Expanded Version of the closing remarks of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha – Former Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, at the Closing Session of the CALD General Assembly, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy

Hon Sam Rainsy, Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Hon Vasantha Senanayake, our closing Keynote Speaker, colleagues and friends, though I should not take too long about these winding up remarks, I must record my appreciation of the seminal contributions to political thinking that have emerged during the last couple of days. The threat of populism to liberal democracy is something we must be very careful about, and not least because there is a tendency amongst intellectuals – a disproportionate number of whom subscribe to Liberalism for obvious reasons – to assume that we necessarily know better than the people. We thus tend to dismiss as populism even legitimate concerns.

While therefore avoiding the excesses of indulgent populism, avoiding the temptation to play to the gallery on the assumption that ignorance is something to take advantage of for political gain, avoiding full discussion and comprehensible advocacy, we should also ensure that our ears are to the ground, and that we take account of all concerns. Though some concerns may seem to us trivial or not quite legitimate, we should not dismiss them, but should rather take them seriously and discuss them in a manner that illuminates and assuages. We may not always be successful, but it is as bad as playing to the gallery to assume that the gallery is irrelevant.

I am glad therefore that our concluding session was about developing a symbiotic relationship between Populism and Democracy. Earlier we looked at the manner in which policies can contribute to populism, which should make us realize that populism is not always a reaction to emotions or parochial interests. Sometimes it is the politicians who are responsible for rousing and privileging such emotions and interests. We have looked at examples of such in earlier sessions, and I believe we have been able to cast light on the problems inherent in democratic dispensations, which we must strive to overcome through greater transparency, through more thorough methods of stimulating discussion and thought.

In one sense then our theme this year connects with the theme of the CALD General Assembly, also held in Colombo, two years back. That was education, and I don’t think I am simply privileging my own profession in suggesting that better education will help us solve many problems. Of course we know that the educated too can be populist in their approach to politics, but I still believe that the more the people know and understand, the less inclined they will be to easy solutions that could lead to other problems. We must remember that, while the price of liberty is constant vigilance, that vigilance must be exercised with regard to our own responses too, in the light of the potential problems we have identified in our pursuit of democratic ideals.

We must also realize the dangers of giving in too easily to what is established as truth by the media, given the very stimulating discussion we had today about how easily the media can be manipulated. The Hon Vasantha Senanayake, who ranged from ancient Roman emperors to modern day Roman calling girls become politicians in a characteristically erudite speech, spoke about how the major news networks tend to govern thinking, to the detriment of countries which have no control over such networks, unlike more powerful nations. Some of our member countries have suffered from that.

On the one hand we know that countries where democracy has deficiencies but where Western interests are supported, such as Singapore and Cambodia, are rarely criticized. On the other hand countries like Thailand and Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where our Liberal parties were in governments which the West finds do not conform to its priorities, are attacked on populist grounds. As Mr Chair you guide CALD over the next two years, you must be careful not to allow such influences to affect us, as we found happened so sadly with the Democrat Party in Thailand. When the Red Shirts engaged in violent demonstrations against the government, the Western media, influenced by populist political perspectives, treated them as freedom fighters and the Democrat government as oppressors. We found even Liberal International succumbing to this tendency though I should add that its President, who has also been totally principled about Singapore, made handsome amends for that.

We must also be careful not to be carried away by popular appeals for vengeance and retribution. As a dedicated Buddhist leader, Mr Chair, you will appreciate that vengeance only begets vengeance. I believe that we must instead follow the example set by our most distinguished member, Aung San Suu Kyi who, despite the appalling way in which the Burmese government has treated her, is determined to move towards compromise – not compromise on principles, on which we found her so firm when we met her last year, but compromise with people, because that is the best way forward. I hope therefore that, when you become Prime Minister of Cambodia, you will not want to punish Hun Sen, but rather that, while ensuring he will not adversely affect the body politic, you encourage him to lapse into retirement. We must not be responsible for perpetuating the resentments and the polarizations we need to overcome in all our nations, and we must be wary of other nations promoting such confrontation from which they might benefit, though we never will.

Before I conclude, let me also thank all those who contributed to this event. First, the CALD Secretariat who arranged the programme and facilitated the visits of so many distinguished speakers and delegates, and also our Secretary General, Neric Acosta, whose talents will I hope also find greater outlet now as he advises the Philippine President on the Environment for which he also did so much as a Legislator.

I should also thank the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and its South East Asia Regional Office for funding this event. I am sorry that the FNS in Sri Lanka was not represented here, but this was more than compensated for by the ready support proferred by the FNS offices in Thailand and in the Philippines, and the Philippine country director Jules Maaten, who has contributed so actively to this event, with several illuminating speeches and interventions. I hope that he will be able over the next two years, with your support Mr Chair,to persuade the FNS in South Asia, which has for so long been concerned mainly with economic freedoms, to also take account of other political needs, and encourage the formation of more explicitly Liberal parties in the sub-continent.

The representative of the Pakistan Liberal Forum, who has contributed much to our discussions, noted the way in which, through seminars I helped the FNS conduct in 1998 and then in 2004, we were able to promote commitment to a Liberal ideology in Pakistan, but I hope the Forum can also move into becoming a party. And even more important, we must move towards ensuring that India benefits from an explicitly Liberal ideology. Most parties in India have now accepted Liberal principles, but we must work towards developing them as a package, to ensure the democracy, equity and pluralism that I have tried in my two years as Chair to advance in equal measure.

Finally I must thank my colleagues in the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka who have worked tirelessly over the last few weeks. I am grateful as always to our Party President, Mrs Swarna Amaratunga, for her hospitality, and recall with fondness how our Founder, Chanaka Amaratunga, established his credentials with Liberal International at the time when the FNS office in Colombo, which was then engaged in promoting its own businesses, accused him of being a Communist. The then Executive Vice-President of Liberal International, the Swiss journalist Urs Schoettli, after several meetings with Chanaka, and several enjoyable evenings, declared that he enjoyed eating and drinking far too much to be a Communist. The late Count Otto von Lambsdorf subscribed to this view, as did true Liberal thinkers over the years, as they read Chanaka’s writings, and I can only hope that the FNS also returns all over the world to reading and thinking and reflecting about Liberal principles so as to promote Liberalism round the world, rather than its own interests. The determination to keep the heir to Senanayake name and principles out of the Dudley Senanayake Foundation seems to me an example of prejudice trumping principle, and I hope the FNS will not continue to fund such prejudice.

I am grateful too to our Secretary General, Kamal Nissanka, and to the Chair of CALD Youth, Selyna Peiris, for their support and their speeches here. Our former Treasurer, Nirmali Hettiarachchi, kindly arranged last night’s dinner, and I must register my gratitude to Dr Newton Peiris and his staff, for publishing the book ‘Asian Liberal Perspectives: Promoting Democracy, Equity, Pluralism’ which was launched last night, as also our 25th anniversary publication in January.

I must also that Dr Peiris for his indefatigable energy. Just today he advanced yet another brilliant idea, that we should set up amongst our parties a scheme whereby youngsters can go and spend a few weeks in another country. The host country would provide local hospitality, while the sending country would look after the airfare. I hope very much Mr Chair that you can advance this. Interactions are vital, as I find in my work in Reconciliation, bringing people together from North and South, and I believe in the contemporary world international connectivity, and interactions between bright youngsters, is vital.

Let me also, most of all for this Conference, thank Shalini Senanayake, our Treasurer, yet another scion of the liberal democratic Senanayake family that has been so sadly rejected by the party it led so idealistically for so long. Though being our Treasurer might seem the easiest job in the world, given our lack of money, she has been a pillar of support to the Party, starting from the days when she worked with Dr Amaratunga. Her total commitment during the two major events we have hosted this year, our Anniversary celebration and now this Congress, were invaluable, and I must pay tribute to her total efficiency and reliability.

Thanks then to my colleagues and friends, and my best wishes to our new Chair, who has an arduous task ahead of him, which the vindictive system his country now suffers from makes even more difficult. But with his able colleagues and friends, and especially Saumoura Touliong, former Secretary General of CALD, I am sure he will achieve wonders not only for CALD but for Cambodia.