Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Remember, remember the fourth of November

I wonder how many recall the nursery rhyme:

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot...

The rhyme, like some of their kind, refers to events in history; in this case to the gunpowder plot. On the 5th November 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder. He and his fellow plotters (eight in all) were attempting to blow up parliament.

On the fourth of November 2003, Chandrika Bandaranaike staged a coup d’├ętat overthrowing the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe and setting in motion events that stilled any hope of peace.

There have been a few turning points in the bloody history of post-colonial Ceylon and this was one of them. The election of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956 and the riots of 1958; the dismembering of the civil service in the 1960's; the new constitutions of 1972 and 1978; black July 1983. Although seemingly less dramatic than some of the other crucial forks in the rocky road to serfdom, this was surely no less important for it set the stage for the autocratic state.

I have come to think that the power of democracy lies entirely in its institutions: the press, the judiciary and the legislature. Power does strange things to even the most well-meaning of people and once obtained it is rarely parted with willingly.

One never leaves office, one is always forced out; by the institutions. If one tries to cling on, one is first made a fool of by the press, one then finds it impossible to execute any orders for no one would carry them out, fearing retribution by the courts or possibly parliament.

These institutions have been neutered: directly by the constitution of 1978 and indirectly by the corruption it has enshrined. Now how much influence one wields is entirely dependent on how much money one can throw. The courts, the police, parliament are all under the sway of the executive and what rights that have been guaranteed under the constitution have been in near permanent suspension -for decades under the emergency regulations. Measures that were supposedly short-term are now a permanent feature.

Countries that succeeded in the post-colonial period did so largely to the extent that they preserved the status quo. Democracy is a fragile flower and is easily destroyed by those who do not understand what makes it work. In Europe, where it evolved in its modern form, it was the result of a thousand years of struggle - dating back to the Magna Carta of 1215, which was essentially a pact that attempted to check the King's power. Holding power in check is the essence of the system and it was not an easy victory either, being fiercely resisted over the centuries by many a ruler.

These hard-won freedoms will not be given up easily in Europe or the heirs to her traditions in the Americas or the former white dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere but in the strange lands of the East, where the peoples received their freedom more or less on a platter and where they do not understand the substance of the matter even though they speak highly of its forms, then there is danger and flower can whither and die.

Look no farther than our neighbours - Pakistan and Bangladesh and it is not difficult to see what lies at the end of the path that we tread.