By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“When the prison doors open, the real dragon will fly out”—Ho Chi Minh
Mao Zedong once famously chided a group of young loyalists, saying “you say you want to make a revolution, but you don’t know where the bourgeoisie is! The bourgeoisie is in the party!” Similarly, I have long wanted to see an “anti-systemic” movement and struggle (to use my old professor, the iconic Immanuel Wallerstein’s concept) but have not known where the most “anti-systemic” element is, in this country. That is until now. But I have changed.
I have had an epiphany. It has dawned on me that the most dangerously radical political leader in the country is not Kumara Gunaratnam but Ranil Wickremesinghe and the most dangerously radical political party is not the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) but the United National Party (UNP). Is green the new red?
There isn’t a single thing that the three divided streams of the once united JVP propose—and I refer to Anura Kumara’s JVP, Kumar Gunaratnam’s FSP and Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF—that comes even close to wreaking the havoc that the UNP’s present political practices and policy postures are about to inflict upon stability and the System. I’m not joking.
Take the partial disenfranchisement of the millions who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa and against a National government at the August 2015 parliamentary election. Not only don’t they have their 95 seats, they have been deprived of the leadership of the opposition that their 51 seat entitle them to according to all tenets of logic, arithmetic, fair play and natural justice. Instead we have a bogus Opposition, a fraudulent Opposition, an entirely ethnic opposition which has only 16 seats, represents an ethnic minority and two provinces of the island. There is no mainstream opposition permitted.
This structural fraud, this confiscation and suffocation of popular sovereignty, renders the political order illegitimate and therefore not entitled to the stipulation that goes with legitimacy, namely that such a political order can and must be replaced only through electoral and systemic means. If a political order ignores the results of an election, violates it and actually stands it on its head, then is degree of illegitimacy is such that extra-electoral methods of direct action and people’s power almost automatically come onto the agenda.
To add insult to injury, Dinesh Gunawardena, the socially respected, experienced parliamentarian and quite considerably moderate nationalist (far more moderate than his firebrand father) has been punitively evicted for a week from parliament while another moderate progressive, Dullas Alahapperuma has not been allowed to stand-in for him. This smacks of a trial run to reduce the already restricted political space of the legitimate Opposition, the JO. If this is the treatment meted out to Dinesh Gunawardena, nobody is guaranteed their democratic political space and freedom of political expression even in the sacrosanct precincts of Parliament.
One can readily imagine the fate of democracy if a Third Republican Constitution is promulgated in which the executive Presidency stands abolished and executive power transferred to this Prime minister and this Parliament as it is currently configured, or rather, distorted– with a 16 member party as Opposition, a five member party as Opposition Whip and a 51 member coalition with no official status whatsoever!
So as the song went, “what’s it all about, Alfie?” It’s about retro chic, really. It’s like miniskirts are back in fashion. The UNP’s old behavior is back on display. The UNP’s polarizing policies of 1951-1956 generated a massive social uprising in August 1953, radicalized the Sinhala Buddhists and shifted SWRD and the SLFP to a Sinhala nationalist platform by 1956. The UNP’s policies of 1965-70 catapulted a strong center-left into office, but more significantly, caused the rise of an armed revolutionary movement by the late 1960s; a movement that armed itself due to a fear that the UNP’s rightwing (of which the present PM’s father was the ideologue) would outmaneuver the liberal leader of the country Dudley Senanayaka, postpone elections and install a Rightist dictatorship.
Third time round, in the 1980s, the UNP weakened the parliamentary Opposition by hauling up Madam Bandaranaike before a Commission and removing her civic rights, throwing Vijaya Kumaratunga in jail, and holding a fraudulent and coercive referendum to extend the term of Parliament.
That trajectory began its descent into hell six months later with July ’83, the shooting of students in ’84, the radical Left (JVP and its rivals) going underground, the shooting dead of a youngster attending the May Day rally of Dinesh Gunawardana in ’87, civil war exploding in the South, escalating civil war in the North, foreign intervention and a backlash of xenophobic barbarism, all resulting in a situation in which UNPers were not only murdered but could not be carried above the knee in funeral processions—a horrific situation from which the archetype “outsider”, Ranasinghe Premadasa, rescued his party, government, people, and country, and was sought to be impeached by a grateful UNP elite!
Today, the UNP has no such figure even remotely on the horizon. If it goes down the road of the 1980s as it seems to be determined to do, it will not be rescued from within, because there is no visible, audible, credible alternative within the UNP. There are no “outsiders”; only insiders and wanna-be insiders.
As in the ’80s, the UNP is persecuting the Opposition because it wants to evict it from all political space, and it wants to do this because of the same two reasons that motivated it in the early ‘80s. The UNP wants to win a referendum and it wants to weaken the SLFP—in this case its own coalition partner and its leader, President Sirisena. The UNP wishes to push through the Third Republican Constitution that it has promised its Tamil voters, its TNA partner, its Tamil Diaspora allies, its Tamil Nadu and Tamil Diaspora influenced foreign sponsors. It wants to cripple both wings of the SLFP.
It plans to cripple the progressive (JO/MR) wing, just as it attacked the SLFP’s Vijaya Kumaratunga led progressives in the 1980s on the pretext of the absurd “Naxalite Plot”—and actually shot at Vijaya at the Mahara by-election (where the UNP’s present leader had been appointed political authority of the UNP’s campaign).
It also wants to cripple the more liberal SLFP which is its coalition partner, by abolishing the executive presidency and transferring power to the UNP Prime Minister and his allies the Chief Ministers of North and East.
Meanwhile the rhetoric and practices of the UNP leadership show that it is preparing for a showdown with the student movement and the trade union movement led variously by the Frontline Socialists and the JVP.
This preparation for confrontation all around the compass takes place in a context rather different from the 1980s, though—and it is the context that renders the outcome more inevitably incendiary than in the 1980s. At that time the economy was growing fast, all factions of the ruling elite (JR, Lalith, Gamini, Premadasa) had developmental ideas and initiatives, employment was rapidly generated, the place was generally prosperous though war-torn, and political stability assured by the new, presidential Constitution. Today, none of those plus factors are present, while their opposites are.
The only macroeconomic idea the UNP government has is to open itself and sell itself to all comers passing through the Indian Ocean or better still, the Asia-Pacific region. This is not an economic developmental ideology; it is the project of being a stopover point and service station for visiting navies; it the consciousness of a brothel owner in a port city. If the UNP elite’s vision comes through, this island will be one massive massage parlor for docking ships. Sri Lanka won’t be the “rising hub” of the Asia–Pacific, it’ll be “The House of the Rising Sun”. The most suitable symbolic depiction of the Wickremesinghe government’s vision for Sri Lanka is that of a man, legs spread apart, bending over a chair, with a model warship rammed where the sun don’t shine!
As for the stability necessary for a propitious climate of investment, foreign and domestic, nothing is quite as tricky as removing your existing Constitution and replacing it with a whole new one which requires a referendum, and you don’t have a two thirds majority of your own while your own coalition partners are fighting a rear guard action against the entire idea!
In an incredible imitation of the past, the PM and his UNP are reviving student radicalism on a mass scale. In the first years of the Jayewardene administration, Wijeweera, the JVP and the university student movement under the latter’s control were quite well-behaved. The trouble started in Kelaniya when UNP goons attacked students, the latter hit back, a goon died and the present PM (at the time a UNP chieftain in Kelaniya) attended his funeral. And then in 1980 he followed up in his capacity of Minister of Education, with a typically bright idea: the White Paper on Education. The student movement rose out of the universities on to the streets, and the repression –including abductions to Siri Kotha, baton charging by mounted Police and lethal shooting in 1984—turned the student movement into something like Daenerys’ dragons in ‘Game of Thrones’. Now Mr. Wickremesinghe is back, the UNP is back postponing scheduled elections and its “déjà vu all over again”.
As PM in 2001-2004, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s anti-national policies of appeasement were cause and catalyst of a huge Sinhala nationalist backlash which drove the SLFP, JVP and JHU together and carried Mahinda Rajapaksa to the top. I have little doubt that, come the elections of 2019-2020, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s present stint will have resulted in yet another grateful Rajapaksa beneficiary, albeit one who is more ‘Putinist’ than his illustrious predecessor and elder sibling.
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