By Kumar David –
What’s the difference between a dictator, an autocrat, a despot and so on? – In Support of Terminological Accuracy
What’s the difference between a dictator, a despot, an autocrat, an authoritarian and a tyrant? The thesaurus gives you more choices irrelevant to the emerging conjuncture in Sri Lanka, and in any case it’s not what the dictionary says but different flavours emerging in our domestic scenario that matters. If as now seems likely the Gota regime goes in this direction does it matter which word we choose? Yes it does. In theoretical discourse we must call a spade a spade, neither a spoon nor a bloody shovel, and more important, in real life we must understand exactly what we are dealing with. A dictator has longevity and has uncontested authority over institutions (state, army, party) while a despot’s power is less universally distributed and the incumbent may be temporary. Stalin, Mugabe and Pinochet were a dictators, despot is a better word for Bismarck though he was not temporary; those who don’t like Lee Kwan Yue say he was despotic in the way he did things. People use despot and dictator interchangeably. Despite the dictionary says I don’t think interchangeable use is appropriate in our times. JR was despotic on occasion but he was not literally a dictator.
Authoritarian and autocrat are not interchangeable in theoretically finicky discourse and certainly not the same as dictator. Broadly, an authoritarian imposes his will by authority through institutional structures; authoritarian is the right word for Lee Kwan Yue. An autocrat is inclined to personal exercise of power more than an authoritarian. Mao was an autocrat not an authoritarian, while Xi Jinping whose power derives from the CCP and the State and does not enjoy Mao’s prestige is more the latter. Xi can be removed, only the Great Reaper could remove Mao. Please don’t ask me to include loonies in this line-up; I rule Trump and Caligula offside.
A tyrant is cruel and hateful. He could well be a head of state, a rebel or a military chief; Saddam Hussein or Vlad the Impaler. Two terms used in similar contexts but immaterial to current discourse are bonapartism and fascism. The classic Bonaparte is when in a period of social upheaval and chaos, such as in the late 1790s and early 1800s in France, an imposing figure rises to the helm to balance the contending classes (the bourgeoisie who held the key to economic progress on the one side, and city sans-culottes and peasantry aroused to rebellion on the other). Napoleon restored order at home and the bayonets of his army carried the message of the French Revolution across Europe irreversibly transforming the continent. Though the classic specimen Napoleon was not the first bonapartist; it was Emperor Qin Shi Huang (d. 210 BC) who terminated the Warring States Period.
The other term is fascism. There is no threat of fascism, in its interwar form in Lanak. (I have no grouse with Bahu abusing Gota as a fascist for propaganda). The pulverisation of free institutions, learned and civil society and even the churches, and subsuming all under a monolithic state, this is real classic fascism, and is unthinkable in Sri Lanka even in a worst case scenario. There is a more persuasive version as Hugh Trevor-Roper remarked: “Here is in England, as in other countries, (there exists) a fascist world; a world of lower-middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance and who hate foreigners (or communities) if they come from ‘inferior’ races”.
At the same time it is imprudent to minimise disturbing trends or overlook that Gota comes with reputational baggage and in tow with military henchmen and racist monks in his entourage. Furthermore Sinhala-Buddhist psychology has been hardening since the end of the war. There is a national swing to a nativist-statist-rightist trajectory. The drift to anti-liberalism and ethnic or religious zealotry is global. The slide in Sri Lanka will be by insidious institutional changes. The recipe for authoritarianism is an all-powerful presidential mandate, a regimented bureaucracy, a fragile parliament and repeal of 19A. You cannot miss that I am moving towards authoritarianism in preference to dictatorship or autocracy as an accurate descriptor of the emerging state in Sri Lanka.
I am strengthened in this view by the “National Policy Framework Vistas of Prosperity & Splendour” (NPFVPS) released by the Ministry of Finance on14 December. The quotes below only relate to points that relate to trends to authoritarianism that capitalise on the anxiety at work in society. These statements may be harmless in a normal environment but are of concern given the acquired reputation of GR and MR. The two paragraphs below are from the document. Quote:
“Chapter 2: An efficient Country Free from Corruption
“Reviews the executive presidency, mixed electoral system, the provincial council and strengthen the independence of the judiciary. It emphasises a well-disciplined political environment. Dealt with (sic!) in terms of the law on unruly, undisciplined and ill-mannered people’s representatives”.
“Chapter 3: A Safe and a Secure Country for all
“Top priority for National Security: Strengthen the intelligence services of armed forces and the police. Establishing a post of National Chief of Intelligence with adequate power to coordinate all relevant agencies. Re-Building the moral of Forces. Ensuring the legal protection enabling the forces to perform duties fearlessly and with dignity, without any political interference. Dismantling all the structures supporting terrorism and extremism”.
NPFVPS overall is an ambitious plan; it will help national development if implemented fairly. This column has said before that a new president should be given a chance to achieve his goals before he is censured though some of my friends on the left do not comprehend measured tones. However, the last month have been ominous. Militarisation of the State is proceeding apace. Ex-Admiral Colombage has been appointed Additional Presidential Secretary for Foreign Relations, ex-General Chandrasiri Airport & Aviation Services Chairman, Chandana Wickramasinghe Director of Media and Military Spokesman.
Champika Ranawaka’s former driver’s wife and child have been virtually abducted by the police (“The claim that the victims got into a police vehicle at midnight to come to Battaramulla police station cannot be accepted” declared UNP MP Range Bandara). The former minister himself has been arrested. The Swiss Embassy and Foreign Ministry have stated that they are not satisfied with the investigations carried out by the CID regarding the abduction of an employee. The President has shot his mouth off and declared there was no abduction, though the matter is still before the courts. Amazing! If somebody drew a thin red line in the sand, well Gota stands with one leg on either side as institutional authoritarianism tightens its grip. More authoritarian than autocratic; more institutional than individual.
The Twenty-first century assault on democracy on every continent is blended with toxic racism (generic includes religious extremism etc.) Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act for example destroys the secular basis of the Indian Constitution, the anchor of the Republic for 72 years. The fear in Lanka in the light of the Sinhala-Buddhist electoral upsurge and changes to follow next year is that Sinhala-Buddhism (SB) will track a similar path. Why is the SB mass incensed with UNP and minorities and loth to extend marginal support to the JVP? Upwelling anger has been ripening since the end of the war; Gota is only manifestation. There is resentment that the rewards of victory “have been fritted away”; the problem was not “fixed” once and for all. Tamil elites and businessmen strut as though their side did not lose the war, the TNA lords it in parliament and claims Leadership of the Opposition, Tamils talk devolution. To make matters worse the Moors get richer and multiply faster. (My suggestion that their men are more virile and women more comely nearly cost me Sinhalese friends!). From Ellalan, to Sangili, to Prabaharan, the Tamils lost all their wars consistently, but still weaselled their way to come out on top. How dare!
The coup de grace coup was the human rights commission in Geneva. It is incomprehensible to the Sinhalese mind that its State is accused of human rights violations when all it did, in their eyes, was stamp out terrorism. The military is indicted for bombing and shelling civilians and “great warriors and brave war heroes” are now exposed to trial before international war-crimes tribunals. This decoction of fritting away the ‘opportunity to fix the Tamils after victory’ and conspiracy against war heroes fermented a Sinhalese landslide like never before. Lee Kwan Yue’s uncompromising hostility to communalism and paramount commitment to civilian supremacy were Singapore’s saving graces but in the Gota’s version of authoritarianism I don’t see how he can avoid bowing before racial and military lobbies he is beholden to.
People expect the past to repeat and look for danger up the wrong street; eyes are alert for white vans, abductions, assassinations, intimidation of journalists, baiting Muslims and targeting Tamil youth. Some of this may recur but history will not repeat itself in so parallel a way. Sri Lanka may slide into authoritarianism, not autocracy a la Mahinda. It will be by insidious institutional changes. Such as what? “Reform” of the legal system and Courts, putting rights on a tight leash and nasty legislation. Stable authoritarianism needs reorganisation of the state; both state institutions and the corporate sector – electricity, petroleum, banks, and ports. In an insidious process starting at the top and filtering down to the work force, loyalists will need to be posted and ‘report’ back. It is likely to be personalised in consonance with the cherished ethos of our Fair Isle and start as nepotism, favouritism (personal or political) and cronyism. It is when this evolves to the next stage of subversive redesign of institutional structures to blend into a greater purpose and conform to a controlling of strategy that it becomes deadly. It is the potential longevity of a Rajapaksa-clan-regime that puts this option on the table.