By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Sri Lanka appears to face an easy choice: continuity or change; stay where we are and the way we are or turn a new page. That, however, is an illusion.
The truth is that Sri Lanka faces two ghastly choices: death by continuity and stagnation or death by uncontrollable radical reform; death by claustrophobic, even suffocating centralization or death by centrifugal downward spiral.
The uncritical supporters of the Rajapaksa status quo do not see the first danger. They see a linear progression in material modernization, which either does not require an accompanying political, educational and cultural modernization or they assume that modernization of the material base will inevitably, inexorably bring the other desired modernizations in their wake.
The uncritical supporters of the Combined Opposition see no benefit from the material modernization. For them it is all a sham and a financial shakedown. For this school of thought, any kind of change is better than none, and this upcoming Presidential election is the last chance for democratic change possibly in our lifetime, so any risk is worth taking.
I cannot agree with the main assumptions of either camp. The uncritical supporters of the Rajapaksa regime are wrong in assuming that it is right to resist political change. They are wrong in thinking that security is best achieved by pure stability and that stability is best assured by complete continuity. They are wrong because their kind of stability leads to stagnation which in turn results in putrefaction, which, given the external and internal ethnic pressures we have to contend with, may culminate in the crackup or diminution of the Sri Lankan State itself.
Simply put, if the present attempt at democratic change fails, the West will almost certainly commence the escalation to harder options, with the ground being prepared in Geneva, March 2015.
To me however, this is not a sufficient argument to make a decision to vote for change at the upcoming Presidential election. Given what we know of the Opposition’s declared strategy and policy at this stage, I am unconvinced that we should vote Mahinda Rajapaksa out.
Change is necessary; even imperative. But what kind of change, where, when and to whom? For the ultimate figure of the fusion of the cold and hot streams of human thought—Realism and revolutionary zeal—we must look to Lenin. For him the crucial decision making criterion was expressed in the Russian phrase “Kto Kogo”, which meant, “Who–Whom?” It is explained as ‘who is displaced from State power and who gets the power instead? Who wins and who loses? Who benefits?’
When applied to the current choices in Sri Lanka, the answer to those crucial questions is excruciatingly simple. On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, Mr. Sirisena addressed a civil society coalition and assured it (and the nationwide television audience) that he “was seeking to occupy the chair of the presidency not for the purpose of remaining in it but precisely for the purpose of abolishing its power and going home”.
Now this was during the same television newscasts that showed the true nature of the place and the persons he was pledging to transfer the power of the Presidential chair to, namely the parliamentarians who before our very eyes, and at that very time, were engaging in a game of musical chairs! So, if we are to trust Mr. Sirisena’s pledge, we can expect the disempowerment of the Presidential chair (and its occupant, to wit, Mr. Sirisena), which is anchored in the democratic consent of the majority of our citizenry (50.1% of the vote), and the empowerment of an institution susceptible to musical chairs.
The counterargument that stability will be assured by the abolition of the electoral system of proportional representation and a (quasi) return to a predominantly first-past-the post system is cold comfort, because JR Jayewardene argued for a strong and stable executive free from the whims and fancies of the legislature, precisely after decades of experience with the Westminster system.
Who is to say that in a hung parliament barely topped by a self-enfeebled presidency with residual executive powers, a concerted infusion of cash by the secessionist network of the Tamil Diaspora will be unable to engineer a government of its choice which will pledge the withdrawal of troops from the North?
In the new configuration as designed by the Opposition’s strategists, domestic and external, the residual presidency of Mr. Sirisena will not and structurally cannot be the decisively pre-eminent power center. It will be the PM and the Cabinet. The dominant political poles of attraction are more than likely to be Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
I have never had a clash or even a problem of a personal nature with them and have indeed supported them openly, albeit critically, at different times (Ranil in 1994-1996, CBK in 1999-2004). My problem is as a political scientist, which is my vocation. One doesn’t have to be Hobbesian (though it helps) to concur that the primary duty of the state towards its citizenry is not good governance so much as the more basic existential one of the protection of life and limb from a violent, determined, ruthlessly marauding enemy. Chandrika and (more so) Ranil miserably failed that most crucial test while Mahinda Rajapaksa passed it with flying colors. He protected this country and its people, liberating us from Prabhakaran’s reign of terror. Therefore as a student of politics, I cannot recommend an outcome that sends Mahinda Rajapaksa packing while restoring Ranil and Chandrika to prominent positions of power and influence–equal to, if not surpassing that of Mr. Sirisena. After all, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera did solemnly declare that it is Mr. Wickremesinghe who will be “the first among equals”.
The type of change we opt for depends on the period of history we are living through. Sri Lanka is still a mere five years after a war. We are in a post-war period. The Rajapaksas fail to recognize that it is POST-war and that we cannot and must not remain trapped in the tunnel vision of wartime. The Joint Opposition fails to understand that we are post-WAR; that the war remains the defining historical and psychological watershed.
It is true that Gen Sarath Fonseka was perhaps the main driver of the victory insofar as the ground war was innovatively designed and determinedly driven by him. It is no less true that this administration treated him disgracefully. However, Generals Fonseka, Janaka Perera and Gamini Hettiaarachchi were in Chandrika’s army for her two Presidential terms and she failed to win the war—because she didn’t believe it could be won; that Prabhakaran could be militarily defeated. Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war for us because he had political will and clarity and he had a brother, Gotabaya, who could manage the war effort with zealous dedication and knowledge. Together, Mahinda and Gotabaya were able to mitigate the bitter inter-service and intra-service rivalries (Waidyaratne-Kobbekaduwe) that damaged the war effort on President Premadasa’s tenure.
What was the crucial moment of the war? It was a replay of that moment in 1987, when the Sri Lankan armed forces were about to prevail over Prabhakaran in Operation Liberation but President Jayewardene received a deterring warning from High Commissioner JN Dixit. In 2009, President Rajapaksa had two fairly similar moments about which I heard, not only from him, but far more credibly and at first hand, from the Norwegian Ambassador Torre Hattrem and the French Foreign Minister of that time, Bernard Kouchner. It is Mahinda Rajapaksa who sought India’s backing and overruled the US evacuation attempt which had been facilitated by the Norwegians. More crucially, it is he who curtly told an arrogant, blustering David Miliband that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony when pressure was put on him for a ‘humanitarian pause’ in the fighting and a resumption of negotiations, a few weeks before our soldiers achieved final victory. (Kouchner’s story, related to me and my wife at lunch in Paris, came as no surprise since I was part of the discussion in early 2007 when President Rajapaksa told US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher “I am sorry Mr. Boucher, but what can I do if my terrorists are not Islamic?”)
Champika Ranawaka, who claims credit for the drive to finish the war, was not even a peripheral figure in those discussions. Gen Sarath Fonseka was not present in the room. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in the loop but not on center stage. The decision not to blink and to take the war to a finish whatever the consequences was a political and existential one, and it was made by President Rajapaksa. In the final analysis, it wasn’t Gota’s war; it was Mahinda’s, and he must not be made to pay a price at our very hands, for his resolve and his defiance of the West. The Tamil Diaspora wants revenge for the defeat of their Tigers and the death of Prabhakaran. The West wants to make an example of Mahinda for far higher stakes: he opted for China and Russia over the West. The two compulsions converge (most overtly in Geneva).
Consider this carefully: are we ready to risk the possibility that Rajapaksa could be a 21st century Rajasinha (the last king of Kandy), carted off by the West to be made an example of i.e. legally lynched, for his defiance? Do we want that on our collective conscience? Is that how we want future generations to view us? I rather doubt that History will absolve us.
In our present time of transition, we must make prudent choices in the matter of change. The Presidential election is not the occasion on which one elects a new Government: that takes place at a parliamentary election. I certainly think we need a new Government which will push for reform, but that is most appropriately done at the inevitable parliamentary election.
The Joint Opposition’s current program combines the prospects of radical politico-constitutional change and no less radical economic change, given that Ranil Wickremesinghe is an ideologically Conservative, neoliberal privatizer and freezer of public expenditure (as proven during his mercifully brief tenure as PM). If the contrasting fates of Gorbachev/Yeltsin’s Russia and Deng Hsiao Peng’s China demonstrate anything, it is that political and economic reform must not proceed simultaneously, if one is not to risk meltdown. The scenario of a self-diminished Sirisena Presidency, a shift of power to a volatile parliament, an economically neoliberal Wickremesinghe Prime Ministership, a CBK as Sonia Gandhi factor, an assertive Northern Provincial Council, cosmopolitan civil society-NGO-Western pressures on “cooperation and compliance” with the UN probe on international law and accountability issues, and radical privatization fill me with foreboding because the centrifugal factors outnumber the centripetal ones.
Are we ready for a Western dominated, semi-colonial Sri Lanka of the sort we lived in during the Ranil–Chandrika-Solheim years; that disgraceful decade of diminished and retrenched national sovereignty? Are we ready for the inevitable blowback, polarization and radicalization?
There is a case for peaceful democratic regime change, but what has the current Rajapaksa regime to do with the decades older Executive Presidential system, which is a form of state?
In its narrow judgment in favor of the 13th amendment in 1987, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that this structural reform which made for provincial autonomy remained within the framework of the unitary state because of the executive Presidency and its powers over the council as vested in the Governor. Without the magnet or ‘maypole’ as it were, of the elected executive Presidency, the centripetal potential of the provincial councils would be greater than their centrifugal potential. This is yet another, doubtless unwitting, danger posed by the joint Opposition’s stated project.
A Presidential election is not about Constitutional change. It is about picking a leader for the country, the state– or more fundamentally, the collective, the community, the tribe (if you prefer an anthropological existentialism). I am reluctant to dispense with the services of the leader who passed the crucial test of the responsibility to protect his people and country from the enemy. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not the main enemy of the Sri Lankan people, and Ranil and Chandrika are certainly no greater friends of the Sri Lankan citizenry than he is. I hesitate to ditch a strong leader and proven success in the most important matter, and replace him with an unproven if courageous, decent man who will cede much of his power to two proven failures. Transitions are tricky and this is certainly not the kind of change we must experiment with at a time of postwar transition, at the level of national leadership. As my father Mervyn de Silva, the acknowledged doyen of commentators on national and international politics until his death fifteen years ago, once cautioned prophetically about a similar situation: “far too iffy; far too many variables”.