7 December, 2023


The Operation Successful But The Patient Died? Not If People Stand Up!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

“Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship” ~ A. Philip Randolph

Alarm bells rang then when JRJ formulated his much-criticised 1978 Constitution with the creation of the post of an Executive President with dictatorial powers. Even after almost a quarter century, this system of governance portends a nightmare for people of Sri Lanka, who are living in a system where everything is under control and fear and suspicion are pre-installed. Today too, they continue to ring louder and louder, heard from various quarters about the direction of Sri Lanka being piloted by the Post-war Rajapaksas and recently by JRJ’s beloved nephew President Ranil, elected to this office by a majority parliamentary vote. He appears to harbour a dictatorial mindset worse than his predecessor Gotabaya who had a penchant to in tolerate criticism and opposition from any source and not hesitating to eliminate them by any means. Ranil, appears to aim at the suppression of freedom of speech, expression and peaceful association whenever he considers them as threatening, which clearly undermines the democratic set up of Sri Lanka.

In March, when people began to feel the adverse effects of the economic crisis , worst in living memory, which caused massive discontent, they wanted a change- a real political change where democracy involving political accountability, Justice, Reconciliation, Rule of Law and Good Governance will be guaranteed. Unable to find gas for cooking, medicines, fuel and basic items of food such as milk powder because the country has run out of foreign currency to pay for imported goods, they slowly came out in small groups to protest, initially with hastily made placards and lit candles. As months went by, people emboldened by mass support went to lay siege to Gotabaya’s Mirihana residence which gradually spread to other parts of the country. This wave of protests became more organised and the nerve centre of the famous Aragalaya became centered around Galle Face.

People’s power was so overwhelming that for the first time in Sri Lanka, the corrupt political class saw a serious public challenge to their dismal, corrupt performance which has driven the nation to ultimate bankruptcy, which culminated in the much talked about July 9th ouster of the last of the Rajapaksas from power. But then? Using loopholes in the Constitution, the same lawmakers of a corrupt system which was part of the corrupt system, conspired and brought another Rajapakse into power, this time in a Western suit, who would defend them, but defeat the aspirations of the people who rose up in earnest. Operation Successful; Patient Died’ indeed!

Dictatorships are often unexpected. They have arisen among prosperous, educated and cultured people who seemed safe from a dictatorship – in Europe, Asia and South America. Consider Germany, one of the most paradoxical and dramatic cases. During the late 19th century, it was widely considered to have the best educational system in the world. If any educational system could inoculate people from barbarism, surely Germany would have led the way. Why, then, did the highly educated Germans embrace a lunatic like Adolf Hitler? The short answer is that bad policies caused economic, military and political crises – chow time for tyrants. German circumstances changed for the worse, and when people become angry enough or desperate enough, sometimes they’ll support crazies who would never attract a crowd in normal circumstances.

Yes! bad economic policies and foreign policies can cause crises that have dangerous political consequences. Politicians commonly demand arbitrary power to deal with a national emergency and restore order, even though underlying problems are commonly caused by bad government policies. In hard times, many people are often willing to go along with and support terrible things that would be unthinkable in good times. This happened particularly in Rajapaksa governments ,with Presidential powers getting more stronger under Gota with his 20A. In a classic stroke of genius, Ranil, though lacking any democratic legitimacy mustered the support of the SLPP and became the successor President until the end of Gota’s term of office.

Those who dismissed the possibility of a dictatorial regime in the Paradise Isle after the people’s Aragalaya saw to their horror, how, from Day 1 he flexed his muscles and showed his macho powers, after his dream got realised. He declared war against the economic crisis and gave a convincing speech, but lacked credibility, forming a ‘war cabinet’ consisting of the same old wine in new bottles. Even tainted Siripala also got on board. Those who say we should give him time, need to consider possible developments that could make our circumstances worse and politically more volatile than they are now – with a lack of a coherent plan and attacking those whose struggle eventually brought him to power, instead of attacking the sources of their discontent. The recovery of stolen assets, which was one of the main demands of those who waged the Aragalaya was conveniently ignored.

Aspiring dictators usually give away their intentions by their evident desire to destroy opponents. Of course, there’s no reliable way to prevent bad or incompetent people from gaining power. A political system with a separation of powers and checks & balances – like the earlier Constitutions in Sri Lanka– did make it more difficult for one branch of Government to dominate the others. Not under 18 or after 20A. The notion that political changes should take a back seat until Ranil sorts out the economic mess will be futile in the long run. Knowing Sri Lankans, once the queues are cleared and essentials are given bit cheaper, they will forget the much needed political changes. Thus, radical measures to sort out both economic and political crisis should go hand in hand. Ultimately, liberty can be protected only if people care enough to fight for it, because everywhere governments push for more power, and they never give it up willingly. People should focus on the need to have a responsible political leadership and public accountability ASAP so that the likes of Rajapakses, Johnstons, Siripalas, Prasannas, Cabrals, Arjun Mahendrans and Aluthgamages will not occupy positions of power.

Unlike, dictators like Hitler, a less carnivorous form of authoritarian government in recent decades, has emerged, one better adapted to the globalized media and sophisticated technologies of the 21st Century. Instead of inaugurating “new orders,” such regimes simulate democracy, holding elections that they make sure to win, bribing and censoring the private press rather than abolishing it. These leaders often enjoy genuine popularity—albeit after eliminating plausible rivals—that is based on “performance legitimacy,” a perceived competence at securing prosperity and defending the nation against external or internal threats. State propaganda aims not to re-engineer human souls but to boost the leader’s ratings, which, so long as they remain high, are widely publicized. Political opponents are harassed and humiliated, accused of fabricated crimes, and encouraged to emigrate.

These new-style dictators can brutally crush separatist rebellions and deploy paramilitaries against unarmed protesters. But, compared to most previous autocrats, they use violence sparingly. The new autocrats are more surgical: they aim only to convince citizens of their competence to govern. The totalitarian dictators often employed propaganda to encourage personal sacrifices for the “common good.” Their successors seek to manipulate citizens into supporting the regime for selfish reasons. As we have seen, Ranil, enjoying the benefits of such “democratic” elements without fear of losing power, is hell bent in convincing the public that can and he is competent. Ranil at best is only a Parliament elected President, and lacks public credibility and should act as such. Public pressure should be kept for Ranil to submit a time bound plan of action until a Head of State and/or a government with a proper public mandate is elected.

A competent political leader even with dictatorial powers, do not need to use repression. Hence, reverting to repression immediately reveals the ‘dictator’s incompetence to the public and ultimately results in his downfall. This is why dictators often find or create some non-political pretext to imprison leaders of the political opposition. This also explains why such dictators who arrange for the murder of political opponents or threatening personalities usually go to great lengths to deny responsibility. Lasantha is one good example in the case of Gota and Batalanda in the case of Ranil. If the goal were merely to intimidate the opposition, then such denials would be baffling—an open acknowledgement would have a far greater deterrent effect.

On May 9, Mahinda’s goons sent thugs to beat up protesters, until he was forced to resign and his brother Gota was finally forced to flee, being ousted by his own people. Gota left his country bankrupt while pictures of his palatial estate and private swimming pool were broadcast around the world. Many countries in Asia have seen kleptocrats who chose to rob their lands of national wealth and press dissent. Yet, there remains a dream, among some from high-level government appointees to members of civil society, that a strong leader with authoritarian powers is needed to move a country like Sri Lanka forward. They refer to benevolent dictators like Paul Kagame, who has created a remarkably clean and efficient Rwanda after that country’s genocide, or Lee Kuan Yew, the “father of Singapore,” who corralled government corruption and thrust his nation into the first world. But this approach will not work for Sri Lanka, given the history of 1978 Constitution presidents, including Ranil.

Usually, dictators begin benevolently and grow worse. The world is littered with Kwame Nkrumahs, and Robert Mugabes who rose to power with great popularity, built their nations, then turned their people’s hopes to ash through corruption, personality cults and violence. Sri Lanka should also learn lessons from the fall of the Rajapaksas. One Lee Kuan Yew and a Kagame teetering from benevolence toward repression, versus every other dictatorship of the 20th century? Those are not odds to bet Sri Lanka on. Corruption, vast inequality and failure to deliver basic goods and services are real problems with democracies like Sri Lanka. These ills are dangerous, leading to anger, stagnation and political violence. But dictatorship- benevolent or not is no answer: it’s playing roulette where almost every spot on the wheel leads to Mugabes/ Rajapaksas or worse. Recent research on authoritarian regimes argues that they provide public goods in order to prevent rebellion. This is Ranil’s plan too.

As Sri Lanka burns and implodes, people tempted by the glib talk of dictators, benevolent or otherwise, should not act foolishly, but face the messy realities of politics. Such dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent. Many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest. In fact, as seen in Post 1978 governments, leaders are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas. The unchecked brutality of these ‘autocratic’ regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make Sri Lanka increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance. The Aragala-style citizen protest movements which emerged over this year, reflect the inexhaustible and universal desire for fundamental rights. However, these movements have in many cases confronted deeply entrenched interests that are able to endure considerable pressure and are willing to use deadly force to maintain power. The Aragalaya has so far failed to halt the overall State onslaught on civil rights (political and economic), and without greater mass support and solidarity from the grassroots levels, they is more likely to succumb to authoritarian reprisal, with the likes of 21st century fox style leaders of Ranil’s calibre in the top seat.

The oft quoted phrase “Freedom is not free” is true. No outside force is coming to give oppressed people the freedom they so much want. People will have to learn how to take that freedom themselves. Easy it cannot be. If people can grasp what is required for their own liberation, they can chart courses of action which, through much travail, can eventually bring them their freedom. Then, with diligence they can construct a new democratic order which calls for social justice, good governance and public accountability and prepare for its defence. Freedom won by struggle of this type can be durable. It can be maintained by a tenacious people committed to its preservation and enrichment.

As said, “A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few. Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option — for peace cannot exist where justice is not served.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    “People should focus on the need to have a responsible political leadership and public accountability ASAP so that the likes of Rajapakses, Johnstons, Siripalas, Prasannas, Cabrals, Arjun Mahendrans and Aluthgamages will not occupy positions of power.”
    I wonder why so many idealistic but naive authors on this forum keep repeating the above, or similar empty profundities.
    Okay, let’s look at the practicality of this proposition. Who elects these Rajapakses, Siripalas, etc with huge majorities? It’s the people! Why do they keep doing it? Simply because they promise things that Ranil doesn’t. Ranil has never promised to save the Sinhala Buddhists, or free jobs for all graduates, has he?
    The system change must be in the attitude of the voters. But that will take a generation or two, and will involve teaching real history in schools, relegating the Mahavamsa to research only. It will involve clipping the wings of the so-called Maha Sangha, who can shamelessly reverse opinions within 3 years.
    It will also involve treating all citizens with absolute equality, regardless of ethnicity or religion. How can we have a state service that has one ethoreligious group dominating it?
    The question is, are the voters ready?

    • 5

      If people insist on change by ballot, I do not contest your prescription.
      However, even in societies that qualify on your set of criteria, the media can mislead almost the entire population. I will not give examples and I think that the intelligent and informed among us know enough.
      There have also been times when system change preceded attitude change– there was a price to pay, but overall it was cost effective.

      • 0

        For those naive souls on this forum who think that the majority of “young people ” have suddenly become democratically conscious as opposed to being feudal slaves, I would recommend that that they take a look at 18 year old Nethmi worshipping Namal Rajapaksa after winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games.
        The more things change, the more they are the same.

        • 0

          There is often a tendency to idolize the youth as a category independent of all other identity.
          It happened in 1968 with the ‘Paris revolution’, the 1`971 April insurrection here and now the Aragalaya.
          The danger of acritical endorsement is seen only when things go awfully wrong.
          That is not to take away anything from those who (even naively) believed that they can change the system so easily. But more naive than any have been some of the cheerleaders.

  • 3

    There is an absolute truth in Sri Lankan politics. That is, corrupt voters elect only corrupt representatives. The people of this country could not believe their eyes, how they beat their rival politicians, how some of them peed on the speaker’s chair, and after a few months, those same people, not the same people, appointed the real crooks. Maradana is suitable for cleaning even toilets in Colombo, Parliament. Aluthgamage, Jonton, Miriskudu Ranaweera and many others should be given the maximum punishment and put in jail, however, they are still in the parliament, but the man who fought like a lion against big crimes, human rights violations and many other crimes. The Sri Lankan courts will imprison…. Are we all sitting on our heads?
    If a poll was called targeting 1000 representing a cross section of the population, I bet you, what I mentioned above would be the result. Robbery is not limited to minor or major, robbery is robbery. Sinhala Buddhists pledge to follow 5 precepts before the inanimate Buddha or Bodhisattva, but 99% of them don’t care much about what they follow. If faced with parrot-like child monks, they look for excuses. A little attempt to understand where it went wrong. can you imagine
    However, once they are elected by them, some sections, not the dominant sections, however, try to separate the candidates from them. It is very wrong in my eyes. Democracy does not work in Sri Lanka. Used to access Parliament for democratic advice only. Legality is there but legitimacy is far from achieving. vvvv

    • 1

      (Part I)
      “There is an absolute truth in Sri Lankan politics. That is, corrupt voters elect only corrupt representatives. The people of this country could not believe their eyes, how they beat their rival politicians, how some of them peed on the speaker’s chair, and after a few months, those same people, not the same people, appointed the real crooks.”
      I am using the same phraseology used by the Minister in the CBK government which was elected (1994), promised (one of which) providing bread loaf (254 gm.) at Rs 3.50!?
      When a customer pointed out (with sample) loaf with the ‘Karapotha’ (Sri Lankan Cockroach) too baked into it, the nonchalant response was preceded WITH ABOVE PHRASE, ASKING WHETHER THE CUSTOMER ‘EXPECTED A “ISSO” (PRAWN) BAKED IN FOR RS 3.50’?? He is still an active minister, weathering all ‘storms’, by Taisei of Japan!!?? Very good track record of ‘Ducking’!!
      Coming back to the SL Electorate, Voters and Elected Representatives (MPs)?
      1. Electorate – corrupt to core (Majority) starters – 5000 currency, ¼ Gal & Biryani gift???!

    • 1

      (Part II)
      2. Voters – are literate, but not educated or knowledgeable, distinguish “workable promises”
      3. MPs – not literacy or numeracy acquainted 7th STD ‘school dropouts’ – ‘Rasthiyadu Karaya’
      In short it’s a story – ‘I scratch your back & similarly you are free to do mine’ – all Tax Payers funds
      Down the track, whilst in office as elected MPs of ‘SOVEREIGN PEOPLE’,
      A. ROB,
      B. LOOT,
      My take is SL as a country, requires RECALL AND REVIEW SYSTEM, a positive and easily workable (35,000 signatures perhaps) to initiate an inquiry by the supreme court as to the credibility of the claim instituted and that of the suspected MP in Parliament.
      If found guilty by Supreme court, becomes mandatory, person concerned loses civic rights for 12 years (Minimum)!!!
      Perhaps that is one solution as we cannot enlighten 12 million people overnight!! Can We???
      Corruption, Bribery (includes inducement), Nepotism, Klept•oc•racy whether perpetrated by the elected or electors remains a crime as “SUCH” – NOT DIMINISHED, notwithstanding who commits or receives it??!! Why Not?????

    • 1

      This is where it is appropriate to point out, that GOTA got it correct ot identify the need to have ‘ONE COUNTRY, ONE LAW’!!!
      Where and when he came undone was in choosing the person to head that task???
      Whereas, have nothing inhibiting in that person being a member of the Task Force as it is “close to his Heart” and even an ‘ardent vibrant member’ articulating his wisdom on the matter??
      His heading the TF, acted as a negative for active participation of even more articulate, wise and vibrant activist in that respect??!!
      That was another GOTA miscalculation, nothing less in signifcance to “The Organic Fiasco”!!?
      Leaders should have the ability to discern, whom and where to seek advice from, as otherwise, it becomes all Doom and Gloom as GOTA sadly realised belatedly!!

  • 1

    Majority of Sri Lankan people like many other countries do not worry about who governs this country, what is the economic status of the country or how corrupted are our politicians. They only worry about their family, how to make money whether legally or illegally, whether morally or immorally. As long as they get three meals and their gas and electricity for travel they are satisfied. During this Aragalya period it was full of news about corrupted politicians, corrupted Rajapaksas, family dictatorship etc. Today, no one talk about that or what happened to the millions of money found in Presidents office or the violence by Mahinda organised group against protestors. Ranil do not talk about it, politicians do not talk about that, media do not talk about that. Why? we get fuel.

  • 0

    old codger,
    There are enough illiterates among us. In fact, a majority of them are that. That should make us even fight harder to change our destiny.
    Ranil Wickremesinghe wouldn’t fit the role of the agent of that change. For that reason, your ‘loyalty’ to him baffles me.

    • 0

      If I read OC correctly, I do not think that he sees RW as ‘the agent of that change’.
      He is somewhat justified in seeing RW as better than all else on offer.
      I disagree with him on many things, but concede that he is no victim of sentiment and uses cold hard reason, based on his outlook.

    • 0

      It isn’t loyalty. It’s just the instinct for self-preservation. If your kitchen sink is leaking, would you call:
      1. A dishonest but good plumber?
      2. An incompetent but honest carpenter?
      I feel safer with this guy in control, as opposed to Sarath Fonseka, Sajith, or any Rajapaksa.
      I’d support young Kanchana Wijesekera if he came forward, assuming that the QR code was his idea.

      • 0

        old codger,
        Your seemingly solid defense has holes in it.
        What is the chance of a good plumber being dishonest.
        You are dishonest only when you are not good at what you are doing.
        Sarath Fonseka, Sajith, or any Rajapaksa will be terrible, I agree.
        I am aware that the QR code is credited to Kanchana Wijesekera. I’ll hold my opinion till I gather more on him.

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