed by the death of Algama who spoke to him few hours before giving his life up in flames. At the Kalubowila Hospital too, Jayasuriya spoke to Algama, where he insisted that the party unite for the sake of the people. According to Jayasuriya, Algama did not indulge in this fiery act because he wanted some position within the party, all he wanted the party to do was to unite and go forward as a formidable political force, which could provide an alternative to the present government in power. Jayasuriya was in touch with party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, to apprise him of the present situation, but he was not in a position to cut short the important assignment he has undertaken as Leader of the Opposition, though he was willing to do so.

In a way, Algama has accomplished his mission as person who stood for the unity of the UNP, but the question that remains unanswered is whether the party hierarchy would take the message left behind by Algama seriously, and work towards unifying and healing the fragmented party. Algama stands tall among the pseudo-heroes who had made this country to suffer internationally, by staging hunger strikes with a huge hue and cry, but by producing no result at the end, that would benefit the country. On the contrary, Algama’s sacrifice was a single minded pursuit aimed at bringing party unity. The onus is now on the party leadership to take his sincere manifestation on party unity seriously, or to allow the party to go astray, which would result in further erosion.

Karu Jayasuriya, from the day he was appointed acting leader of the party, engaged in party activities with greater enthusiasm and to the satisfaction of the senior members of the party. It appears that Jayasuriya has earned the appreciation of others, as the person who could put an end to the factional feud in the party, and is acceptable to many within the UNP. The only hitch being his crossover to the government, for this Jayasuriya has his own explanation. According to him, he crossed over to extend his cooperation to the Government’s war against LTTE terrorism, but how far people are willing to accept his stance, is yet to be seen. However, there is a disturbing trend within the UNP too. If the so called dissidents led by youthful Sajith Premadasa fail to impress the party leadership, that there should be reforms and change of leadership, if the party is to forge ahead, they are planning another stunt which would splinter the party, if they succeed.

Justice to all?
Talks are under way now between the dissidents and several key members of the Democratic National Alliance to come to an understanding, so that they could form into a formidable group within the opposition in Parliament. Anything is possible, given the political climate in the country, but it would only help to strengthen the Government and put them in an unassailable position. The JVP is already accusing UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of helping the Government get over the problem of the Executive Presidency, by agreeing to rename the same as Executive Premiership, and allowing an individual, without placing any restrictions on the number of occasions he or she could contest an election.

It is the opinion of many, including the Leftist parties, who are in alliance with the Government, that it is the same Executive Presidency that is labouring to surface, wrapped in different attire. The Government, ostensibly, is talking about the Israeli system, where they practised the Executive Premiership, but little is known about how unsuccessful the system was. What the Government and the main Opposition should explore at this juncture is to devise a system, whereby justice is done to all communities living in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, through its fundamental law, the Constitution. It may take years to find the best suited basic law, which would reflect the aspirations of all the people. These were the sentiments expressed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently, when he referred to the Government’s intention to introduce a new Constitution for the betterment of the Sri Lankan community

French-US inspiration
The 1978 Constitution promulgated by the then UNP Government was an improved document, when compared with the 1972 Republican Constitution. The ’78 Constitution made Fundamental Rights (FR) justifiable, unlike in the ’72 Constitution, which failed to do so, though it mentioned emphatically about FR of the people. Another salient feature of the ’78 Constitution is the inclusion of a provision giving the right to hold Referendums, when an important matter to the community surfaces in the public domain. However, there are many shortcomings in this too, the main feature being the creation of an Executive Presidency, which had been the subject of discussion within political circles for over a decade now. Former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake opposed the idea, when it was mooted by J.R. Jayewardene (JR) and discussed at UNP forums in the ’60s and early ’70s. However, in 1978, it became a reality in Sri Lanka, modelled in tune with the French and American Constitutions.

Renowned author A.J. Wilson, in his book titled the Gaullist System in Asia, discusses at length, how JR, inspired by both the French and American systems, devised an indigenous Constitution, which would, in his own words, give stability to the existing government to carry out development work without much hindrance. Wilson cites that, even though there was little popular agitation for Constitutional change, JR had been urging changes as early as 1966, and again in 1971, when the First Republican Constitution was being discussed. Jayewardene, at that time, argued for a “mixed presidential and parliamentary” system for Sri Lanka.
Among the alleged weaknesses of the existing parliamentary system were that governments lacked direction and effective majority leadership; that victors were over-represented in an Assembly elected in first-past-the-¬post, single-member constituencies; that ethnic and class differences were sharpened by inter-party competition; and that, too often, the vigour and effectiveness of prime ministerial leadership was undermined by defections, since party loyalty was weak and the prospects of office in a new government were inevitably tempting. As a result, JR argued, sustained developmental efforts were never pursued with sufficient continuity and drive.

A people-friendly Constitution
This is how the JR regime gave birth to the ’78 Constitution, which has become the focal point of discussion today. Constitution-making is not an easy job, it should reflect the aspirations of all communities and, above all, should safeguard the interests of the people. One area that legislators could think seriously is to strengthen the people’s Right to Information, by incorporating the Freedom of Information Act as part of our Constitution, though the present Constitution too recognises this, it has not been expressly enshrined as a Right, which means it needs supportive legislation to make it a viable Right.
Towards the latter part of the last Parliament, former Minister of Justice Milinda Moragoda stepped in to draft a new Bill, with inputs from the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Press Institute and from various intellectuals, since there was a growing demand to minimise corruption and a penchant was developing within society at large in achieving this goal. It is then apposite for the Constitution-makers to think afresh what we really need, before embarking on such project. Victim protection and equal opportunities are two other areas both the Government and the Opposition should look at seriously, if their intention is to develop a ‘people-friendly Constitution.’

Besides, the general perception among the countrymen is that Sri Lanka should face up to the challenges thrown by the international community in respect of various issues concerning the country. The US Senate will consider a report on Sri Lanka this week and the prevailing Human Rights situation. The general idea appears to be, to allow Sri Lanka some breathing space, since the Government has already appointed a commission to probe into these accusations made by various parties from time to time. The Government of Sri Lanka has already appointed the C.R. de Silva Commission with a mandate to probe into these allegations and submit its report at its earliest. It appears that the international community has now come to terms with Sri Lanka and in the process of adopting a more accommodative stance than in the past, though there may be hiccups from time to time that could be handled diplomatically, rather than going into abrasive head on clash.

In the meantime, it is reported that a top level team will soon undertake a special mission to India to discuss residual matters, following the end of the military offensive against the LTTE, and to discuss the political climate, which would be mutually beneficial. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has also welcomed an Indian move to appoint a special envoy to look into the progress of the resettlement process in the North and East. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appointed this special envoy at the request of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunananidhi who is keeping close tabs on the Tamil problems in Sri Lanka.
However, political analysts are of the view that this is an exercise to placate South Indian political leaders who will be facing state elections shortly. All in all, Sri Lanka’s fortunes, internationally, are turning out to be satisfactory, and if the Government acts cautiously and diplomatically, it would not be a difficult task to surmount the hurdles and roadblocks placed on the path to recovery.