Writing about the current political crisis in Sri Lanka on 30th October 2018, this writer noted: we do not want state power – in one of Asia’s oldest democracies and in a place where the Constitution and the Rule of Law ‘matter’ – to go to the hands of vain and mediocre village thugs whose only priority is to establish a dynastic dictatorship.
The significance of this point was amply clarified in Parliament on the 15th and 16th of November 2018.
Let’s keep it simple: Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed Prime Minister on 26th October 2018 in the most disgraceful manner, has no parliamentary majority. Ranil Wickremesinghe, for his part, has a clear parliamentary majority. Sensible people in Rajapaksa’s own camp, including the likes of Kumara Welgama MP, have clearly emphasised the need to respect the parliamentary majority.
This is precisely what the orchestrators of the 26th November coup are unwilling to do. It is by now clear that the President is hell-bent on pursuing his agenda of maintaining Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership and the 30-member cabinet he recently appointed, until Parliament is dissolved. His objective, as many analysts have rightly highlighted, is that of securing a second presidential term at any cost. This means that there is, unfortunately, a likelihood that the violent scenes of 15th and 16th November 2018 will be repeated in more violent forms at the forthcoming parliamentary sessions.
The legislature is a place for legislators. It is a place where the spoken word primes. It is a place where parliamentary language has to prevail. It is a place where parliamentary procedures and best practice must be followed at all times.
A platform of this nature is not one for politically illiterate village thugs, who navigate the political sphere through petty manoeuvring. Such individuals holding sway in the legislature has in fact been the biggest threat to Sri Lankan democracy.
Sensible advice ignored
There appears to be a segment within the Rajapaksa family that understands the current situation, and concur that the most advisable step is for Mahinda to step down, and take to the opposition benches, thereby accepting the fact that Mahinda does not command a parliamentary majority at this point of time. Indeed, this would have given the SLPP tremendous leeway at the next elections, as it provides them with the opportunity of mounting a strong challenge against the UNF, also capitalising upon the fact that they abided by democratic best practice in a situation of acute political crisis.
However, this strategic insight has been categorically ignored by the tactless village thugs who form the large majority of the Rajapaksa camp. Many of who orchestrated the coup, (such as an MP who lost the 2015 general election in the Nuwara Eliya District but was taken in through the back door), are known for their lack of any scruple in their power games. Having worked with Chandrika Kumaratunga in her 1993 provincial council and 1994 general and presidential campaigns, the aforementioned individual emerged as a leading figure during Kumaratunga’s first term of office. The presence of individuals of this nature was a key factor that eventually stained Kumaratunga’s presidency [for example, those who recall may recall the electoral violence unleashed during an infamous Wayamba Provincial Council election].
Violence and Vandalism with Presidential Blessings?
Today, these village thugs have received the highest sanction from the Executive to engage in violence and vandalism in the legislature. They know that their President and their [fake] Prime Minister will protect them. They know that they are safe. Hence the boldness to throw waste bins at the Speaker of Parliament, to break chairs, to sit on the Speaker’s Chair, to spill water on the Speaker’s Chair, spill chili-mixed water at police officers and MPs, and to insult the Speaker of Parliament in the most foul terms.
Mahinda Rajapaksa: A Spartan legacy?
Mahinda Rajapaksa is the quintessential Spartan.
The Spartan’s leadership may have been necessary to mount a ruthless offensive against the LTTE. However, we no longer live in ancient Greece, and the human rights violations, crimes against humanity [including the cold-blooded murder of individuals who surrendered bearing white flags], and sexual violence, especially in the latter stages of the 2009 offensive, have left lasting scars, which are being used by some external powers to coerce Sri Lanka to abide by their agendas.
Once the LTTE was eliminated, what Sri Lanka needed was the quintessential Athenian to lead the land, mend hearts and minds, work towards accountability, truth and reconciliation, also consistently standing on grounds of magnanimity in policy formulation. The lack of such an Athenian has been Sri Lanka’s penultimate misfortune.
Lanka’s Lost Attlee Moment?
To go by another analogy, Mahinda was the ruthless Churchill. The electorate in Sri Lanka attempted, in January 2015, something somewhat similar to what the British electorate did at the 1945 general election, electing Clement Attlee to drive Britain to the post-WWII world. Thanks to this wise decision came the NHS, social welfare, education reform, legislation clement towards women and children, strong emphasis on workers’ rights, and an approach to foreign affairs that marked a stark contrast to conservative imperialist agendas.
In many respects, a majority of Sri Lankan voters saw an opportunity to elect our own Attlee at the 2015 presidential election.
This, however, proved to be a monumental mistake and miscalculation.
The person elected to presidency on 8th January 2015 eventually turned out to be a socially conservative, power-hungry and ruthless individual, whose one and only agenda is one of staying in power for as long as possible. The present power struggle and the unpleasant scenes in Parliament are all his making, for his exclusive objective of securing a second presidential term. The following screenshot of a ‘public’ social media post by a young scholar and gender justice activist, and the response of yet another scholar and a strong supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa, provides an indication of the objectives of the Rajapaksa camp at this point of time.
In essence, there is a clear aversion to any political experiments involving ‘common candidates’, focused on a [neo]liberal agenda, with the support of India and the West. There is also an element of ‘containing’ India, in which the Rajapaskas seem to have had some success. This is evident in Delhi’s silence on the ongoing political crisis. Mahinda’s visit to Delhi, weeks before he was appointed Prime Minister, seems to have borne fruit. How Delhi’s position evolves in the coming days will be crucial to stabilise (or further worsen) the ongoing political crisis.
Sri Lanka: Home of a Democratic Tradition
What the Rajapaksa camp and its ideologues need to understand is the following – that Sri Lanka is not Brazil, or any other state where fascism can prevail. Sri Lankans, despite all their zillion flaws, are a people who stand by their democracy. If you observe the politics of post-1948 Ceylon/Sri Lanka, you will notice that the electorate has never been tolerant of demagogues for too long. Politicos with dictatorial agendas, intent upon wielding absolute power, and some leaders with ‘royalty complexes’ [e.g. a preference to sit on thrones], were all sent off, either by elections, oppositional political movements or by wartime circumstances.
If we take a look at the political behaviour of the executive presidency since 1878, we can notice a desire to reign over Sri Lanka forever among some wielders of presidential power. These plans never worked out in full.
More January 8s to come?
As opposed to what Rajapaksa acolytes assume, and irrespective of how the ongoing coup turns out, Sri Lankans, especially the younger generation, will continue to orchestrate many more 8th January 2015 equivalents, striving to challenge the dogmatic two-party system, the concentration of political leadership among geriatric men, and in a spirit of genuine commitment to good governance. This is what transpires when one looks at collectives of young Sri Lankans, their discourses and activism.
The behaviour of the Rajapaksarite MPs at the House on 15th and 16th November 2018 is set to go in public memory as the most shameless, lowest of the low conduct by Sri Lankan MPs.
Our long democratic tradition has never been degraded to this sorry level. These thugs descended to the most pathetic, gutless and violent tactics such as throwing objects at the Speaker and at the opposition benches, including chili-mixed liquid attacks, and moving the Speaker’s Chair. Disciplinary action, as well as court cases against these rogues are absolutely essential, and the only justifiable verdict from a court of law would be a life ban on the exercise of the right to stand at any election. Consequences of violence in the House and spilling water on the Speaker’s Chair should be stern, and an example must be set.
Violence in Parliament: non-partisan perspective?
This does not mean, in any way, a condoning of violent responses or outbursts by UNP MPs. They have the parliamentary majority. That some of them lose it at their opponent minority’s shameless denial of that majority, is indeed understandable. However, that understanding does not justify any form of violence in the House.
This writer is reminded of a day in August 2000, when President Kumaratunga did something unprecedented. Fulfilling one of her main election pledges, her government tabled a draft constitution, intended at reaching a political settlement to the ethnic conflict and divisive ethnonational contentions.
The content of the Draft, its pros and cons are irrelevant here. Kumaratunga herself came to the floor to present the text. This writer, then a teenager, still recalls Kumaratunga, clad in a cream-coloured sari, presenting the entire text to Parliament amidst severe interruptions. Seated next to her were the late Rathnasiri Wickramanayake MP and the late Lakshman Jayakody MP. Right throughout Kumaratunga’s intervention, Ranil Wickremesinghe MP, then Leader of the Opposition, sat comfortably on his chair, while UNP MPs went mad, burning copies of the draft constitution inside the House, on MPs’ desks. It was an absolutely shameless sight. While all of this was going on, Wickremesinghe, then eighteen years younger, sat on his seat with a sarcastic grin on his face, and did absolutely nothing to stop the pathetic behaviour of his party colleagues.
One wrong does not justify another. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that on that day of August 2000, Wickremesinghe’s UNP set an extremely negative precedent. It is an outgrowth of such unparliamentary and rouge behaviour that we witnessed on 15th and 16th November 2018.
Chandrika Kumaratunga’s dignified reaction
To Kumaratunga’s credit, her behaviour that day was an example for any aspiring politician to follow. She was presenting the fruit of years of work. A great deal of effort, from 1994 to the year 2000, went into the drafting of the text she presented. It was very much the most important political reform initiative of her presidency. In the face of the abjectly abusive, rude, blatantly misogynist and disgraceful behaviour of UNP MPs, Mrs Kumaratunga kept her calm, and presented the entire text. Her parliamentary colleagues sat relatively decently, and did not cross the floor to engage in fist fights. The President did not utter any foul language, or village thug claims such as “මට මේක ලොකු නෑ!”.
Let’s not forget the fact that the UNP practiced such daytime thuggery in front of the executive President, the most powerful person on the land. At the time, there was absolutely no restriction on executive powers, and with the stroke of one signature, Mrs Kumaratunga could have effectively terminated the political careers of the constitution burners. She was the Commander-in-Chief, and the armed forces were fully on her side. Considering the UNP MPs’ aggressive behaviour in the House as blatant disregard for issues pertaining to national security, Kumaratunga could have deployed state intelligence and the stealth of the forces against those who burnt the draft constitution. Despite all those powers, President Kumaratunga maintained a very dignified posture, and did not take any revengeful action against them.
In hindsight, one can only imagine what the outcome would have been had Mahinda Rajapaksa received such a reaction from the opposition benches during his presidency.
Indecency: Never the way forward?
Indecency and indignity are highly destructive in politics. Graceful behaviour is what pays back. This, contrary to popular belief in some quarters, is very much the case in Sri Lanka. Any excess of any form will be remembered, and one’s dignity goes down the drain if one abuses their position of power. Let’s not forget, to give but one example, that many people lit crackers in glee when President Premadasa was assassinated on May Day 1993.
In sum, the scenes in Parliament on the 15th and 16th November 2018 provide ample testimony to a number of political realities, a few of which are listed below:
1. It is in Sri Lanka’s best interests if Mahinda Rajapaksa and his goons are defeated at the next general election. All possible strategies such as electoral alliances, manoeuvring the ethnic minority vote and mounting a robust anti-Rajapaksa campaign, should be deployed to this effect.
2. The most powerful parties in the two-party system require replacement. The old SLFP-led coalitions vs. UNP-led coalitions are fast becoming dysfunctional. To explain further, the present crisis is the creation of Sirisena, but why is Sirisena the President of Sri Lanka? A) Because of a leadership vacuum in the UNP, which prevented that party from fielding a presidential candidate who is ‘election-winning material’, and most importantly, B) Because of the, chauvinist, discriminatory, misogynist and dictatorial excesses of the Rajapaksa administration, which provided fertile grounds for external powers to orchestrate a regime-change operation.
3. The Gaullist executive presidency is thoroughly unsuitable for high-quality, people-centred and accountable governance in post-war Sri Lanka
4. The Sri Lankan left, or centre-left, needs to be developed as an absolute national priority. That leadership of the left/centre-left can only be assumed by today’s JVP – and progressive movements should stand by the JVP and assist that party in growing from its petit-bourgeois origins and traditional vote base. The JVP cannot take off in its present form. It needs to be transformed into a political force that is marketable to the corporate sector, to ethnic minorities, to a broad electorate across social class, levels of education, or wealth, and also to our major international partners. This cannot be done without presenting a well and truly viable alternative, attracting young talent from different backgrounds, and with progressive policies such as 50:50 parity. The recent affirmation of SOGIESC rights is a highly promising development, which needs to be pursued further to develop the most advanced gender justice policy a Sri Lankan political party has ever developed. The stronger the left/centre-left, the more Sri Lankan democracy will benefit. To begin with, it is very important for the JVP to change its model of reactionary student politics to progressive and inclusive student politics.
5. Progressive Sri Lankans who have been spearheading excellent protest campaigns and mobilisation for democracy over the last fortnight, especially women, should go to the next level and seek opportunities to stand for elected office. The task of eliminating violent goons and village thugs from the House of Parliament is in our hands. We must collectively work to generate a new and unprecedented parliamentary headcount, composed of a majority of MPs below 50, and 50-50 parity. It is extremely important to de-centre elected office from dynastic politics to a merit-based focus, together with affirmative steps to encourage LGBTQIA+ citizens, ethnic minority women, disabled people and other minorities to stand for office.
The current situation is extremely disturbing, but we should never underestimate our ability to collectively walk towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
To be continued..
*Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a political analyst, international consultant and gender justice advocate