By Jude Fernando –
“Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gabardine; there is no other shelter hereabouts: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past” ~ (‘The Tempest’)
Maithripala Sirisena (MS), Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) and Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) are invoking the notion of the ’will of the people’ to conceal their selfish interests, and their amoral and deracinated feudal elitism. The current tendency for the United National Front (UNF) to focus exclusively on the conduct of President MS and the disgraceful, violent behaviour of the Joint Opposition MPs is naïve, and could be counter-productive in defeating MR. What is being overlooked in all this is the way MR is exploiting the opposition to solidify his own power. His actions are designed to solidify his own credentials in the public eye, portraying himself as a ‘man of action’, and a ‘trusted patriot’. By strategically shaping and exploiting legal and popular responses to the crisis, MR is positioning himself to form a government.
Although MS claims to be saving the country from danger, his despicable actions say otherwise. Prior to the dissolution of Parliament, MS took control of key ministries and placed the police department under the Ministry of Defence after the MR faction failed to claim a parliamentary majority. He then unconstitutionally dissolved the Parliament and unilaterally declared to hold new elections, and appointed a new government headed by MR. MS had no moral right appointing MR as Prime Minister for the same reasons MS crossed over to the UNF and became the President. Last but not the least, MS has convened a conference for all party leaders, after all his ‘trump cards’ failed to achieve his goals, lost the control of his own patrons, and the country plunged into chaos and international disgrace.
MS also attempted to manipulate the wording of a motion of ‘no confidence’ critical of his actions and insisted the drafters of the motion to remove the first sentence of the motion. The motion was passed twice. MS still refused to accept it. When opposition violence erupted over these events, MS stayed silent. Given this series of events, it is difficult not to conclude that the current crisis is a result of a well-planned attempt to undemocratically install the MR-led UPFA into power, and thereby ensure a second presidential term for MS.
The drivers behind MR’s determination to hold onto power by any means include the need to abolish the special courts established to investigate the charges of corruption, murder, and abuse of power against many of the MR camp’s key leaders. Moreover, he wants to destroy the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and replace the Bandaranaike legacy in Sri Lankan politics with his own, while protecting himself and his family by capitalising on the public loss of faith in RW’s leadership. The plan has already driven the country into three intractable crises: constitutional, economic and political. If it succeeds, democratic and peaceful elections are unlikely, given the despicable violent conduct of the Joint Opposition MPs and the President’s complicity with those acts, in response to the government twice losing the no-confidence motion in Parliament.
Any hope of foiling this insidious master plan hinges on appointing Sajith Premadasa, as the leader of the United National Party (UNP), who commands wider support nationwide by reminding people of his father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa who is widely considered as a man of the people. Either, Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) or R. Sampanthan of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the most principled political leaders in the country, would be far better choices if they could form a cabinet that includes people from all political parties, based on merit. Unfortunately, such alternative leadership remains out of reach in Sri Lanka as long as competitive individualism and racist ethno-religious nationalism continue to be preferred over more egalitarian and inclusive politics.
The legal discourse of the current crisis speaks to a minority of the country’s population, while the populist discourse speaks to the majority of Sinhala Buddhists. The populist discourse resonates with most of MR supporters, for whom MS’s claim to “save the country from danger” as the main motivation for his actions, is more persuasive than the legal discourse that emphasises illegal acts by MS. While pro-democracy groups deserve commendation for their courageous pursuit of legal remedies against the President’s illegal actions, MR thrives on legitimising his claims to form a government by exploiting the public and legal responses to said actions.
Those genuinely interested in a democracy need to pay attention to public responses to the current crisis that could translate into votes. The following analysis is based on random discussions with the people I came to contact with during after MS started the crisis. Here, my concern was only to understand the public perceptions to the current crises that justify the return of MR or Sajith, rather than to verify their accuracy and the reasons for contradictions.
Many of these public perceptions about the current crisis predate the MS’s recent actions and are not necessarily direct responses to them. These responses need to be understood within the context of the country’s political culture, which is devoid of shame, suffers from lacunar amnesia over past horrors, and its tolerance of corruption, nepotism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Those responsible for these decadent cultural values are national heroes or entertainers, as witnessed when MS made reference to the ‘butterfly’ group.
This culture normalises the recent violence witnessed in Parliament and treats the perpetrators as patriots. It shelters and nourishes racist ethno-religious nationalism and capitalist individualism, precluding the possibility of a collective identity and a political consciousness respectful of democratic values, moral politics, with equality and justice for all. In turn, public servants (such as in the civil, military, academic and diplomatic fields), including retirees, knowingly, reproduce the same toxic culture for financial gain, promotions, and diplomatic positions.
The roots of this decadent culture run so deep that the society has become tolerant of, and indifferent to the politicians and sometimes even the war heroes, cynically exploiting the sacrifices made during the war, drumming up racist ethno-nationalism to achieve their selfish goals. The established religions normalise and sanctify this immoral and debauched culture, thereby helping politicise the economy and society according to the needs of racist ethno-religious nationalism and neoliberalism. The public is indoctrinated with the belief that economic issues can be resolved through narrow identity politics from anti-corruption/good governance platforms. Citizens are easily swayed by token and populist concessions (such as the reduction of fuel prices and bus fares), swallowing the propaganda that suppresses critical thinking and imagination. In such a culture, myth and propaganda carry more weight than facts. When politicians make statements, it is difficult for people to interpret and distinguish between what is right and wrong; and what is lawful or unlawful, other than through the narrow ideological lenses defined by the politicians themselves.
Against this backdrop, and even after the UNF maintained the moral high ground in its manner of dealing with the parliamentary crisis, MR would likely to win if elections were held tomorrow, because he is better positioned to exploit the legal and public response to the current crisis to his own advantage, including just responses that criticise him. MR will turn around the no-confidence motion against him to extend his support among the public, and even if RW or SP were to replace him as PM, he would continue to destabilise the UNF until he regains state power. For MR supporters, the refusal of the Speaker and some political parties to participate in the all-party leadership conference convened by the MS would be evidence of UNF’s lack of interest in resolving the crisis.
RW’s claim that the “interim order issued by Supreme Courts suspending the dissolution of Parliament was a resounding victory for the people’s franchise” is irrelevant to MR’s bid for re-election, because it does not resonate with the public at large. Instead, such celebrations will help MR to insulate the public from the pro-democracy groups by claiming those groups are acting on behalf of RW and his foreign agents. The public is well aware of the fact that these groups were silent when during the vote of no-confidence against RW and the UNF MP Ravi Karunanayaka. MR’s camp will also exploit said groups’ silence regarding RW’s alleged complicity with the bond scam and the postponement of elections, just to distract public attention away from the corruption charges against the MR regime, including the Nivard Cabraal, the former head of the Central Bank who is charged with many financial crimes.
For the general public, the constitution offers little relief to their immediate issues. The pro-democracy groups speak mainly to the already privileged minority who are only concerned with formal political issues, rather than to the increasing majority of the population that is marginalized by neoliberal economic policies. This populism, driven by racist ethno-religious nationalism is more appealing to the public because it thrives on representing the “others” (minorities and foreigners) as scapegoats for the country’s economic and security issues.
In this context, the conduct of MR and his camp after October 26th (such as appointing the same ministers who were charged with corruption; the Presidential takeover of the government’s Printing Department; placing the police under the Ministry of Defence and showing complete disregard for democratic processes), points to the grave danger that a comeback of the ‘culture of violence, impunity, and anomie’ under the previous MR regime that was defeated by the Maithri-Ranil coalition.
So, why do the people absolve MS and MR of their horrendous acts, despite the fact that they have plunged the country into chaos and created dangerous precedents that would constrict democratic avenues for future regime change and the high probability of the horrors of the previous MR regime being repeated if he is re-elected. The legal and procedural violations of MS’s actions are not a key part of village discourses in the current crisis. For the pro-MR groups, MS is a hero and illegal and immoral actions are irrelevant and can be ignored because he is simply an instrument to bring back the MR regime for the greater good of the country. In the village discourse, it is not MR who is corrupt but the people around him, and the previous violent MR regime was an inevitable and temporary outcome of governance during wartime.
In the minds of many people, MS speaks the truth about his tenuous relationship with RW, which prevented the government from fulfilling its promises. In this narrative, RW helps protect those charged with corruption, murder and abuse of human rights and the people’s mandate, because either his power rests on protecting those wrongdoers, or he himself is implicated in those charges. People believe that RW sabotaged the President’s efforts to hold those responsible for the scam, accountable. RW’s lack of explicit criticism of MR and his family surprises many, who in fact believe that RW is under an obligation to protect MR’S family. In reality, RW is disinterested in pressurizing the Attorney General’s Office to pursue cases against others for fear of him being tried for his own role in the Bond Scam, and the Batalanda torture house, established during the past JVP insurrection. Thus, it seems that MR has blackmailed RW, and MR is comfortable in with RW remaining as the leader of the UNF given that RW has no game plan to win an election.
The MR style of governance, although autocratic, is more democratic than UNF under RW’s leadership, because it is more inclusive and accessible to common people. People quickly dismiss critics of MR by comparing them to their criticisms of RW. RW’s government is run by a handful of members of his exclusive “royal club”, which even excludes most of his own party members. Nepotism, rather than meritocracy, defined his appointments to higher positions, while he tolerated the same practices by his ministers. RW’s arrogance in not relinquishing the leadership of his party, even after the loss of many elections under his leadership, is primarily responsible for the internal battles within the UNP and people’s loss of faith in the party. RW was the PM only because MS crossed over to the UNF, and the minority political parties. RW turned against MS when the latter opposed his policies that would only have benefited a minority of Sri Lanka’s population while protecting his close allies.
RW is disinterested in, and fails to understand, the issues faced by the economically poor and vulnerable people, as evidenced when he promised Wi-Fi connectivity to those villagers seeking a solution to irrigation, agricultural input, and marketing-related issues. Among the masses, RW became a clown when they used their smartphones, which they already had, to ridicule his promise of providing Wi-Fi.
RW is mostly pre-occupied with traveling abroad and interacting with Westerners seeking investments while completely ignoring the issues faced by the rural population. As a firm believer in Western capitalist economic policies, his entire focus during the past two years has been on finding investors to sell the country to the highest bidder regardless of the social, economic and ecological consequences. He has failed to develop coherent economic policies based on his own ideology and lacks control over his own ministers’ fiscal standpoints. He turns a blind eye to the local population’s struggles against the loss of land and resources, deforestation and ecological crises. The Enterprise Development and Gamperaliya programs were simply a PR campaign to gain popular legitimacy, and lacked a coherent and clear plan comparable to Janasaviya, Gamudawa, Divinaguma, and Samurdhi, although these programs also failed to deliver their respective promises. Although the programs during MR and late President Ranasinghe Premadasa were equally corrupt, many opine that the duo delivered more dividends to people than the programs of the UNF government.
The economic policies and governance styles of MR and RW are similar in many respects. They are both feudal lords in the sense that MR relies a great deal on his family, while RW relies on his “royal club”. Both are unwilling to surrender power to those outside of their respective patrons. At the same time, an observer correctly point out that were it not for the opportunities for freedom of expression and association, as well as the right to information, created under RW’s administration, the latest Supreme Court interim order against the dissolution of the parliament would have been unlikely and militarization and international isolation of the country would have continued. This begs the question of why people discount all RW’s achievements, hold him responsible for the current constitutional, economic and political crises and flock around MR, despite the UNF’s public warning that the culture of fear would return under the latter.
A popular view is that MR, RW, and MS exploit each other for their own benefit. MS and RW used each other to become the President and Prime Minister after defeating MR. MS, very likely with the help of MR, exploited the unpopularity of RW, and the tensions between him and RW to ask the SLFP to withdraw from the UNF and the Joint Opposition to form a government with MR as the Prime Minister. This MS thought is the only way for him to become the President for a second term. In this process, MS violated the constitution and many of the established parliamentary procedures.
MR and MS also (mistakenly) thought that they will succeed in buying the MP from the opposition and solicit the support of the minority political parties. However, according to MR supporters, MS has done nothing wrong, and under the circumstances, he did the best to address the burning issues of the country. MS is likened to the prodigal son of MR who has returned home and re-established his credentials as a full member of the MR’s (patriotic) family to ‘serve’ the country.
Let us not forget that to many people in this country, MS is an outsider and unfit for RW’s Royal Club and the elite liberal democracy groups. Culturally marginalised from the day he was elected, he was insulted and ridiculed with people using all sorts of derogatory names (village gramasevaka, eunuch, puppet, fool), even by those who later protested against his insulting the LGBTQ community. They laugh not only at his inability to converse in English but also at his not having the “proper accent”- the one standardised by the elites as “acceptable”. Such also was the experience of the late President, Ranasinghe Premadasa. His son, SP now faces the same elitist snobbery, despite his fluency in English and the fact that he attended Royal College, the same school as RW.
This obnoxious cultural divide in Sri Lankan culture does not absolve MS of his personal responsibility for his diabolical acts since 26th October. MS-MR still commands a public image as true representatives of the “indigenous/non-Western” culture, values and aspirations is far more robust than that of RW. The hypocrisy of the MR Camp, in their claim to represent non-Western values, does not matter to MR supporters in the same way that it did not matter to supporters of SWRD Bandaranaike, who could not even speak in Sinhala.
Both RW and MR’s economic policies have resulted in the loss of land and resources, as well as political sovereignty, to multinational companies and a minority of the country’s citizens and their political patrons, while the majority are falling into abject poverty and their natural environment is being destroyed. The periodic shift of state power between UNP and SLFP, and the political parties they head has to do with the general population being indoctrinated to think that economic issues can be resolved merely by changing the political party that controls state power through parliamentary elections. Neoliberalism is notorious for its creative reconfiguring of such issues as political in nature, and for convincing society to resolve them through political reform. This changes the state-society relationship to make it function according to neoliberal interests, thereby distracting citizens from directly challenging the neoliberal economic policies.
In the current political discourse, the responsibility for the country’s currency devaluations is attributed to RW rather than MR, despite the fact that both are equally responsible for the country’s debt trap caused by borrowing from all over the world. This is a normal development for a capitalist economy, which survives on debt. The attribution of the Sri Lankan debt trap to China alone is a matter of geopolitics. The recent devaluation of the Rupee is a reality of use of various insidious means by powerful countries to control highly competitive financial markets and political forces’ to influence the economies of other countries. One of the reasons for blaming RW for the current devaluation-driven economic crisis has to do with the politics of ethno-nationalism’s distinction between the -country’s geopolitical relations with the imperialistic West, and those with friendly non-Western countries.
The RW camp, with the help of its one-time left-wing intellectuals, falsely attributes the notion of imperialism exclusively to the West, but not to the likes of China and India. Thus, imperialism is “nationalised” because it is not understood as a globalising economic phenomenon that is nonspecific to a single nation-state; while the nation-state, a product of the spatial organisation of capitalism, is simply a manager of contradictions and crises of capitalism. The simplistic division between China and India as “friends” and Western countries as “enemies,” overlooks the growing economic interdependencies between India and China, and between them and the Western countries. Both RW and MS have equally failed to position themselves in these global interdependencies in ways that are beneficial to Sri Lanka and safeguard its sovereignty, as envisaged by the principles of the Non-Alignment Movement.
Sri Lanka-China relations during the MR era have lacked transparency and accountability, and most allegations against the regime relate to the receipt of Chinese aid under unfavourable terms, and of those funds being embezzled for personal and political purposes members of the MR’s party. In the eyes of the MR supporters, allegations against the financial crimes failed because for three years the UNF government failed to bring those responsible for those financial crimes to justice. Nonetheless, MR exploited his relationship with China to solidify his patriotic credentials among his supporters. China is considered a reliable ally because it is unconcerned about the Sri Lankan government’s abuse of human rights, and the international community’s call for investigations into war crimes by Sri Lankan forces, as a prerequisite for aiding Sri Lanka.
Nor do Sri Lankan pro-democracy and human rights groups have collaborators within China with whom to challenge its role in Sri Lanka and compel the Chinese government to hold the Sri Lankan government to account for the aid it receives from China, is utilised. This is not the case with India and the West, although they all have their own agendas. ‘Western’ interventions in Sri Lanka are subtler, but we must recognize the fact that they are more likely to accommodate opposition to their interventions by Sri Lankans, and citizens of their own countries. In the past, Joint Opposition members sought the assistance of the West to resolve their disputes with the UNF government.
The Western diplomatic demands on the Sri Lankan government to uphold democracy and good governance as preconditions for receiving aid (because they are often misleadingly and provocatively reported in the popular media as aggressive) are interpreted by the MR camp as a continuation of RW-aligned Western interferences in the country. While all major players in international geopolitics are known to fund their favourite political parties, in Sri Lankan political culture, allegations of soliciting and accepting Western funds, is considered anti-national and interference in the internal affairs of the country. The increasing presence of China in the Sri Lankan landscape and accusations of its funding the MR regime have not lessened its domestic credibility as a patriotic force.
The pro-MR politicians and the media point to the presence of more foreign media personnel than local politicians at press conferences and in Parliament. Moreover, Western diplomats’ meetings with RW create an impression among the public that RW is a Western ally who works with foreign powers to undermine the authority of the President and the will of the people. For the MR supporters, the MF suspending loans to Sri Lanka due to the prevailing political crisis are further evidence of Western support to RW. Such simplistic, taken-for-granted and narcissistic anti-western ideology is so ingrained in the minds of the people, that they have become victims of those politicians who use the anti-western ideology to cover-up their corruption and abuses of power and take away the fundamental rights of the people, and even to safeguard those non-western country’s that rob the country’s wealth and undermine its sovereignty.
MR supporters also interpret the refusal of the ethnic minority political parties (TNA, Muslim Congress, and Democratic People’s Front) to support MR in gaining a majority in Parliament, as evidence of MR’s determination not to give into minority demands, of safeguarding the unitary character and national security of the country. The granting of bail (perhaps a coincident) to the leader of the fundamentalist Mahason Balakaya group, who was imprisoned for his role in anti-Muslim riots a day after MS sacked RW, plays into the public perception of MR as a guardian of patriots, and of RW as someone who imprisons patriots, including Buddhist monks.
MR’s reputation as a man of action, capable of guiding the country through difficult times, is based on the claim that “the government that defeated the LTTE” can resolve the economic issues and security threats facing the country that stem from the unpatriotic elements in Sri Lanka, the diaspora and the Western powers. Although people generally agree with the corruption charges against MR, in their view, RW is a bigger culprit. It was he, who promised to catch the thieves, yet was complicit with theft inside and outside of his party, and failed to empower the public institutions entrusted with doing so. Despite being corrupt, the public dividends accrued from the funds MR received, was high.
The Bond Scam was an example of RW’s alleged complicity with the very charges he leveled against the MR regime. Even those without the slightest idea of how the bond markets work would tell you that Arjun Mahendran robbed the country under the protection of RW. The fact that the MR regime produced visible results from the projects they started, despite charges of embezzling the funds allocated to them, has bought them a degree of public approval, and leniency for their misdemeanours.
Over the past two years, the UNF, under RW, has thrown up scarcely any evidence of a decline in corruption, and it was slow to complete promised development projects, compared to projects under MR. the RW regime has failed to maintain the cleanliness of the cities, lakes, and roads, which were maintained during the MR era. The attitude seems to be that all politicians are corrupt, and corruption will never disappear from society. However, it can be tolerated as long as the politicians do something for the people.
MR can easily deflect public criticisms of his previous administration based on his robust reputation as the guardian of ethno-religious nationalism that he will use to rally forces around him and take them away from RW, who generally is silent about ethno-religious nationalism and its implications for the country. Nationalism—a sense of belonging to a community is a good thing that ought to be celebrated. It is evil and deserves nothing but condemnation when its moral bases are derived from ideologies of exclusion, inequality, domination, and oppression.
A fundamental difference exists between inclusive and egalitarian nationalism (i.e. Jathikathwaya), and exclusive and inegalitarian nationalism (Jathiwadaya). Hegemonic nationalism in Sri Lanka gets activated primarily against the vulnerable minorities within the country, to serve the interests of narrow identity politics of all political parties, and to safeguard those accused of human rights abuses and those foreign powers detrimental to the collective interest of the country.
No country can expect sustainable justice, equality and stability as long as reactionary Jathiwadaya nationalism colonises individual and collective identities and the political consciousness of the country. No individual or community will, or should tolerate reactionary nationalism, regardless of their respective histories and cultures in a nation. Critical self-reflection of reactionary nationalism is an essential prerequisite for the emergence of celebratory nationalism. For the most part, the political ideologies, education, and religions in Sri Lanka do not encourage, but rather suppress, such critical reflection.
When patriotism celebrates reactionary and racist nationalism, no one gains and everyone loses. The ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka, which brands the MR camp being more patriotic than the RW camp, stands in the way of true patriotism being a yardstick for electing politicians to power, because it deflects public dissent against corruption, abuse of power and selling country’s wealth and resources to rich foreigners, and unpatriotic acts for which both camps are equally responsible.
MR, if he wins the election, might succeed in reducing food prices and stabilising the rupee until he consolidates his power. He will hide behind anti-Western ethnoreligious nationalism to conceal the sacrifices the country has to make to obtain these funds, which are his token and populist economic concessions to the public. These would assuage public anxiety over the dangers of placing the Police Department and Government Printing under the Ministry of Defence and the President. Moreover, the appointment of the same people who have pending court cases, to various ministries, points to a highly probable return of militarised ethno-nationalist political culture under MR, if and when he is no longer able to maintain the economic subsidies to the public that he has offered now.
Judging by history, there is no guarantee that any future government would refrain from militarism to suppress dissent, especially against economic inequalities than against the ethno nationalist violence against the vulnerable minorities. Ethnic tensions are likely to continue because both majority and minority political parties continue to resort to identity politics as a means of addressing unfavourable economic issues unless they are willing to incorporate anti-neoliberalism as an integral part of their identity politics.
Under these circumstances, the short-term way out of current constitutional, political and economic crises under SLPP- or UNF-led coalition looks bleak. At the same time, the unruly conduct in the Parliament shows the vulnerability of the Joint Opposition. The UNF can be competitive at the election, deny MR at least a two-thirds majority, only if SP replaces RW as the UNF leader and prevents RW and his ‘royal club’ from playing any significant role in the election campaign and governance of the country. This ought to be combined with a promise to the public that the UNF will investigate RW for his alleged role in the Bond Scam.
We know very little about SP other than the historical character of his father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, which SP tries to emulate. But he has earned a reputation of being the man of the people and one who is outside of the RW’s royal club. To what extent he would cultivate a public image as a democratic, just and fair leader is anybody’s guess. It is impossible to weather the MR and MS storm under RW’s leadership. Not having any other election-winning alternative leadership, we should give SP a chance, meaning we could expect a narrow breathing space for democracy, at least for a short period of time. This would give citizens the necessary opportunities to build a people’s movement that would create a more just, equal and inclusive political culture, a key condition for truly patriotic leaders to emerge