By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I write from a particular standpoint (derivative and illustrative of a distinct worldview), best delineated by a critical observer rather than by myself. Izeth Hussein, literary critic and former Ambassador wrote in ‘After Geneva, What?’: “Between 1995 and 2000, and even more during the years of the peace process, the widespread assumption was that the LTTE could never be defeated militarily. There were very few dissentient voices against that conventional wisdom outside the armed forces and those identifiable as Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists. One dissentient voice was that of Dayan Jayatilleka, who consistently maintained that there was no reason at all why the LTTE could not be defeated militarily.” (‘After Geneva, What?’ Izeth Hussein, Colombo Telegraph, 29 March 2014)
In the extreme situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka and the existential threat that confronted the State and society over a protracted period, the decision to wage all out war to defeat the Tigers was the right one, albeit long delayed, and the historical legitimacy of the victory (or double-barrelled victories, military and diplomatic) of May 2009 must be recognised and endorsed. The loss of the moral high ground by the Sri Lankan State was not during or because of the war, but after it. During the last war, including its last days, the State occupied the moral high ground if only in contrast to its fascistic opponent.
Convergence of four negative phenomena
Almost five years after the war was won, things are going badly for Sri Lanka, and that’s mainly because things are going badly in Sri Lanka. Everyone has their own favourite explanations of why. This is mine, and it focuses only on what I consider the single most important negative factor.
This factor is the convergence for the first time, of four negative phenomena which have been around long before the Rajapaksa administration. The convergence and concatenation however, took place in the post-war period and more specifically in the second term of President Rajapaksa, resulting in a crisis which is threatening the reunified post-war state (and of course his own political future).
1. The first is family or clan based rule. The Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes (or more correctly, the Ratwatte-Bandaranaikes) dominated the two major political parties, the UNP and the SLFP. While the Senanayakes never dominated the State apparatus or sought to do so, the Bandaranaikes did in the 1970s, resulting in a quasi-oligarchic form of rule compounded by the statist character of the economy and the relative absence of competitive pluralism in the mass media.
2. The second is Sinhala-Buddhist hard-line caucuses and pressure groups which have stood for policies of majoritarian ethno-lingual and ethno-religious domination. These groups have existed throughout our post-independence political history. Howard Wriggins’ ‘Dilemmas of a New Nation’ notes the displeasure of such groups about the policies of D.S. Senanayake. In September 1963, the Governor General William Gopallawa appointed a three-person Press Commission headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge K.D. de Silva, on the advice of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike who in turn acted at the behest of Sinhala Buddhist caucuses. The Press Commission’s report was issued in September 1964. The Commission sat on 107 days, investigating the English language newspapers of the privately owned Lake House and the Times Group. Among the “…charges [were] that our newspapers have conducted themselves in a manner hostile to the interests of the country and Buddhism, the religion professed by the vast majority of the permanent population.” (Press Commission Report para 18, page 12). Public sittings were held; 15 associations and 59 individuals testified while 75 memoranda were received. Journalists were classified in a Nazi-like act of religious apartheid (my father, Mervyn de Silva was named in the Report as “a Buddhist, Third Class-wife is a Catholic and son attends a Catholic school”).
3. The third phenomenon is identifiable as centres of authoritarianism or an ‘authoritarian persona’: authoritarian personalities and centres of power, whose power base is almost always the security apparatuses. The mildest, earliest and most humorous figure was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, but the trend grew far more serious and dangerous with J.R. Jayewardene (as Minister of State in the Dudley Senanayaka administration), Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjan Wijeratne and Anuruddha Ratwatte.
4. The fourth and more recent trend has been the infatuation with Israel as a model for the Sri Lankan State, especially in the realm of security but also as a way of being in the world. This infatuation dates back at least to Lalith Athulathmudali and Ravi Jayewardene. Given that Israel is perhaps the world’s most negative example of post-war policies, peace building and a negotiated solution to political conflict, this ‘conversion’ to the Tel Aviv doctrine has the most pernicious consequences imaginable.
The resultant condensation or synthesis
The Sri Lankan State and society were relatively safe because these four trends hardly ever overlapped, and when they did it was not a neat overlay. (Felix Dias Bandaranaike was far too intelligent to regard Israeli policies and practices as any kind of model while Oxford educated Lalith Athulathmudali wouldn’t take his cue from the Buddhist clergy.)
What is new today is that for the first time in our history as an independent nation there has been a drawing together, a convergence and a resultant condensation or synthesis of these four profoundly negative phenomena.
It did not begin with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but with Gen. Sarath Fonseka, though the centre of gravity of this convergence is now clearly the top defence bureaucracy — the Secretary and the Securocracy— rather than the armed forces proper. It is a more complete convergence because Gotabaya unlike Fonseka is a member of the ruling clan and its top troika — a troika that functions increasingly like a duumvirate.
It is the convergence of these four negative trends as well as the location of this fusion at the hard drive of the State machine, which has shifted the content and pathway of State policy in the post-war period and even (re)drawn the roadmap. It is as if a signals tower at a railway intersection or the control tower of an airport has been taken over by a new crew which has decided views.
The open endorsement by the country’s most powerful official, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, certainly one of the two most powerful persons on the island, of the candidate of the Sinhala Buddhist hard-line party the JHU — rather than those of his brothers’ party the moderate SLFP — at the Western Provincial Council election of March 2014; his remarks at the opening of the political academy of the Islamophobic Sinhala Buddhist extremist formation the Bodu Bala Sena; his presence at the annual convention of the JHU some years earlier, are manifestations — and one may say, merely the visible manifestations— of this unprecedented convergence and fusion of the four negative factors.
This fusion has given the Sinhala hardliners and their views unique access to the ‘ideological structures’ (Gramsci), the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (Althusser). Thus the State is encased in a national security straitjacket and the dominant ethos of the regime is not that of the centrist SLFP, or even the pragmatic and protean ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ (the discourse, not the manifesto), but a harsher compound of Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism and state security fundamentalism.
It is not merely a militarisation or hyper-securitisation that we see — which future historians may or may not see as a creeping coup, a policy putsch as process rather than event — but also a hyper-securitisation driven by or intertwined with a fanatical Sinhala Buddhist ‘Zionism’. It is not by any means a purely professional, secular concept or process of securitisation.
Who runs the country?
Who then runs the country? If the answer is The (Buddhist) Brotherhood and its courtiers — a close knit group of unelected officials who are not accountable to Parliament — a significant distortion and deformation have taken place in the functioning and perhaps even the structure of the Sri Lankan State.
The amalgam of the four trends has changed the configuration and discourse of the Sri Lankan State. It has caused a mutation within and of the Sri Lankan State itself. It now appears before the world in disguise — wearing the genially smiling mask of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Ironically, it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now a human shield.
It doesn’t work internationally or outside the Sinhala cultural zone, because outside that zone the Sri Lankan State now looks and speaks like Darth Vader or General Zod rather than Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is why world opinion is moving increasingly away from Sri Lanka. This is why it was so easy for the Tamil diaspora activist networks to target Sri Lanka and successfully lobby Western politicians.
If there was anything that post-war Sri Lanka required, and now requires still more (as antidote to the poison arrow of the Geneva-mandated international inquiry), it was reform. Instead, the new centre of gravity of the regime and State is a bulwark of neoconservative Counter-reformation. It is the dominant ethos of counterreformation and the doctrine of ‘roll back’ that has frozen the Northern Provincial Council, despite the bold step taken by Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold the election to the NPC.
The attempt by the political proxies of the Securocracy to cut down the powers of the 13th Amendment before holding the northern election was successfully resisted by the progressives within the Government and more importantly by the diplomatic pressure of the neighbouring power.
Contrary to the lurid propaganda of the regime’s critics, Sri Lanka in 2014 bears only the faintest resemblance to an Orwellian ‘1984’ society. Here, Big Brother is not watching. But Little Brother may be listening.
*This is a revised version of an extract from a 7,500 word essay entitled ‘Plato’s Cave in the Indian Ocean: Elite Failure in Sri Lanka,’ a contribution to the special edition of Groundviews on ‘Five Years After the War’