Imprisoning An Island

Imprisoning An Island

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By Dayan Jayatilleka / Colombo Telegraph

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The fate of Sri Lanka, not just the success or failure of the incumbent regime, depends on the overall model adopted and the path taken. That model and that path stem from the perspective, indeed the policy doctrine that guides the country’s leader, which then becomes the dominant doctrine of the state and government. 

The new Constitution will construct a State that imprisons an island. The 20th amendment is the foundation stone.


Just how would the President’s doctrine, that what he says must be taken as a written circular or else, work AFTER the 20th amendment is passed? Does it mean that whatever he may verbally instruct one of his many appointees across the board—e.g. a Supreme Court judge– should be taken as a written instruction, or else?  

As one who worked with two outstanding Presidents, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, I’d say the GR Presidency is in a very distinctive category, qualitatively different from both. 

As a political scientist, I’d say the emerging political model is structurally, qualitatively more dictatorial than the 1978 Jayewardene Presidency. 

As someone accused of militant rebellion against the authoritarianism of the Jayewardene-Athulathmudali regime, I’d say the political model and ideology of the GR Presidency is the most Rightwing and reactionary that has ever been experienced in Sri Lanka since 1948. 

As a former ambassador, I’d say 20A would discredit and delegitimize us internationally. 

The new Constitution will construct a State that imprisons an island. The 20th amendment is the foundation stone.

The story began on the other side of the island. The cult of a strongman who embodies the ‘Will of the Nation’; the fetishism of the heroic military; the ubiquity of uniforms and guns; the shadowy omnipresence of intelligence agencies; the military drilling civilian recruits; aggressive nationalism and sacralization of one’s ethnonational community; the argument that the cohesion and unity of the nation requires and justifies dictatorship; the exaltation of imposed discipline and militarization of all sectors; the applause of the very rich and the elite professionals; the contemptuous dismissal of human rights and civil liberties; the doctrine that absolutely anything goes in the cause of your nation; the abandonment of right and wrong, good and bad; the  rejection of universality, moderation, prudence and wisdom —these defined the ethos of Tamil society in the North-East and the Diaspora, during the reign of Prabhakaran and his Tigers.

Now, the South, Sinhala society, is going through its parabolic Prabhakaran/Tamil Eelam moment — Sinhalized of course, and processed through an electoral portal. 

It’s Prabhakaran’s posthumous revenge. The protracted close encounter with him has sickened our conscience, possessed our souls. His totalitarian Tamil Eelam has infiltrated the unconscious of some who fought him, and is imprinted, mirrored in their mentalities. 

We are becoming the evil enemy we hated, defeated. 

We are building a Sinhala-Buddhist Eelam. 

Rigidity, Not Strength

The monopolization of power through the 20th amendment turns the Presidency into a monarchy by another name — which the Founding Fathers of the USA, having fought a revolution and liberated themselves from monarchy (‘Mad King George’), explicitly wished to avoid when they created the Presidency. With the militarization of civil administration running parallel, the 20th amendment arguably turns that elected monarchy into a military-backed dictatorship.

If the President and his inner-circle understood politics, or adhered to the Clausewitzean dictum that ‘war is a continuation of politics’ rather than standing it on its head and regarding politics as a continuation of war, they’d know what Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Committee Report’ initiative was trying to save him and the government from: the over-accumulation of power at the very top, which soon turns the Presidency into a much bigger and singular political target, socially, nationally and internationally (whatever the Cyril Mathew-ite racist diversions by the local Fox News). 

The more diffuse the distribution of power in a system, the more responsibility is institutionally shared, the less of a target the person at the top is, and conversely, that the more power is concentrated in the person at the top, the more he/she is responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong and becomes a magnet for discontent, making the government and the entire system (not to mention the ruling family!) vulnerable.  

The President’s ‘offensive operation’ has shown the PM, the Ministers and MPs where exactly they stand, and in full public view. This is akin to President Trump playing to his hardcore constituency by trashing the Republican establishment and officialdom, but in the Sri Lankan case it is something steelier. It reneged on a promise the President gave his Sinhala nationalist caucuses, and kicked back a pragmatic initiative by his legendary brother. 

The President’s argument is that 20A is temporary and transitional to an impending new Constitution. Why then this swift seizure of power? The Rajapaksa ‘family project’ is not the most decisive factor in the GR presidency’s decision-making, because if it were, a win/win compromise was certainly possible with the PM’s initiative of resetting 20A through the Ministerial panel’s report. 

It also seems that within the ruling family there is also a new sibling alignment and a new hegemon, based not upon seniority, experience or historic achievement. The new Godfather is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

If the PM and Cabinet are treated with such scant regard while 19th Amendment is still in place, one can well imagine what things will be like for everyone after 20A replaces it. 

The calculation is that the hardcore constituency will applaud, and the setback for the PM and Cabinet are a small price to pay for sending a clear signal of unbending Presidential authority and irreversibility of decision-making. The downside is that it reveals rigidity, capriciousness, and razor-edged angularity, rather than real inner strength and long-range strategic wisdom. 

The 20th amendment changes the set of interrelationships between the ruler and the state structures and institutions, overriding all autonomy and separation of spheres of influence, completely altering the balance within the state, and thereby, the very character of the state system itself. 

The dictatorial state that the 20th amendment is the doorway to, will not be the nationalist paragon of sovereignty and independence that it postures as. It will be a dependent dictatorship; a client despotism, economically, politically, strategically and psychologically dependent upon a rising metropolitan center with a political system that is alien to or has been superseded in South Asia. The Chinese political model works very well for China, and China’s stability and success are good for the rest of us as a counterweight, but the Sri Lankan regime is gravely erring by adopting and adapting the closed, centralized Chinese political mode. The domestic permeation of its political-ideological influence, as distinct from its positive economic, diplomatic and strategic balancing value, is negative; a retrogression in a democratic South Asia.  

The 20th amendment transforms the equation between the ruler, the swathe of intermediary institutions and the citizenry into a one-way street, and a relationship of dominance/serfdom. With 20A and state militarization as parents, the only thing that can be born from the womb of this distorted structural matrix, this grotesque genetic modification of the state system, is a Frankenstein’s monster. 

Power is a drive. Rulership, unconstrained, is inherently self-expansionist. A tight, closed, unbalanced ‘Pharaonic’ political system is a system with zero-equilibrium, a system in permanent disequilibrium; unsafe, unstable, unsustainable. Unbound executive power without ‘cruise control’, is the nuclear reactor at its heart. It is intrinsically self-destructive: a constitutional Chernobyl.

Abolition of the Executive Presidency?

Most Sinhalese want a strong Presidency capable of swift decision-making on matters of defense, national security and sovereignty. Some want a dictatorship, while most want a democracy. We need a Presidency as in the USA, France, Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia etc. That’s not what 20A creates. It creates a Darth Vader presidency.       

The Gotabaya Presidency is nothing like any previous Presidency including that of JR Jayewardene. All previous Presidencies since 1978, and indeed all Sri Lankan leaders since 1948, practiced the politics of balance, negotiation and consensus. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also about to, but let himself be prevailed upon to disregard consensus-building in favor of unipolar unilateralism. 

Analysis of the regime as ‘majoritarian-populist’ has been disproved by the President who reversed a concession to the populist-nationalist Pohottuwa ranks. This is not a nationalist-populist rulership style and political subculture; it is a rigid, Hard-Right, militarist, ‘commanding officer’ style and subculture of governance. 

It would be wrong to see the regime –including the ruling family– as a monolith, free of internal contradictions. It would also be wrong to assume that internal dissent could spearhead a democratization movement. The weak potential of internal dissent was proven by the headlong retreat into conformity of the PM and Cabinet on 20A. Latent contradictions will turn into a spiderweb of fissures over the years, but cannot be counted upon, still less passively awaited. 

A model of tactics against a family-centric autocracy can be gleaned from JR Jayewardene as UNP leader and Leader of the Opposition in 1973-1977. He identified and targeted the two elements that constituted the most dictatorial nodal points in the government: (a) the rightwing Felix Dias Bandaranaike (nicknamed ‘Satan’ by the LSSP) who was the first to  advocate the doctrine that drives the Gotabaya regime, namely “a little bit of totalitarianism”, and (b) the pro-China, pro-Gang-of-Four, pro-Khmer Rouge ‘Janavegaya’ clique led by Madam Bandaranaike’s oldest offspring and son-in-law. JRJ launched a Parliamentary motion of no-confidence against the Janavegaya clique, accusing it of plotting to violently subvert democracy, together with Sinhala nationalist ex-military officers.    

While liberal democrats rightly advocate the separation of powers and invoke popular sovereignty, a quarter-century of neoliberal reformist downgrading of national security, beginning with the mollycoddling of Prabhakaran’s LTTE and culminating in the Easter massacres, has made the Lankan citizenry accept a Hobbesian trade-off (not a Faustian bargain) of individual and civic space for the restoration of a ‘Security First’ policy by the state. 

As a political scientist who is also a Realist, I recognize that a Lockean separation of powers and Rousseau-esque republican popular sovereignty can be built back only upon the foundational Hobbesian Social Contract which guarantees security and safety.   

Contrary to neoliberal civil society claims, the abolition of the Executive Presidency has been incidental at best, and irrelevant at worst, for citizen-voters at Presidential elections. CBK won in 1994 because the UNP had been devastated by LTTE assassinations—Ranil being the only one Prabhakaran never wasted his time attempting to target—and its candidate, the widow of the late Gamini Dissanayake, was not even a member of the UNP. MR won because the choice was between him and Ranil, and he was the only one who would stand up to Prabhakaran. MR beat SF because the people rewarded him for having given the political leadership that no other President had, winning the war while warding-off foreign interference. MS beat MR because the SLFP fissured with the Bharatha Lakshman killing. 

The Executive Presidency has never been abolished under successive Presidents who were vastly different from each other, because there was no national-popular traction when it came to decapitating the Presidency. Nobody could get a two-thirds or risk a referendum. 

By contrast, an unprecedented (under PR) two-thirds majority has been obtained precisely for re-strengthening a weakened, dysfunctional Executive Presidency. 

From Latin America to East Asia, waves of democratization which displaced military-backed authoritarianism have shown that an absolute imperative of successful anti-dictatorial strategy is an enlightened nationalist/patriotic/‘sovereignist’ platform which incrementally wins the support of the armed forces, gradually thawing-out the military underpinning of autocracy and obstruction of democratization. 

Therefore, when NGO-neoliberals who supported the PTOMS giveaway to Prabhakaran, and whose ideology and agenda over the past quarter-century has wrecked the UNP, the SLFP (through Yahapalanaya with Ranil) and almost wrecked the JVP, now brand  Sajith’s SJB ‘Rajapaksa Lite’, utterly unconcerned about the infinitely greater risk of it being branded ‘Ranil Lite’ and ‘UNP clone’, I’d say the Premadasa-led Opposition is back in the game, leading the national-democratic struggle and social-democratic project. 

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