A Man for all political Seasons: Dr Dayan Jayatilleka


“… I remain passionately committed to the notion of universality and universal values which derive from our common human condition. The values of humanism are part of these universal values”.

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka[1]

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Julian Barnes [2]

On first reading Dr Dayan Jayatilleka one is seduced not only by his prose but by the battery of great names he uses to support his arguments: Edward Galeano, Mao, Gramsci, Che, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre (and the list does not end there).[3] His political examples are drawn from Serbia, Rwanda, Burma, Pakistan and Mubarak’s Egypt.[4] He does not spare his opponents and their causes – “Red fascists,”[5] he cries; others are deemed: “Orientalist Western critics and their Sri Lankan spear bearers”.[6] When the occasion demands, he brings to the fore an incident where he was either a bystander or an active participant in the making of history.[7]

So beguiled is the reader that it is only after some time that one begins to question the way the good doctor uses these aids to argument, and at that point one must question the very basis of Dr Jayatilleka’s ingenious defence of President Mahindra Rajapaksa and his policies. It is therefore appropriate to examine his examples, the political accuracy of his advocacy and his idealisation of the current government of Sri Lanka.

Dr Jayatilleka opens his polemic, entitled Provoking, persecuting and pushing Sri Lanka: Enough, with a quote from Mao:

Revolution is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly and modestly. [8]

What Mao meant by revolution was that in countries dominated by a rural sector the revolution would start not in the cities (which the peasants would encircle and capture) but in the countryside. This required the organising of the peasantry, the setting up of rural bases and would in the end involve conventional warfare.[9] In this the role of the Communist Party and its cadres would be central. With the revolution complete, the organs of the state (the judiciary, civil service, etc.) and its economic capacity would also be controlled by the party. Mao’s revolution therefore entailed a transformation of the economic structure and character of civil society.[10]

Dr Jayatilleka (at this point diverging from Mao) characterises the Rajapaksa government as being ”protean centrism”. The revolutionary shift is here the entrenchment of patriotism or if you will statist-nationalism at the centre-space and as the centrepiece of the Sri Lankan polity and political discourse and culture. (Groundviews 3/12/11).

This, however, is hardly new, leave alone revolutionary in modern Lankan political culture. Since the 1956 election, the people of Lanka have been periodically moved by waves of euphoria and disillusionment, electing charismatic political leaders with huge majorities who fail to deliver and, indeed, entrench the status quo. They spend their time reinforcing their interests, using democracy to strengthen their regimes, which in turn become more authoritarian. One remembers S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who reduced the UNP to a rump of 8 seats in the 1956 elections; his widow Sirmavo Bandaranaike, who did the same in 1970; Junius Richard Jayewardene from the UNP, who won a landslide election in 1977 and reduced the SLFP itself to a rump. All left the country less secure both economically and democratically. President Rajapaksa is the latest. He claims to have brought to fruition the seeds of 1956 by winning the civil war. The more appropriate parallel here, of course, is really the Malaysian emergency of the 1950s, which ended with the defeat of the Communist insurgency and led to an elite-directed democracy dominated by the strongest ethnic group, much to the resentment of the other two communities.[11] Or, as Dr Jayatilleka puts it, a ‘patriotic statist nationalism,’ which in Malaysia is looking far from healthy.

One must ask, then, what the Rajapaksa regime is doing that makes it so different from other populist regimes. This question Dr Jayatilleka fails to address, clothing this lacuna in a garland of intellectual flattery; he ridicules or demonises his opponents (not hard to do, given the state of the opposition), and scours the media seeking evidence that his hero is, after all, a very popular and politically resolute fellow.[12]

One suspects that his patron would be less than happy with some of the examples he has produced to buttress his case. Dr Jayatilleka is critical of the way Greater Serbia became Lesser Serbia by its acceptance of the secession of Kosovo; he feels the same way about the referendum on the separation of South Sudan. Lanka avoided such a fate because Rajapaksa was resolute; he defeated those appeasers Ranil and Chandrika; he also adroitly managed the Indians,[13] and ignored foreign pressure to end the war till it was won.[14]

Dr Jayatilleka’s Serbia and Sudan bear little relation to their actual complexities. Sudan was and is an artificial construct of disparate tribal, territorial and religious affiliations devised by the imperialist powers and propped up by a succession of ruthless and authoritarian civil and military leaders. The only humane way to end the conflict and the killing of tens of thousands of innocent civilians was a political compromise. Limited though the peace treaty was, it provided a break from the violence and allowed the parties to the conflict a say. Though there are still tensions a fragile peace holds. In Kosovo we find the same complexity, the same very recent rancour. As Noel Malcolm says in his history of Kosovo, the endless ‘ethnic conflicts’ of the former Yugoslavia are a story which was essentially false:

it ignored the primary role of politicians (above all, the Serbian nationalist-Communist Slobodan Milosevic) in creating conflict at the political level and indeed it ignored the fact that the wars themselves were launched not by ordinary civilians but from armed forces directed from above.[15]

Malcolm points out that there had never been ethnic wars in the ancient history of Bosnia or Croatia, and the only conflicts with a partly ethnic character to them were modern ones. (Malcolm 1998) These realities bear witness to the value of compromise and tolerance, and also to how local elites can create and exploit ethnic hatred for their own ends. Eulogists of Sri Lanka’s present government should pay heed.

There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to the idea that Sri Lanka is under siege from Western imperialist powers. Jayatilleka’s Provoking, persecuting and pushing Sri Lanka: Enough is a more sophisticated version of this argument. When a state is facing a ruthless foe like the Tamil Tigers, he says, what choice does it have but be ruthless in return? The Tigers had bedded themselves in the civilian population. What does the world expect – kid gloves? The Bolsheviks killed the Tsar and his entire family; Mussolini and his mistress were hanged by the Italian partisans. Dr Jayatilleka regrets such behaviour, but examples of ethical practice in these situations are necessarily rare – Fidel, Che, the Sandinistas being honourable exceptions.

He goes on to ask if anybody expects that a democratic state should not be responsive to public opinion:

Each state and society decides on how and when and who by issues of accountability and impunity are settled.[16]

Dr Jayatilleka argues that the appeasing of foreign interests would alienate the vast bulk of the citizenry (i.e. the peasants) and rend the fabric of society. It would also hinder the reconciliation of the two communities. He offers as an example the forcing of Serbia by the UN to hand over war criminals – a policy he regards as inappropriate and humiliating. As for Sri Lanka: An ancient nation, possibly one of the oldest on earth, with a long chronicled history, a unique language, specific religious denominational adherence and strong identity, which has beaten back a thirty year old ferocious suicide-terrorism and survived an external intervention, a nation with a fairly sizeable population and tough armed forces: does this look like a pushover, or a collective that’s going to bend over for six of the best from a former colonial schoolmaster.[17] (Groundviews 26/6/11) Ouch.

One would think from this that Sri Lanka, like Iran, was under siege. Iran – a country whose nuclear scientists are assassinated on a regular basis, whose computer network is periodically sabotaged, which has American warships deployed off its coast, is the object of economic and financial sanctions and is threatened by airstrikes. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, Iran is besieged. None of this is happening to Lanka.

Even the leaked Wikileaks cables give little support to Dr Jayatilleka’s contention. The Americans were critical of the conduct of the war, but never questioned the legitimacy of the Lankan state. They were more concerned about the influence of the Chinese – something which tempered their criticism.[18]

As A. Sivanandan noted in his discussion of communalism:

Sri Lanka must be the only country in world where such affirmative action is used to safeguard the interests of the majority on the grounds they are a minority – in the world; but, then so are the Chinese.[19]

Lanka since 1977 has practiced a contradictory policy of defensive nationalism and an open economy. Like all small and middling economies it has been buffeted by the contradictions of unfettered capitalism on a traditional society. The economy is hugely dependent on two things – the remittance of money from abroad (36 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange holdings)[20] and the garment industry (45 per cent of export revenue).[21] It has a huge deficit of around 82 per cent of GDP, a large and expensive army and a growing population (Bopage 2010). It needs to expand and diversify its economy, and simultaneously encourage a vibrant civil society. So the question that needs to be asked is this: is the Rajapaksa government capable of doing what needs to be done?

If Lanka wants to build a lively democracy underpinned by a strong economy, it must deal honestly with both the present and the past. Michael Ondaatje’s words, from his novel Anil’s Ghost (set during the second JVP insurrection), have a haunting relevance;

This was the scarring psychosis in the country. Death, loss was ‘unfinished,’ so you could not walk through it. There had been years of night visitation, kidnappings or murder in broad daylight. The only choice was that the creatures would consume themselves. All that was left of law was a belief in the eventual revenge towards those who had power.

And who was this skeleton? In this room, amongst these four, she was hiding among the unhistorical dead. …. Who was he? This representative of all those lost voices. To give him a name would name the rest.[22]

Such ghosts roam the country in their tens of thousands, north and south, east and west. They need to be acknowledged; their families need to know how they died. The credible allegations of human rights violations by both the Government and the LTTE in the final stages of the civil war needs to be investigated impartially and without rancour, not dismissed in a display of self-defensive righteousness.

Around ten thousand were killed during the 1971 insurrection, mostly by government forces; in July 1983 around 3,000 Tamils were killed and a hundred thousand made homeless, despite the presence of the security forces; during the second JVP insurrection, between 40,000 to 60,000 people were killed in a most vile manner (most of them tortured, some burnt to death), the great majority of them victims of the security forces. Estimated deaths from the thirty year civil war range from 60,000 to over 100,000.

The LTTE itself killed unarmed civilians, used them as shields and forcibly recruited children and made them frontline soldiers. They killed most of their political opponents and forced the deportation of many thousands of Muslim Tamils.

Reconciliation and investigation are imperative; and the country’s long history should be a source of strength for all, not a partisan weapon. If Dr Jayatilleka is, as he proclaims, passionately committed to the notion of universality and universal values which derive from our common human condition, (Groundviews 3/12/2011) why is he preaching on behalf of the powerful to obfuscate these very real issues?

The answer can be had from one of the radical thinkers he likes to name, Antonio Gramsci. (Groundviews 11/9/11.) Hegemony in the Gramscian sense means that the elite of a country rule not by brutality, but by obtaining the consent of the governed. Intellectuals are the necessary intermediaries, providing a ‘common sense’ justification of the status quo, regardless of the political and material circumstances of the people. Their role is vital in buttressing that popularity. This gives priests, journalists, politicians and teachers a vital role.[23] Dr Jayatilleka exemplifies this to perfection: a skilful, eloquent, erudite proponent (i.e. spear bearer) of the status quo. Nothing like the brave revolutionary and intellectual thinkers he is so fond of quoting:  Che, Fidel and Galeano; individuals who spoke the truth to power on behalf of the poor and dispossessed.

[1] Jayatilleka, D. (2011). Reflections on the ethics of violence: Just wars and morality. Groundviews, December 3, 2011.

[2] Barnes, J. (2011). The Sense of an Ending. Jonathan Cape, 17.

[3] This is on full display in his many contributions to Groundviews. For example: Jayatilleka, D. (2011), Reflections on the ethics of violence: Just wars and morality. Groundviews December 3, 2011. Here we find named the ancient Indian writer Kautilya along with Sartre, Camus, Che and Gandhi.

[4] Jayatilleka, D. (2011). ‘Making The Mahindra Moment in Lankan Politics. Groundviews, September 11, 2011. Here he draws on De Gaulle’s France, Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s America, Lula’s Brazil and Putin’s Russia, making them a point of comparison with President Rajapaksa, who, like them, has caused a ‘tectonic shift’ in politics, society etc..

[5] Jayatilleka, D. (2011). Progressive Politics and The Right Kind of Left. Groundviews – http//, October 23 2011.

[6] See Marking The Mahindra Moment in Lankan Politics, where he says that this degree of popular support cannot be dismissed in the way that usually happens with ‘Orientalist’ Western critics and their Sri Lankan ‘spear bearers’.

[7] Jayatilleka, D. (2009). Mullaitivu: Closing Time. Groundviews – http// January 28, 2009. Discussing the motives of General Kalkat, head of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, he reveals he was there under an assumed identity when a crucial decision was made.

[8] Jayatilleka, D. (2011). Provoking, persecuting and pushing Sri Lanka: Enough. Groundviews 26/06/11

[9] The failed 1971 JVP insurrection is the closest Lanka came to a Maoist revolution.

[10] McLellan, D. (1980). Marxism after Marx. Macmillan Press, 199-240.

[11] Fairbairn, G. (1974). Revolutionary Guerrilla Warfare: The Countryside Version. Penguin Books, 125-174

[12] See Jayatilleka, D. (2011). Authoritative Ethical Realist Reads Rajapaksa’s Role. Groundveiws http//   September 25, 2011

[13] Whilst, not discounting the skill President Rajapaksa used in dealing with the Indian government; it is important to be reminded of the fact, that the LTTE blew up Rajiv Gandhi and that his widow Sonia Gandhi is the most politically powerful member of the current government in India.

[14] Jayatilleka, D. (2010). New opposition and trends and social democratic vision. Sri Lankan Guardian, September 26, 2010

[15] Malcolm, N. (1998). Kosovo: A Short History. PaperMac, xxvii

[16] Jayatilleka, D. 2011). Provoking, persecuting and pushing Sri Lanka: Enough. Groundviews, http//, 26/11/11

[17] Ibid.

[18] See Ratnayake, K. (2010). Wikileaks documents exposes US complicity in Sri Lankan war crimes. Published on 4 December 2010. Retrieved from$.shtml

[19] Sivanandan, A. (1984). Sri Lanka: Racism and the Politics of Underdevelopment. Race and Class: Vol XXVI – Summer 1984 – No: 1 Institute of Race Relations 24.

[20] Bopage, L. (2010). Is there a way forward for peace and Reconciliation? Groundviews.

[21] The Guardian Weekly (2011). Sri Lanka needs to regain its trade concessions but workers must benefit. Published on 20 January, 2011. Rerieved from

[22] Ondaatje, M. (2000). Anil’s Ghost. Bloomsbury, 56.

[23] Joll, J. (1983). Gramsci. Fontana Paperbacks, 88-104.