By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The critique on Colombo Telegraph, following a far from pseudonymous paroxysm on Twitter yesterday, of my appointment as the senior advisor on international relations to the Leader of the Opposition, is of interest much more because of what it reveals about the political-ideological line that the critics wish the democratic opposition to take, or to maintain, than what it says about me.
What is taking place is significant because it is a battle for the direction – actually the soul– of the democratic opposition and the identity of its pre-eminent formation the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (of which I am not a member).
Ranilist Rearguard Action
Clearly the critique and the critics come from the Ranil Wickremesinghe camp, ideologically speaking. They do not have a single word of criticism of him, his long tenure and his policies as having been responsible for the resounding victory of the Alt Right Gotabaya project. This means that there isn’t a single word of reflective self-criticism from that camp as to what went wrong for a quarter century during which the party that was the country’s largest single party, was unable to elect a President to lead the nation.
I am not referring merely to the tweets and the recent article critical of me. Rather what I seek to point out is that none of those who have criticized me, either on this occasion or the one they refer to, namely the petition of protest against my appointment as ambassador to Russia, ever criticized Ranil Wickremesinghe or his policies then, and have yet to do so now.
None of my critics including the hundred plus petitioners against my ambassadorship to Russia referred to here, have yet called in public, through a petition or even a single tweet, for Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down as UNP leader and hand the reins over to Ruwan Wijewardena, a genuine liberal.
None of them ever supported President Ranasinghe Premadasa and almost all of them who were around at that time, bitterly opposed him.
Every one of my critics, starting with the hundred plus who signed the petition against my ambassadorial appointment, were for the scrapping of the executive Presidency when volumes of international experience from that of Pinochet’s Chile to Trump’s USA, shows that the answer is not to strive vainly to abolish the executive Presidency, however despotic the incumbent, but precisely to win the Presidency at the first possible opportunity.
Every one of them was and remains for the abolition of the unitary state—which the SJB’s Constitution commits the party to uphold.
Standing Up for the Sajith Option
As for me, I was pointing out on the record, the growing crisis of the democratic Opposition, the UNP and suggesting constructive alternatives, at least since 1997. A small sample is contained in the following articles dated early 2010, i.e., over a decade ago. (The Sajith Solution | The Sunday Leader) and Groundviews (THE OPPOSITION IN SRI LANKA: RESTORE VIABILITY, RESOLVE CRISIS – Groundviews).
So, what does that make me and by contrast what does the silence of my critics of the long crisis of the UNP, make them? Who then had a greater commitment to a strong, electorally viable democratic opposition? The fact that I published these at the same time that I was supporting President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrate that my sense of responsibility as a political scientist, and my commitment to the democratic system and a healthy balance within it so as to sustain the system, was my overriding impulse.
By contrast the silence of my critics throughout the disastrous Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership of the UNP (disastrous, except for the first few years 1994-1996— I supported him then) and their refusal to this day to undertake a political and ideological post-mortem, make these critics and their political line, one of continuity rather than change, and therefore make them culpable in the disaster that befell the unreformed UNP and the triumph of the Far-Right Gotabaya regime.
For my part, I supported GR in 2016 to mid-2018, but the article ‘Operation Shangri-la’ in the Daily Mirror was hardly “gushing” and contained an explicit critique of his policy platform which he rolled out on the occasion as part of his candidacy bid.
More significantly, as the CT critique admits “…Jayatilleka subsequently opposed the former Defense Secretary’s nomination and backed the Samagi Balawegaya after Sajith Premadasa was nominated as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s challenger in the 2019 election.”
This was at a time that Gotabaya was way ahead and no serious analyst expected Sajith to win. I certainly didn’t, the very moment I saw Ranil on stage, because Sajith’s only chance was to do a Ranasinghe Premadasa 1988 and I could immediately see the contrast with Premadasa’s campaign of 1988 in which he snatched victory for the UNP from the jaws of defeat, which was a clean break with the governing UNP establishment. Nonetheless I supported Sajith, knowing full well that it would cost me my ambassadorship to Russia.
Civil Society & the Tamil Constituency
Sajith has not dealt a slap to ‘civil society’. My critics today and the 2018 petitioners against my ambassadorship, are only a small fraction of civil society. Far more important for the democratic movement in any society are the trade unions, student unions, peasants’ unions, teachers’ unions, women’s associations, professionals associations—CIVIC organizations; organizations of civic activists, with organic links with communities and the basic social sectors. What counts most as we have seen in the campaign of the US Democrats, especially in Georgia, is the capacity of civic organizations to mobilize voters at the grassroots. In short, the social movement, not a cosmopolitan caucus.
My Ranilist critics, who were most extensively assembled in the petition against my appointment as ambassador to Russia, were notable for two reasons.
Firstly, their opposition to me was a perfect match for newspaper articles by Rear-Admiral Sarath Weerasekara, today’s Cyril Mathew, urging that I should not be appointed even as a peon to a Sri Lankan embassy, especially in Russia.
Secondly, (unlike Weerasekara) not one of those hundred plus petitioners against me had written or said one single words against the LTTE and/or Prabhakaran during the war. Unlike me, going back one-and-half decades before Mahinda Rajapaksa was first elected to the Presidency. See the award-winning BBC documentary which featured Prabhakaran, Balasingham, Neelan Tiruchelvam and me among others.
As for my appointment being a slap in the face of “the Tamil constituency”, that’s a laugh. I would like my critics to point out a single Sinhalese or even Tamil or Muslim in the public sphere who has been a more consistent advocate and defender of the principle of devolution, the 13th amendment and the Provincial Council system and opponent of those who wish to abolish or truncate that system. No Sinhalese in the public domain has been attacked more by the Sinhala racist Right over decades, on precisely this issue, than I have. It is this stand of mine, including in Geneva, that caused Minister Weerasekara to suggest in the pages of the Daily FT that in the good old days I would have been “spiked to death”.
I have, of course, also critiqued the utterly unrealistic Tamil effort to push beyond the 13th amendment towards a post-unitary new Constitution, an effort which sank the UNP government. As the Press statement of the remarks of visiting Indian External affairs Minister, Dr Jaishankar shows, his specific and concrete ‘marker’ reference was to the 13th amendment.
Accountability & Geneva
On accountability, my stand has been consistent from the time I arrived in Geneva in 2007 to date. I am not against accountability. I never defended the Trinco-5 murders or the ACF massacre whenever they came up in Geneva or Paris. Furthermore, my critique of the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga as a cowardly, fascist act, appeared in the Island while I was still Ambassador /Permanent Representative in Geneva.
I have never once criticized the doctrine of ‘universal jurisdiction’, am not an opponent of its application, and have even been photographed as Ambassador to Russia, congratulating and thanking the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon, who originated it.
I have been a consistent defender of the LLRC and the Paranagama-Sir Desmond de Silva Commissions and their recommendations. I have criticized in print, the Presidential pardon of Sunil Ratnayake.
I have always supported the UNHRC and was elected a Vice-President of it. I am an admirer of Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner and former socialist President of Chile. I hope a strong searchlight is shone by the UNHRC this March and a robust collective critique is made in and by the UNHRC of the government’s despotic practices, egregious violations of human rights and civil liberties and the dangerous dynamics underway. However, I was, am and shall remain for the foreseeable future, an opponent of the internationalization of accountability in the case of Sri Lanka’s war of liberation from terrorism.
I am opposed to international tribunals or to hybrid tribunals with an international component, in the Sri Lankan case. I am opposed to the outrageous narrative of “genocide”. My view of the war and war crimes, accords with the report of Sir John Holmes as contained in the Paranagama-Desmond de Silva report and the lucid, balanced Marga Institute report ‘The Third Narrative’ of which the primary author was Godfrey Gunatilleke.
I believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity if committed (and there seem to be such instances) were not decisions taken and implemented by the state or the military as a whole but were exceptions, aberrations of individual officers and men or small groups. I am for robust domestic judicial processes or commissions of inquiry as many countries of the global South have instituted when their societies and public opinion were ripe for such a move without the risk of a destabilizing military backlash.
If my stand on devolution and accountability were identical to that of the regime’s hawks, why would I have been sacked from Geneva a mere six weeks after the singular victory we obtained at the UN Human Rights Council? Now that’s a fact the critics of my appointments imply ignore.
While I do not know what the SJB stand on Geneva will be, I daresay that with Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as a respected, prominent member, it is likely to take a firmly principled one. I also know I have never heard or read Sajith Premadasa supporting Ranil’s co-sponsorship of the Geneva 2015 resolution, still less international accountability or hybrid courts.
The Armed Forces Vote
All this apart, the Ranilist camp never understood the crucial importance of the armed forces as a vote-base and obviously still does not. I have been perhaps the most consistent critic in the media of the phenomenon of militarism and the ongoing process of militarization.
That said, every struggle against authoritarianism the world over has shown the importance of detaching the military from the despotic project and regime and making the necessary compromises to at least neutralize the military so it does not impede a reopening of democratic space. Latin America, the Philippines, Indonesia provide examples.
The military and veterans’ families are a decisive vote-base which was lost in 1999 and 2005, recovered by the Sirisena candidacy in 2015 and lost again with Ranil’s co-sponsorship of the Geneva resolution 2015, this time generating the backlash that has brought in an increasingly and determinedly quasi-military regime.
Why does the Ranil Fan Club not ponder the existential-electoral compulsion that made President Sirisena impede the implementation of the Geneva 2015 resolution?
The armed forces and their families, the veterans and their families, are perhaps the largest single identifiable voting block in the country, and yet the Ranilist fellow-travelers want the democratic opposition to continue to alienate that vote-base rather than win it back. Sajith and the SJB should strive to do so.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa issue
Now for the Mahinda Rajapaksa factor and my support for him. The email I sent Vasudeva Nanayakkara at his request for transmission to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and scooped by Colombo Telegraph, has no mention or implication whatsoever of support or suggestions for a ‘hard coup’. It does explicitly call for the mobilization of people’s power and a political counter-offensive in the Nugegoda-to-Galle Face 2017 manner, the resort to a Referendum, and the appointment of Dinesh Gunawardena as Foreign Minister. Hardly a ‘hard coup’ recipe or formula, that! Having been in Indonesia with my parents in 1965 ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’, as guests of President Sukarno’s Foreign Minister Dr Subandrio, on the eve of the military coup (my father was the last journalist to interview DN Aidit, leader of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party before the latter’s murder by the military weeks later), I understand more than most, and certainly more than neoliberals, what a ‘hard coup’ is.
The Gotabaya and Basil wings ignored my suggestions because they both wanted one thing: the failure of the MS-MR rapprochement, which was an intermediate solution they did not want; an obstacle to the polarization and succession they sought.
The contextual situation of the ‘52 days’ was complex, as shown by the repeated entreaties of President Sirisena to UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa to take over as Prime Minister, and Sajith’s consistent, commendable refusal to do so due to his loyalty to the UNP, the rules of the game. President Sirisena was groping around to keep the bipartisan bloc going but shifting it to a sustainable center from the neoliberal Right, with a UNP partner who would not be electorally and socially radioactive as Ranil Wickremesinghe was. If not for Ranil there would have been no ouster of the UNP by Sirisena.
It was also Ranil Wickremesinghe and his policies which caused the liberal President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to oust him in 2003-2004. In short the UNP lost governmental power twice, because of his leadership and never obtained state power—the Presidency—even once, due to the same factor.
About my equation with Mahinda Rajapaksa: The defining issue in our contemporary history was the war and the challenge was to find a leader who had the political will to win it. As I’ve said before, the choice between Mahinda and Ranil was no choice at all, for me as for most of the country. If today, the choice still remained one between Mahinda and Ranil, and Sajith hadn’t emerged as the alternative (as I had urged for over a decade), I’d still be with Mahinda. I remain proud of having supported and worked with two of the most courageous, heroic, leaders we elected in my lifetime: Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
If the Ranil Fan Club’s objection to my new appointment by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, is that I was “a Rajapaksa ideologue” i.e., supported and worked closely with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the implication that the SJB should not seek to win over those who supported, voted for, like, and respect Mahinda Rajapaksa? How is the appointment for the new Leader of the Opposition and the SJB, of a former “Rajapaksa ideologue”, not a victory for the former?
In the mindset of the Ranil Fan Club, MR supporters are taboo, “untouchable”. If that is the guideline and the democratic opposition should not reach out to and win over personalities and voters who were in the MR camp when the name of the game was MR vs RW, especially in wartime, and still prefer MR to RW as a personality in our historical narrative, then the Opposition will be doomed to electoral limbo.
Liberalism, Neoliberalism and ‘Populism Lite’
To conclude on some matters of politics and ideology. Tweets by an expatriate academic describe me as a “Marxist ideologue” who does not fit in a “center-right” party, and goes on to say that Sajith’s decision to appoint me shows that politics has come down to “Populism extra-strong” versus “Populism Lite”. Well, I was far more of a Marxist ideologue when President Premadasa recruited me in early 1989 than I am now (if I am that at all). He was the leader of the UNP at the time. Susil Sirivardhana was far more a Marxist ideologue than I am now, when Prime Minister Premadasa recruited him as he came out of jail after the April 1971 insurrection. R. Premadasa was Deputy Leader of the UNP then. So obviously the expatriate academic is reading either the classic UNP or the Premadasa perspective, incorrectly.
The expatriate constitutionalist academic is also confused when he calls the SJB a ‘center-right party’. On what basis does he do so? The SJB’s Constitution does not say so, nor does the discourse of its leader (on public platforms and the parliament). The party describes itself as “the Popular Opposition” or if you wish to be a stickler, the Populist Opposition (‘Janathavaadee Vipakshaya’). Its leader describes it as ‘progressive’, ‘modernist’ and ‘social democratic’. So, the label ‘center-right’ describes only the Ranilist UNP of the last, disastrous quarter-century. Second-generation UNPer and prominent SJB member Imtiaz Bakeer Markar is at pains to point out in his public speeches and TV interviews that the UNP was not a ‘center-right’ party in the pre-Ranil period.
A non-Sri Lankan critic on Twitter has said that Sajith’s appointment of me is strange for ‘a liberal’ Opposition leader. What Sajith has said and done may not accord with Ranilian neoliberalism, but is not in contradiction with liberal democracy. Come to think of it, where has Sajith whose discourse is suffused with the commitment to democracy, described himself and/or his party as ‘liberal’? He has, however, said it is not ‘neoliberal’.
Ranilist neoliberalism—Ranilism–is electoral Kryptonite, as the voters proved beyond any doubt recently. By contrast, while ‘Populism Lite’ may be a slur in the neoliberal legal academic lexicon, it has proved an essential ingredient in any democratic victory be it in Mexico and Bolivia or the USA (the Sanders contribution)!
What is at stake here is the battle to retain the new Opposition, the SJB, within the parameters of ideological Ranilism and the strategic direction, roadmap and project of Ranil Wickremesinghe, even without his formal leadership. Sajith Premadasa is not, cannot be and should not be a political clone of his late father, but anyone who knew President Ranasinghe Premadasa would know that there’s little chance of his only son Sajith, and the party the latter leads, remaining in, falling back or taking a running jump into the deep hole that Ranil kept it buried in, ideologically, politically and electorally for a quarter-century.