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Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1780 - 1832)

(This simplified version of the fifth chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, presents the constitutional history of Sri Lanka in light of the principles discussed in the earlier chapters)

In common with most countries, Sri Lanka had an autocratic form of government for much of its history. Kings (or sometimes queens) ruled in Sri Lanka from well before the Christian era, and changing the government meant the king had to be changed, often through violence or invasions. Sometimes the country was divided into several small kingdoms, with different kings who were independent of each other. More often it was unified, with one king dominating other rulers who were characterized in different periods as sub-kings or as governors.

Of course these kings needed the advice and assistance of others to rule, and there were Councils with various responsibilities at the Centre. There were also systems of local government, with Councils of elders in villagers, or Councils of various sorts to advise governors of regions. However, all such Councils existed at the pleasure of the King, as did the Courts. They, and governors, were chosen or appointed on the sole authority of the King. Though obviously good rulers took into account the wishes or preferences of their people, there was no accepted principle that the people had a right to have whom they wanted in authority over them. The only occasions on which the will of the King was not absolute was with regard to the succession or to sub-kings, where heredity was crucial.

In short, democracy was unheard of as a principle, and a doctrine that may be characterized as the Divine Right of Kings held sway in Sri Lanka, based on heredity or conquest, as it did in much of the world for much of its history. Thus when the Europeans arrived, they simply took over the rule of the King. Don Juan Dharmapala willed his kingdom to the King of Portugal, a succession facilitated by the fact that there were no direct heirs in his line. Conversely, when a rival kingdom was set up in Kandy, though it was by virtue of military skill and superiority, Vimaladharmasuriya legitimized his position by marriage to Dona Catherina who had a claim to the throne based on birth.  Read the rest of this entry »


Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2010
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