I have just returned to Sri Lanka after some weeks of travel in Europe. Wherever I went there was a great deal of interest in the democratic procedures that were being followed in Sri Lanka in relation to the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. Much appreciation was expressed of the orderly and peaceful manner in which these elections were conducted and of the way in which Sri Lanka was able by democratic procedures to install in power a government based on the majority will of the country’s population.
This was also referred to by some as a model which other countries could follow and it gave me great pleasure to hear this from even highly placed members of the legal community.
It is, indeed, to the Buddhist books that we have to turn for an account of the manner in which the affairs of these early examples of representative self-governing institutions were conducted. And it may come as a surprise to many to learn that in the Assemblies of the Buddhists in India two thousand years and more ago are to be found the rudiments of our own Parliamentary practice of the present day
In this connection it is worthwhile to cast our minds back to Sri Lanka’s long tradition of being an example to the region of peaceful and orderly government. These references go back to very ancient times and one example from the 4th Century BC that comes to mind is from Will Durant:The Story of Civilization, Volume 2, pp 563-4:
Zeno the Stoic’s follower Iambulus (ca.250 BC). described a Blessed Isle in the Indian Ocean (perhaps Ceylon): there, he reported, all men were equal, not only in rights but in ability and intelligence; all worked equally and shared equally in the product; all took equal part, turn by turn, in administering the Government; neither wealth nor poverty existed there, nor any war of the classes; nature produced fruit abundantly of her own accord and men lived in harmony and universal love.
Sri Lanka has inherited rich traditions from the past and the time has perhaps come for Sri Lanka to spread the example once more of peaceful and ordered government under principles of justice and equity.We had monastic universities with over 4000 students drawn from as far afield as China and the Middle East which radiated messages of peace and goodwill to many countries. We had perhaps the oldest historical chronicle in the world. Technological achievements were reflected by the biggest buildings of the ancient world next to the pyramids of Egypt and by an irrigation system which has been described as perhaps the most advanced ever seen on the planet. We had ambassadors in the imperial court of Rome when the great empire builders of the future were merely subject provinces of the Roman Empire.
John Milton in Paradise Regained sought to describe the majesty of Rome in around twenty lines and this contained a reference to our ambassador
‘Embassies from regions far remote From India and the Golden Chersonese And utmost Indian isle Taprobane In curious habit on the Apian Way’
Our ancient civilisation fore shadowed concepts of equality, freedom and democratic procedures in a manner which throws on us the burden of carrying on these democratic practices and developing them to the best of our ability. In fact democratic procedures were so well advanced in ancient times that the Marquis of Zetland, a former Viceroy of India drew attention to the fact that modern democratic parliamentary procedure was fore shadowed in the Buddhist councils of 2000 years ago. In his words:
It is, indeed, to the Buddhist books that we have to turn for an account of the manner in which the affairs of these early examples of representative self-governing institutions were conducted. And it may come as a surprise to many to learn that in the Assemblies of the Buddhists in India two thousand years and more ago are to be found the rudiments of our own Parliamentary practice of the present day. The dignity of the Assembly was preserved by the appointment of a special officer – the embryo of Mr. Speaker, in the House of Commons. A second officer was appointed whose duty it was to see that when necessary a quorum was secured – the prototype of the Parliamentary Chief Whip in our system. A member initiating business did so in the form of a motion which was then open to discussion. In some cases this was done only once, in others three times, thus anticipating the practice of Parliament in requiring that a bill be read a third time before it became Law. If the discussion disclosed a difference of opinion, the matter was decided by the vote of the majority, the voting being by ballot.
Our ancient civilisation fore shadowed concepts of equality, freedom and democratic procedures in a manner which throws on us the burden of carrying on these democratic practices and developing them to the best of our ability
With such traditions to build upon, the major political developments of the past few months are a reminder that Sri Lanka as a nation can once more rise to its full stature in the region and the world.A word of thanks and congratulation is also due to His Excellency the President, the Elections Commissioner and the Inspector General of Police for the meticulous care with which these elections were organised and conducted.
One nation comprising people of different races and religions, one common home for all the major cultures of the world, peace education for all citizens, total adherence to human rights and the rule of law- all these ideals are within our grasp and the opportunity to rise to this challenge has opened up in significant fashion.
We all look forward to a Sri Lanka of the future in which judicial independence, integrity of the public service, transparency of public transactions, inter-religious and cross-cultural understanding, right to information, freedom of expression, and all universal human rights form the bedrock of government policy and action.
This message needs to be spread at all levels of society from the school rooms to the corridors of power.