20 January, 2022

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‘Disappearing’ Democracies: ‘Self-Coup’ From Above

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. 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).

Democratic Deterrence

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).

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Latest comments

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    Why do we focus on a coup at this time? Why not focus on a broad alliance of political and non-political formations,groups, parties? Though there is a slight possibility that a military-politico (with religious seal) de facto government is a possibility-if not already in operation, it is not the immediate threat. Of course Burma and Thailand provides examples of circumstances where the military played a cricial role in changing elected governments. But this is highly unlikely in Sri Lanka due to a range of reasons including the influence of India. The need of the hour is to rally disafected people and form a broad based popular front. The problem with JVP is that it expects the next election to choose the President will be held according to the book. Circumstances may change -initiated from the top or otherwise- where a period of emergency rule without the parliament may be called for. Both the UNP and the SLFP have such attempts in the past where the par,liamentary term was extended y referendum(in the case of JR) or by Sirima. Next extention will not be an extension at all! So such scenarios need to be conceptualised and preparatory measures put in place to counter.

  • 3
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    When will Sri Lanka have heroes again in the caliber of Buddharakkhitha, Babu, Nalini?

    Don’t think Shivandra Silva has no lever against Gota. He has. He has war time recordings of Gota’s and MR’s instructions that can be used to frame them and expose them.

    So it may start as a self coup but will end up a real one.

    JVP is gaining popularity at the expense of SJB. If there is a presidential election SJB cannot win it because JVP has divided the opposition camp. JVP will agree to a common candidate but he cannot be Sajith. If there is a parliamentary election it will be a hung parliament.

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    A ‘self-coup’ by Gotabhaya is impossible for various reasons. Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy. Moreover Sri Lanka being a member of the SAARC, India will not just keep quiet should Gotabhaya stage a military rule in Sri Lanka. India has given massive loans and taken steps to alleviate poverty in Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksas are not that efficient to develop the economy. They have to get instructions from Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman if they are to govern the country smoothly. Modi & his team comprising Nirmala Seetharaman, Dr.Jaishankar, Amith Shah, Rajnath Singh are all monitoring the behaviour of Rajapaksas with China. Whether a Self-Coup is staged or not, they have to implement the 13th Amendment. Otherwise they will have to handover Kachchativu gracefully to India (there is a rumour that already three islands hand been handed over to India) and obey orders from India. Meanwhile it cannot be ruled out the possibility of the sudden assassination of the Rajapaksas by the Sinhalese themselves like what had happened to the King of France and his queen Mary Antoinette. People will never forget how the Rajapaksas got a Plane to go to Thiruppathy and the expenses thereto. These are Karmas and will never be forgiven by God, no matter they paid a homage visit.

  • 1
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    On the night of the Presidential seat loss of Mahinda, Gota tried to install a “military government”. However, that night the then prevailing Attorney General stood against it, and the move was aborted. Reading about the actions of the present AG, I am not sure if he would stand for the rights of the people the same way the earlier AG who stopped the move. Credibility and dependability on the present AG are questionable, especially if one is looking for the protection of the voters’ rights.

    Having said all this, there is only one way where the entire Rajapakse Family and the Viyath Maga Ministers can save their neck from the grips of the law in the future when pohottuwa loses the election is by installing a military government. If not all of them will be in the prison in the future.

  • 2
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    “Disappearing Democrazies” Not sure whether we had one to lose. Anyway MR goes to Italy/ Thirupathy, GR goes to USA/Singapore, Basil goes home/USA, Whole Family goes to Uganda for no good reason and Susil. P goes home in a tuk tuk.

    • 0
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      chiv, A rose by any name, democracy or theocracy, there is only one absolute truth in this world and hence righteousness and justice will prevail finally at each last breath on an individual basis. Life’s actions have sure consequences, even though all the robbed wealth will be left behind to lure other robbers. Revelation must come that autocracy will finally be crushed by theocracy. Witchcraft, sorcery, gnanas, idols or occultism will all disappear in this stepwise journey.

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