By Dayan Jayatilleka –
This may come as a surprise to you, but we’ve been here before. In August 1953 there was a twoay work stoppage and civil disobedience campaign by the island’s people, called by the left parties. Protest covered the South and the North. The LSSP and CP led, the Federal Party participated, and though the SLFP did not do so actively as a party, SWRD Bandaranaike chaired the massive kick-off rally at Galle Face Green. Women baked hoppers on railway tracks and stopped trains. Worker-militants used homemade hand-bombs for sabotage. The Police shot dead 8 people. The Cabinet was evacuated onto an American ship. The country’s leader, the Prime Minister, resigned. The Hartal was the grandfather of the Aragalaya.
The political disaster came later, when the ruling UNP made a fateful choice. It decided against appointing as the leader of the country, a more progressive and socially sensitive person in keeping with the mass mood of the moment. The tragedy is that such choices were clearly available: CWW Kannagara, RG Senanayake, MD Banda, AE Goonesinghe.
When Lanka’s Fall Began
Instead, the UNP opted for the polar opposite type—a man who would take a tougher stand in the face of ‘the red rabble’ as the power-elite of the day saw them. That man was Sir John Kotelawala, ideologically the most rightwing personality in the island’s politics of that time and also the most socially arrogant representative of the ancien regime. His advisor was today’s Acting President, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s father, Esmond Wickremesinghe.
It is the choice of Sir John Kotelawala, his profile, rhetoric and policies that resulted in the 1956 landslide that swept away the UNP, and enthroned the policy of Sinhala Only in 24 hours. It caused the fall of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
A drastically different and far more pragmatic political choice, which was readily available, would have resulted in a drastically different and far better outcome. In 1988 the beleaguered UNP government had learned from 1956: Ranjan Wijeratne and JR Jayewardene didn’t choose Lalith Athulathmudali or Gamini Dissanayake, they chose AE Goonesinghe’s protégé, Ranasinghe Premadasa whose discourse won over the mass base of the red revolution and saved democracy as well as the market economy.
Today, the colossal post-Hartal 1953 folly of the ruling party of the day is being repeated. Against the backdrop of the Aragalaya, Ranil Wickremesinghe is set to play the role of Sir John, with infinitely more disastrous consequences. The good news is that unlike in 1956 the blowback is unlikely to take the form of Sinhala Only chauvinism and will be a throwback to the inclusive radicalism of the August ’53 Hartal. The truly dreadful news for the critically ailing economy is that it will take the form of open, permanent rebellion, even Revolution.
That is, unless Parliament votes today to turf him out and wisely select one of the candidates who are socially sensitive and able to dialogue with the Aragalaya youth.
Today, Wednesday, July 20th 2022 decides the direction and destiny of our country and therefore of ourselves as individuals.
The least damaging and dangerous thing that could happen to Sri Lanka is for former Prime Minister and Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe to lose today’s election in Parliament.
If he wins, the country will slide slowly or fast, into civil conflict and possibly civil war. Given our economic collapse, such conflict will also mean that the collapse is irreversible.
Why? The reasons are several-fold.
Firstly, Ceylon/Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy not only in Asia but in Asia-Africa. It has exercised universal adult suffrage sine 1931, a mere four years after the UK. It has always had popularly elected leaders.
Even when Prime Minister DB Wijetunga succeeded President Premadasa after the latter’s assassination, though he had not been elected to the post, he had been elected to Parliament at the two previous Parliamentary elections, in 1989 and 1977. In 1989 he had polled the highest number of preference votes in the Kandy district.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has no such legitimacy to lead the country even in this unusual situation, less intense though similar to the succession in 1993. He was not elected to Parliament at the last election. The party he led, the UNP was wiped out at the ballot box. He is in Parliament as the sole MP of his party on the national list, though he lost his home district and city by a huge margin.
If he is elected by the Parliament to be the executive President, he will be the first ever leader we have had since Independence who has zero mandate from the people.
Given that ours is a democratic republic, such a scenario will be at variance with the very basis of the Constitution, which is the sovereignty of the people as exercised through universal suffrage i.e., the vote.
Legality Isn’t Legitimacy
When President JR Jayawardene decided to opt for a referendum in December 1982 instead of the parliamentary election scheduled for early 1983, my father, Mervyn de Silva interviewed him for the Lanka Guardian. The interview was also published in the Island (either its daily or Sunday edition). One line in that interview was often quoted at that time and proved prophetic.
President Jayewardene explained that the decision was entirely consistent with the law. Mervyn de Silva had a typically swift comeback: “it is legal, but is it legitimate?”
In his journal of which he was the founder Editor-Publisher, the Lanka Guardian, and his Kautilya column in the Island, Mervyn kept hammering away at the dangers of a decision that was legal but not legitimate; that of the two, broadly perceived legitimacy is more important than narrow legality, and that without legitimacy the decision would have the direst consequences. He was proved prophetic within months when the July 1983 riots erupted with the added ferocity of suppressed social anger that would have been released had a parliamentary election been help on schedule in early 1983. The tragedy didn’t stop there. There were terrible civil wars in North and South, and an external intervention. In short, a bloodbath.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe is elected by parliamentary vote, that outcome will lack legitimacy. While the illegitimacy of the referendum of December 1982 plunged the nation into decades of civil war, that decision was taken by a President who had the legitimacy of being elected by a majority of the people in October 1982. And yet we were plunged for 30 years into a bloodbath.
Ranil Wickremesinghe doesn’t have a shred of the legitimacy that JR Jayewardene had, though the Referendum did not. Therefore, the result is predictable and inescapable: civil war, revolution and counter-revolution. Since he doesn’t have legitimacy and has no Ranasinghe Premadasa as dissenting backup as did JRJ, he will take the democratic and market system with him when he goes, which he will. There will be chaos and anarchy.
If selected by Parliament the unelected Ranil Wickremesinghe will be an illegitimate ruler, infinitely less legitimate than Gotabaya Rajapaksa originally was. Gotabaya became illegitimate because he tore up the Social Contract, initially by the ruination of peasant agriculture through his arbitrary nationwide ban on the import of fertilizer, pesticide and weedicide. By contrast Ranil Wickremesinghe will have zero legitimacy starting out the gate. The sovereign people never signed a Social Contract with him, which is what happens at an election.
Ranil’s track record, his recent rhetoric about “fascists” and his setting up of a committee of Armed Forces chiefs and the IGP to take “independent” decisions and measures, already signal the emergence of what is termed in Latin America, a ‘civilian-military junta’ or a ‘State of National Security’.
An Aragalaya which threw out a man who was elected by 6.9 million votes but had violated his Social Contract will resist regimentation by an unelected man who has no popular mandate and no legitimacy but wields the full panoply of state power.
In a recent ‘tough guy’ speech, Ranil Wickremesinghe drew a distinction between “Aragalakaruwo” (‘strugglers’, those in the Struggle) and “Karalikaruwo” (rebels).
It is possible that he was referring to the burning of his house, an utterly reprehensible, criminal deed which should not go unpunished. He should have called the perpetrators “aparaadakaruwo” (criminals). I can understand his use of the term “fascist” if occasioned by the burning of his library, because book burning is indeed a hallmark of fascist behavior. However, he should not have repeated the fascist tag in a far more considered and formal speech, which he did.
Ranil Wickremesinghe doesn’t understand that what is illegitimate is not “karalikaruwo” but “thrasthawaadiyo” i.e., terrorists, strictly defined as those who wittingly target innocent, unarmed non-combatants with lethal force (e.g., the LTTE and the JVP of the 2nd insurrection).
He seems to forget that “karalla”—rebellion—is a term of respect and affection depending on who by and who against. The two major uprisings against British colonialism are referred to as the “karalla/karali” (Rebellion/Rebellions) of 1818 and 1848. Puran Appu was a paradigmatic “Karalikaruwa” (rebel). The term has far more legitimacy and romantic historical resonance than Ranil Wickremesinghe will ever have.