Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Allergy to analysis and historical amnesia in Sri Lanka

The trouble with Sri Lankan political and civil society is that everyone’s an amateur psychologist. Instead of listening to or reading what someone says and treating it on its merits, the name of the game is to speculate on what motivated him. What’s s/he after? Who is he with now? Thus it is that gossip substitutes for analysis. The upshot of  the personalised normative reactions of Sri Lankan society, i.e. reacting to who is saying it rather than what is said, deprives us of learning anything of value that the writer or speaker may have to offer.

So, it goes something like this. If one asserts that Sri Lankan democracy is not dead, and the country is neither totalitarian nor a dictatorship but that Sri Lankan democracy has always been unevenly developing and subject to contractions and expansions, the automatic response is that the writer or exponent of this view is attempting to whitewash Rajapakse rule. But again, what if the Rajapakses do not enter the picture? Why not examine or debate the point rather than speculate about motives?

If you are critical of Ranil Wickremesinghe you are either a supporter of Mahinda Rajapakse who is trying to disrupt the unity of the UNP or you are a clandestine opponent of Mahinda Rajapakse who disregards his wishes and interests with regard to the leadership of the Opposition. What if one is a supporter of Mahinda Rajapakse but also a supporter of a healthy democracy which presupposes a viable opposition? What if what one is saying about the UNP has nothing to with Mahinda Rajapakse at all?   Not bloody likely, you’d say, but what if it can be proved? Keep reading.

To provide one final example, if one advocates architecture for Sri Lankan foreign policy which is designed for sovereignty and security and laden in favour of Eurasia and the ‘East’, one is echoing President Rajapakse’s predilections and prejudices with a view to currying favour. Once again, what if it is demonstrably NOT about Mahinda Rajapakse?

Let’s test out my proposition. Consider this text:

“What are the special features and distinguishing characteristics of democracy in Sri Lanka?  I would list the following: its unevenness, its dual embattlement, its co-existence with the archaic, its zero-sum nature, its nexus with the unitary state, and finally its resilience. Lankan democracy has been an uneven democracy. Its unevenness is manifest in two senses. Firstly if one takes a decades-long view, there has been a spasmodic rhythm in our democracy. There have been periods of high democracy and low democracy. The pattern is one of expansion and contraction of democracy. And even this expansion and contraction itself has not proceeded in any regular cycle. The heartbeat of our democracy has been arrhythmic. The unevenness of Lanka’s democracy has been present in a second sense too. At any given time an overhead satellite photograph so to speak of Lankan democracy would reveal its uneven distribution and exercise.” (‘Sri Lanka’s Uneven Democracy’ Kandy News, March 4, 1998)

Now this surely is a defence of Mahinda Rajapakse’s Mussolini-esque totalitarianism! Hang on a minute – this piece by me was published in 1998, when Mahinda was an obscure Minister whose portfolio I cannot recall. Ok, so then it was probably a justification of whoever was President at the time. The problem with that explanation is that in 1998, CBK was the President and I was strongly opposed to her ‘union of regions package’. So, my political scientific conclusion with regard to Sri Lankan democracy has remained consistent and must be examined today on its own merits.

Next up is the Opposition question. When was the following written, who by and how accurate is it?

“If things remain unchanged, the UNP is going to lose, and lose big, at the forthcoming parliamen­tary elections. Take cricket, for example. If we didn’t make changes at the top, that is to say the captaincy, the coach and the Board, Sri Lanka could not have pulled out of the nose­dive it got into during the last World Cup. But we did make those changes -not early enough to avoid humiliation at the World Cup, but soon after, and here we are, back in the big league and close to the top. And let us always recall that the cricket captain we had no choice but to replace (belatedly, it should have been done in ‘ 97) is one who led us to a historic victory in 1996; once a very popular leader and always a fine cricketer. By contrast Ranil Wickremesinghe has scored a hat-trick in reverse. He had led his party to consecutive defeats at three (of the four) levels of the political structure: local authority, Provincial Councils, Presidential. And it’s three out of four only because elections have not yet been held for the remain­ing level! Nothing short of reshuffling the leadership helped restore our cricket for­tunes. Nothing short of that will work in re­storing the UNP’s political-electoral fortunes either. But the pay-off is big. Once the change is made, once the surgery is over and done, recovery time is pretty short and the take-off is almost vertical, because the potential has been lying within, locked up. Even the re­placed captain performs better, carrying less freight, playing his natural game. It worked for our cricket, it’ll work for our Opposition. Nothing -and I mean nothing – else will, because nothing else can.” (‘Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Game’ Weekend Express, Saturday March 11- Sunday March 12, 2000, p 6)

Now that was published in March 2000, and written by me. I’m still saying the same thing. Mahinda Rajapakse was merely a Cabinet Minister at the time, years away from the Opposition Leadership or the Prime Ministership, let alone the Presidency. Ok, so was it for or against the President of the day? Who knows? I had been critical of CBK for years, but supported her at the December ’99 presidential and year 2000 parliamentary elections. From what she told SB Dissanaike and Mangala Samaraweera at the airport before emplaning for London after surviving the Tiger suicide bomber, she very much wanted Ranil to remain as UNP leader. That had nothing to do with me, so I called it as I saw it, as I tend to do. What is important is whether what I wrote has stood the test of time and is evidence of accuracy in analysis.  What is even more important is that the struggle to dislodge Ranil from the UNP leadership has been on for at least a decade (in my case, from 1997).

A final example from the field of foreign policy: “ In the East, that is from Russia to China through India, there is an equally powerful mood against separatist terrorism…The Chinese leadership chose the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the Peoples Republic last October to officially prioritise this threat and designate it as that of ‘ethnic splittism’…A strong Eurasian ‘heartland ‘ thrust, arcing from Moscow through Ankara, Tehran, Delhi and Beijing can be conceived of and operationally undertaken in the form of shuttle diplomacy and summitry. Both Western and Eurasian thrusts can be complimentary ‘arches’ in a single foreign policy architecture for Sri Lanka…The central pillar of our foreign policy architecture must be the relationship with India, not in contrite genuflection to anyone as a regional hegemon or because we are in anyone’s backyard but because we have certain common strategic interests.” (‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Vacuum’, Weekend Express, March 18, 2000 pp.6-7)

This is obviously a pandering to Mahinda Rajapakse’s visceral anti-Westernism, turn to the East and embrace of China, and written to secure an ambassadorial posting (once again). Well, actually, it is my column ‘Reflections’ in the Weekend Express of a decade ago. Was it perhaps to secure a DPL posting from the then President and Foreign Minister? If so, it could hardly have carried the caption that it did, namely ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Vacuum’, a stricture hardly designed to flatter either President CBK or Minister Kadirgamar. This was published years before LK’s re-orientation towards China and even before his rapprochement with the JVP (which may have been a domestic driver of that shift).

Opposition to dynastic rule is laudable but not when it comes from a member or faithful serf of a deposed or earlier dynasty, whose only problem is with which dynasty rules rather than the phenomenon of dynastic rule itself. How much of what passes for opposition to dynastic rule today is inter-dynastic rivalry, between ascendant and declining dynasties; those on the inside and those deposed or in decline? How much of current politics represents a bloc of dynasties in decline or stagnation, in embittered opposition to what they perceive as a more dynamic, ascendant or newly emergent dynasty?

What is still less credible is when criticism of the contemporary is used to glorify a dynastic past and mask its crimes and follies. What is the historical truth? Does the Bandaranaike reign of the ’70s represent a fairer, nobler age, in stark and welcome contrast to the present day, or should it be seen as the progenitor and forerunner of our present discontents; in many senses responsible for that which is negative in the present and in certain respects far worse?  Are the negative features and practices of the present day, clearly distinct and distinguishable from that past or on a continuum with it and at times a throwback?

On almost all major issues of vital civic concern, the negatives germinated or grew under that political dispensation and at least one of these areas, Sri Lanka is significantly better off than it was then.

  1. The ethnic issue: Tamil separatists lost their deposits at the 1970 elections, but separatism became the sole platform of the TULF which carried the North and part of the East in ’77. Logically then, the seismic shift occurred during the Bandaranaike administration. The Constitution making process of ’72 ignored the moderate (non-federal) six point platform presented in Mr Chelvanayagam’s letter to the PM, which was not even accorded the courtesy of a reply. The new Constitution abolished the Soulbury safeguards for minorities, entrenched Sinhala as the sole official language, conferred pre-eminence on Buddhism (as DS Senanayake had declined to), and made explicit the unitary character of the state (which the Soulbury Constitution remained silent on). The Tamil New Tigers (TNT) with Velupillai Prabhakaran was formed in ’72. Eight unarmed persons died in the Police action at the IATR conference in Jaffna in ’74. Prabhakaran founded the successor organisation to the TNT, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in ’76. The Bandaranaike administration sowed the dragon’s teeth and it took Mahinda Rajapakse to slay the marauding dragon, with all the corollaries and consequences that entailed. By the time it ended Sri Lanka had lost thirty five years and a hundred thousand lives with many more maimed.
  2. Political prisoners: The UF government used the post-April 1971 situation to incarcerate political critics including those who were active opponents of the JVP or had nothing to do with it. This cannot be excused by the ‘fog of war’ because some unjust incarcerations lasted for years. Those locked up included SWRD Bandaranaike’s cousin and founder of the Bosath Bandaranaike Party, SD Bandaranaike, UF parliamentarian and youth leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Maoist leader N Sanmugathasan (Wijeweera’s a bitter foe, who had never wielded a weapon in his life)! Dozens of Tamil youth were imprisoned under Emergency for years, for the crime of hoisting black flags against the promulgation of the ’72 Constitution. These travesties of justice were Sri Lanka’s pioneering episodes of victimising political foes and critics by jailing them.
  3. The ruination of higher education and plummeting of standards: The policies of district wise and media-wise standardisation in university entrance were not only an instant trigger of Tamil youth militancy and violence, but (together with the straitjacketing into a ‘single university’) wrecked Sri Lanka’s excellent university system and led to a downward spiral of standards in all sectors, from which the country has not yet pulled out because these policies have become structural and have entrenched social constituencies. We shall permanently lag behind the rest of Asia as a consequence.
  4. The hyper-politicisation of the bureaucracy and partisan control of the state: Our country was ahead of most in Asia in the early 1950s not least because we had an independent and well qualified public service. That was dismantled under Sirima Bandaranaike rule. Following the bloody and bloodily suppressed youth uprising of the late 1980s, a Youth Commission was appointed by the then President to investigate the grievances that led to the revolt. The Report of the Commission concluded that the partisan politicisation of the public sector and recruitment to jobs was one of the main causative factors, tracing this to 1972 when the new Constitution abolished the independent Public Services Commission. The subordination of the state officials to government politicians and stooges was buttressed by the appointment of District Political Authorities and the misnamed Janatha (People’s) Committees.
  5. Human Rights & Impunity: Emergency rule was kept in place for six years, though the insurgency was crushed in six weeks. The ‘tyre pyre’ was invented under Bandaranaike rule. Extra-judicial executions on a large scale, as evidenced in bodies with tied hands floating down rivers, were first seen in Sri Lanka in 1971.  (A JVP suspect named Kamalabandu was dismembered with an electric saw). At the time, the quality British press named and quoted a top army officer commanding a district as saying “we have learned the lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. I have told my men, no prisoners”. As those who perpetrated this policy with impunity moved up the ladder, these practices were witnessed during the wars fought in North and South.  The Government promptly deported Lord Avebury of Amnesty International. The ’72 Constitution incorporated the draconian Pubic Security Ordinance into our basic law. My fellow ‘fresher’ Weerasooriya was shot dead by the Police on Peradeniya campus in November ’76. A glance through the documents of the Civil Rights Movement issued in the Sirima-Felix years would prove my point.
  6. Nepotism & family/clan based oligarchy: The term ‘family-bandyism’ was ubiquitous in the discourse of that time, and one of the UNP’s winning cards was the book of cartoons which depicted a ramified family tree of Bandaranaikes and Ratwattes ensconced in positions of power and influence. The state owned most of everything and the Bandaranaikes owned the state.  (A successor Bandaranaike administration, that of Chandrika, had herself as President, her mother as Prime Minister and uncle as Deputy Minister of Defence, with brother Anura as a Minister after the demise of the matriarch).
  7. Media freedom, democratic space, authoritarianism: The Bandaranaike regime dissolved local authorities island-wide, delayed the holding of the KKS by-election, appropriated Lake House, never broad-based its ownership (vesting the shares in the Public Trustee who happened to be a trustworthy clan member),  jailed Fred de Silva the Deputy Editor of the Daily News, sacked Mervyn the only editor who gave state-run Lake House some credibility and independence (having earlier banned him from writing to the foreign press because The Economist had illustrated his contribution with an unflattering photograph of the PM!), sealed the SUN/Dawasa press, censored the Daily Mirror so heavily that its editorials often appeared blank, and shut down for a time the press of the Communist allies of the government, the ATHTHA. The funeral of much loved ex-Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was not relayed real-time by radio but broadcast delayed –once the SLBC boss (Ridgeway Tillekeratne) had cleared the incoming reportage. Contrast that with the proliferation and pluralism of the print, electronic and digital media under the ‘indefensible’ Rajapakse regime; a factor that cannot but provide considerably greater democratic space structurally, than under Bandaranaike rule.

Cabinet Minister TB Subasinghe, a man of unimpeachable integrity, resigned and in his letter which he made public he warned the country of the existence of “extra-constitutional centres of power”. Dr NM Perera denounced an “invisible government”, while Dr Colvin R de Silva’s parliamentary speech, published as a pamphlet captioned ‘Sirima’s Blitzkrieg: Who Won?’ analysed the anatomy, growth and political economy of the hidden power structures, dating from 1971.

But was there any significant or meaningful attempt to extend the tenure of the then incumbent? Minister T.B. Ilangaratne broached the possibility publicly while a senior parliamentarian from the Kandy district suggested that as Mrs Bandaranaike (in point of fact, Sri Lanka) had been elected Chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement representing two thirds of humanity (the absurd phrase was “Lokaye thunen dekaka naikawa”), her term of office should be extended to cover those three years!  Opposition Leader Jayewardene warned that in such an event he would not only conduct a massive nationwide Satyagraha campaign but would also call upon the Armed Forces to disobey illegal orders from an unconstitutional government.

P.S. Au revoir