20 May, 2024


How We Came To This Pass – VI 

By Sachithanandam Sathananthan

Dr. Sachithanandam Sathananthan

Presidential election: choices or dead ends?

The nation is gearing up for the presidential election, expected in November. Predictably the media is awash with evaluations of the sitting president’s performance and explorations of the choices before voters. There are numerous apparently erudite interventions but the pessimism in most is palpable; their unstated subtext appears to be: “How do we climb out of this quagmire”?  

Queried one (under a pseudonym), “Are We Stupid Or Doomed Or Both?”[1] Another (ethnically Tamil) lamented: “the present situation is uniquely unprecedented” because it combines “the people’s lack of faith in the political leadership…and the collective cluelessness [of] the entire political leadership”.[2]

A third (ethnically Tamil) delivered a positive spin, suggesting how voters ought intelligently use their preferential votes [3] but nevertheless focused on how to stop the least desired candidate he had earlier nicknamed “Gotabaya-Rex”. [4]

An irony seems to be lost on most analysts. If a candidate is least desired, obviously he cannot win. Why, then, worry he may? Why manipulate electoral arithmetic to craft ways to make him lose? Unless of course the so-called least desired candidate stands a good chance of winning the presidential election. If so, in whose eyes is he undeserved to win?

It is also utterly futile to allege “venal” politicians and “tyrannical” rulers dragged us, as a people, into the authoritarian quicksand. They did not fall through the roof! They didn’t usurp power by unconstitutional maneuvers or a military coup. On the contrary the “people” elected and installed them in office and showered copious powers upon the rulers. 

In fact, the rampaging politicians as well as breast-beating intellectuals are products of the same political processes that unfolded in the country over several decades.  

The conundrum facing the country is the logical outcome of the rule by feudalist Sinhalese-Buddhist elite alternatively through the UNP and SLFP from the Transfer of Power in 1948. Its leaders controlled political decision-making; and the elite as a whole increasingly dominated the trajectory of the economy (not neglecting the role of international finance that infiltrated through the IMF, etc.). That elite manipulated the 1959 Ten Year Plan [5] to entrench its control over the national economy (see Part II).[6] Its myopic policies catalyzed the 1971 and 1988-90 Insurrections by its own rural youth (see Part III). [7] The elite let loose its goons to wreck havoc during repeated anti-Tamil pogroms from 1956 to 1983 that radicalized the Tamil youth, dragged the country into a 30-year Civil War from 1979 and shoved Tamil militants into the waiting arms of Indian Intelligence (see Part IV).[8]

What’s more, the Sinhalese-Buddhist elite gratuitously pummeled Muslims and compelled them to seek solace among the Wahhabis (see Part I).[9] It did this and more within the short space of seven decades. That takes some doing!

The evaluations by some commentators made the token nods to the “positive” achievements during the same period. The undoubted increase in the political space for dissent, for more open public debates and the success of the national cricket team are some. However, the knee-jerk reactions of most have been to delve into decisions and actions of individual political actors and pin responsibility on each for unbridled corruption, pursuit of bigoted self-interest, undermining governmental and judicial institutions and so on. 

Scapegoating one or another or most of the current crop of politicians is also a convenient short cut to retain or establish one’s credentials as a “Liberal” or “Critical” analyst. 

But analysts have almost obsessively ignored the elephant in the room: the three decades long Eelam War, 1979 to 2009, between the government controlled by the Sinhalese-Buddhist elite and the Tamil LTTE. The War in Lanka lasted longer than the combined duration of U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan up to now.

The damaging effects of the long Vietnamese and Afghan wars on American society are well known. Price Inflation and deepening Government Debt to finance the wars have aggravated the budget deficit, which approaching $1 Trillion.[10] The debilitating political crises from Watergate to Trump’s presidency; deepening permanent war economy and its unbridled corruption; and the rising power of the Military-Industrial-Technological complex[11] have eviscerated liberal democracy. That, together with spreading Terminator-type robotic domestic law enforcement, some argue, are opening the door to Fascism.[12]

China’s 5th Century BCE military strategist Sun Tsu had anticipated such deterioration and warned: “It is never beneficial to a nation to have a military operation continue for a long time.”[13] The reasons are clear. Long wars cause loss of treasure, increase public debt, waste manpower, dislocate the economy, promote corruption and shift the balance of power to dangerously strengthen the military leadership as against the civilian institutions.

The long Eelam War has put the Lankan State and society through a similar cataclysmic transformation. One consequence has been the spread, deepening and ultimately legitimising authoritarian rule.

The reality of Authoritarian Rule

A liberal political scientist (ethnically Sinhalese) cautioned, “the Choice is Between Dictatorship & Democracy” at the forthcoming presidential election and added: “we must be mindful not to tie the fate of the country, to our deep disappointment with the failed experiment that was Yahapalanaya.”[14] Another liberal (ethnically Sinhalese) urged, “Yahapālana Failures Must Not Drive Us Into The Arms Of An Authoritarian” for he worried, “Our democracy appears to be approaching a fork in the road, a dark and perilous fork in the road, where all citizens must stand and be counted.”[15]

Liberals and democrats either swallowed the promise of Yahapalanaya (Good Governance) or naively believed they could hold the government to its word. In any event it was no “experiment”; the President consented to the 19th Amendment, R.T.I. Act and a few reforms to consolidate his authority and position himself for re-election in 2019. When that prospect receded fast he attempted the so-called Constitutional Coup in Oct/Nov 2018 and buried Good Governance.

For Tamils and Muslims dictatorship or democracy is a false choice; they did not experience democracy from the 1948 citizenship laws onwards through the 1956 Sinhala-Only and continuing into the 1972 Constitution declaring Buddhism as State religion. The choice before Tamils and Muslims is to choose between degrees of authoritarian dispensation, the differences very likely being cosmetic at best.

In this context the Sinhalese presidential candidates’ opinion or lack of it on the 13-Point Demand [16] Tamil politicians have put forward is essentially irrelevant. 

Analysts often blur the crucial role Malaiyaha Tamils, Ceylon Tamils and Muslims played in the 2015 presidential election. In a context of heightened ethnic differences in voting patterns, the assertion that in 2015 “the pluralistic, democratic camp of the country had clearly polarized against the communalist, authoritarian camp”[17] mystifies reality. The so-called “pluralistic, democratic camp” was essentially Tamil and Muslim voters who solidly voted against Mahinda Rajapakse (together with residual Sinhalese UNP voters). Their decisions were not based on esoteric pluralism or democracy; instead, they jettisoned blatant lawlessness that threatened their physical security.

In contrast, the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote bank stood solidly loyal to Rajapakse because they believed in his militarily “victory” over the feared “terrorist” from the north. He lost the election by a whisker!

Democracy or dictatorship is not a choice at all for the common Sinhalese people. In contrast to the liberals and democrats, the people are more intelligent. In general they view yahapalanaya as one more slogan in the long tradition of SLFP’s 1956 apey aanduwa (Our [People’s] Government) and UNP’s 1977 dharmishta samajaya (Moral Social Order). Their powerlessness compelled many to hope against hope that some good may come of the sloganizing. But deep down in their hearts most suspected yahapalanaya would dribble into the sand as did apey aanduwa and dharmishta samajaya. For the majority of Sinhalese, the failure of yahapalanaya is par for the course, nothing much to write home about! 

The southern liberals and democrats are correct, that the most Sinhalese voters are leaning towards authoritarianism. That’s not an earthshaking discovery; they did that in 2015. If they are doing so again, it is not because of alleged “deep disappointment” with yahapalanaya. Rather they are treading the path carved out for them by the feudalist Sinhalese elite. 

The vast majority of Sinhalese remember how apey aanduwa funnelled most of them into the destructive Sinhala-Only cul-de-sac (see Part III); while apey aanduwa transmogrified into magey pauley aanduwa,[18] The repression of the 1971 JVP Insurrection jolted the middle and working class Sinhalese from their dreams of a new apey aanduwa dawn. Before they gathered their wits, dharmishta samajaya disgorged the very opposite: an amoral social system presided over by a virtually dictatorial UNP Executive President J.R. Jayawardene (ethnically Sinhalese).

The Sinhalese masses stood mute witnesses as Jayawardene’s UNP goons, armed with iron rods, mercilessly attacked peaceful strikers opposite the Central Bank, lobbed bombs into trade union meetings and systematically crushed a vibrant trade union movement to all but bury workers’ rights.

The chattering classes cheered “Uncle Dickie” for cracking the whip to bring “unruly” unions to heel. They stood up to be counted on the side of authoritarian rule, there being the usual few exceptions whose voices were drowned by the nationalist braying.

In June 1979 the dharmishta President kicked off the War against Tamils by unleashing his military in the north. He claimed his army’s sledgehammer violence in the north was regrettably necessary to crush the LTTE, which at that time was reliably estimated to be not more than 50 youths with one or two pistols between them!

A few months earlier, Jayawardene enacted the 1979 PTA (Prevention of Terrorism [Temporary Provisions] Act) to give legal immunity for the military operations. He had a sound grasp of the hypocrisy of democracy warriors – southern liberals, democrats and their Colombo Tamil hangers on; when they bleated, he glibly assured the law was a temporary measure, valid for only two years, to eliminate “terrorism”. So the democracy warriors deluded themselves the law would be applied only against northern and eastern Tamils and sanguinely went back to their birthday parties and beauty contests. 

In 1982 Jayawardene lurched further towards authoritarianism; he deftly made the PTA permanent. The democracy warriors could only gawk in disbelief but only for a short while. Thereafter they patted their own backs mumbling, “we live in a vibrant democracy” and retired to their watering holes. 

The 1983 anti-Tamil Pogrom severely dislocated the economy; the UNP government’s tax revenues fell. The simultaneous rise in expenditure for military operations in the north and east caused a liquidity crunch, which could not be entirely covered through foreign borrowings. So the government printed money to make up the shortfall. We recollect the money supply going awry, inflation veering out of control and costs escalating, making Lanka less and less attractive to foreign investors who preferred less expensive Asian destinations such as Singapore, Thailand and, more recently, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

These and other developments gradually acclimatized Sinhalese masses to authoritarian rule. 

A systems collapse

Successive governments were driven to concentrate authoritarian rule to contain increasingly violent protests against the feudalist Sinhalese elite’s utter failure to deliver economic goods and services, because it promoted feudalist (pre-capitalist) agriculture and prevented broad based industrialization (see Part II). The elite manipulated the two JVP Insurrections and Tamils’ armed resistance to browbeat the Sinhalese masses to accept the supposedly “temporary” suspension of their fundamental rights to ensure their “security”. 

A Sinhalese writer decried the ensuing political emasculation later, about an year after the end of Eelam War: “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.”[19]

Under Jayawardene’s watch, authoritarian practices let down deep social roots. His UNP mobs stoned houses of judges who dared to deliver judgments against his regime and he rewarded law enforcement officers found guilty of violating the law with promotions. In these and other ways he vitiated the independent judiciary. 

The authoritarian culture entrenched in the 1978 Constitution seeped into social institutions day by excruciating day as the War against Tamils grew in scale and intensity. With each passing year the Sinhalese elite demanded, and got, more and more draconian powers to “save” the country from “Tamil terrorism”.  

The leaders exhorted the Sinhalese people to tolerate the erosion of fundamental rights, under emergency regulations and anti-terrorism laws, as a patriotic duty in order to combat the LTTE more effectively. The people dutifully followed the advice and for good measure contributed a part of their hard earned incomes to the National Defence Fund. However, some may allege that the people were inveigled into sharing the costs of violating of their own rights!

The democracy warriors stampeded the majority Sinhalese into supporting the war by demonizing the LTTE. One bayed for Tamil blood, demanding the army crush the LTTE – “cut it off and kill it”.[20] Others warned the organization is the most “ruthless terrorist group” in the world, led by the Lankan version of Pol Pot! Their fear mongering made the government’s work easier, for people willingly accepted draconian laws to ensure victory over the dreaded “Tiger”.   

The hallowed principle of habeas corpus was observed in the breach. The PTA allowed arbitrary arrests and almost indefinite detention without charge; that opened lucrative avenues for extortion from, and sexual abuse of, immediate relatives. When confessions extracted under interrogation were made admissible in court, it offered mouth-watering opportunities for law enforcement officers to notch up convictions. Only liberals and democrats, waving their dog-eared political science textbooks, asserted the majority of officers should resist these corrupting influences.

Laws permitting the security forces to dispose bodies without inquest were essentially a license to kill.

Corruption seeped into the medical profession when JMOs (Judicial Medical Officers) routinely falsified reports to cover up evidence of torture and murder. Sinhalese intelligentsia manning the human rights and civil rights organisations, barring rare exceptions, soft pedaled criticisms of collective punishment meted out to the Tamil people in order not to reinforce LTTE’s accusations of military’s repression. All this and more was done in the name of “peace”.

Asian Human Rights Commission’s Basil Fernando observed, “Sri Lanka’s former junior minister of defence succinctly noted in parliament that counter terrorist measures ‘cannot be done through the law’. Throughout the [South Asian] region, judicial independence is seen as an obstacle to the defeat of terrorism.”[21]

He has documented Lanka’s descent into the “non-rule of law system” in which there is “a situation of overwhelming lawlessness, with only a few institutions maintaining a semblance of rule of law. In such systems, institutions and individuals operate in a framework where rule of law is not considered important at all. Limited past developments regarding the rule of law are modified by political systems seeking absolute power.”[22]

As Jayawardene famously quipped, “during times of war, laws are silent.”

A Gambler’s Instinct

The widespread impunity, justified by the war supposedly against the LTTE but in fact against Ceylon Tamils as a whole, and generally supported by the democracy warriors as a necessary evil in fullness of time turned against the Sinhalese people.

First, Sinhalese masses have become acclimatized to authoritarianism. Those born after 1970, have no memory or knowledge of substantive democratic principles and practices. What they do know is formal or procedural democracy – regular elections, voting systems, political parties and so on.

Second, they expected the successive governments to use their virtually unlimited powers to exorcise (see Part IV) the Demala Sanniya (Tamil Demon), now immortalized on a Rs 15 postage stamp. It is one of 18 that celebrate Sinhalese folk demons. Our Sinhalese friend – we go back to our school days – feels the stamp “equating Tamil to ‘demon’ is derogatory and…should be withdrawn”. [23] We have no disagreement there.

However, the stamp though deplorable is not the issue. The point is, the “demon” has not been vanquished. Frequent reports about LTTE’s imminent resurgence stokes fears of renewed war and makes the average Sinhalese question the rationale for the Eelam War. 

Third, their fears are growing since the government’s military campaign has not extinguished the political program of the LTTE-led armed resistance. The 13-Point Demand of Tamils conclusively demonstrated the political aspirations of Tamil Nationalism are alive and kicking. 

That is not surprising. In a survey of guerrilla wars from the American Revolution to Iraq, a former U.S. State Department expert concluded that in counter-insurgency operations the political accounts for 80% of success while the government’s armed forces contribute about 5%, the balance 15% being administrative.[24]

The “triumph” in Mullaitivu constituted the five per cent. The eighty per cent that is political – namely, crushing the will of Tamils – is beyond the ken of the feudalist Sinhalese elite. 

Fourth, Sinhalese masses were induced to accept the authoritarian turn also in the hope of reaping post-war “peace dividends”. But the PTA has not been repealed; defence expenditure continues to rise; the militarization of society has intensified, graphically demonstrated in Weliweriya;[25] and the economy continues its tailspin. The vaunted “peace dividend” is yet to appear on the horizon.

Fifth, in their minds the destruction of Tamil Nationalism is the unfinished job. The authoritarian powers handed over so far to the political class have not accomplished the task. So the Sinhalese masses feel compelled to concede more and more power to their rulers to obliterate Tamil Nationalism once and for all – like a compulsive gambler throwing good money after bad.

Sixth, going back to democracy is not an option. Almost all political institutions are broken beyond repair, most fatally weakened, largely during the hysterical rush to win the Eelam War. The Sinhalese masses are living in a state of utter lawlessness, which is underscored by allegations that sections within government are complicit in the April 21st Easter Sunday carnage.[26] They feel extremely vulnerable; they are terrified by the absence of protection under the current “non-rule of law system”. Inevitably they are yearning for a “strong man” who could protect them and, they hope, pull the system up by its bootstraps!

So the Sinhalese masses would very likely vote for the candidate they see as the strongest “strong man”. 

In Jaffna, they call this “Pirapakaran’s Curse”.

To be continued……….


[1] Suranimala Umagiliya, “Are We Stupid Or Doomed Or Both”. Colombo Telegraph, 18/oct/19.


[2] Rajan Philips, “A Uniquely Unprecedented Situation: Is There A Way Out?”. Colombo Telegraph, Colombo Telegraph, 16/jun19.


[3] David, Kumar, “Revisiting The Second-Preference”. Colombo Telegraph, 25/sep/19.


[4] ………………….., “Choice Of Candidate A Significant Factor In Defeating Gotabaya: Stop Gotabaya-Rex!”. Colombo Telegraph, 10/jun/18.


[5] Sri Lanka Development Planning. Oct/88.


[6] Sathananthan, Sachithanandam, “How we came to this pass -= II”. Colombo Telegraph, 25/jun/19.


[7] ………………………………………………, “How we came to this pass – III”. Colombo Telegraph, 12/aug/19.


[8] ………………………………………………, “How we came to this pass – IV”. Colombo Telegraph, 9/sep/19.


[9] ………………………………………………, “How we came to this pass – I”. Colombo Telegraph, 11/jun/19.


[10] Rappeport, Alan, Federal Budget Deficit Swelled to Nearly $1 Trillion in 2019”. New York Times, 25/oct/19.


[11] Mills, C.Wright, Media-Technology-Military Industrial Complex”. Open Democracy, accessed 27/oct/19.


[12] Johnson, Curtis, “Trump’s Tweets Are Not Just a Diversion, They’re Part of a Fascist Agenda”. Truthout, 25/jul/19.


[13] Tsu, Sun, The Art of War. Translated by Thomas Cleary. Boston: Shambhala Publication Inc, 1988. Chapter 2, p.23.


[14] Uyangoda, Jayadeva, “In Simple Terms, the Choice is Between Dictatorship & Democracy”.  Ilankai Tamil Sangam, 29/oct/19. Reposted from Sunday Observer, Colombo, October 19, 2019.


[15] Dissanayake, Manilal, “The Price Of Freedom: Yahapālana Failures Must Not Drive Us Into The Arms Of An Authoritarian”. Colombo Telegraph, 29/oct/19.


[16] “Tamil parties in North-East stipulate ‘acid test’ terms to SL presidential candidates”, TamilNet, 14/oct/19.


[17] Uyangoda, Jayadeva, Op. Cit.

[18] Perera, Mario, “Sri Lanka – and its wizards of (K)-OZ meaning CHAOS.” Lankaweb, 27/jul/19.


[19] Wijedasa, Namini, ‘Nobody can fiddle with our constitution behind closed doors without asking us first’, Transcurrents.com., 14/jun/10. http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/06/nobody_can_fiddle_with_our_con.html#more

[20] Jayatilleke, Dayan, “Cut it off and kill it”. Transcurrents, 28/sep/08.


[21] Fernando, Basil, Sri Lanka: Impunity, Criminal Justice and Human Rights. Hong Kong: Asian Human Rights Commission, 2010. p. 11.


[22] Ibid., p.5.

[23] “Featuring the ‘Daha-ata-sanniya’,” Daily FT, Colombo, 1/jun/19


Email communication, from Mayura Boteju, 5/nov/19.

[24] Polk, William R, Violent Politics, New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2007. p. xvi.

[25] Philips, Rajan, “Be Ready For More Weliweriyas: Ruthless Regime, Incompetent Government”. Colombo Telegraph, 11/aug/13.


[26] Hoole, Ratnajeevan H. “Our Government’s Role In Promoting Wanton Violence”. Colombo Telegraph, 29/apr/19.


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Latest comments

  • 4

    Brilliant as always!

  • 0

    I received this message recently on WhatsApp:
    “Electile Dysfunction: The inability to be aroused by any of the parties standing for election.”

    • 1

      Estate Labourer,

      I have watched with some amusement those who enjoyed great Electile Function before the January 2015 presidential election turn into ghastly wet noodles within 100 days after the election.

      For the sake of the country, I hope I won’t be similarly entertained within weeks of this November presidential election.

      For now, do savour the bread and circuses or, to be precise, the rice packet and arrack!.

  • 0

    DR. S.S, excellent as always. 70 years of” family dynasty” says it all. How few families with the support of the elite , have taken the country on a “jolly ride “. Our voters (not so elite)need to take most of the responsibility in bringing theses crooks as in a revolving door, called democratic elections which are nothing but SHAM. We as a country have regressed so much so that even a proven criminal can be elected by the voters , as the president/first citizen ,of Lanka.

  • 1

    Dear Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan,
    Your articles have lasting value, and I may comment after re-reading. However, this paragraph is worth thinking about seriously right now.
    “An irony seems to be lost on most analysts. If a candidate is least desired, obviously he cannot win. Why, then, worry he may? Why manipulate electoral arithmetic to craft ways to make him lose? Unless, of course, the so-called least desired candidate stands a good chance of winning the presidential election. If so, in whose eyes is he undeserved to win?
    In the eyes of those of us who arrogate to ourselves the status of “intelligentsia”, Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t deserve to win. Yet, he may well win because he has appealed to the basest racist and xenophobic instincts of our Sinhalese villagers, who in most other affairs are reasonable human beings.
    Therefore, although we shouldn’t mislead (how can we mislead those who don’t even listen to us?), we should make every effort to educate those whom we can on the electrol system that is in place.

    • 1

      Dear Sinhala Man,

      Thank you for the comments.

      Yes, it is pointless arrogance to insist that voters should choose differently without (a) examining the reasons for their current choice and (b) explaining to them why those reasons could be invalid.

      Superficial claims by “liberals and democrats” about which candidate is the lesser evil and browbeating voters where to place their first, second and third preferences reek of an electoral system in decline.

      What the “liberals and democrats” must do is to explore how THEIR virtually unqualified support for the government’s military campaign and the associated and increasing authoritarianism throughout the Eelam War – the single most defining event in post colonial history – has pushed the man on the street to make the choices he is making.

      That has yet to see the light of day!!!

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