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Sri Lanka: What does it mean to be liberal


by Raja Wickramasinghe





In democracies, the resolution of a political crisis is harder to come by sooner,as it demands consensus of all stakeholders, which is equally hard. In asimilar volatile political situation lasting fifty days since 26 October, weSri Lankans, as a democratic society, can be happy in the way it ended onSaturday. There were no physical harm caused to anybody, and no destruction ofpublic property was witnessed; of course, there were disruptions in financialand some other areas of business. The whole issue revolved on the conflict ofviews on political and constitutional issues and the powers of the Legislatureand the Executive. However, despite the failure of the politicians to reachagreement by consensus, eventually, with judicial intervention it has nowended.





There
were those, who saw the 19th Amendment when introduced in 2015, as a pearl
necklace; the way to the clipping of enormous powers of the Presidency. Not
surprisingly, constitutions are not without controversy. If, as the 20th
century philosopher, Isaiah Berlin once observed, "there’s no pearl
without some irritation in the oyster." However, the Supreme Court has now
put the controversy to rest.





In this
backdrop, at a media briefing on Sunday, the Bandula Gunawardena MP expressing
his opinion of the present political situation said, now there are only two
parties left in the country; the party of those who "love their
motherland" and the party of the "Traitors of the Motherland".
This was a very significant statement.





This
statement is significant in the backdrop of the situation that developed with
the recent political situation. In the wake of resolving the impasse by the
Supreme Court, some politicians and others expressed views even on the
judgement delivered by the Supreme Court. It may be expected, as always there
are two opinions to a controversy and unless resolved by consensus; and when
resolved by judicial intervention, most of the time, leaves one party with the
feeling of dissatisfaction.





The
pro-opposition groups of politicians, the monks, various individuals and
representatives of political and civil society organisations, which approved
the action taken by the President didn’t see any constitutional impediment for
the President’s action, while others opposing it saw it as un-constitutional.
Such situations are not without precedent in democratic societies.





Nevertheless,
this is not a healthy situation in a liberal democratic society, by such
statements to discourage tolerance of dissent. Politicians of all shades and
colours need to tolerate dissent and be able to respect other views and their
right to hold views personal to them. This is not a totalitarian society for
such a situation to prevail.





In a
totalitarian society everything is political. Your life is not yours, and
neither your conscience. Everything you say or do is an act of "support
for the regime", or an act of "defiance against it." There is no
middle ground, no private life, and no space for people not to get involved, to
remain silent and to be left alone. In the totalitarian society you are either
"with us", or "with them." Every act involves that choice,
and there are no other choices because everything is political and nothing is
private and personal.





We
experienced this situation during the days of the LTTE war. At that time anyone
expressing a view against or not to the liking of the powers that be, was a
LTTE supporter or an agent of anti-government forces. You were either
"with the regime" or "with them – the LTTE". There was no
middle ground. Space should not be left, for such a situation to develop in our
society once again. Sri Lankan society is a liberal democratic society. But if
anyone or any group are thoughtfully attempting to take our society to a place
where the space for privacy and agnosticism recedes, and where more and more
personal matters are being interpreted, by both sides as political choice –
making you "with us" or "with them," that way lies the end
of liberal democratic society. One’s choices are not limited to that of you are
"with us" or "with them." One’s choice is one’s opinion.
It’s not politics.





There has
to be room in liberal society to not be forced to choose sides. There also has
to be an ability to oppose the party in power, while recognizing its
legitimacy. At the same time, no party in power or in the opposition should
take it to a strange, contrived position hoping to goad people into protesting
against the other, or make them look weak if they don’t. Many of the opposing
enthusiastic critics, rising to the bait have reacted by embracing the opposite
position, that if anyone is not siding with them they are siding with the
government in power.





There was
nothing offensive in any persons and parties extending their cooperation to the
government in power. Similarly, anybody should have the opportunity to stand
with the political parties opposing the government in power, and express their
views and opinions openly and freely. One’s choices are not limited to that of
you are "with us" or "with them." One’s choice is one’s
opinion. Everybody has a right to have their personal opinion on any matter, be
it political or else. It is fundamental to a liberal democratic society.


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