Jettisoning rule of law
About seven months after military operations ended in Nanthikkadal, on 19 May 2009, a member of the Sinhalese intelligentsia penned an essay in December: “The 2010 Elections: Finishing the War on Terror & Beginning the Battle for Democracy”; the author claimed “it was war itself that promulgated the destruction of Democracy” and asserted: “the logical conclusion [is] that Sri Lanka’s Democracy must be re-established. Our people will realize that the war is now finished and the time has come for them to win their democratic rights back” (emphasis added). The author implicitly recognised that the Sinhalese majority knowingly condoned violations of the rule of law as a temporary expedient. Another member precisely identified the political compromise: “we [Sinhalese] are, after all, a country that was told not to ask questions during the war and we readily complied” but, he lamented, “we are so compliant that we are still not asking.”
The leitmotif of politics from May 2009 among progressive sections of the Sinhalese intelligentsia – public intellectuals, university academics, media professionals – is attempts to roll back authoritarian powers willingly handed over to their political class.
An early instance of the handover is the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). When some members of the intelligentsia criticised the Act, the law’s architect President JR Jayewardene (ethnically Sinhalese) assured them the provisos of the Law are “Temporary Provisions”, to be repealed after eliminating Tamil “terrorism” within two years. The intelligentsia’s Sinhalese sections did not challenge the law as a gross overkill since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was hardly more than fifty (50) militants with a few pistols between them in 1979; they bought into his official narrative of combatting only the LTTE whilst slurring over the collective punishment that would be inflicted on the Tamil people; they did not call Jayawardene out for exploiting the insipient resistance to arrogate more authoritarian powers to himself; they also neglected to insist that he negotiates a political solution with Tamil parliamentarians (TULF) seated across the aisle in the Opposition and not unleash Brigadier Tissa Weeratunga’s army about 200 miles away in Jaffna.
Instead, apparently comforted by Jayawardene’s tacit assurance that Apae Aaanduwa (our government) would not enforce the Act on its own Sinhalese people, most among the intelligentsia abandoned their feeble protests and effectively condoned Weeratunga’s military intervention, armed with extensive powers under the PTA. They displayed little concern for the operation’s longer-term consequences, due in part to being swept up by the prevailing Sinhala-nationalist fervour. Several joined the “terrorism” chorus over the years to heap invectives too many to recount on the LTTE; one dignified lunging for Tamils’ political jugular as a “Pauline paradigm shift” against the LTTE-led Tamil resistance.
In effect, the intelligentsia helped to stampede peace-loving Sinhalese people into backing the increasingly militarised approach to Tamil and Muslim demands for equal rights.
As Tamils anticipated, Jayawardene did not repeal the “Temporary Provisions”; he made them permanent, ignoring some bleating among Sinhalese intelligentsia. During the ensuing forty (not 30) years of war from 1979 to 2009 similar legislation and Emergency Regulations that followed the PTA rendered the hallowed principle of Habeas Corpus irrelevant, legalised the disposal of bodies without inquest, made confessions obtained during police interrogation admissible in court and committed myriad other violations of fundamental rights – all in the quest to crush the LTTE. Presidents Jayawardene and his successor R.Premadasa enforced the same laws also against Sinhalese “terrorism” in 1988/89, allegedly causing a conservatively estimated sixty thousand deaths.
During Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s Eastern Campaign in the early 1990s, around the time of journalist Richard de Zoysa’s death, we cautioned a few thoughtful Sinhalese public intellectuals in one of Colombo’s think tanks that laws to combat “terrorism” are setting a dangerous precedent; they bristled and brushed aside our concerns with a curt “he [president] is fighting the Tigers!”. A result, concluded Basil Fernando of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Council in 2010, is widespread impunity and the country’s descent into a “non-rule of law system”, which drove scores of journalists and intellectuals into self-exile; a few, like Lasantha Wickrematunge and Dharmaratnam Sivaram, paid the supreme price.
The intelligentsia, by demonising the LTTE, augmented the essence of the government’s stance: finish Prabhakaran and everything will return to normal.
After the demise of the LTTE in May, 2009 progressives renewed the opposition to the PTA and also urged a reduction in the size of the overly powerful armed forces, asserting the necessity for both has ceased. Activists in a civil society organisation, for instance, called for “the repeal of the PTA in its present form, and its replacement if necessary, with legislation that is consistent with international anti-terrorism standards”. If the suggested option of a replacement was expected to mollify MR, they learned the hard way that Power concedes nothing for the mere asking. The psychology of Power is to consolidate what it possesses and snatch more. Inevitably, the defence budget grew and the PTA and allied legislation remained in force; both have been enforced to contain Sinhalese civilians from Weliweriya in 2013 to Aragalaya (The Struggle) at this writing.
Enabling the Rajapaksas
Most voters are sensible; except for diehard loyalists, they do not trust politicians and their outlandish claims. The majority of voters tend to be swayed by politicians’ rhetoric usually when the intelligentsia repeat, amplify and vouch for the politicians.
Sinhalese academics from a southern university did just that when they festooned the “war winning” Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) and his brother and Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) (both ethnically Sinhalese) with honorary degrees respectively of Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Letters on 29 May 2009, within 11 days after the military defeat of the LTTE in Nanthikkadal. Most Sinhalese academics too, by their silence, effectively endorsed the awards.
The military’s domination over Tamils conjured up among nationalist Sinhalese invigorating memories of the legend of (Sinhalese) King Duttugemunu prevailing over (Tamil) King Ellalan more than two millennia ago. From across the Sinhalese social spectrum commoners, professionals and intellectuals were swept up by the nationalist pride of Duttugemunu’s second coming in MR.
A well-regarded medical practitioner/professor similarly vouched for Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) about a month before the 2010 presidential election. He was apparently impressed by MR’s “desire, will, capacity and public support” to implement a “formula for ethnic harmony” after crushing the LTTE and was encouraged by MR’s allegedly new-found affection for the Tamil language.
Again two days before the election a MR acolyte, who usually leans on Lenin and Gramsci, reached back instead to Eric Hobsbawm: “It is indeed his language and concepts that help us understand why Mahinda Rajapaksa is certainly my choice for president this time, given the choices available.”
Sinhalese voters, with additional encouragement from sections of the Buddhist clergy, cheerfully re-elected MR in January 2010.
Slowly, slowly and suddenly
Meanwhile, “existential” in the title of the MR acolyte’s essay, “Nothing less than existential: Our choice at the presidential elections”, was not lost on the supposed nothanna Demala (Tamils) and Hambaya (Muslims). They grasped precisely the existential – as related to their existence mined from experience – that was at stake and, by and large, voted for candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka (ethnically Sinhalese) in 2010 although he had led the military assault into Nanthikkadal.
The 2010 election was everything but smooth. Media reports questioned the integrity of the voting process, especially since “the election commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, and his wife were kept captive at the presidential compound on election day and the day after while counting was conducted and a result announced.” The alleged events, if true, were not an auspicious beginning to MR’s second presidential term.
Fourteen days later an Indian journalist regretted the 2010 election result is “Sri Lanka’s self-signed death warrant”. About eight months later MR’s 18th Amendment to the Constitution in effect delivered the death warrant. To their credit, sixteen Lankan university academics put their names to a protest note opposing the Amendment. Though a welcome response, the miniscule minority’s initiative merely underlined the enabling silence of the rest; and the 18th passed into law on 8 September. A Sinhalese analyst grieved the Amendment is “Our death chant for democracy”. In contrast, the vast majority of MR’s backers in and out of parliament cheerfully endorsed the Amendment because, as our doting Sinhalese colleagues breezily professed, “he won the war, so he must know what he’s doing, No”.
As conditions rapidly deteriorated from 2010 it has become fashionable to blame former Presidents GR and MR for the parlous situation.
It’s futile to scapegoat the Rajapaksa siblings. They are politicians who, like most of their kind everywhere, plied their stock in trade – promises, deception, co-optation and, occasionally, appearing to fulfil a pledge or two – to capture and consolidate political power. They were fully open and brutally honest about their “style” of governance between 2006 and 2015.
Moreover, the country’s economic problems did not fall out of the sky in 2020; they have been gestating for several decades. Societies and governments slide slowly, slowly and then drop suddenly. In Sri Lanka the slowly-slowly began in 1979, if not earlier, accelerated between 2010 and 2019 and dropped suddenly between 2020 and 2022 to clobber the population. As a blogger sporting the moniker “Native Vedda” put it, Sinha Le (Lion blood), hit by acute fuel shortage, degraded into Bisika Le (Bicycle).
Sinhalese intelligentsia who eulogised the Rajapaksas and voters who elected them in 2010 and again in 2019 did so with a clear knowledge of their political antecedents and with unbounded gratitude for the military’s “success” in the north and east. They – intelligentsia and voters – are not victims but accomplices in eviscerating the economy.
The crisis today in a nutshell is that the war dividend, promised to the Sinhalese population that voted for the “war hero” duo in 2010 and 2019, has turned to dust.
Retrieving rule of law
Despite MR’s victory in 2010, a few progressives didn’t lose hope; they campaigned for Maithripala Sirisena (MS) (ethnically Sinhalese) in the 2015 presidential election and let out an almost audible collective sigh of relief when he defeated MR on January 8th. However,
(a) MR’s Sinhalese vote bank held, virtually undiminished;
(b) MR was unseated by the combined force of voters from a small dissident SLFP group, the vast majority of Tamils and Muslims and residual Sinhalese;
(d) MS’s victory had nothing to do with an urge for democracy among Sinhalese voters because most did not vote for MS.
The MS administration’s 19th Amendment inter alia limited the presidential terms to two and appeared to hold hope as a step, many believed, towards retrieving rule of law by preventing MR’s third term and ensure a “Democratic Transition”. Nevertheless, MR’s nationalist Sinhalese backers strove to salvage his political fortunes, which, they claimed, were sullied by a Tamil-Muslim alliance possessing a barely hidden Tiger’s tail. They flexed their “Power in the Park” in March 2016. The MR acolyte deplored the 19th as “A Constitutional Cyanide Capsule”; in December he celebrated the Rajapaksa duo while GR was being groomed for the presidency in 2019: “Mahinda and Gotabaya are the closest we get, and shall get, in the foreseeable future, to Fidel and Raul” (emphasis added).
Perhaps enthused by the groundswell of MR’s Sinhalese support, MS attempted the October 2018 abortive “constitutional coup”; he illegitimately dismissed the sitting prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and installed MR in his place, anti-doting expectations of beginning a return to rule of law with the 19th Amendment. Public opposition mounted and the Supreme Court overruled MS’s manoeuvre. MR had the good sense to stand down, despite his acolyte’s emailed advise to counter “reactionary forces”, resist the “counterrevolution” and stay the course. But the damage done by MS’ unconstitutional move seems beyond repair
Anyone with at least a superficial grasp of the nature of the political class would have anticipated the turn of events. In the aftermath of the “constitutional coup” a Sinhalese chronicler recollected the cautionary advice a senior administrator (retired) had tendered back in 2015, immediately after President Sirisena’s election victory: “I was euphoric”, he wrote, “as Sirisena’s win over Rajapaksa represented to me, literally, the triumph of good over evil. My friend brought me down to earth with the words, ‘Never place your faith in politicians. I have, for years observed their operations at close quarters. Sirisena himself may one day create the path for Mahinda Rajapakse to come storming back’. Those were the exact words of Neville Jayaweera, Chairman and Director General of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation from 1967-1970 and, at different times, Government Agent, Jaffna and Vavuniya.”
The bulk of the Sinhalese intelligentsia endorsed the 40-year military campaign as a just war against “Tamil terrorism” and underwrote, on and off, the disingenuous “peace process”. They failed in their historic duty to course correct their political class and, therefore, share in the direct responsibility for the country’s current predicament.
After Prabhakaran was “finished” everything did not return to normal.
Enter the Aragalaya
The progressives apparently perceived MR’s disqualification for a third presidential term as an opening to salvage rule of law at the 2019 presidential election. They urged Sinhalese voters to protect the ‘democratic space’ and use their own preference votes to defeat Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate GR.
But forty (not 30) years of militarization of society to cow down so-called “minorities”, came home to roost. Voters under the age of, say, 45 have been weaned on war for more than three social generations (each, 10 years); except for a smattering vocabulary, most are unfamiliar with the principles and practices of peace time politics. So, a clear Sinhalese majority unhesitatingly dumped the progressives’ counsel; it craved for the known devil. As a Sinhalese academic elaborated, the majority yearned for “a strong leader, a strong government, a strong administration with military participation”; and 4.9 million Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist) voters elected “strong man” GR as President in November 2019. A Leftish critic (ethnically Tamil) bemoaned, ‘it’s a shipwreck on our side’.
The President-Elect GR rode the Duttugemunu mystique at the swearing-in ceremony in front of the historic Ruwanweli Maha Seya. Swept off their feet by nationalist pride and reinforced by the assumed third coming of Duttugemunu, our Sinhalese colleagues gushed that responsibilities of the Presidency would mellow GR, that he won’t rule the way he administered the island when he was Defence Secretary between 2005 and 2015.
The progressives striving to claw back rule of law were shipwrecked and worse in August, 2020 parliamentary elections. They counselled voters to block a 2/3rd majority for the SLPP. One pleaded ‘Stopping The Landslide’ is the immediate task. The Friday Forum’s twinkle-toed semantic ballerinas posed an apparently pregnant question: “Voting In The Elections 2020: For Public Or Rulers’ Welfare?”. Sinhalese voters, largely unaware of peacetime political traditions, put their shoulders to the SLPP’s electoral wheel to grant an almost two-thirds majority; together with seats of allied minor parties, the SLPP-led coalition comfortably cleared the 2/3rd bar in parliament.
Against this backdrop, the Aragalaya emerged on the political firmament around March 2022 to continue the struggle to retrieve rule of law that began after Nanthikkadal in 2009.
Its members are not convinced that MR and GR resemble Fidel and Raul Castro in any way whatsoever; they see Rajapaksa duo as the root cause the country’s miseries and demand their expulsion from politics, expressed in their popular cry “Gota-Go-Home”. They seem to disagree with their earlier Sinhalese generations who launched the non-rule of law juggernaut in 1979, if not earlier, to bring so-called “minorities” to heel. They also appear to reject Jayawardene’s prescription for happiness, reported by a British journalist in 1983: ”The more you put pressure in the [Tamil] north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here.”
[Next: the Aragalaya phenomenon]
*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who received the Ph.D. degree from the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies in the Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org