BY DR DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
Don’t you just hate it when people who should know better make huge mistakes which have been made before with disastrous consequences for all concerned– in other words, huge avoidable mistakes?
Take this Government for instance. It has crossed a line which far stronger and more legitimate i.e. popularly elected, predecessors did not. Its predecessors did a few things of the same sort with disastrous consequences, but this government is venturing far beyond.
Take the “legal fascism”, or less dramatically, the “lawfare” (to borrow Emeritus Professor Richard Falk’s phrase) involved in locking up an unprecedented number of Opposition parliamentarians, interrogating high officials etc. A precursor of this conduct was the behavior of Felix Dias Bandaranaike in the 1970-1977 administration, so well brought to the screen in Gamini Fonseka’s “Sagarayak Meda”. The Felixian model of detentions at Paget Road, the Bribery Commissioner’s raids, the dissolution of Municipal authorities and the appointment of Special Commissioners, is sought to be emulated by the Yahapalana regime, though the place of detention is far rougher this time around.
That mode of conduct against one’s rivals within the (democratic) System caused considerable polarization in the sociopolitical atmosphere, culminated in the loss of Felix’s civic rights and led to the erection of a far more authoritarian successor regime. In a word: blowback.
The Yahapalana regime’s political errors also echo those of JR Jayewardene. Why was JRJ unable to move forward on the issue of devolution as agreed upon with India’s special envoy G. Parthasarathy Sr. in 1984? One important reason was that a significant section of the SLFP was in a spoiler mode, even though its ‘moderate’ rightwing had been semi-neutralized with the backstage dialogue between Anura Bandaranaike and president Jayewardene. The SLFP ‘moderates’ could not carry the day because the SLFP at large was embittered due to the presidential commission, the removal of the civic rights of Madam Bandaranaike and the jailing of the party’s rising star and Asst. Secretary Vijaya Kumaratunga on bogus charges of being a ‘Naxalite’ (the latter act was one in which the SLFP Right was complicit). One recalls the blistering Sinhala nationalist attack on President Jayewardene’s All Parties Conference on ethnic reforms and Annexure C, launched in 1984 by the SLFP’s official newspaper “Dinakara”.
It took sagacious US diplomacy in the form of Ambassador Howard Wriggins, an old Sri Lanka hand, to lobby for the removal of civic disabilities on Mrs. Bandaranaike, but that restoration of her civic rights came too late (early 1986) to restore systemic equilibrium and re-stabilize the situation. Far too much bitterness had accumulated within the democratic political mainstream, while the systemic safety valves had been damaged by far too much tampering.
The liberal Realist, ambassador Howard Wriggins understood that unilateralism would kill the prospect of reform; that broad and organic consensus—and not merely the cooptation of the liberal Anura Bandaranaike — was needed; that a rapprochement with the personality of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was necessary to bring the Sinhala nationalists on board or at least keep the backlash within democratic systemic limits. Professor Wriggins couldn’t convince the UNP’s adventurist hawks of the dangers of political polarization.
What was practiced by the ruling elite was defined by Mervyn de Silva in the Lanka Guardian, as “the fine art of self-destabilization”. What we experienced as a result was the “Bloodflood” of the 1980s, as Qadri Ismail titled his incandescent unpublished manuscript. Even India was sucked in, but failed to stabilize the situation and was ushered out, badly lacerated.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was one of those hawks of the UNP administration of the 1980s and he hasn’t learned much. Chandrika is far too full of spite towards her predecessor to think through the implications of the current course.
Yesterday and the day before, the administrations of JR Jayewardene and Sirimavo Bandaranaike had a two thirds majority, when it made those dangerous errors of excess.
Today, an unelected administration which does not command a majority in Parliament is about to repeat or exceed those errors. Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa are incomparably more popular today than Sirimavo and Felix were in 1980, while the Yahapalana troika is far less popular, especially in the Sinhala heartland, than Sirima and JRJ were in their heyday—and yet, the Rajapaksas and their loyalists are being relentlessly targeted.
The Yahapalana ruling elite is trying to turn an electoral victory( an unorthodox one to be sure), not into a tool to right the balance of a system gone to excess, but to act out a neoliberal revolution with antecedents in Eastern Europe, Yeltsin’s Russia, and the Arab Spring.
It is treating the defeated yet popular Mahinda Rajapaksa and his loyalists in the SLFP, the UPFA and former officialdom as if they were the old Communist establishment of the GDR or the Iraqi Baathists. Unlike the former, the Rajapaksa phenomenon has nationalist roots and democratic legitimacy and unlike the latter it wasn’t defeated in a war. Thus the treatment of this legitimate political movement as an East German Stasi or deposed Baath party of some sort cannot but have the most disastrous consequences.
When all of this heavy handedness against democratic nationalist-populist rivals takes place against the backdrop of the Yahapalana troika’s overly ambitious multi-track project of (1) radical ethnic and political reform (i.e. federalization) (2) internationally “ assisted” domestic accountability mechanisms (3) re-profiling and redeployment of the armed forces (4) reorientation of foreign policy towards the West (5) opening to the Tamil diaspora and (6) re-molding of national memory and consciousness, it is certain to capsize the situation and the System.