2 February, 2023


Electoral Extinction Of The UNP & Sri Lanka’s Political Development

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Coming out of some Commission yesterday, Mangala Samaraweera actually said that “unfortunately, Ranil Wickremesinghe never became the President”. I would say that was fortunate, not for the usual ideological reasons, but for a more important one. We already have the second nationalist backlash after the second Wickremesinghe premiership (2001-2003 produced the first). This backlash may result disastrously in a Sinhala-Buddhist state as so defined by a new Constitution.

However, had there been a Wickremesinghe Presidency or a third term as Premier, pushing the same neoliberal agenda that he, CBK and Mangala did, we wouldn’t have wound up as we have with Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Alt-Right militarist-authoritarianism. We would have wound up with a Sinhala-Buddhist military mutiny—a coup—and an outright fascist military junta. Which is also what will happen if we ever turn the clock back to minoritarian-neoliberalism, even under foreign military-interventionist auspices. There can easily be a Sinhala-Buddhist Taliban.

Thank God – and the electorate—that the neoliberal UNP has been wiped out and a New Opposition has been born.   That’s a project and a struggle that I have been waging since the late 1990s, and am gratified that history and the people have finally brought it about.   

The writing was on the wall for Ranil and the UNP at least from 2004 when a towering figure of the old UNP elite, NGP Panditharatna, handed in his report after an island-wide study tour, of the situation of the UNP after serial electoral defeats, including in that year. As I wrote in the Daily Mirror (Feb 28th 2018):

“…Roughly 15 years ago, the NGP Panditharatne Report into the UNP’s performance noted that testimony from “party supporters” at the “grassroots-level” showed conspicuous lack of support (only 14%) for the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and its continuity!”

That report was widely known to have been swept under the rug by Ranil and was reported in the newspapers, but there was no outcry and things went on as before.

Writing in Colombo Telegraph on February 28th 2018 after the UNP’s defeat in its 70th anniversary year at the hands of the newly formed SLPP, I pointed out the following and made a statistical projection, which has just proved accurate:

“…In 2018, the UNP that had just celebrated its 70th anniversary, has been beaten into second place by a party that is just a few months old, and that too, by a wide margin. The UNP is the predominant force in the Government, and yet, after three years in office it was convincingly beaten by a party that neither enjoys the status of being in office nor that of being recognized as it should, as the official Opposition.

…How will this end? All that is needed is to plot the trend lines and ask a few questions out loud. What is the likelihood that a new party that scored 45% on its first outing, within several months, will be unable to top it up with 5% and vault the 50% mark in the coming 500 days? How difficult can this be when it is clearly suctioning SLFP votes and those votes are down to 13% of which 5% can easily slide over to the SLPP-JO? …The natural, organic convergence of 45% +13% is a sure-fire winner for the anti-UNP cause.”

High on its own supply after the candle-light vigils and court verdict of late 2018, the neoliberal politicians (turned ‘radical centrists’), and civil society ‘influencers’ simply forgot that there was a national election due. So here we are today. Where do we go from here?

In today’s Sri Lanka, more political space is occupied and power wielded by a single family than in any other country on the planet, since the end of monarchic rule in history. The slightly absurd fragmentation of topics and subject areas in the recent appointments is the inevitable consequence of crowding out because of the familial power-cartel. The resultant displacement means there’s just not enough space to be shared; hence the subdivision and fragmentation.

This is not the Asian phenomenon of familial succession in politics, which is serial and sequential. The contemporary Sri Lankan phenomenon and process is both sequential and simultaneous, vertical and horizontal. The regime has accommodated even more family members in the power structure, both de jure and prominently de facto, than in 2010. This qualifies it to be defined in the Aristotelian sense, and classified in the Latin American sense, as an “oligarchy”.

Apart from the familial power-cartel and its share of 141 governmental institutions, the other notable structural change is the invasion and occupation of the state structure by the military/ex-military cluster, displacing the trained, experienced civilian professionals, while simultaneously, crucial subjects such as Home Affairs (once held by Felix Dias Bandaranaike) are annexed by the (mega) Ministry of Defense. 

New institutional changes reveal dynamics and direction. For the first time ever, the top administrative spot in the Foreign Ministry is out of the hands of a civilian professional with diplomatic, international affairs/foreign policy experience. I was on a small team, together with General Gerry de Silva (former Army commander and ex-High Commissioner to Pakistan) and veteran ambassador Kalyananda Godage, sent by iconic Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in February 2005 to Islamabad to study the Pakistani Foreign Ministry’s superb think-tank network. We were formally hosted to lunch at the Foreign Ministry following discussions with the Deputy Foreign Minister. There were no military or ex-military officers in sight among the top officials. This was during the Presidency of General Musharraf.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, arguably one of the world’s finest, is entirely civilian. Retired Generals serve on teams for arms control in Geneva, or Track-2 diplomacy, think-tanks and academic teaching/research roles. When Stalin anticipated the end of WWII, he founded MGIMO, the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, for top-notch training for Red Army officers in international relations and diplomacy. He didn’t hand over the Foreign ministry to them. Instead, MGIMO which Dr. Kissinger called “Russia’s Harvard”, is under the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The new Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, a diligent student of security and strategic studies, was reported by the Daily Mirror as saying that he will “re-valuate the foreign policy adopted so far”. He followed it up with some interesting and valid remarks on a foreign policy audit at the formal ceremony at the Ministry. Revaluating foreign policy is however the job of the Foreign Minister, not the Secretary to the Ministry.

The Secretary/MEA is not the “Foreign Secretary” which is the designation of the Foreign Minister of the UK, just as the Secretary/MoD is not the “Defense Secretary” which is the US equivalent of the Defense Minister.   

The regime has a thin, simplistic understanding of how to manage the India-China contradiction. It seeks to verbally reassure India that it will never let itself be a security threat or allow China to use it to pose a security threat to India. That completely misses how the Game of States goes.

The threat perception of a state, especially a big power, is not assuaged by verbal assurances or even the sincere intentions who give those assurances. Threat perception is based upon capacity, not stated intention, of the perceived adversary or competitor– still less its perceived proxy or client—when viewed in the broadest geopolitical frame of the interstate contest.

What will matter to India is not what Sri Lanka says but what it does or does not do, given where it is.

The strategic asymmetry which the regime and consequently the country are caught in is this: At a time of heightened Sino-Indian and Sino-American contradictions, China is perceived as having the greatest influence in/on Sri Lanka, which is perceived to be in India’s sphere of influence.

India’s sensitivities concerning the Indian Ocean region, especially on its Southern flank, are as real as China’s regarding the South China Sea and the wider Western Pacific. India will be no less activist in the Indian Ocean region than China is in those oceanic zones. ‘Anti-access/Area denial’ is not only a concept that is embodied in weapons-systems (missiles, in China’s case). It can also be applied by India as a geopolitical concept.

If Delhi perceives Sri Lanka to be unilateralist on issues of Indian concern such as Tamil semi-autonomy and the 13th amendment because Sri Lanka thinks China has its back; if, through the coming Constitution, Sri Lanka is perceived to move away from the political model and ethos broadly shared with India since Independence, that of democracy, and import into and implant in India’s sphere of influence, a political, ideological and security model inspired, influenced and sustained by China, there will be a strategic schism between this small island and its gargantuan neighbor.

Viewed within an “Indo-Pacific” frame, the profile of an emergent “Beijing-backed garrison state in the Indian Ocean” could catch the eye of Washington.

Crippled by Trump’s ultra-nationalism, the USA is no longer playing the leading role in the world, but if the Biden-Harris ticket wins, it will. Kamala Harris illustrates Lee Kuan Yew’s point and as a South Asian, I am delighted. She is Black and Asian-American or ‘South Asian-American’, with her father from Jamaica and mother from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. As Jenee Osterheldt writes in The Boston Globe “…Calling her Black does not erase her Tamil roots…”

Analysts hold that Biden and Harris will “co-govern”, in a manner more equal than the standard White House equation. Sri Lankans should be proud of Senator Harris’ Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor since 2017, Rohini Kosoglu nee Rohini Ravindran, fellow of the Harvard Institute of Politics and daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil parents who migrated to the USA from Jaffna in the early 1980s. Rohini Kosoglu will be on the White House staff of the Vice-President if Biden wins.

If this Democratic ticket wins, it will impact not only on the international system but also on global society and consciousness, generating synergies between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies, shifting the needle of world history back in the direction of democratic systems and ideals as universal values. 

Sri Lanka is evolving in the opposite direction and has been doing so for some time. In a presentation at a conference on the theme ‘Challenges of a Society in Transition’ organized by the Faculty of Graduate Studies University of Colombo in December 2004,  and carried in two parts in the Daily Mirror beginning Wednesday December 22nd 2004, under the title ‘Sri Lanka’s Nationalities Crisis in the New Global Conjuncture’ I attempted to trace the long-run dynamics, which I later included in my book ‘Long War Cold Peace’.

“As the base, the substructure, of Sinhala-Buddhist rural society irrupts and incrementally influences the Sri Lankan state, seeking to eventually capture it through its organic vanguards…the gap between the world and us tends to widen. There are two ‘geological’, almost tectonic, shifts underway: vertical, from the bottom up as manifested in…the surge, and horizontal, the resultant drift which distances Sri Lanka from the rest of the world. There is less in common between Sri Lanka and the world (in terms of ideology, culture and values) as the country reconfigures to resemble its perceived base or core more than its composite, mosaical totality.” (‘Long War, Cold Peace’, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2014, p380)

“…This [Tamil] Diaspora is compatible and has an interface with two far larger hinterlands or zones of potential support…These links are evident in the social behavior of expatriate Sri Lankan (Eelam?) Tamils who interact most consistently and overlap readily with Tamilian (South Indian) and Hindu expatriate communities… Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and Christians could have been the bridges and beachheads of Sri Lanka’s interaction with the world. However, it is precisely those cultural connectivities and ‘externalities’ that made the majoritarians regard the minorities as alien.” (Ibid, pp. 377-378) 

Resulting from my analysis, I hypothesized that “In the 21st century, it is impossible for the Sinhalese to maintain a centralized, non-secular, unitary state in a conflicted, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society on a small, geo-strategically vulnerable, economically-dependent island.” (Ibid. p 377)

The ‘Gotabaya period’ will prove whether or not my own hypotheses were valid.

Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara (who prefers to call Sri Lanka, “Sinhale”) has been appointed to the post of State Minister in charge of one of the most sensitive subjects in the Lankan policy portfolio: Provincial Councils. The President placed the subject of Provincial Councils, created under joint Indo-Lankan auspices to provide a measure of autonomy and self-rule, thereby addressing and containing the problem of the Tamil striving for self-determination, in the hands of a man who is an Alt-Right uber-hawk on the question of the 13th amendment and devolution.

Upon occupying his post, Rear Admiral Weerasekara is reported by the Daily Mirror as saying that “negative clauses… detrimental to the well-being of the nation”, will be removed from the 13th amendment. He says “we will not devolve Police and land powers to the Provincial Councils”.

Does this mean that the provisions of the 13th amendment on the devolution of provincial land, painstakingly negotiated/drafted by Gamini Dissanayake and Dr. Sarath Amunugama, will be among those “negative clauses” to be removed, thereby unilaterally altering a bilateral agreement and doing so on the most emotive issue of all, namely land?

An imposition of the ideological blueprint of the brotherhood of senior officers which won the war seems probable, though it means unilaterally re-ordering the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord concerning the Tamils/Tamil-majority areas and reiterated in wartime pledges to Delhi by the ‘troika’ of which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a member.

Is it the regime’s view that unilateral measures on the 13th amendment would have no knock-on effect on the equation with India? Or is the regime’s perception that it has richer, militarily more powerful patrons further East, and therefore any blowback arising from Sinhala unilateralism can be deterred or is affordable? 

Truncation of the 13th amendment means a diminution of power-sharing at the largely Tamil-speaking North-eastern periphery abutting South India. If the majority Sinhalese, comprising two-thirds of the citizenry monopolizes a 100% of political power, the system’s asymmetry would be greater.

DS Senanayake, advised by Sir Ivor Jennings, argued in favor of de-colonization on the basis that Ceylon’s level of political development was more advanced and closer to that of the ‘white’ colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) than the rest of the colonial world. Today, are we transitioning rapidly in the opposite direction? A political scientist, I am struck by the state forms of the Theravada cultures/societies such as Thailand (constitutional monarchy), Myanmar (military+monk-dominated), Cambodia (personalist) etc.    

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  • 3

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  • 7

    This is an astounding attack on the 3000 year old Sinhala Buddhist culture and civilisation of this country, by a Catholic extremist masquerading as a political ‘scientist’ (though there is no political ‘science’ as such).
    There won’t be many local, regional or international citizens or political analysts who would buy the riter’s ridiculous label on the president or his style of administration as a ‘Right militarist-authoritarianism’. This is simply erroneous application of labels borrowed from neocolonialist-created language to denigrate clever administrators arising from the developing world. They use ‘foreign’ introduced concepts, people and institutions as Trojan horsesto label our leaders as such.
    If the writer is a political ‘scientist’ worth two cents, he must read the history of his ‘church’ in Sri Lanka and understand the untenability of his advocacy of

  • 3

    Thanks Dayan,

    We have to defend 13A and 16 A from any manipulation , both created under Indian influence, not only for geophysical tactical reasons, but also for the formation of a multi ethnic united prosperous Sri Lanka will be a natural defense under any eventualities.

    Notwithstanding Joe bidden-Kamala Harris anticipated victory or non victory and the traditional power equation in the Indian Ocean, it is in the long term interest in this part of the world.

  • 3

    This is an astounding attack on the 3000 year old Sinhala Buddhist culture by a Catholic extremist masquerading as a political bloody ‘scientist’.
    His use of neocolonialist-creted labels on the policies of the president or the alternative ‘minoritarian liberalism’ will never be currency of this country, after the 2015 conspiracy.
    We have a deeply rooted civilisation that was disrupted by 500 years of Jewish colonialism (masquerading as Christian), and anyone who thinks that 500 is more significant than the previous 2500 years is no political scientist but an extremist committed to foreign values he happens to inherit as result of his own background.

    Better wake up Sarath de Alwis and Titsaranee Gunasekara for ideological support for this Lascarin line of thinking!

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