Chanaka Amaratunga 1958 - 1996

Introduction by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the seminar to launch  ‘The Liberal Party of Sri Lanka: History, Philosophy, Presentation’  in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka

Thirty years ago, to paraphrase the article Chanaka Amaratunga wrote to celebrate Liberalism Ten Years After, a political movement committed to the promotion of liberal values and the defence of the liberal democratic process was launched in Sri Lanka. This was the Council for Liberal Democracy, an explicit Liberalism being thought necessary because of the evolving political authoritarianism in Sri Lanka since 1970. A decisive event was the deprivation of the

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916 - 2000) world's first female head of government

civic rights of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Then the Referendum of December 1982 postponed elections for six years, which confirmed the necessity in Sri Lankan public affairs of Liberal values, a necessity made more urgent by the communal riots of July 1983.

All these events and the growing authoritarianism of President J R Jayewardene led CLD activists to conclude that an ideological party of principle, committed to the prom­otion of Liberalism, needed to be formed – though I should mention that I was the only one at the time to disagree, since I thought we were more suited to being a think-tank than a party. Anyway, on 19th January 1987 the Liberal Party was formed and was recognized the following year. In 1986 The Liberal Review was founded as the first political journal committed to Liberalism. The Liberal Party’s Sinhala newspaperLiberal Nidahasa took liberal politics, even if to a limited degree, to those outside the English speaking urbanized class. Seminars both in Sinhala and in English, publications in both languages and the public statements and positions of the Liberal Party, introduced a distinctly novel politics to this country.

Liberals was not then inactive but if the progress of Liberalism is to be judged by the degree to which it is part of the political establishment, it cannot make many claims. The Liberal party has had minimal representation in Parliament and its membership is limited. But it would be misleading to judge its contribution by the level of its involvement in the political mainstream.

The real contribution of Liberalism lies in the realm of ideas. I need only draw your attention to the news today that the Cabinet Spokesman has mentioned the commitment of the government to introducing a second chamber. This was advocated by us a quarter of a century ago, and was condemned by all other parties at the time. But because we have made the case consistently and thoughtfully, taking into account objections but showing how beneficial such an institution should be, the idea has now won general acceptance, and indeed was part of the manifesto of the President in 2010.

In this and other respects, the impact of Liberals on the intellectual and political debate over the past several years has been considerable. From the introduction of the words ‘Liberal’ and ‘Liberalism’ into the political vocabulary of this country, to the attitude to politics and Sri Lankan society developed by the Liberals, the Liberal contribution has been to radically re-examine many of the pedestrian assumptions on which the sacred cows of  Sri Lankan politics have been based.

Liberals alone called in question the two most significant bases for contemporary Sri Lankan politics, which are largely responsible for the crisis, of values, of institutions and of social relations, which nearly brought us to grief. The Liberal Review believes that Sri Lankan society suffered immensely from the political outlook that might be described as springing from the 1956 consensus and from the 1977 consensus.

The 1956 consensus was imbued with narrow nation­alism, social envy, deeply statist economics and an ostentatious if dishonest dislike of all things western. The 1977 consensus was imbued with a profoundly immoral cynicism and selfishness, a total contempt for the traditional forms and institutions which so often assisted in creating fairplay, justice, freedom and tolerance. An integral part of this attitude is theacceptance of the essentials of 1956 and the grafting onto such an outlook of a lionization of developmental autocracy.

The contribution of the Liberals has been to radically and relentlessly question the assumptions that form these two attitudes. Whilst both had their positive features, in solving problems of equity in the first case, and then economic stagnation in the second, they failed to understand that political principles rather than extravagant reactions should be the basis of change.

Liberalism on the contrary affirmed a package that we still think relevant. On the constitution we have upheld the free individual and the limited state where Sri Lankan political orthodoxy still genuflects before the strong state. On the economy we  advocatedlarge scale privatization, including of the plantations, banks, insurance and all state run ventures nationalized after 1970, whereas in the eighties orthodox politicians and the bureaucracy cling to socialist assumptions now thrown overboard even in Eastern Europe. On the ethnic conflict and devolution, we have said what for non-ethnic parties is still assumed to be the unsayable, that true national unity will be achieved only through devolution with a high degree of autonomy to smaller units. On the media we called forprivate channels on radio and television. On education we had courage from the start to uphold excellence rather than populism and have recognized the worth of private education.

Mrs Srima Dissanayake

Some of these policies were rejected by all others in the eighties, but many are now accepted generally, and we have no doubt that the rest will follow. And, though ourselves far removed from power, Liberals twice had the opportunity, at the time Dr Amaratunga first assessed the contribution of Liberalism in 1991, to influence those who do exercise power to implement significant elements of this new radical vision. The first was when Liberals were primarily responsible for drafting the manifesto of the Democratic People’s Alliance. The second (still ongoing) is the All Party Conference created by President Premadasa. And to this we can add the manifesto we prepared for Gamini Dissanayake in 1994, which with his enlightened input remains a model in many respects. That is why we are so honoured to have Mrs Srima Dissanayake as our Chief Guest today, for when she became the candidate after her husband’s tragic assassination, she stood by that manifesto though its profound commitment to freedom and pluralism was not to the satisfaction of some elements in her party.

So much, with a few additions relevant to the present situation, for what Chanaka wrote nearly 30 years ago. Unfortunately, though we have got over the ideological confrontations of the past – or rather the oppositional politics of an outdated socialism against callous crony capitalism – we still have to cope with confrontational politics, with no recognition of the many ideals and aspirations we all have in common. So we find that the education reforms that the country needs so badly are delayed, because we are not clear about what the state should promote; corruption continues with inadequate parliamentary oversight because we have not ensured a productive consensus on the relations between the executive and the legislature with regard to its financial responsibilities; we continue confused about electoral reform because we have not articulated intelligently and comprehensibly the necessary balance between representation of distinct areas and the need for a parliament representative of the country as a whole.

All this and more was discussed at length at our seminars and in writings, including in the Liberal Review from which selections have been culled for the volume on the party which is being launched today. Let me add that, in addition to these and a collection of policy documents, the book also included an essay on the history and impact of the party, together with a number of old photographs that show now old politicians in their distant youth, along with the giants of yesteryear.

Tragically, many of them were assassinated. The roll of those killed by the LTTE who contributed to much to policy making in Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Neelan Tiruchelvam, reminds us of how badly we were set back by the conflict that engulfed this country. But we should recall too Kumar Ponnambalam, who contributed with Chanaka to the manifesto on which Mrs Bandaranaike stood for the Presidency in 1988, and who later fell prey to predatory forces of a different sort. That Chanaka should have been able to ensure positive discussions between all such individuals, and many others, is a tribute to his inclusive genius. And perhaps this record of how we were able to bring people together to promote understanding suggests how we should proceed if we are to stop the forces of confrontation precipitating yet another crisis.