By Niranjan Rambukwella –
We live in the Age of Kali, the Kali Yuga, the epoch of strife and discord. Kali’s agents, the Rajapaksas and their minions, are our tyrannical masters. Alas we have no Kalki on a white horse to deliver us. Our bondage deepens, our sorrow widens. What hope? Wherefrom? When?
Fragile First Age
2% in Sri Lankan politics isn’t many votes. That innocuous figure made Sri Lankan history – especially if you were Mahinda Rajapaksa back in 2005. So today we have President Rajapaksa and not President Wickremasinghe. Turn your timecapsules back to 2005: here we have a Rajapske gingerly pieicing a coalition together – delicately keeping the Marxist JVP, the fascist JHU and UNP crossovers all purring contently in power. So demure was young President Rajapaksa that he called an All Party Conference to resolve the national question and meekly went around the world promising devolution+. He was even keen on negotiating with the Tigers.
Muscular Second Age
But quietly, quietly plans were afoot for the Rajapaksa’s second age. The two brothers were quietly brought in to run the army and economy. The media was silenced. The LTTE’s defeat in March marked when this new age came of age. The Rajapaksas’ ruled by ballot – their overwhelming victory at the polls (with a few sweeties for crossovers) landed them a 2/3rds parliamentary majority. Even in the Second Age’s heyday, when the Rajapaksa ballot was invincible, the concrete was poured into the foundations of the third age – the 18th Amendment (bye bye term limits, independent judiciary and police etc), the and devolution (hello Divi Neguma) – in other words checks on Rajapaksa power. The economy ticked on nicely with the post-war import boom and victory euphoria lingered on.
Tyrannical Third Age
Now the clock is striking to herald the third age – the authoritarian age – the Age of Kali. The Rajapaksas’ popularity has peaked – Mahinda can only wistfully look back at those golden days when he was the Sinhala polity’s moustached darling. His family’ future is less sanguine and more bloody. Ruling through the ballot isn’t easy with declining popularity (don’t forget it’s the economy stupid) – especially if one wants to rule Rajapaksa style i.e. no dissent and no saying no. And make no mistake, the economy isn’t doing well – post-war growth was initially led by imports and then by debt-fuelled construction. Await the hangover – growth rates are below war-time levels. This means that protesters are going to get out on to the streets at some point in the not so distant future. While I’m tempted to talk about correlations between the price of bread and protests during the Arab Spring the evidence isn’t there yet. But a Chicago political scientist finds that the probability of a regime falling during a depression (two consecutive quarters of economic contraction) is rather high indeed. We aren’t going to have a depression anytime soon but significant reduction in growth rates could tip the balance.
Dictatorship – Here to Stay
Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s oldest democracies – rather illiberal and flawed at times- but still an electoral democracy. Elections were held and governments, meekly or not, went their way and drove out of Temple Trees. The Rajapaksa’s aren’t exiting via the ballot box. Power pulls them into staying – in their second age they reshaped institutions, especially the military, so that authoritarian rule looks very attractive. Sliding into a fully authoritarian modus operandi is as easy as a Rajapaksa going back on his word. As their popularity wanes, this is the option they will take.
So what’s really stopping Sri Lanka from becoming a dictatorship proper and not just an electoral democracy (liberal democracy died in the Second Age)? I initially thought that if Singhalese protestors tried to bring the regime down soldiers wouldn’t shoot – making a popular overthrow of the Rajapaksas possible. Eva Bellin, a rather clever political scientist, pointed out that regimes were the army and population were both Sunni or both Shia were less likely to shoot civilians during the Arab spring. Arab dictators were scared ordinary soldiers wouldn’t shoot fellow Sunni’s or Shia’s. I wagered the same might be the case here. Terrifyingly our brutalized battalions seem to have no qualms about shooting innocent civilians. I suspect it was no coincidence that the brutalized Task Force I, now elevated to the 58th Division, was sent to Weliweriya.
The other bulkwark that usually works rather well in these situations is leadership by legitimate communal elites. Another Chicago political scientist, Dan Slater, finds that the key to democratic transitions in South East Asia was the existence of legitimate communal elites – usually religious. This option is increasingly unlikely in the near term for Sri Lanka. First, the Rajapaksa’s have cowed the Mahanayaka’s, the only legitimate communal elites in Sri Lanka of any real political importance. See the WikiLeaks entry where the Rajapaksa’s threatened to break their legs if they supported Fonseka. Second, divide and rule, mischief is afoot – the BBS, Sihala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya (which we all know are Rajapaksa creatures) – have split the Buddhist clergy and are increasingly becoming legitimate voices. This split means that a Sangha led overthrow of the Rajapaksa is looking less likely by the day.
Of course the pathetic UNP deserves mention but Dayan Jayatilleka and others have made that point far more articulately that I ever will.
Where then does this leave us? I have little hope. Unless you are a Rajapaksa, or willing to be their lapdog, you’re fucked.
 Svolik, Milan W. “Authoritarian Reversals and Democratic Consolidation.” American Political Science Review (2008)
 Bellin, Eva “The Robustness of Authoritarianism Reconsidered: Lessons of the Arab Spring”.” Comparative Politics (2012)
 “Two days before the Sangha Sabha was to open, Buddhist contacts from the provinces informed us that temples had been told that bombs would be hurled at buses transporting monks to the council. On February 16, the mahanayake of Malwatte announced the assembly had been indefinitely postponed due to security concerns.” https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/wikileaks-sangha-sabha-to-discuss-fonseka-arrest-was-postponed-after-the-monks-received-bomb-threats/