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Is Mahinda Going to Make Same Mistake in 2015 as JR Jayewardene did in 1982 by Holding Referendum to Extend Parliament?



It was Ceylon Today and its sister paper Mawbima which got the most important news story of the year 2014; a story which if it proves accurate, may be the one that determines the destiny of this country. With perfect editorial judgment, the Ceylon Today issue of October 24th 2014 ran the story as its page one lead. The headline read: ‘REFERENDUM IN THE OFFING?’

The operative paragraph of reporter Rashini Mendis’ story read as follows:

“After the next Presidential Election is held early January, the government could hold a referendum to extend the life of the present Parliament by a further six years, under powers vested in the Executive, Minister of Botanical Gardens and Public Recreation, Jayaratne Herath hinted. He made this observation during an event to mark the assuming of duties of Deputy Minister of Botanical Gardens and Public Recreation, V. Radhakrishnan, yesterday.”

While this could be either kite flying or whistle blowing by the Minister, it must be taken with the utmost seriousness by the citizenry. The worst, most dangerous single political decision I have witnessed in this country in my lifetime was President Jayewardene’s decision immediately after his handsome win at the Presidential election of October 1982, to hold a Referendum instead of the scheduled parliamentary election. The sheer savagery that Sri Lanka descended to for three decades, can be traced back to that single decision which shut off the safety valves of a parliamentary election and disconnected the feedback loops that operate only in a functioning electoral democracy with a parliament that accurately reflects the balance of political forces. What was done in the name of stability and security triggered decades of bloody volatility and utter insecurity.

Black July ’83 would not have reached its scale and intensity if not for the shutting down a few months earlier, of peaceful and democratic avenues of social discontent. If not for Black July, India would not have felt compelled by Tamil Nadu agitation, to covertly support Tamil armed militancy in a massive cross-border covert campaign, the LTTE would not have grown into the formidable militia it did, the war would not have taken the scale that it did with all the human suffering it entailed.

The Referendum pre-empted the JVP’s representation in parliament, and the Government aborted Rohana Wijeweera’s legal challenge to the Referendum results by using Black July ’83 to proscribe that party on wholly trumped up charges. Driven underground the JVP chose to bloodily play the ultra-nationalist card especially when the Govt. felt compelled to accede to irresistible Indian pressure for a ceasefire and a political settlement of the Northern Question. The resultant civil war in the South paralleled that in the North, and a large part of a whole generation of young Sinhalese and Tamils were consumed horribly by the flames of fratricidal strife.

That ‘generational genocide’ can be traced back to the Referendum of December 1982. And now, here we are over three decades later, in a new century and Millennium, with a Cabinet Minister signaling in public that we may be about to return to that point of descent into darkness.

With the parliamentary path of participation and change closed off by a referendum, the actual balance of political and social opinion cannot but be displaced from the legislature to the street. This is when we shall see the unfolding of the real logic of the road building, the plan to station military camps in every district, the 2011 Gazette which permits the deployment of the military even in the case of unarmed civic disturbances, the plan to expand the armed forces reservists, the intelligence penetration of the university student community in the twin guises of security guards and leadership training, and the patronage and legitimacy accorded to the BBS.

While an admixture of the West Bank-Gaza models is adopted in the North and East, it will be the Weliweriya-Rathupassala model in the South. The trade unions and student unions led by the JVP and FSP respectively will be the target of violent suppression in the hope of provoking an ultra-left ‘Southern terrorism’ which, together with ‘Islamic jihadism’ and a ‘resurgent Tiger terrorism’ will enable the regime to motivate the armed forces to shoot the youth of all ethnicities and religions, and provide the excuse for a blanket crackdown on all forms of democratic dissent, independent mass media and the citizens right to free expression and organization. The BBS, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balakaya and their temple networks will play the role of village level intelligence gathering agencies and religio-fascist paramilitary militias pitted against the JVP, FSP and workers’ and student unions.

At the top of the pyramid of a post-Referendum Sri Lanka 2015 will be the visible image of an quasi-ceremonial President Mahinda Rajapaksa, behind whose genial if intermittently testy façade will be the cartel comprising the ruling clan, its courtiers, courtesans and crony capitalists, and its multibillion dollar empire—an oligarchy secured and defended by the security agencies or ‘defense establishment’ and the Enforcer-in-Chief.

What would be the consequences of a Referendum for the destinies of the Sri Lankan State in the world at large? It would greatly de-legitimize the regime and the system, despite a probable re-election of the President. It would lose the Sri Lankan state whatever moral high ground it may still occupy. It makes the Sri Lankan state a much easier target for external pressure and intervention. There is a straight line that led from the Referendum of December 1982 to the external intervention of 1987. Given the international campaign against Sri Lanka including in the UN, the new global trend of the crack-up of existing states, the grotesque silhouette that this Government throws up against the canvas of world opinion, a Referendum would render Sri Lanka internationally indefensible and this time around such an intervention will not prove reversible. Tamil Eelam could emerge through externally administered partition.

How then to prevent this catastrophe and its inevitable consequence of a tsunami of blood? In December 1982, the then Opposition was weakened by the inevitable defeat of a weak Opposition candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa at the Presidential election of October ’82. Thus the first step in pre-empting a Referendum or defeating the Government at one would be to run a Presidential candidate who can electorally prove that the regime is in no position to try the gamble of a Referendum instead of a parliamentary election. This is the strategy of deterrence.

If that fails because the UNP has run Ranil Wickremesinghe against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the next step is to avoid the state of shock and debility the Opposition found itself after the Presidential election results came in, in October 1982. This is possible only with the virtually overnight substitution of the defeated candidate/leader with a dynamic UNP leadership that can galvanize the party either for a snap parliamentary election or an anti-Referendum campaign and the parliamentary election that will follow if the Government loses the referendum.

It is almost certain that if a referendum is held, the operative question of the extension of the rule of the present regime will be masked or sugarcoated with the question: “Should Sri Lanka be declared a Sinhala Buddhist state”? This is where the fascist demagogues of the BBS will come in—to sell it to the masses. This is also where the leadership of the Opposition will count mightily. It is only an Opposition leadership with a patriotic Sinhala Buddhist profile who will be able to counter it. Doubtless the regime will arrest Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the able JVP organizers and orators before a Referendum, just as JR Jayewardene arrested Vijaya Kumaratunga on trumped up charges of being a ‘Naxalite’, before the referendum of December 1982. The figure of Ranil Wickremesinghe leading a campaign for a ‘No’ vote in a referendum in which the ‘trick’ question which precedes the operative one about the extension of the regime’s shelf life, is the declaration of Sri Lanka “as a Sinhala Buddhist state”, is a sure recipe for defeat of the Opposition and the victory of the regime at the Referendum.

Make no mistake: a Referendum would be high stakes poker. A Referendum would be an adventurist overextension which makes the regime vulnerable to political counterattack and would open the door to dramatic change. As Sir Lawrence Olivier, playing the Nazi war criminal Szell, kept asking Dustin Hoffman in ‘Marathon Man’, as he tortured him with dental surgical instruments: “Is it safe? Is it safe…Is it safe for me to get my diamonds?” If a joint opposition defeats the Government at the Referendum, it can then use that momentum to trounce the Government at a parliamentary election and take power. If President Rajapaksa has been prevailed upon to green-light an unethical, illegitimate referendum, then he will have to face the blowback of an angry and vengeful new administration which may dismantle the Presidency or place it under permanent siege– or worse still, co-operate with the international community’s intrusive investigation on accountability and command responsibility.

There is a clear pathway to defeat the Government at a referendum. The Chilean opposition did it, which opened the road to the fall of Pinochet. This required the broadest ‘Convergencia’ and ‘Concertation’ as the Chileans called it—the broadest possible convergence and coordination of political, civic and religious forces of Left, Right and Centre, irrespective of past differences, ideology, program, and personality, united on the single issue of a call for a NO vote. But it took (i) an innovative national campaign of education and publicity (smart posters, logos, graphics including cartoons etc.) and (ii) the figure of Ricardo Lagos of the Chilean Socialist party to give moral leadership, throw down the gauntlet to General Augusto Pinochet on a nationally televised show, and pull this winning coalition together.