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Discipline is not democracy

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In a recent interview, former Defence Ministry Secretary and presidential-hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa had outlined his views on why Sri Lanka has failed to achieve its potential and continues to struggle in almost all aspects of its social, cultural and economic spheres. He attributed this failure to lack of discipline insisting that if discipline was instilled then the country would return to working order and the ensuing development would be positive for the people. 

His argument is a powerful and pervasive one because on the surface there does appear to be a breakdown of discipline. For the average citizen, burned by high cost of living, few opportunities, low economic growth and frustrated by the incompetence of his elected representatives, would be tempted to agree that Sri Lanka has become a country where discipline does not matter. 

Over the last decade or even longer the public has become increasingly intolerant of its political representatives who are often derided for being incompetent, corrupt, wasteful and ignorant. The policies they champion are not based on fact or global trends or innovation but to further political agendas, especially when elections are around the corner. They use hard-earned tax rupees with little concern and accountability.

The public scorn is most palpable when parliamentarians or politicians at lower levels give themselves fancy cars, commissions and other perks. Details of corruption investigations, details of State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) losses and even details of drug busts have unearthed the unholy link politics has to almost every segment of Sri Lankan life. 

Living in a country that is moving past its demographic dividend, burdened with daunting levels of debt and unable to restructure its economy to improve exports and investments, is daunting at best. The last four years in particular have been disappointing as the “Yahapalanaya” Government was elected on a platform of fighting corruption, promoting reconciliation and fostering growth. With its term ticking to a close voters are wondering where the country could go next, and a new candidate would be an exciting prospect, provided he or she has the right policies. 

But what Sri Lankans must remember is that discipline is not necessarily doing the right thing. Discipline is merely a process of enforcing obedience, and that enforcement can be both brutal and repressive as well as functional. The Webster Dictionary defines discipline as, “to punish or penalise for the sake of enforcing obedience and perfecting moral character.” Discipline can be exerted with the aim of improving moral character but it does not ensure that it becomes so. Discipline is dicey enough for an individual but how would it be applied to a country? 

Sri Lanka for all its flaws is a democracy. This means the country will follow the Constitution, respect the rule of law, each citizen will have his rights respected, institutions will be strengthened, governance improved and accountability entrenched. Sri Lanka should aspire to be a country with a vibrant democracy supported by progressive institutions. 

Giving into the illusion that discipline would make the situation better and in one swoop deliver the aspirations of a population is dangerous and could have serious consequences. An aspirant to high office should put democracy at the centre of their policies.  Discipline can bring about dictatorships but a genuine democracy achieves freedom.

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