By Maureen Seneviratne
The Queen of England and the Commonwealth of Nations recently celebrated her 60th year, the Diamond Jubilee of her reign with much pomp and pageantry. 60 years is a long time to reign but not govern.
Britain does not have a written Constitution. Its government evolved down the centuries. It always had a group of advisors to the ruler. The kingship is hereditary. It passes from father to son, to the eldest child. The king reigned, he was the head of State but the important factor of finance was in the hands of Parliament, the House of Commons as it is called in the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At elections regularly held, the people voted their representatives into power.
This form of government is called parliamentary democracy. The original democracy was in ancient Greece, where the people of Athens had the vote. Over the centuries it evolved in Britain and as Parliament grew stronger, the ruler’s power was diminished. What the people have is the immense dignity, the graciousness and the charisma of the ruler.
Even to us, watching on TV – the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in England of Queen Elizabeth the Second, we could not fail to be impressed by her demeanour, her charm and maturity in her role.
Sri Lanka which was once a colony of the British Empire, with a king ‘Over the water’ received its political freedom on 4th February 1948. India, also a British possession, revived its freedom at the same time and Pakistan was formed, a mostly Muslim State.
In Sri Lanka the Governor General, later the President has significant powers which includes the right to pardon a person condemned to prison by the Courts. All matters concerning financial affairs have to be clearly expressed to the President by the Minister of Finance before he presents them to Parliament and win his approval.
Sri Lanka has a long history of kingship. Even the original inhabitants, the Yakkas and Nagas had their kings and queens. We recall the meeting between Prince Vijaya and Princess Kuveni where Vijaya arrived on the shores of Lanka, banished from his father’s kingdom in India. But with all the powers the kings of Lanka had, there are only rare examples of absolute rulers. The council of ministers had power. Strong and benevolent kings like Dutugemunu and Vijayabahu, not to mention Parakrama Bahu the First and much later of course the Sixth had unlimited power over the whole country to use it for the good of the country and its people. In a country where in the north western regions rain was scarce they built huge tanks to conserve water with channels loading to the fields. Even today they are regarded as marvels of irrigation. Many are still in use.
The Portuguese, Dutch and British who invaded and ruled the island over a period of nearly 500 years, set up schools but schools had existed from earliest times in the history of this country. Education is power and in its way it ensured that their kings reigned but did not govern in the way that dictators and tyrants do. According to the Mahavamsa and Chulawamsa, those most ancient texts, the kings of Lanka always gave their utmost for their people. Their main goal was to attain self sufficiency in food for the population. Even today the tanks of Minneriya, Kala Wewa and the Giants Tank look like great inland seas. The word tank sounds like a misnomer – the local term wewa expresses it better.
As time passes and people progressed in learning they challenged absolute rulers. However, dictators held sway in Eastern Europe well into modern times. But a mighty surge of change occurred in those countries too where their rulers met what is known as people’s power and had to give power more effectively to their country’s people. Democracy in its true meaning is government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is for rulers to reign but not govern as is the style of the British monarchy, a much loved institution as we saw on TV how much the queen of England is loved and admired, yet she reigns but does not govern.