By Kumar Davi –
The world has been spared a Third World War thanks to deterrence, that is the threat of mutual destruction. If only one nation possessed nuclear weapons all others would be enslaved. Likewise, should the threat of a military regime surface anywhere in the world only the presence of countervailing opposition to ensure that the venture will be beaten back can repel it. Morality and promises are poppycock; only power counts. Soft power is as pathetic and as toothless as Aung San Suu Kyi; the good lady will end her life in prison. From the first dynasties four millennia ago to the coups of yesteryear that’s history’s stern lesson.
Let us stop playing Russian Roulette with authoritarianism, military dictatorships or fascism, as the case may be, in nation after nation. The state in the third-world, having subjugated every agency of society has emerged as a supra-national entity. This is a new phenomenon; it belongs to recent decades. Neither class, nor wealth, nor race, nor faith are barriers to which it is subordinate. When the nation-state emerged in 17th and 18th Century Europe and later in America it was different, it was the handmaiden of commerce and a rising bourgeoisie. As absolute monarchies receded the nation-state arose not as a power in its own right, but rather the state and its instruments and institutions were subordinate to class, society and liberal norms – brief Bonapartist interludes like Napoleon aside. Now except in the metropolitan world* a profound change has occurred; it is now different in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Asia (Cambodia and Central Asia). In the last two decades there have been about 40, at a guess, military seizures of power or annulments of elections by incumbent regimes which summoned the military to crush the people with an appalling lack of conscience and compassion. Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Marx’s version of the relationship of class and state to military power can do with updating.
The change is that the Nation-State is no longer what this term meant when nation was synonymous with country as it was with the French, British, American, Italian and Soviet nation-states though the constitutional arrangements varied. Then the nation was synonymous with country, the whole people but now the dramatic rise of narrow nationalisms has drastically altered this. The nation-state is now the nationalist-state is the narrow-nationalist-state which draws its legitimacy not from the whole but from a part of the citizenry. For example the Hindutva state, the Sinhala-Buddhist state, the Jewish state, the Burman-Buddhist state, Islamic ISIS, and the military dictatorships which draw their sustenance from a tribal (ethnic) group in West Africa or the Horn of Africa. The “Other” is not a foreign power but an “Internal-Other”. In these instances, respectively, it is the Muslims, the minorities, the Palestinians, the numerous ethnic peoples of Burma, the Shia and the other black or brown nearby peoples. The Other is an Internal-Other, the enemy is an enemy within.
To repeat, the critical factor is that fascist, militarist or dictatorial states now draw their strength and moral compass from narrow-nationalism, that is from the state’s manifestation as the enemy of the Internal-Other. The enemy is no longer the foreign foe but the Internal-Other. (Colvin once called our military “A toy army in war and a real army in peace”). Modi’s Hindutva derives its legitimacy as the sworn enemy of Muslims, the rightfulness of the Sinhala-Buddhist state is a beacon against the Internal-Other in the sixty years of SWRD, JR, Premadasa, Mahinda and Gotabaya presidencies. This symbiosis of brutal military regimes with narrow ethno-nationalisms is the fundamental paradigm shift in the modern third-world. Paradoxically for this very reason these regimes can slaughter with impunity – horrendous carnage in Africa, the Civil War in Sri Lanka, the brutality of the Burmese army and ISIL’s atrocities. Politicians cheering these one-dimensional nationalisms are populist tribunes blaring out the slogans of the crowd or relaying the broadcasts of army TV and radio. The phenomenon draws its strength from the datum that every member of the primary nationalist category, without exception of class or wealth, is united within it; brothers in the crusade against the ‘Other’. This is the foundation of every military dictatorship of recent times. It had its origins in the obscenity of Nazism whose Internal-Other was the “greedy, licentious, dirty and avaricious Jew”!
I would like to further develop these theoretical propositions about the frequency and brutality of the modern military regime as an incarnation of dictatorship that alienates an Internal-Other, but for reasons of space I must draw up my paper and get back home. The stark reality at home is that if there is a power-grab in Lanka, then restoring democracy will be a road through hell. Does anyone imagine that restoring democracy in Burma, in Sudan, in Venezuela and everywhere where a military regime as foisted itself will take less than decades of anarchy, economic ruin, blood, civil war and revolution? This is the point at which I am flabbergasted by the JVP and the Sajith-SJB. I am not declaring that a military venture is likely. No, indeed the odds are less than even; it is not possible to predict the odds. But only a fool will say that economic disaster, an insoluble debt imbroglio, president-made fertiliser scarcity, manmade power crises and food shortages are not breeding grounds for frantic regimes to seek desperate responses!
Is it asking too much of the JVP and the SBJ to concede that the danger is real even if the odds are less than even? Why not take simple measures to thwart it if the cost of such measures is insignificant? As with nuclear war the cost of deterrence is zilch compared to the charge that history will levy on a negligent world. What does it cost these two parties, the TNA, smaller entities, trade unions, civil society and Churches and Temples to convene, discuss, warn and issue proclamations to the effect that any extra-parliamentary adventure will be resisted, an attack on one will be deemed an attack on all, and postponement of elections will not be permitted?
JR and Mahinda in their day led People’s Marchs (paagamana); peaceful and orderly, clergy in the vanguard, expressing deep public anger and discontent. There is no shortage of issues today for grassroots mobilisation; ‘Hands off Democracy’, ‘Can we Farm without Fertiliser?’, ‘Give our Children Food’ are a few examples that will galvanise people. The objective at this point in time is by no means to bring down the government or to foreshorten its electoral term, rather it is as deterrence against authoritarian ambitions, to expose idiotic decisions and to deter unconstitutional excesses.
Deterrence! What does it cost the participants? Nothing! There is no commitment to programmatic unity or to future coalition government. No endorsement of each other’s ideology is implied. I have raised this several times in discussions and in my columns but received as response only inanities such as “We will consider when the time comes”, “There is no such danger now” and “Defensive preparations have to be done secretly”. Why oh why did god deprive some people of a brain!
To return to my theme that third-world dictatorship in recent times is the manifestation of a narrow-nationalist state in crisis, it is useful to appreciate that Sri Lanka may have progressed to a stage where that cock will not fight anymore. Has the usefulness of the call to war against the demala and the hambaya lost its resonance? The results of the 2019-2020 election cycle may give you pause in endorsing this thought, but what has lost its sheen is the promise of this victorious regime. “The stupid 69 lakhs” is mockery even on the lips of those who themselves were among the 69! Is the sheen of narrow Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism wearing thin? Has the theme song of depicting the minorities as the felons lost its resonance? If you listen to the tales of woe at every street corner the culprit is the government, this Minister or that, the President and the aanduwa. A take-over to “safeguard the nation from the Internal-Other” is no longer credible. The same is not true of the military machine. The tri-services were purged of Christian and Tamil vermin in the wake of the 1962 coup and is now a purified and sanitised Sinhala-Buddhist triple-gem! (For the full story see Jayantha Somasundaram; The Island of January 26, 27, 28 and 29, 2022 and the Colombo Telegraph of January 25).
So then, we have an interesting dichotomy where narrow racist extremism is saleable to the military but less so to the Sinhala people at large. The appointment of loyalists to high posts such as state ministerships, Ministrial secretary posts and corporate chairmanships, pardoning convicted killers and scuttling trials against alleged military-police murderers (Trinco student murders, Médecins Sans Frontièreskillers) would no doubt have cemented loyalty of the military to the regime. Therefore, we have a mixed equation; will a narrow-nationalist extremist power grab (or postponement of elections), citing the Internal-Other as the enemy within carry legitimacy only with the military? The one thing that the JVP-NPP, Sajith-SJB, trade unions and civil society can do is to make it clear that any such gorilla venture will be resisted by counter mobilisation of the people, mainly the Sinhalese people. This is the sole purpose of my column, not deep scholarship and profound analysis – others outrank me in these respects – but to kick the arses (editor permitting) of slumbering comrades who seem to have taken Robert Burns to heart. “My (comrades) are asleep by thy murmuring stream: Flow gently, sweet river, disturb not (their) dream”.
*[However, all is not well in the First World either. The US Congress was informed last week that the Trump White House drafted two Executive Orders, one to the military the other to Homeland Security ordering counting machines be sized when the presidential election-count was going badly. The orders were not signed or issued, but this was a common practice in Latin America in the 1960s].