By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Is anyone at the top, working closely with the Deep State, allowing the crisis to accelerate and even helping it exacerbate, so as to facilitate military rule (or presidential-military rule)?
Is the democratic opposition, from political parties to civil society, unwittingly walking into the equivalent of a well-prepared military ambush by unilateralist-sectarian political adventurism on the part of some, and Weimar Republic weak-state liberalism on the part of others?
The liberal and liberal-left Lankan democrats always had a tendency to cry “Wolf! Wolf”, when there wasn’t one, having never cried “Tiger! Tiger” when there was.
In 2015, they cried “wolf” and pointed in the manifestly wrong direction, having run the risk that there may have actually been a wolf lurking elsewhere. In January 2015 Mangala Samaraweera and Somawansa Amerasinghe of the UNP and JVP respectively led the charge, alleging that as electoral defeat loomed, Mahinda Rajapaksa had plotted to stay on in office with the support of the military. The whole country knew that to be untrue because MR quit before the final results had come in.
I knew it to be untrue more than most others did. At 3 AM on the day of the electoral defeat, while I was watching the results coming in at home with my wife, President Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke to me on Udaya Gammanpila’s or Dayasiri Jayasekara’s phone, told me that his gut-reading of the trend was that he was losing, that he was about to resign and thanked me warmly for my active support and participation on TV and the public platforms, in the campaign. (A campaign in which I knew MR wasn’t at an advantage as I told Opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena on Dec 8th 2014 at Azath Sally’s house.)
Now the untruthful shrieking, about MR planning to stay on with the military, obscured another possibility, namely that there may have been others, not merely civilian, who were advocating such an option or toying with such a contingency, and found that the rug had been pre-emptively, and perhaps even unwittingly, pulled by MR who resigned, thanked his tearful staff and moved out at the crack of dawn.
If there were any such dark elements entertaining thoughts of putschist political Black-Ops we shall never know who they might have been or where they are now, thanks to the anti-MR hysteria of the victors at that moment. We can only speculate what such elements may be thinking now, with no MR capable of spontaneously hitting the democratic ejector button.
What one does know from comparative global history though, is that severe economic crises do not always give rise to one option, but can give rise to two options which battle each other until one succeeds. Economic crashes can cause a shift to the left, in policy (Roosevelt’s New Deal) or political outcome (revolutions, elected left-leaning governments). Economic depressions can also give rise to harsh rightwing authoritarian solutions, including forms of fascism and military dictatorships (classic examples are Italy and Germany in the 1930s and Chile in 1973).
Those who think this doesn’t apply to Sri Lanka because of its democratic heritage should know that Uruguay was called the Switzerland of Latin America and Chile was very proud of its democratic heritage.
Those who think that this doesn’t apply to Sri Lanka for another reason, namely that the Gotabaya option has been tried and has failed, and so Sri Lanka is past that point, have ignored the obvious, and best funded, most efficient institution in the country: the military.
Those who think that the economic crisis is beyond the military’s capacity to manage are almost certainly correct, but that doesn’t rule out harsh, sanguinary military rule which pounds democracy, political parties, trade unions and civil society into rubble, for a medium or short period.
Intellectual Absence & Abdication
The question is: what should be done and of this what can be done? Before that is answered, one has to be aware of what should have been done and has not been undertaken.
The basics have not yet been done. One of the pillars of Ceylon’s/Sri Lanka’s democratic two-party system, the UNP, electorally disappeared. It did so after a prolonged electoral depression, never having won a presidential election since 1988. It’s extinction was prefigured by the defeat it incurred at the hands of a new party, at the February 2018 local authority election. How many articles by the liberal or left intelligentsia—academic and/or activist–have you read analyzing any of that?
By contrast, when Trump won in 2016, the quality American press was filled over the next few years, not only with critiques of him but also with lacerating self-criticism of how the Democrats lost, including in areas and among social strata that had traditionally supported it.
The same goes for the SLFP, the second party in the two-party system, which now resembles Groot when he turned into a twig. How many analyses have you read of how and why it got there?
The Sri Lankan war ended in an internationally rare though not unique victory for the State over a powerful irregular army once referred to by Ron Moreau in Newsweek as the world’s toughest guerrilla fighters after the Vietcong (Moreau had covered Vietnam). How many explanatory essays have you read by the Lankan intelligentsia about the decisive defeat of the indomitable LTTE?
How many analyses have you come across on the reasons for the successive failures of peace efforts with the LTTE, by diverse Sri Lankan leaders, India and Norway?
For the record, I shall note that I have written and published on all these topics, but that is not the point I am driving at.
The first of my main points is that there is a surplus of opinion and absence of analysis on the major phenomena of contemporary Sri Lankan political history, either real-time or in retrospect. This gross dereliction of basic intellectual responsibility and academic duty constitutes a major indictment of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia after the turn of the century and millennium.
What this speaks to is the unwillingness or inability to carry out an honest post-mortem or audit. Given the inability for reflective critical evaluation, there is no possibility of accurate diagnosis. Thus, there is no prospect –or possibility? —of an accurate prognosis and prescription.
This has consequences. If there is no public postmortem on the electoral disappearance of the UNP and the truncation of the SLFP, or the victory in the war and the failure of the efforts at peace, there will be no sense of the state of fragility to which the Sri Lankan democratic system has been reduced today and no comprehension of the militarist project.
Without shining the light of self-critical lucidity, there is no chance of avoiding steps that would take Sri Lanka further into the labyrinth or down the abyss at the end of which is the Minotaur of militarism.
If the various streams of the Opposition do not move swiftly to a position which is proximate to that of the Pohottuwa voter and accommodates that which is legitimate in their grievances and aspirations, the majority of Sinhalese will find an alternative solution to the crisis that is closer to them in their grand narrative.
In 1988, faced with Sirimavo Bandaranaike as rival and the JVP as threat, Ranasinghe Premadasa was able to repackage the nationalist-patriotic and socioeconomic aspirational in a new, organic mix, and beat them both. This proved Ranjan Wijeratne correct when he told President Jayewardene that only Premadasa, not Gamini or Lalith, could save the UNP, democracy and the country. I am not making a pitch in this article for a party or a leader. I merely want readers to understand that unless the democratic parties shift in a certain direction, the suffering masses may accept—even if they do not actively opt for—the military as their savior.
What is the direction the democratic Opposition, including the civil society intelligentsia, should move in and which direction should it eschew? It is easier to start with the latter aspect.
NMSJ’s Constitutional Chernobyl
It must decidedly not move in the direction of the draft proposals for constitutional change of the NMSJ led by former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The problem is not with Mr. Jayasuriya; it is with the content of the proposals. The segment on Rights is very good, but there’s something radically wrong at the very heart of the proposals: the Executive and Devolution. Even worse than in the matter of changing ratios of gases by gas companies, the NMSJ proposals mix two ideas which should never be mixed. One is the loosening of the definition of the state and enhancing provincial autonomy WHILE removing the directly, nationally elected executive presidency.
The new constitutional proposals are pretty much the same draft constitutional proposals that killed-off the UNP, viz re-naming the state as an “ekeeiya Rajya” in the Sinhala and English (!) versions while looking for ‘a suitable Tamil term’ appears like a loophole. The Supreme Court found in 1987 that the 13th amendment stayed barely within the framework of a unitary state and did not cross the line over to the federal solely because of the powers of the governor as representative of the executive president.
Delete the term ‘unitary’ in English and there is no ‘link language’ term for the character of the state. Delete the nationally elected Executive Presidency rather than dilute and distribute its excessive powers, and the Provincial powers slide into the realm of the arguably federal.
The NMSJ proposes that the President be elected by an Electoral College, but that has no kinship with the US presidential system because the NMSJ states unambiguously that it stands for a parliamentary system of Government.
Therefore, if you have a parliamentary system, provincial powers under an “ekeeiya Rajya” — which is given no exact translation/definition in any recognized international language—and a president who is not directly and nationally elected but is chosen by an Electoral College, what does it all add up to?
It adds up to a system in which the sovereign people taken as a whole, as a totality, have no office of an overarching character to which they choose the incumbent by election. The island of Sri Lanka with its diverse population will have no elected unifying symbol which represents the overarching, higher value of the whole over the parts.
The PM will be a leader who will only have the legitimacy of being elected by a parochial unit, not of having been elected by a majority of the whole citizenry. A legislature headed by such a leader – and a bicameral legislature at that, as the NMSJ has proposed—will be on a level playing field with the Provincial Councils, which will no longer have an overarching presidency to hold them in check nor a clear definition of the state as ‘unitary’. And this on an island only a few miles away from a neighbor which has the same ethnic composition as the North of Sri Lanka.
This is a model not of a strong, supple democratic state with a separation of powers as in the USA and France, but of a weak, multipolar state; a state in which the centripetal is structurally and systemically weaker than the centrifugal, and provides few safeguards against the latter. Simply put the NMSJ model cannot keep Ministers or Chief Ministers in check because it has no overarching elected Presidency.
The Opposition parties should avoid the NMSJ proposals as they would the plague. Chandrika’s Constitutional ‘package’ stimulated the rise of the New Right, the JHU, and her PTOMS culminated (mercifully) in the Mahinda Rajapaksa candidacy. Ranil’s CFA sealed his electoral defeat. The Yahapalanaya UNP’s draft constitution –which the NMSJ recycles with slight modifications– coupled with the 2015 co-sponsorship of the Geneva resolution with its “international prosecutors, investigators and judges” commitment, helped mightily to catapult Gotabaya Rajapaksa into office and bury the UNP. The SLFP survived because it dissented.
Repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is indeed the definition of lunacy. The real problem is that every time you keep repeating it, the same thing happens but at a further point of the scale.
Listen carefully to what the people are saying even as they curse the policies of the Gotabaya government and rue the day they voted for him. They want a strong state, a leader who will care about them and take care of their material interests; will at the least not harm their livelihoods. They are not fans of a weak state. They want a social democratic policy from a social democratic state. They want a government that will deliver the goods and they want a System that can and will deliver those goods. That is not an overly decentralized, dysfunctional system in the name of liberal democracy, which will be unable to keep Ministers and Chief Ministers in check. This gives liberal democracy a bad name.
If the alternative that the democrats have to offer the people is a Weimar Republic, the people in their despair and anger may opt for or accept an aspirant Hitler, this time a combat veteran of the victorious last war in trademark black military uniform.