By Kumar David –
If you have not read or reread Victor Ivan’s Queen of Deceit recently it might be an idea to do so because of forebodings that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency will be an autocracy post 20th Amendment and anticipation that the constitution to be enacted thereafter will set this in stone. An allied concern is that autocracy is usually a stepping stone to kleptocracy; but is this an inevitable corollary? I make the distinction because JR was an autocrat who he did not rob the country dry; conversely Chandrika did not enjoy as formidable a stature as JR but if you accept even a part of what Victor Ivan says a better title for his book would have been ‘The Bandit Queen’. The original Sinhala is Chura Rajna; the English version is available from Amazon, and presumably Ravaya has both.
The charge of dictatorship levelled against JR is an open and shut case. He reigned like a monarch, was venerated as a sage and worshiped by an all-stooge press. He expelled the Tamil party from Parliament, revoked a general election, egged on and rejoiced in the 1983 communal riots and drove the country to neoliberal economics which widened inequality. He stripped Mrs B, Felix Dias and Nihal Jayawickrama of their civil rights desecrating fundamental rights but no one dared say boo to his goose. Supreme Court judges and Chief Justices who did not toe his line were shooed out. Repeated bouts of racism in Sri Lanka have removed ideological checks on the abuse of power; JR removed the institutional constraints as well. Post 20A we will have neither institutional nor ideological checks.
Re Chandrika, the first question is “To what extent should we place confidence in Victor’s indictment?”. My short answer is I believe most but not all of it. Let me state upfront, one point that is sloppy in Victor’s storyline is Chapter II (p.49-65) “Who Orchestrated the Town Hall Bombing?”. It is speculation without real evidence; it can’t stand scrutiny or challenge. He makes out that Chandrika arranged the bombing to win sympathy and turn around a flagging presidential election (December 1999), but the plan misfired and she suffered damage to an eye. Victor Ivan would have brought much credit to himself and to his book had he left out this hare-brained conspiracy theory. Another huge deficiency is that nowhere does Victor recognise that after the LSSP and CP succumbed to racism in 1965-66, Chandrika was the only national leader who made an effort – unsuccessful because of Ranil and the NUP – to go that extra mile and revisit Tamil anxieties and address legitimate demands.
It is charges of corruption – bribery, kick-backs, abuse of state facilities – that I think ring true and accusations of complicity in criminality and murder are convincingly argued. It is amazing that neither Chandrika nor her numerous explicitly named crooked partners sued or received retraction or apology for numerous stunning allegations. The implication is that none dared take the witness stand. Exposés by many people against a Rajan Asirwathem, to pick an example at random, are that he masterminded on behalf of Chandrika the privatisation of Kotagala Estate where, in effect, the state was defrauded of Rs 198 million, presumably shared between the miscreants. There are many more examples; Water’s Edge for example.
Chandrika’s Presidential Security Division (PSD) was a known mafia led by a notorious criminal Baddegana Sanjeewa and his associates; all conveniently bumped off later (shades of the Oswald-Ruby episode in the Kennedy assassination). The PSD, Victor boldly asserts, bumped off Kumar Ponnambalam and Rohana Kumara (a foul-mouthed TV producer). No election in this country has been as vile as Wayamba Provincial Council 1999, virtually run by the PSD. I do not intend to pursue criminality since my focus today is on kleptocracy. And I do believe that there was huge corruption during Chandrika’s reign. Worst perhaps were private-power projects. From friends and engineers, I know of multi-million-dollar kick-backs. Isn’t it legitimate to ask whether criminality on this scale could have transpired without connivance and benefits for the boss?
I have used these two examples to suggest that constitutional autocrats are not necessarily kleptocrats and conversely that mafia-presidents deep into robbing with gross reputations for financial misconduct may not be formidable dictators. The Executive Presidents of Lanka have all wielded excessive power and done so unwisely but Chandrika is not the worst case of abuse of formal constitutional power; that nefarious honour goes to JR and Mahinda. Nevertheless, it is fair that I give readers access a point of view contrary to mine. Please seen an essay by Martin Sandbu in the 22 September 2020 issue of the Financial Times (UK) “Populists and kleptocrats are a perfect match”. (https://on.ft.com/2RVWkAF). It says in summary: ‘Autocracy and kleptocracy – the capture of political power for the purpose of theft and embezzlement – go together; oligarchic networks (family clans) have privatised the state for their own benefit. Use of public funds for private benefit is rife; lucrative state contracts are handed out to personal associates. Then there is the opposite problem; use of dirty money to manipulate democratic politics. Political fecklessness causes the worst damage; failure to crack down not only condones wrongdoing but also signals that it is of no great priority’. I (KD) think this is true as a generalisation but there are variations.
I am sure readers know where I am heading: What expectations should we have of the post-20A Gotabaya Presidency? Yes, you are right if you guessed that I am leaning to the view that this Presidency will be autocratic but not kleptocratic. That seems to be the style of the man – that is of course not counting hordes of venal parliamentarians and disreputable family. The downside of GR’s style lies elsewhere, it is his penchant for issuing peremptory ill-advised commands. I need to dwell on this. Yes indeed, he recognized and stuck with sound advice on COVID, but on some other matters he has not been so wise. Verbal instructions are to have the same import as formal government texts; this will lead to chaos. The President, thanks to his hare-brained advisors could end up in Mugabesque bedlam. Ex-President Tambo Mbeki of South Africa in the face of ridicule by every medical learned-society, the WHO and specialist opinion, decreed that AIDS was not caused by the HIV virus or concupiscence! This fruitcake president is responsible for 350,000 preventable deaths. The very day that he left office, the new Health Minister Barbra Hogan declared “The era of denialism is over in South Africa”. But the damage had been done!
Then for example if instructions are issued to the CEB that 80% of electrical energy shall be from renewable sources by 2030 it’s like running after a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. If no more thermal plant is commissioned and if those in operation are switched off one by one to keep thermal below 20%, it will be pandemonium in power supply and in industry. GR is fixated on 80% renewable electricity by 2030 while the CEB long-term plan puts it at 35%; an unbridgeable gap. (In my view 35% is too high, but my two-cents worth is irrelevant). This controversy is a huge techno-economic uncertainty. We can’t go on like this. Gota needs to put his money where his mouth is. May I suggest, only partly in jest, that if he is to have any credibility, he must dismantle the CEB planning unit – engineers can transfer to other branches and should welcome the move (sic!), otherwise when things flop, they will be accused of sabotaging Presidential targets.
The Cabinet, Power Minister, unschooled MPs and CEB Chairman Herath a Viyathmaga person, dare not oppose the boss. Therefore, all must put their money where their mouths are and demand that the unit be re-staffed with “experts” foresworn to upholding the 80% decree – though full-page article alternative-experts in the local press don’t even have the foggiest notion what a rolling-plan is! This lot must be instructed to commission 2000 GWh of additional renewable energy each year starting now – every month sans action is 30 days lost! An 80% target by 2030 means increasing renewable electricity to 26,000 GWh/annum by then. Current renewable production is about 6300 GWh/annum, consisting of 4500 major-hydro and 1800 novel sources – mini-hydro (1100), wind (450), solar (150), bio-mass (100). These numbers are not exact but acceptable; I have no access to real-time data. This is the marathon these new “experts” will need to run and let’s see how President Gotabhaya bridges the 35% versus 80% handicap!
Autocracy may provide cover for kleptocracy, but it may instead provide cover and immunity for irrational decision making that none dare question. Hence my expectation differs from what most others say. It is very likely that we will get much autocracy, hand-in-hand with frequent illogical decision making, but not big time kleptocracy. In so far as the title of this essay goes, JR was a tyrant who brooked no challenge, Chandrika a base kleptocrat, MR a populist who wore a coat of many colours, and the last incumbent only half executive but surely more than half deranged. The next, after 20A and/or the new constitution will be a novel, a very novel variant on the ever-turbulent executive-despot-autocrat theme.