19 September, 2020

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The JR-MR-Effect

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Sri Lanka over the last few weeks has experienced a twin crisis. One is political provoked by its constitution, and the other economic engendered by its politics. However, this crisis is the combined effect of two previous presidencies, those of JR Jayewardene (1978-89) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-15). I prefer to call it the JR-MR-Effect. This effect is destroying the island’s proud democratic heritage and debilitating its struggling economy and peoples’ welfare.  

In 1977, Jayewardene (JR), a paragon of neoliberal capitalism, and his United National Party (UNP) were swept to power at the elections with an outright majority to form a new government with JR as prime minister. UNP won 140 of the 168 seats in the parliament with 50.92% of the total votes. It was indeed a clear mandate. However, this outcome did not satisfy JR who always had nightmares about the critical role ethnic minorities such as the Tamils and Muslims and political minorities such as the leftists like the Sama Samajists and Communists played in the legislature to block, amend and even defeat what they considered as unfair legislations. Being an arch enemy of Marxist socialism JR detested the previous SLFP-led socialist coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.  For over thirty years since the country’s independence he was biding his time for an opportunity to finish off once and for all the political influence of minorities. The 1977 elections provided him with that opportunity.  

The first thing he did was to initiate a total U-turn in the country’s economic direction. More than thirty years of state-market mixed economic experiment was given up in favour of a competitive free market model without any restraint.  Capitalism was reintroduced with a vengeance, reflecting JR’s all or nothing philosophy. As a result of this reversal economic inequality widened and poverty deepened to become a systemic phenomenon. He wanted to transform Sri Lanka into another Singapore. The economic impact of his open economy would have become perilous for millions of Sri Lankans had it not been for a window of opportunity opened for the nation’s surplus labour to migrate to the Middle East. It is that opening which is sustaining the wellbeing of over a million households even today.  

JR’s second epoch making measure was to abolish the Republican Colvin Constitution and introduce instead an all-powerful executive presidential constitution with proportional representation when electing members to the legislature. Under this constitution the president could do anything except, he bragged, “change a man into woman and vice versa”. He also thought that with proportional representation he would kill the electoral power of minorities and the leftists.  While the leftists on their part were predicting for years that JR would be the midwife for a socialist revolution in Sri Lanka, he actually became the father of an ethnic pogrom in 1983. Although he failed to diminish the influence of minorities through his proportional representation model the powers embedded in the Gaullist like presidency has turned out to be a blessing to power hungry and manipulative presidents who succeeded him. Already in late 1970s the then leader of LSSP, Dr. NM Perera warned of the hidden dangers of JR’s executive presidency. Today, in the hands of a former village headman, NM’s prediction has come true. President Maithripala Sirisena has unmistakably demonstrated his egoistic desire for power, which has plunged the country into a constitutional and political crisis. Every president after JR, except Ranasingha Premadasa, came to power by promising to abolish that presidency. Yet, having tasted the honeycomb none of them dared to tamper with it. Today’s political crisis is JR’s contribution to a malediction that has descended on the nation. The rest of it was the handiwork of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). 

When MR became president in 2005 by default (he would not have won the election had the LTTE leadership not ordered Tamil voters to boycott the elections) he inherited a civil war. That civil war was the natural outgrowth of JR’s 1983 pogrom. Several attempts were made under previous presidents to seek a peaceful solution to the Tamil issue. MR too tried. However, the LTTE leadership dreaming of an impossible military victory became arrogantly adamant and was not prepared for any compromise. To LTTE leadership it was an all or nothing choice for a separate Tamil Eelam. To MR therefore a military solution became unavoidable and that was when the current economic crisis had its immediate origins. 

Any war is not a cheap affair and modern wars need expensive weapons to arm the soldiery. That requires enormous amount of money and no government today in a small country like Sri Lanka can raise that sort of money solely through taxing its people. The alternative therefore is to borrow. However, in a democratic governance parliament has to approve government’s financial proposals.  To MR that was not a problem, because it was an emergency situation and government’s propaganda machine portrayed the war not as one between a misguided rebellious group versus the rest, as it happened previously during JVP insurrection in 1971, but as an existential confrontation between the Sinhalese and Tamils. That was how even JR justified his pogrom, as a legitimate Sinhalese response to Tamil atrocities. Thus the Sinhalese majority parliament had no qualms in approving President MR’s requests. Irrespective of parliament’s approval, JR’s executive presidency empowered the office holder to resort to any action to overcome an emergency. MR and his defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, went to the global arms bazaar with borrowed money to procure modern weapons. The civil war ensued in earnest and the rest is history.

No doubt MR won the war quite comprehensively although he lost the peace. He deserves to be congratulated for getting rid of the LTTE menace. Disappointingly though, he missed a golden opportunity to solve the Tamil issue once and for all and reunite the country. Instead, while sections of his party supporters were basking in the false warmth of schadenfreude, MR used the power of his office to go on a spending spree, again with borrowed money, to fund some of his questionable development projects. A number of these projects were prestige oriented rather than growth oriented. As a result, the Mattala Airport for example, has turned out to be a white elephant, and the Hambantota Harbour, leased to the Chinese for ninety-nine years, has dragged Sri Lanka into the vortex of Indian Ocean geopolitics. Unsurprisingly, the spectre of recolonization has come to haunt the minds of some thinkers and writers in the country.

Above all, in the course of the nation’s war-associated but extravagant expenditure, the personal wealth that MR, his clan and cronies accumulated unleashed a wave of corruption and money laundering unprecedented in the history of the country. A kleptocracy was well and truly in the making during his regime. For this the people punished MR at the ballot box in 2015 when he recontested for the presidency; but his legacy of limitless borrowing, corruption and imprudent expenditure has continued under his successor president MS and prime minister RW. What originated as a budgetary crisis in the wake of the civil war, because of profligate spending, reckless borrowing and pernicious corruption, all within JR’s neoliberal economic paradigm and his Gaullist presidency has metamorphosed into a financial and economic crisis.  This in short is the JR-MR-Effect that is now afflicting the country. There is no magical solution to ward off the malediction. Instead, it requires hard and decisive rational thinking to redesign the national economic framework while at the same time rewriting the presidential constitution. This is the immediate challenge facing the nation.  

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    It is worth reading your article. Yet don’t you think your analysis is simplistic and the solution offered is also simplistic. Any way congratulations!

    • 1
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      Dr. Ameer Ali

      RE: The JR-MR-Effect

      “Sri Lanka over the last few weeks has experienced a twin crisis. ,,, I prefer to call it the JR-MR-Effect. This effect is destroying the island’s proud democratic heritage and debilitating its struggling economy and peoples’ welfare”

      Thanks for the write up. It is all about power.

      “JR’s second epoch making measure was to abolish the Republican Colvin Constitution and introduce instead an all-powerful executive presidential constitution with proportional representation when electing members to the legislature. Under this constitution the president could do anything except, he bragged, “change a man into woman and vice versa””

      “Already in late 1970s the then leader of LSSP, Dr. NM Perera warned of the hidden dangers of JR’s executive presidency. Today, in the hands of a former village headman, NM’s prediction has come true. President Maithripala Sirisena has unmistakably demonstrated his egoistic desire for power, which has plunged the country into a constitutional and political crisis. Every president after JR, except Ranasingha Premadasa, came to power by promising to abolish that presidency. “

      Sirisena is having a hard time changing Prime Ministers legally, never mind the sex of the Prime Minister.

      It is all about power.

  • 2
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    proportional representation was one of good things that JR introduced. Without it we would not have seen many MPS from small parties.. This system is far better to represent wider political parties. for Instance JVP if they contest by old system of electorate election system . they may get one or two.. Tamil parities will become Opposition if UNP or SLFP did not get enough seat. that was what happened in 1977 when Amirtahlingam become opposition leader. to avoid that JR needed PR system .

  • 4
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    Mr. Amir,
    “No doubt MR won the war quite comprehensively although he lost the peace. He deserves to be congratulated for getting rid of the LTTE menace. “
    In fact, you should congratuale Pirabhaharan who exposed the real motive of Sinhala Buddhist Fundamentalism. He understood very well that Buddhist Sinhala fundamentalism never allow peace in this island. You understand how Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalims turned against your community irrespective of your community gave full support to Buddhist Fundamentalism during the massacre of Tamil civilians time and time again. It is your politicians gave the two third majority in the parliament to bring 18th amendment in the constitution which gave Mahinda to compete 3rd time as President. As long as Pirabhaharan was here Indians and Chinese did not interfere in the country. Today Indians and Chinese are indirectly interfere to destroy this land. Mahinda. Sirisena and Ranil are competing to the chair not to bring peace in this country but to create a bloodbath oF Sinhalese. Pirabharan was not a barrier for peace and destruction of democracy. You know who are real enemies of the country.

    • 1
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      Ajith and Ameer,

      Ajith, a very true and sensible response.
      Dr.Ameer, You have outlined JR’s stratagems and escapades and what followed in comprehensive detail. However, there is a grave omission – the Pogrom of 1977. It destroyed the seeming peace put in place by Srimavo, Dudley and again by Srimavo between 1961 and 1977. this planned out assault on the Tamils was vengeful, destructive and aimed at eliminating Tamils from the political equations of the country. Little did the perpetrator JR ever dream that it will take his country to its nemesis.

      Why did he do that instead of building on the bricks put together by two good Prime Ministers, who had some moral sense? Was it to wash away in blood his Tamil ancestry, in order to establish himself as the purest Sinhala with no taint of Tamilian traits or trace? Writer Rutnam, his college mate and friend established the truism about his origin quite indubitably. Facts are too stubborn for pogroms to erase.

      The pogrom of ’77 failed miserably in its purported objective. It provided regenerative stimulus and sustenance to the Tamils’ combative retaliation from 1983. This ‘Final Solution’ to the Tamil problem with cue taken from Hitler’s ‘Final Solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’, has been the undoing of JR and his cohorts. But for this spiteful destruction, JR’s going the way of the West, a bold gamble might have worked. 1977 and 1983, fostered by the evil in the man butressed by the polity that trailed has brought us to today’s pass.

  • 0
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    We share your angst Prof Ameer Ali.
    The JR J-landmark election victory showed the feeling of the people at that point of time. Now we know that JR J was feeling insecure in victory. In spite of or because of?
    He went ahead and did what he did.
    His successors buggered the JR J creation and produced the latest episodes.

    It may end up as a match between home vs home teams.
    .
    Time to sit back and reflect as to why and how we ended up here.
    Is this a desirable situation? If not, how do we change this?

  • 3
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    Ameer Ali, That your analysis is shallow is evident from your wording of the role LTTE played,
    .
    ‘Several attempts were made under previous presidents to seek a peaceful solution to the Tamil issue. MR too tried. However, the LTTE leadership dreaming of an impossible military victory became arrogantly adamant and was not prepared for any compromise’.
    .
    After 9 years of LTTE free Sri Lanka, how do you still believe that past presidents sought a peaceful solution to the Tamil issue? Isn’t it becoming clear by the day that LTTE understood Sinhalese leaders much better than any of us.
    .
    ‘Disappointingly though, he (MR) missed a golden opportunity to solve the Tamil issue once and for all and reunite the country’.
    .
    Isn’t this disappointment of yours enough of an evidence to establish the validity of my observation.

  • 0
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    Excellent article,thank you, and it was not written by Dr. Dayan J, which is an added plus here.

    “”Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
    — Abraham Lincoln”

  • 0
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    Hear Also what Simon Sineth says:

    Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.

  • 0
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    Always a pleasure to read your well analysed essays Dr.Ameer Ali.
    The JR-MR effect has now transformed into the JR-MR-MS EFFECT. A category 1 storm that is ripping through the country uprooting DEMOCRACY!

  • 1
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    “Disappointingly though, he (MR) missed a golden opportunity to solve the Tamil issue once and for all and reunite the country”
    Mr Ali, don’t waste your time. There is NO conceivable solution to the Tamil issue as long as +50% Tamils (Tamil speaking people) live outside North East and they are unwilling to move into a separate Homeland. NO ONE has ever produced even a draft proposal for discussion which encompasses at least 90% of Tamils.
    Why should we Sinhalese be bothered about a non exciting ‘solution’ as long as +50% of Tamils (Tamil speaking people) are happy.

    Soma

  • 0
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    Could the Tamil nationals who are commenting tell us the nature of the solution they want or think will solve the Tamil problem? Constitutionally there is no discrimination, there is equality for all. there is a tri lingual language policy and there is some amount of devolution. In practical terms there may be shortcomings in implementation. As long as there is no trust between communities, implementation will always be difficult. So what should we do as a country to address the Tamil issue?

  • 1
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    “UNP won 140 of the 168 seats in the parliament with 50.92% of the total votes. It was indeed a clear mandate. “
    “Clear mandate” for what?
    8 kg of cereal? JRJ promised it making the people think that it will be subsidised.
    What in the new constitution that was politically significant was pledged in the election manifesto?
    What in UNP’s anti-democratic deeds was pledged in the election manifesto?
    *
    The people were angry wit the PA regime about food shortages during 1974-75 caused by the drought and the bread queues triggered by other factors. The Left turning hostile was another factor.
    JR knew what he wanted from the time he captured the UNP (which he was about to shun in 1972) at the expense of Premadasa, who at the time had fallen out with Dudley S., whose death also evoked a lot of sympathy for the UNP, because people were reminded of Dudley’s free rice gimmick which was hard to shake off.

  • 0
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    learned dr. has given the reason why UNP do not try to remember JR. go and see sri kotha , only DS portrait is there. premedasa is also forgotten. better not to remember the constitutional culprits and dictators, the dictum of the UNP. DS is remembered for dis franchising the innocent plantation workers.
    -dayal

  • 0
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    JR wanted to make SL another singapore. correct. at that time i challenged (?)him to make only Chatham Street a Singapore.
    -dayal

  • 1
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    Dr Ali, You are turning to Sri Lanka only because you don’t want to stand up for attacks against Muslims in your current domicile of Australia.
    =
    The evangelical government of Scott Morrison there is teaming up with the evangelical AMerian government of Mike Pence to increase the heat on Muslim immigration and ‘terrorism’.
    =
    You should get your priorities right, leave us alone and fight for Muslim rights in the West.

  • 1
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    SJ

    “food shortages during 1974-75 caused by the drought and the bread queues triggered by other factors. “
    Here comes another flimsy defense for the stupid anti people, corrupt, arrogant, racist,. ………. weeping widow.

    The well organised cooperative movement was politicised and ruined, inefficiency was guaranteed every government department and state owned enterprises, …………..

    We know your love for the women it does not mean you don’t have to defend the arrogant racist.

    • 0
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      N.V.
      Sinhala racists can be counted on your fingers while EVERY Tamil is a racist.

      Soma

      • 0
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        somass

        True if you are standing on North Pole.
        However only the noisy minority mutant Sinhala/Buddhist fascists are racists rest of the people are stupid. In your case you are not only a racist but also a clever dick.

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