The impermanence principle | Sunday Observer

The impermanence principle

18 June, 2023

In subtle ways and not so subtle, from the Cardinal to various professional associations there are statements being made about the shrinking of the public space. The Cardinal says that there is an erosion of moral values on top of the economic uncertainty. Professionals and professional bodies are making half-muted statements about how the freedom of expression is being curtailed, and the right to protest is being subject to State imposed restrictions over and above any limitations necessitated by national security.

Certain political party leaders are saying that the Government is planning to fold-up the electoral map until those in power have a reasonable chance at winning elections.

The limits to freedoms or the right to protest has not caused any major convulsions. Quelling a protest has been all in a day’s work. Other than the protesters themselves and the Cardinal and those others mentioned above, there aren’t many doubled-up in grief over the regular displays of dissent being controlled at will by authorities.

But what would the upshot of all this? If this is the season for managing dissent in a way that rubs the protesters and activists on the wrong side, where will this tendency take the country?

Assuming that there is significant repression of legitimate protest activity — the Government denies this — there is no chance that this would in any way be a long-term tendency. This does not mean that any crackdown on dissent will go away in a few months. But the current tendencies will not definitely change the character of the nation.


This is a democracy and sometimes democracy may go on holiday, but for how long will be dependent on particular circumstances, and this has been the historical experience. Democracy was in abeyance of sorts when there were two insurgencies and a war so called in this country, but also more importantly it had been in abeyance in relatively normal times.

Remember that J.R Jayewardene folded-up the electoral map and induced a long Parliament of some twelve years by holding a referendum instead of an election? The referendum was about postponing a nationwide presidential or general election.

Does that mean that there was a referendum after that each time an election was approaching? Absolutely not. But at the time the J.R-brand referendum was held it was the reality, and it appeared that dissent was muted.

There was dissent of course but it didn’t spill over onto the streets and spawn unmanageable protests. Of course the country was transformed into a quasi-democracy and this was similar to the period in India in which the late Indira Gandhi ruled under emergency.

Perhaps the protests over the emergency in India were far more impressive than the half-muted show of dissent against JR Jayewardene’s referendum to fold-up the electoral map. Either way the referendum interregnum never did any palpable long-term damage to democracy in this country.

This does not mean that ‘interruptions’ to democratic practice are good, but this is not a value judgment that this article is making, it’s a reality check. It seems that there would be some democratic freedoms or even quite a bit of them in abeyance. This would be for a very long time, or a very short time, and as they say, that depends. But what’s certain is that in our enduring democracy, interruptions to what’s considered normal democratic practice are all temporary.

What’s considered necessary in terms of interrupting normal democratic practice may vary from Government to Government and from person to person. If that reads like a lecture, it isn’t because though it may sound trite at a given time, there are so many different reactions to a temporary hiatus in what’s considered optimal democratic practice.

We are going through a phase, in other words, or so is the narrative of the leadership. The default position of the people of the country is to buy this narrative, because they are in a mood to do it after all of the travails they went through in 2022.


Countries tend to have a default position and our default position is democracy, however flawed. Thailand’s default position is a cross between military governance and a very diluted form of democracy. Myanmar’s default position is military governance.

The danger is if these default positions are faced with the threat of permanent transformation. Of course if military dictatorship is faced with the ‘threat’ of takeover from democratic systems, very few folk would be complaining. But if its the other way around, and default democracy is faced by a permanent changeover to say a quasi-military type of governance, or dictatorship in all but name, that would certainly be cause for alarm bells all around.

The threat of this happening in Sri Lanka is so remote it’s almost non-existent. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any number of people who swear it’s indeed happening this time around, and they have been saying that each time there is a ‘this time.’

What people mean by systemic change is also dependent from country to country. What they mean by systemic change in say Thailand is a change of majesty laws and to a great extent disempowering the two major influences on the State apparatus in that country, the military and the institution of royalty.

By system change in this country, they don’t certainly mean any departure from our default system which is democracy with the rider, ‘however flawed’. At least systemic change doesn’t mean getting rid of the first part of that default position, democracy per se.

What’s meant by system change here is not so much a change in the systems of governance but a transformation of the political culture of corruption, political patronage and depending on who is interpreting it, perhaps, an excess of centralisation and so on.

Corruption can be got rid of if there is a perfect form of democracy and if democracy is never kept in abeyance, some people believe. But over this there is a contestation of ideas. There are others who believe that the only path towards the eradication of corruption is strict no-nonsense control by the arms of State. There are countries with no democracy as we know it here in Sri Lanka, which swear by this principle, and by the looks of it at least it seems that they have succeeded in battling corruption to a great extent by ruling with an iron fist.


It’s unlikely that such an approach would either work in the long term here, or that it would be appreciated. It’s why we have to come back to the beginning premise of this article which is that any changes that are perceived now as interruptions to normal democratic practice, would not last for long.

But those who would fight these tendencies of a substantial degree of State control, would do so with a passion. The question is whether they would be able to gather the support of the mass of people behind their campaigns.

At least for now, the objective reality is that such mass dissent is not happening. The opposition seems to be in the fond hope that power is bound to change hands and they would rule soon, but they just do not know exactly how that would happen, but are hoping it would happen anyway.

This stance seems wittingly or unwittingly to mimic the attitude of the people. The people it seems want to sit this one out, meaning that they are willing to cede as much power to the regime until things are fully sorted out. If that sounds curious, you could say that people are just so fed up with being fed-up.

Being fed-up was the norm last year and has been intermittently before that too under various governments.

But last year was marked by absolute despair or what could be termed as being optimally fed-up. So it is easy to understand why people are fed-up with being fed-up. They want nothing to do with the processor even in influencing the process. That’s provided the regime can sort things out. Provided is of course the strong qualifier there.