1 March, 2024


Which Way Civil Society & The Democratic Resistance? 

By Dayan Jayatilleka 

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

One of our most interesting columnists, Uditha Devapriya, in a recent flurry of interesting pieces (Daily Mirror, The Island, Colombo Telegraph) pointed to new trends in the Opposition at two ends of the ideological spectrum, and raised in his Daily Mirror piece, the question of which direction civil society will opt to take.  

I do not wish to suggest an answer by means of an ideological sermon, but instead, to do so as a Realist, which is also the way in which Uditha Devapriya defines himself.

My point is very simple. I do not know which direction civil society and the pluralist-democratic movement will take, but I have a modest suggestion as to which direction it should not turn. That suggestion is based on logic. Just as one wouldn’t send one’s children to a tutor who  has a track record of having flunked his or her examinations, one should not take the cue from those who have a track record of serial political blunders and catastrophes. Instead, one should try something that is new or not quite so exceptionally disastrous. 

Who and what should civil society and more specifically, a civic democratic resistance movement, avoid like Covid-19? I would say the same ideas and personalities who have repeatedly proved disastrous in the realm of political strategy, direction and guidance. 

The facts speak for themselves. 

In January 2019, the UNP was celebrating the overthrow of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. In January 2020 Mahinda Rajapaksa was the PM.

From 2015 to end-2018, the most numerous Opposition formation was denied recognition as the parliamentary Opposition. In 2020 it solidly controls legislative and executive power.  

In January 2019 the UNP and TNA celebrated the successful avoidance of a parliamentary election. In 2020 the UNP which could have registered a respectable total of seats while going into Opposition, wound up without a single seat in Parliament while the TNA’s haul of seats was considerably diminished. 

In January 2019 the UNP and TNA were hellbent on abolishing the presidential system. In 2020 the Presidential system emerged as strong as it ever was and arguably stronger than ever before.

In January 2019 para-UNP neoliberal civil society was celebrating the overthrow of a fake constitutional coup. Having cried ‘wolf!’ in late-2018, civil society was subjected in 2020 to an approximation of an actual constitutional coup, with a massively reinforced Presidency creating a broad swathe of ex-military brass and militarized Task Forces where the civilian state administration used to be.

In 2019 the UNP and TNA sought a new Constitution which would abolish the unitary character of the state. The country faces the prospect of a new Constitution in 2021 which abolishes Provincial Councils.   

Looking back at the UNP over a quarter-century, one may paraphrase Churchill and conclude that never in the history of this island’s politics has so much been got so wrong, for so long, by so few.   

How could this have been possible? A clue lies in a repeated assertion, on-camera, and post-electoral extinction, by a key ideologue and former power-wielder of the deposed UNP Establishment, that Sir John Kotelawala (1953-1956) was one of this country’s most successful Prime Ministers and Ranil Wickremesinghe was the best leader Sri Lanka never had.

This indicates just how far the mindset of the UNP Establishment and its ideologues had cut its moorings to reality. 

The modernist consensus (which I subscribe to) holds that the policy of Sinhala Only adopted by SWRD Bandaranaike– not SWRD’s 1956 victory itself– was the ‘Original Sin’, the start of Sri Lanka’s fall from grace, the beginning of the end of its Golden Age. 

Without Sir John Kotelawala and his administration’s ethos, there would have been no ‘Sinhala Only’ backlash. 

Despite the unarmed Hartal (mass uprising) of August 1953, the UNP failed to course-correct, just as it failed to do after the crushing defeat at the 2018 local government elections. In a foretaste of 2015-2019, Sir John Kotelawala (Dudley Senanayake’s successor) was given to social gestures, practices and arrogant pronouncements that were an affront to the sensibility of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. 

Hence SWRD was tempted into playing the Sinhala Only card, just as the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition/SLPP was tempted to play the GR candidacy card. 

If Ranil Wickremesinghe or even Karu Jayasuriya (uncharacteristically biased, immoderate, intemperate and manipulable as Speaker in 2015-2019) had been the UNP’s Presidential candidate in November 2019, GR would have hit his expected 60% mark which only a Bandaranaike—CBK—had ever obtained. Sajith Premadasa stopped it, holding the line at a respectable 42% at the worst of times for the UNP, and limiting GR to 52% at the best of times for him.    

Sir John Kotelawala and his UNP were to the rise and triumph of ‘Sinhala Only’ in 1956, what Ranil Wickremesinghe and his UNP were to the rise and triumph of the Gotabaya ultranationalist backlash of 2019-2020: the most ethnically polarizing and electorally calamitous Prime Ministers the UNP ever produced. 

Beyond the political decimation, the utter moral-ethical bankruptcy of the UNP is best evidenced by the fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the party leader, while the sleepwalking survivors don’t have the sanity to replace him with Ruwan Wijewardena and nominate the latter for the national list seat.

With apologies to Lincoln, the good news is you can fool all the UNP much of the time, and much of the UNP all the time, but not all the UNP all the time. Hence Sajith Premadasa’s Opposition leadership, the SJB phenomenon, and its brand-new architecture. 

The Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s adoption of its new Constitution at Bandarawela on December 19th, is the start of a whole new ballgame.  

‘Goals, Policies and Basic Principles’ (Chapter 2) include ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ ‘social justice’, ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ and ‘unitary’ among others. 

The new Constitution returns to the roots, the founding 1946 UNP Constitution of DS Senanayake, combining it with features such as incorporating the elected Provincial Council and Pradesheeya Sabha members in the decision-making bodies as proposed by Sajith Premadasa during his reformist rebellion ten years ago. 

It ruptures with the UNP Constitution of 1995 which enthroned Wickremesinghe, created a penthouse for a party leader socially distanced and insulated from the influences and feedback of the popular base, thereby ensuring that the UNP could never win the Presidency and lead the country again. 

The SJB’s new Constitution opens the party to the flow of ideas and feedback from the elected representatives at all three levels of the political system, as well as from the party’s mass organizations. 

Adopting through protracted consultation with all its elected representatives, by far the least despotic and most transparently participatory-democratic Constitution of any political party in Sri Lanka, the UNP’s successor formation has just become structurally electable–the UNP having failed for over three decades to contribute a leader for the country. 

The renovated party has as its founder-leader, the most viable contender for the country’s top-spot: relatively youthful, perfectly bilingual, combining chemistry and resonance with people at the grassroots, with a British public-school education and a patriotic-populist brand-name that can compete with the ruling clan.       

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Winning the 1952 election by Sir John/Dudley was very costly. UNP promised free rice and it was given which devastated Ceylon’s foreign reserves and rice cultivation! Soon they were begging China for rice. This costly promise was given to prevent SWRDB winning the 1952 election with his popular slogan. It only delayed the inevitable at a great cost to the SL economy.

    Next presidential election is due in 2024. But Rajapaksas know that at parliamentary elections, UNP, TNA, SLMC, etc. contest divided. So Gota will have the parliamentary election first around March 2024. That also gives him more options if his party fails to win (he has all executive power). If TNA contests alone and then joins UNP it is a disaster. Rajapakshas will go to town with tiger stories. The only way to avoid is for TNA to contest under one alliance with UNP, SLMC, etc.

    But Rajapaksas have a plan for that too. Vigneswaran and Ponnambalam will use that opportunity to defeat the TNA-UNP alliance using a hard line approach. They are friends of Rajapaksas.

    Dayan’s strategy fails.

    Only strategy that wins – TNA and other Tamil parties must shed racism and join the political mainstream. All Muslim parties are ready. Until and unless Tamil parties can shed racism, they are condemned to the opposition.

  • 0

    Dear Dayan

    Thank you for sharing. I disagree with the “Sinhala Only Act” is the centre if all evil……I would rather revisit the “Citizens Act” protest and formation of the FP as the cause of all evil. The so called got elected in Jaffna and did the damage whilst all the Leftest parties were on the ground doing their best to address the issue accordingly. Talk about making enemies and politics out of thin air that was done by FP then. Thereafter all you said has been the journey and we are where we are…..lost all our Mother Lankan Children + Tamil have official status….we are in the bottom the World and great Toilet washers to date.

    That is a side what we need is all parties should demonstarate National Policies (no ghetto makers) and strong Environmental Principles/Policies/Qualifications/Visions to shape her future……so there is a Sea/Land/Air/Water that wouldn’t kill us on the spot saturated with our own s*** & plastic and heavy metal.

    So the 2021 Constitution should include this as a must for any National Parties who want to govern the Nation?? Need of the hour is Security for the Nation and a Strong Environmental Focus??

  • 3

    Which way the Civil society and democratic resistance should go?
    There is only one way the Civil society and democratic resistance to go that is to educate the people to understand the dangers of one family dictatorship and military rule. The role of military should be very clear. The role of military is to protect the people and democracy not dancing to the needs of one family or another family. At this point, military, police and judiciary are divided and dance to the politicians order. That should be changed. For example, during the previous regime a former LTTE leader was charged for a murder of another parliamentarian. Similarly, another one was charged for murder of another parliamentarian, another military person was convicted for murder of civilians. Once the government changed the court decisions became null and they are freed. These are the good examples of how the institutions are politicised to the needs of politicians.
    I don’t know who is right or who is wrong but the system should be only one way.

    It is true that UNP and SLFP both are failed to find the right direction for the people and country when they had a good opportunity. SLPP is going in a wrong direction. So, SJB has a responsibility to stop the direction as an opposition political party.

  • 1

    … personalities who have repeatedly proved disastrous in the realm of political strategy, direction and guidance.
    I have simply plucked the above from DJ’s piece. Is he looking at himself of the past?
    He is now a different analyst; I hope he stays that way.
    In January 2019, the UNP was celebrating the overthrow of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. In January 2020 Mahinda Rajapaksa was the PM.
    This is not UNP’s fault. There was no UNP, there was only Ranil; Ranil was UNP.
    Even today, there is no UNP, only a politically washed out Ranil.
    GR is a one-man show. He is overdoing the jobHe probably will be a one-time show also.

    • 3

      Ranil Wickremasinghe is primarily the reason why Sri Lanka is in such a chaotic mess. He was totally selfish, a dog in the manger, who refused to let go the reins he desperately held on to despite the failures, did not want to step down in a timely manner to help the party, was an incompetent fool, had no spine to stand up to the Rajapaksa’s, in fact he looked like he was aiding and abetting them, and it was because of Ranil’s failures we have now been cursed with the Rajapaksa’s.
      Let’s also not forget the part played by Sirisena, who was playing his own selfish games.

  • 1

    As long as old crooks Sirisena ,Rajapaksas, Ranil and other power hungry politicians are playing vital role in Sri lankan politics, there would never be any change.

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