By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A campaign for democracy has little chance of success against long-established authoritarian systems, but the odds are considerably better when the task is to interrupt the transition, or degeneration through subversion from above, by a regime, of a long-established democracy such as Sri Lanka.
Under President Gotabaya, militarization is eating through the long-established civilian public administration like the armyworm eating through crops.
To understand how this works and what its impact is on public health and welfare, check out my choice of The Sri Lankan Quote of the Year 2020, from what I would select as the Sri Lankan interview of the year:
“…We have experts in the field, but none of them has been called for discussions. On the other hand, this is a virus, but as far as I know, there were no virologists in the committees that were set up. When you’re trained in a particular discipline you get to know all aspects of it and be able to adapt it to suit the problem. We should have made use of the trained personnel we have, but the idea that it should be done by people with connections is the kind of thinking we have. (Daily Mirror – “There were no virologists in the committees set up” – Prof Vitarana)
Instead of “training” and experience in “a particular discipline”, the guiding principle is that even in this great emergency of a pandemic, things “should be done by people with connections”, says Prof Tissa Vitarana.
What sort of connections? Those of a military ‘old boys network’ and the regimental tie? The new Deputy Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board is a retired military officer who is not from the Engineering Corps (it would have made sense if he were) and is Chairman of a business group.
Prof. Vitarana reveals more:
“The Government also wanted to take credit and said we have controlled the situation…From there it flared up again and that led to the so-called second wave.”
“…There should have been a much bigger allocation for COVID-19 and its consequences…The bulk of the budget should have been for that. I would have put long-term ventures on hold and given priority to the immediate needs of the people…” (Ibid)
The ultranationalist Buddhist clergy has commenced a two-pronged campaign: (a) against burials and for cremation of Covid-19 victims, a policy that is mandatory only in a handful of the UN’s 193 countries, and (b) against Provincial Councils and the holding of Provincial Council elections before the promulgation of a new Constitution. They have won the second campaign. They are fighting back against the medical experts’ committee and the SLMA on the first issue.
These formations of the Buddhist clergy have long been part of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s support base, by their own public admission and easy public (facial) recognition. They are also close to radical-nationalist Cabinet Ministers.
It is one thing to dog-whistle racism and religious chauvinism when you are an Opposition personality (JR against the B-C Pact 1957) or are in the Establishment, with extra-systemic religio-racist fans whose campaigns are amplified by the local Fox News while someone else is the Presidential human shield taking the electoral rap.
It is another thing, as President Jayewardene realized (1983-’87) having indulged racist Minister Cyril Mathew, when Sinhala-Buddhist racism unchecked by you rears up and lashes out violently at minorities, on your watch. Whoever you may try to pin the rap on after the conflagration (JRJ pinned it on the JVP), the frame-up lacks credibility and ricochets as rebellion.
The Gotabaya regime is mimicking Trump/Netanyahu: boosting the hardcore chauvinist base by pandering to its worst prejudices and maintaining rigidly hawkish policies. Colombo is still living on Trump time. In the New Year the global clock will reset to Biden-Harris time.
For Sri Lanka, 2021 will be the Geneva Year. “By oneself is one defiled” as the Buddha said. So far, the Gotabaya regime has done much to damage its case in Geneva and continues to do so.
Geneva is the portal to the global “lawfare” battlespace. A post-20th Amendment presidency may think itself unaccountable, but domestic impunity and immunity don’t hold globally. The previous UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zaid al-Hussein left a timebomb ticking in his report: the conclusion that the Sri Lankan justice system is not independent enough to secure accountability and the recommendation that therefore the 193 member states of the United Nations should initiate prosecutions under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.
Courts and legislatures throughout the world cannot be deterred by domestic claims of the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state.
Furthermore, the incoming US administration’s stated determination to revive democracy globally may focus also on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is the place where the two trends that the Biden-Harris administration opposes actually converge: Trump-type ultranationalist/racist authoritarianism and China’s perceived new propensity to ideologically export its domestic model of governance.