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The column was first published by Colombo Telegraph in its June 10th edition, which can be accessed via this link

Sri Lanka | Road to Dictatorship Paved With Three Triumphs - Kumar David / Colombo Telegraph 1
Kumar David

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has scored three wins and his march to dictatorship has gained ground. The biggest triumph was the first when he swept to the presidency in a rally of 72% of the Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) electorate. This is a defining event; its consequences will endure. Though liberals and pluralists bleat the merits of racial and religious equality, they inhabit not Lanka but cloud cuckoo land. In truth the consciousness of the majority in this land is a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos. The deep inscrutable emotional wellspring of this nation’s psyche is that it is the land of the Lion-people and the Dagoba-worshiper. Whether you think this good or bad, right or mistaken is worthy of discourse, but that it is so cannot be disputed. As one R.R. Wasala ecstatically proclaims “the dominant Sinhala Buddhist civilizational foundation of this island nation” will persist. The proclamation of a pan Sinhala-Buddhist Archaeology Task Force surely is cause for further delight!

The groundswell of SB empathy identifies itself with Gota and his presidency. It will be firmer and longer lasting than Trump’s Base because its foundations lie in historically consolidated ethno-religious substance. I cannot predict whether 60% or what number of SBs will stick with Gota at first if he unveils an undisguised dictatorship, but many will. The gift his people bestowed on Gota in November 2019 will not be deflated quickly.

Two lesser victories have consolidated Gota’s grip – the government’s success (underpinned by the military) in containing corona-virus and the Supreme Court rejection of challenges to Gota’s right to rule sans parliament beyond three months. It is universally believed that had the Aappaya-Sevalaya squad still been in office it would have made a cock-up of the crisis. Though draconian curfew and the pain inflicted on the poorer classes were unnecessary the fact nevertheless is that Gota’s image has gained. Third, the SC’s flawed judgement reinforced Gota’s hand to the point where he promptly set up more task forces including one to build a “Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society”. Language typical of military rulers. 

The first item in the ToR reads:

“Taking necessary immediate steps to curb illegal activities of social groups violating the law and harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society”. Deliberately vague and undoubtedly dangerous.

The second is a Duterte style instruction to stamp out drug cartels and the drug trade.

The third is: 

“Take legal action against persons responsible for illegal and antisocialacts in Sri Lanka while located abroad”. 

Don’t miss that the wording palpably includes anti-Gota, anti-military, anti-government and anti-fascist acts.

The authorisation says, “the Task Force may issue instructions to Government Officers and others. They shall comply. I instruct Government Officers and others to provide all possible assistance and full information”.

If I were Professor Gloom I would say the dice is heavily weighted in favour of authoritarianism. The three advantages that Gota holds also ensure election victory, but I hope not 2/3rds. All who want democracy will have to steel themselves for a long fight. This is no time to slacken but to gird-up and draw upon reserves of strength that will be needed when the dictatorship comes unhinged as the economy goes into free fall in the context of global recession. Strengthening the JVP in the next parliament will fortify a force that can oppose Gota’s authoritarian moves. The UNP and the Sajith Group do not have the backbone to stand against Gota.  

I am dismayed by frequent thoughtless comments I hear that a Gota dictatorship will make Lanka prosperous “like Singapore”. Rubbish! Singapore was built on strong institutions – a renowned public service, one of Asia’s best educational systems, familiarity with English, abolishing corruption, a judiciary admired for competence in commercial law and elected parliaments that kept the military firmly in place and on a short leash. Most of all, Lee Kwan Yue repudiated racism and created a plural society. In every one of these respects Singapore is the opposite of what a Gota dictatorship will be.

The response of the American people to the murder of George Floyd demonstrates the rugged strength of democracy in that country. It is vastly different from our experiences in Sri Lanka. There has been an outpouring of anger among whites; demonstrations sometimes more white than black; everyone stood up against racial brutality. Over here, contrast the 1983 riots. With the exception of a few brave Sinhalese who stuck their necks out to protect friends and neighbours the disparity is stark. Anything like “Tamil Lives Matter” would have been an unimaginable. And right now, the middle-classes and the masses enjoy and encourage the abominable treatment handed out to Muslims by professionals and the state. We have a long way to go before rejection of racism reaches anything comparable to the mature democracies. There is much racism over there too, of course Floyd’s murder itself shows how bad it still is, but there is gigantic disapproval among the people; not so in Lanka. The boldness of the NY Times headline “Minneapolis Will Dismantle Its Police Force, Council Members Pledge” and the proposal before the American Congress to restructure, defund and reform the police across the country, though eventually less than a third will get done, simply takes one’s breath away.  

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