22 June, 2024


Clash Between Two Oligarchs (Distorted Democracy In Sri Lanka)

By W. Vishnu Gupta

W. Vishnu Gupta

I have argued before that the political system in Sri Lanka is not a democracy; the events on October 26th explained it well. The oligarchy lead by Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the other oligarchy lead by Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mahinda occupied the Prime Minister’s office and Ranil retreated to the Prime Minister’s residence (Araliyagaha Mandiraya). The theatrics of both oligarchy groups are not over yet; it has been made very entertaining with some leading sidekicks emerging as butterflies and leeches. The very fact; “the emergence of leeches and butterflies” proves that Sri Lanka was never governed under or within a democratic political system in the past seventy years. 

Shameless acts of Oligarchy leaders

The oligarchy leaders surrounded by butterflies and leaches are vying for the privilege of governing Sri Lanka. They have shamelessly defiled the principles of democracy. Democracy is built on four key elements: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Judging by the present status of state of Sri Lanka neither Ranil nor Mahinda has followed or adhered to at least one key principles of democracy. Real democracy means “Rule by the People” not by a selected few of oligarchy leadership. The irony is, if the people do not want to be ruled by a selected few, but they just can’t vote them out either. Since the demise of father of our nation, successive governments lead by bunch of wealthy gangsters, their family members and their cohorts have appeared to be like permanent fixtures in the parliament. How is it possible? 

A true democratic system can’t really be “rigged” to work for the rich and powerful unless the people are at least willing to accept a government of the rich and powerful. If the general public opposes rule-by-oligarchy, how is it, then, that the wealthy control so much of government? And the poor has been poor and helpless for the last seventy years.

The political system in Sri Lanka has been “rigged” to work for the oligarchies rich and powerful by showcasing “the principles of democracy” to hoodwink the citizens of Sri Lanka and the international community. Among many, a few examples of these devious actions are 1) Oligarchies and their loyal sidekicks are not willing to reform the electoral and election rules 2) Stacking-up the constitutional council in favor of oligarchies 3) Keeping judicial system under political threat 4) Not holding election on time. 5) Interpreting sovereignty as a concept belonging to oligarchy and not to people 6) Apparent multiple interpretation of the constitution.  

A rigged political system has paved the way for the unfolding political drama in Sri Lanka right now. It is not a crisis at all as the oligarchy lead by Ranil has interpreted. Fortunately, Sri Lankans are very resilient and cannot be easily manipulated by the politicians to run to the streets and start rioting against the institutions controlled by the oligarchy. All corrupt politicians must understand that the religion and faith; Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam has given a very strong family, social, economic and safety “anchor” for the people of Sri Lanka than what Oligarchies have been dishing out to the people in the last seven decades. There is not much of room left for the “butterflies and leeches”. Existence of such insignificant individuals in the political arena is well known and their presence is entertaining but no value to the principles of democracy.  

Oligarchy works, because of institutions.

An oligarchy is a power composition that allows a few businesses, families or friends to rule a country. Their power flows through their relationships with each other. An oligarchy with various disguises is able to survive in a country disguised as a democracy, theocracy, or kingdom. Their wealth and connections allow them to influence public policy behind the scenes. These decisions are not influenced by the people. They are influenced solely within a small group of people with whom the power is held. The most well-known example is the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs lead by Ranil. It should have been an institution duly staffed, managed and run by well educated Sri Lankan intelligentsia. However, a highly secretive coterie consists of exclusive friends of Ranil brought from outside ran the affairs of this national institution. It is not a secret that some of them were directly responsible for the Central Bank financial scandal and various trade pacts detrimental to the local economy. Mahinda as the former president also employed similar tactics to control the key institutions including the central bank with the help of his inner coterie and family members. Democracy; “Rule by the people” survived at its infancy in Sri Lanka until the death of Hon. DS Senanayake and it was for a very short time. Replacing “Mahinda oligarchy” with “Ranil oligarchy” on January 8th 2015 is not a democratic change by any measure.

Ruling class must remain united for an oligarchy to remain in power  (I would rather be a butterfly than a leech: Mangala Samaraweera)

According to President Maithripala Sirisena, national policies were formulated and implemented by a group identified as “Butterfly Club” under Ranil Oligarchy. In this instance, with an innocent comment he has identified secretive inner coterie of Ranil as butterflies. As an immediate natural response, Mangala Samaraweera has identified inner coterie of Mahinda Oligarchy as the “Leeches Club”. Leaving aside humor, the underlying requirement for an oligarchy to remain in power is that the ruling class must be united; the people must also be divided so they cannot overthrow these oligarchy governments easily. Sri Lankan politicians know this very well so they have been very successful in dividing the people along political party lines. Furthermore, they actively promote division of minorities along ethnicity and religion. It is a carefully orchestrated plan to retain power in the hands of two oligarchy leaderships in the country. Vile politicians know very well to use combination of coercion and co-optation to keep democracy at bay. Both Ranil and Mahinda camps are currently intensively active in engaging internal and external “coercion and co-optation” resources to deny the “Rule by the People” for the citizens of the nation. 

Oligarchies make sure to build a legal system that is skewed to work in their favor, so that their illegal behavior rarely gets punished. Filling the key positions in the judiciary, security apparatus and very important ministries, departments and commissions with cohorts of oligarchy is secretively planned. And they sustain all of this through a campaign of finance and lobbying system that gives them undue influence over policy. These actions are sustained not at the barrel of gun or by the word of one man, but through a rule of law rigged in their favor. 

Oligarchy run systems also keep ordinary people dependent on individual oligarchs for their economic survival, just like how mafia bosses have paternalistic relationships in their neighborhoods. As a result, nearly, two third of the population live in rural areas without proper education facilities, health facilities or job opportunities, a large percentage of citizens depends on government hand-outs, even parents are unable to buy school uniforms or shoes for the kids, malnutrition is reported in certain areas, alcoholism and drug addiction is rampant, suicide rate (world’ highest) and murders have gone sky high. What a sorry state. 

Another successful strategy implemented by the Oligarchy leaders is the fragmentation of the media platforms in Sri Lanka.  It does not appear that there are unbiased or independent mass media outlets in Sri Lanka. Social media has filled this void but not adequate and effective enough to stop the division of public sphere into two oligarchies in Sri Lanka. They have learned very well how ancient oligarchs used information to preserve their regime. They combined secrecy in governance with selective messaging to targeted audiences, with the help of modern spin-masters and communications consultants. In addition in order to project power and instill fear in the hearts and mind of the ordinary citizens, Sri Lankan oligarchs have employed religious rituals, processions and mass protest rallies.

What is the solution?

If oligarchy has worked in Sri Lanka during last seventy years because its leaders institutionalize their power through law, media, and political rituals, what can the ordinary citizens do? How can democracy ever gain the foothold and gain upper hand in the country? Certain local politicians including Ranil oligarch argue, it is the fault of not having a perfect constitution and sharing power. It is another ploy to retain power and doctrine to hoodwink Sri Lankan Hindus in Northern and Eastern provinces. 

POLITICAL POWER DEPENDS ON ECONOMIC POWER and it is that simple. There are many examples to be drawn from advanced and developed countries of the world. None of them pursued objective of having a “Perfect constitution”. This suggests that one of the best solutions is to create a more economically equal society. The problem, of course, is that if the oligarchs are in charge, it isn’t clear why they would pass policies that would reduce their wealth, living style, unbelievable luxuries and make society more equal. As long as they can keep the people divided, they have little to fear from the occasional protest or hunger strikes.  

Let’s hope that the people will unite one day to achieve economically equal society. All the upheavals in today’s politics are a circuses carried out by two oligarchies vying for power. It’s hard not to think that this moment is one in which the future of our political system might be more up for grabs than it has been in generations. General election may be an opportunity to free us from the current political instability. Who will win at the end; whether a real democracy (rule by the people) will emerge from oligarchic breakdown and free the institutions filled with cohorts of oligarchy leaders and from their apparatus – or the oligarchs will just strengthen their grasp on the government establishments and become untouchable for many generations to come.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I didnt the full article yet. But the few lines I read seems to b rational. Now Mr.Gupta what is the role of China in this distorted democracy. China never had democracy and never will. You seems to know the inside story of China and how they treat and respect other countries political systems.

    • 1


      Vishnu Gupta has not mentioned any thing about China, hence we do not understand the relevance of your question. But Sri Lankan present generation is well aware about the games played by India and China. We value international relationships only as friends; We know how to recognise true friends. We do not like Regional Bullies and Big Brothers. If I may say, China never interferes with internal politics of any other country, that is why they have been very successful in building the image of a good friend.

    • 0

      How would you classify China, which describes itself as ‘The People’s Republic of China’?
      The Communist Party is the only political party that functions in the name of the working people in that country. There are no trade unions.
      It was a third world economy in 1948.
      Now in 2018 seventy years later it wields economic and military power to equal that of the USA.
      Would you describe it as a party of Oligarchs?
      If critics describe it as a people’s oligarchy would that be correct?

  • 2

    If we are to free ouselves from butterflies and leeches at the next election then who is going toreplace them? Very few honest peopole around.

  • 3

    Very good article. While people are caught up in the controversy of words (i.e. “samanalaya”), many fail to realize the intentional use of language to divide and conquer the SL masses.
    In an attempt to hang onto their power and privilege, the MR faction is stoking the fire against “Colombo” and “western culture”. The president’s address to the nation, mentioned the “foreign” culture of RW and his gang, and how it was impossible to cohabit a political union with them, due to the ” incompatibility” of MSs “Sri Lankan” culture. He likened this arrangement to a marriage between a Polonnaruwa man to a wife from Cinnamon Gardens – implying an unbridgeable cultural divide.
    Then he went on to paint the “westernized” politicians as being out-of-touch and amoral; as going against intrinsic SL culture. Why? Because they are (or alleged to be) gay! This is another willful use of misinformation and stereotyping of homosexuals as being alien to Sri Lankan culture – a common misconception and often “justification” for harassment and worse against gays.
    Following Trump’s rule book on how to rile up culture wars in order to build smoke screens to obfuscate the reality and abuse power, MS and MR are stoking racial and class animosities. Nothing seems sacred in this attempt to divide and conquer the SL masses. According to them, if you support RW, then you are against the rural and non-Colombo masses of SL. If you are gay, you are somehow “foreign” and alien to SL culture and ways and is a sell-out to western powers.
    Such false logic is holding sway among people, because it is much easier to hate and protest than solve the day-to-day problems by working together with disparate groups of people towards a common goal.

  • 0

    Mr.Ravan go read Guptas two previous article and then comment. For Lankans, when a so called freelance is giving his personal opinion, it may not matter what they said previously. ( lANKANS ARE KNOWN FOR LYING AND RARELY SPEAK TRUTH) But for others it does matter.So do not waste your energy.(I am aware of your views on dissolving parliament).

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