By Mohamed 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.”