By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I have a book in my library titled Story of a Death Foretold, authored by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera. It is about the coup against President Salvador Allende. It’s not published by a leftwing publishing house but by Bloomsbury. The good news is that whatever story is being written in Sri Lanka, it is not that of a coup against an elected President such as Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The bad news is that a story does not have to be one of a coup against an elected President for it to be a story of a death foretold.
Democracy can be killed in more ways than one. While one method is a coup (‘golpe’ in Spanish) against a President, another is a coup by a President (a ‘self-coup’ or ‘auto-golpe’ as they put it in Latin America). Uruguay pioneered the model in which President Juan Bordaberry declared a State of Siege and created a military-civilian junta as it was called. Iconic film-maker Costa-Gavras recreated the moment in the movie ‘State of Siege’ with Yves Montand (which I caught as it opened in London in 1973.) An early Latin American prototype was the State of National Security as the Brazilian military junta called its model.
It can happen here too, and can succeed politico-militarily but not socioeconomically. No military-civilian/civilian-military junta can run the economy. What it can do is to crush what it thinks are the impediments to the harsh economic measures needed to solve the crisis. The farmers will “be seized by the throat by the military and forced into organic cultivation” (as President GR said he could get done but didn’t wish to), with the fertilizer being produced by the military or under military aegis.
The same measures that are being pushed at every panel discussion which is driven by the big corporates or free market fundamentalist think-tanks, will be implemented at gunpoint. A corporate-military-Rajapaksa oligarchic bloc will wield power. As the renowned Uruguayan editor and writer Eduardo Galeano wrote with bitter incandescence in The Cemetery of Words, referring to Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys who took over the Chilean economy after Pinochet’s coup, “in the global South, Adam Smith needs Mussolini”.
It won’t prove sustainable though. Sanctions and the pullback of tourists will cripple the Sri Lankan economy; China won’t be able to pick up the slack though expenditure will be held down to mere subsistence at gunpoint; and the embittered farmers and other working people will sustain and propel a low-intensity guerrilla movement. Though this may help the military by creating a ‘security threat’, it won’t help foreign investment (and Chinese factories may become targets).
Can the ‘self-coup’ scenario be stopped? Only by determined deterrence. It was the USSR’s Maxim Litvinov who insisted, during the diplomatic mobilization against fascism, that “peace is indivisible”. In the 21st century, so too is democracy. If the democratic world powers do not unambiguously signal the dominant elements of an administration on a strategically-placed island, that the cost of an ongoing shift from democracy, however flawed, to outright autocracy will be unacceptably high and transcend the limits of the backstop provided by the world’s autocratic powers, then global autocracy and authoritarianism would have succeeded in the oldest democracy in Asia.
There is also the geostrategic dimension. If this negative, qualitatively retrogressive event takes place at a nodal point in the Indian Ocean which is a gateway to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean will prove to contain, or to be, the weakest link of the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad, AUKUS and the Summit for Democracy will be shown up as “paper tigers”, while “the East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind” (Mao, 1957).