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The Existential Threat To Liberty, Freedom, Democracy & Justice

Look what happened to the PM and the Report of his Cabinet committee on 20A! The 20th amendment and the coming constitution will ensure a dictatorship over the country and its citizens, which is not only a familial dictatorship, but also of a dictatorship over that family, within that family—and even an (invisible) dictatorship over the dictator himself. 

Unlike in the Mahinda years when the “Politburo” was indeed the family, there is now a new “Politburo”, a stratum, network or power-elite more influential than the family, not to mention the parliamentarians of the Pohottuwa as well as the GR camp. 

Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship was an oligarchy with intra-familial succession, but its deadliest defining feature was that it was a dictatorship, not that it was a family clan. What is happening in Sri Lanka now is not in the identical category as the Bandaranaike-Ratwatte-Obeysekara clan-centric oligarchy of 1970-’77. 

The primary contradiction does not stem from political sociology (‘family’) but from the political form of rule, the political character of regime and state, i.e. dictatorship. 

The rules of the game are clear, and they are new rules. The Gotabaya Presidency is nothing like any previous Presidency including that of JR Jayewardene who took into far more serious account, the views of his Cabinet of Ministers and gave them quite considerable space.

The physiognomy and the dynamics of this regime are also clear. Contrary to the dangerous myth that this regime is of essentially the same type as the Mahinda Presidency in its second, post-18A term, this is a Far-Right or Alt-Right regime, with the decisive influence not wielded by those who are in or came up through the democratic political process of the legislature (as did all but one of the Rajapaksas in politics, starting with DM and DA Rajapaksa).

This is a new, unprecedentedly opaque political model for Sri Lanka but well-known in the world at large. This is the model of a ‘civilian-military junta’ or a ‘presidential-military junta’ as in Latin America, starting with Uruguay in the early 1970s. It is most closely approximated today in its electoral form, in the Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil, except in Brazil, the higher judiciary is far more autonomous than it will be under the 20th amendment.    

The whole affair of the 20th amendment has shown clearly what the character of the coming Constitution will be and the form of State that will result from that Constitution. 

Referendum & SJB-UNP 

The character of the regime should dictate the strategy of any movement for democracy, freedom, justice and liberty. 

The most crucial factor for United Front of democratic resistance led by the Opposition is the equation between the SJB and the UNP. While Sajith Premadasa has proved electorally that he would have been the best choice for the UNP leadership, due to his dynamic campaign style, progressive nationalism and social populism, the youthful and affable Ruwan Wijewardene is the best choice to lead the UNP today and to take it into an alliance with the SJB, in accordance with the actual balance of power. 

However, several questions arise. Why was the same electoral mechanism not used to determine the UNP leadership and not merely the deputy leadership? Surely Ruwan Wijewardene would have won that contest. Isn’t it obvious that if the UNP is to recover in time to pull in votes at the referendum that will inevitably accompany the fast-tracked new Constitution, it imperatively must do so under Ruwan rather than Ranil? 

The very existence of the Ranil factor will either put paid to a united platform against the dictatorial Constitution or will cripple that all-important campaign itself as it did Sajith Premadasa’s promising Presidential election campaign. 

The argument that there has to be a transitional period for Ruwan to be groomed as leader, and that the party must be rebuilt from top to bottom or bottom up before handing over to a new leader, is dangerously nonsensical. It is only the departure of Ranil and the bounce that may be generated by Ruwan’s assumption of the leadership, that can permit even the commencement of the genuine renovation and rebuilding of the UNP as a liberal-democratic party. 

Why hasn’t Ruwan Wijewardene been appointed to Parliament as the UNP’s National List MP? Will it be Ranil who saunters in to take that seat, to the silent cheers of the regime—so he can be built-up as against the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa?

Is Ranil’s death-grip on the UNP leadership until the Referendum is over, one last favor as part of the “Old Deal”? 

Time is running out as the new Constitution looms and the democracy/dictatorship issue comes to the fore.  

Tamils in a Political Coma

The Tamils face an existential threat of being buried by a politico-constitutional avalanche. The recent incident of the alleged interruption of cultivation in Trincomalee by a venerable member of the Eastern Heritage Task Force is instructive as is the statement by Rear-Admiral Weerasekara on the issue of the return of lands. Note his invocation of “the national economy”. Hardly an area of his specialized competence, it is a porthole into the new paradigm. The Daily Mirror story said:

‘Military occupied lands in the North and East, which have tactical importance will not be given back to the people in view of national security as it is directly related to national economy, State Minister Sarath Weerasekara said today.

… “MP Wigneswaran said that a Buddhist monk who came from nowhere tried to prevent farmers from cultivating claiming that it was an archaeological site. Buddhist monks are not vestiges of invaders. They are part of this society and have all the right to protect our Sinhala Buddhist heritage,” he said.

…These are grounds of tactical importance and specially, as long as people such as Wigneswaran who promotes separatism are there, it will never be given in view of national security as it is directly related to national economy,” he said.’ 

The crucial phrase in this discourse is “Buddhists monks are not remnants of invaders”. Who are the “remnants of invaders”? Wigneswaran, the Tamil farmers, or both? “Remnants of invaders” are contrasted with those are “part of this society”. Those who “are not remnants of invaders”, are “part of society” and have more legitimate right than “remnants of invaders”. What rights do the “remnants of invaders” have? This is the mentality of the Bosnian Serb militia’s General Ratko Mladic. 

LankaCNews reported State Minister Weerasekara as disclosing that an “expert panel” has recommended the replacement of the 9-province model by a 3-zone (Mahavamsa) model. A graphic shows the existing Northern province replaced by enlargement through incorporation, totally changing the demographics.     

An authoritative insight into the President’s policy on devolution came in an interview with Rear Admiral Colombage, Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, conducted by veteran foreign correspondent PK Balachandran. While at pains to flatteringly reassure India on the strategic and military security front, Dr. Colombage made clear by pointedly ignoring India in a reply, that the regime views the Accord as non-existent, and Delhi as having no locus standi in the matter of the 13th amendment and devolution, though the interviewer linked his question explicitly to India’s role. 

“SAM: The State Minister of Provincial Councils Rear Adm. Sarath Weerasekara has said that the 13th.constitutional Amendment (which set up elected Provincial Councils following the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987) will be abolished. What is your take on this issue given the fact that it involves India as its progenitor?

JC: I am not qualified to talk on this issue. But I can say that there is a view that the provincial councils are a White Elephant. However, the country is going to have a totally new constitution. The issue of the devolution of power or the 13th Amendment will be debated from all angles when the new constitution is drafted.” 

Rear Admiral Colombage’s reply reflects the regime’s view that the Tamil question is a purely domestic or internal matter over which Sri Lankan sovereignty and/or Sinhala supremacism are absolute. He is oblivious to the impact on India’s prestige, credibility, strategic standing and soft power, of the imminent ‘disappearance’ by Colombo of the bilateral Indo-Lanka Accord with devolution at its core. This is a fate that President Putin has not permitted to befall Russian-speakers in the ‘near abroad’, given especially the adversarial NATO expansion and perceived ‘encirclement’.  

Minister Keheliya Rambukwelle provided yet another insight into the regime’s paradigm: 

“…I think there are only a few people who are talking about a political solution. The need is more for an economic solution…The 13th Amendment needs to be revisited. From 1986 we have been talking about Police powers and land powers. I feel you can put a better system in place to bring about harmony…My humble opinion is that India was also not really for this. They just wanted to get rid of an issue at that time.”

The regime’s mindset is illustrated also by an article last weekend in an English-language Sunday newspaper by the Deputy Director, International Relations and Media of the Office of the President, which is an explicit critique of a piece by correspondent of The Hindu. The Presidential staffer’s lengthy polemic is against “this demand for self-determination” which is a term that does not appear even once in Meera Srinivasan’s Hindu piece. However, “devolution”, “political autonomy” and “greater control of their lives…to be able to shape their political and economic destinies” do. Universally and legally these are calls for a measure of self-government/self-rule, not even remotely synonymous with “the demand for self-determination”. 

Incredibly, Tamil leaders still say that (a) the Presidential system should be abolished and (b) 13A isn’t enough. 

Here’s MA Sumanthiran, MP, quoted by Meera Srinivasan of The Hindu as follows: 

‘… “While it is true that the draft 20th Amendment seeks to enhance executive powers, just as the 18th Amendment did, we should not lose sight of the need to abolish the extremely problematic Executive Presidency system itself. The Opposition to the draft Amendment should be centered on this,” Mr. Sumanthiran said, adding: “By focusing on the technicalities of the 19th Amendment, the Rajapaksas are trying to quietly erase the historic pledge from public discourse.” …’ 

Writing in The Indian Express, Mr. Sumanthiran says: “The Tamil people opposed the Executive Presidency both for its centralization of power and also for its corrupting influence on democracy.” 

The record shows that every single piece of discriminatory legislation, and every single discriminatory policy measure, from Sinhala Only to Standardization, took place under the Westminster model, and none occurred under the Executive Presidency, while the 13th amendment was passed under the Presidential system. And yet, “the Tamil people” or the TNA, or simply Sumanthiran, opposed the Executive Presidency and still do/does. 

The 13th amendment, the Indo-Lanka Accord and the very principle of provincial devolution stand in jeopardy. The electoral system will almost certainly be changed so that the system of proportional representation is replaced by a loaded dice. Any such constitutional change introduced by the regime, will win a huge majority at a referendum. The Tamils are cornered in a political dead-end. 

The one thing that the Tamils and Muslims still have is the value of their vote at a Presidential election. Thanks to the Sinhala attachment to a strong presidency, that will not be taken away. Tamil votes count most at a Presidential election, not at the parliamentary election—especially when, not if, the electoral system changes together with the cut-off point, which, if the original 12.5% is restored, will effectively proscribe all “ethnic and religious parties” except those of the majority. The direct, island-wide Presidential election is the only playing field that will remain level– and Mr. Sumanthiran wants the Presidential system abolished. 

Authentic liberal-democratic thinker and Tamil politician, Harvard-educated Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam never campaigned for the abolition of the executive presidency. 

His murder and the decimation of the Tamil political elite and political intelligentsia (Rajani, Kethesh) by Prabhakaran’s Tigers (often during ceasefires and negotiations) is why the Tamils are politically directionless today.   

On 13A, here’s Sumanthiran’s rival, Mavai Senathirajah: “…However, we do not see that it would be a solution to the issues that Sri Lanka is currently facing. As mentioned, and agreed by both countries, we need to go beyond the Amendment and find a political solution.” 

There is no joint statement by the parties representing the Tamil-speaking national minorities which constitute a majority in the North and East, on the 13th amendment and the Indo-Lanka Accord. Indeed, there is no such definitive, substantive statement from the TNA, still less a joint statement of the Tamil parties. Without such a platform, how can there be the broadest North-South defense of reasonable devolution? How can opinion – and solidarity–be mobilized in India and more universally, against rollback of an existing reform? 

Tamil politicians, their Diaspora funders and ‘global Tamil’ spokespersons/activists don’t understand that it is only the Accord that may approximate the status of international ‘soft law’. Given Indo-US convergence in the Indo-Pacific, it is only a stand that India can legitimately and squarely get behind, that can have traction with a US administration. 

The outcome of Tamil political ambivalence and absurdity will be “the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people” (Accord 1987) becoming lands that Tamil farmers cannot cultivate anymore because they contain archeological evidence of “our Sinhala Buddhist heritage” (Weerasekara), while other lands may be settler-colonized for a “self-sufficiency drive” by farmers (with foreign ‘agrarian/irrigation specialists’) from military and/or ex-military families. The Tamils should remember the Palestinian olive groves. 

From Cromwellian settler-colonization of Ireland, through constant westward expansion of the American frontier, coercive colonization has been a standard method of relieving social pressure which would otherwise require progressive reform. In Israel, settler-colonization created a permanent electoral support base for the rightwing Likud, and shifted the center of gravity of politics far-rightwards, blocking the possibility of implementing the Oslo Accords. 

In Sri Lanka, the impending buildup of socioeconomic discontent stemming from an obsolete macroeconomic policy (import substitution and ‘self-sufficiency’) will be diverted towards the minorities, and channeled away from Sinhala society in the form of a land-settlement policy. 

This will also create a permanent electoral support base of military and ex-military families and the Buddhist clergy. Given military deployment already in areas of alleged archeological importance, the model will entail Civil Defense Force mobilization in addition to detachments of the regular military in new encampments –and Buddhist temples to serve newly-opened camps and colonies. 

The regime will have a permanent reserve army of electoral support. Any competitor for governmental office, and any successor administration, will have to pander to this settler-colonial social base (as in Israel).   

The President and the State Minister respectively have highlighted education and land as requiring reassignment to the center from the Provincial Councils. These are highly sensitive in any ethnonational/ethno-regional context anywhere, with education especially emotive in the Tamil community. 

There is also no concession, selective and specific, on issues of accountability and justice – as identified and urged by CR de Silva’s LLRC and the Paranagama-Desmond de Silva Commission. Nor does the accountability/devolution swap (Geneva-2009) continue. 

The resultant buildup of pressure will have neither the safety-valves of provincial-level devolution nor proportionate representation in Parliament, for release. 

Any social scientist is aware that there is nothing that triggers radicalization and unrest more than the removal of a measure of reform and resultant shrinkage of space and status that people of a country or area have got accustomed to. The consciousness of one’s class or community being pushed around or marginalized, is sharpened by the sense of another, by contrast, being exalted at one’s expense. This is especially so if one perceives one’s collective identity as a subset of a 120 million strong cultural-linguistic community which has achieved more everywhere else in the world than here. The phenomenon is termed ‘relative deprivation’ and is fissile material. 

The regime may not mind because any eruption will keep the military busy and the majority community, however hard-pressed economically, supportive of a dispensation that is cracking down hard on the Other. 

GR Regime’s Blindspot

The regime (influenced also by the ‘Moragoda Doctrine’ that calls for the abolition of Provincial Councils) doesn’t understand that unilateral retrenchment from the Accord and the 13th amendment could eventually trigger claims of ‘Uti Possidetis’ as refined and updated by Prof Stephen Ratner, International Law expert formerly of the US State Department, and member of the notorious Panel of Experts appointed by the UNSG under the chairmanship of Marzuki Darusman. Ratner was earlier a member of the IIGEP, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons chaired by Justice Bhagwati. 

Nor does the regime comprehend that every step from the shocking Presidential release of Sunil Rathnayake to the strange case of Supreme Court lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and the pathos-suffused one of the ailing Ramzy Razeek, only serve to reinforce the extreme recommendation of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, Zaid al Hussein, to all UN member-states, that ‘universal jurisdiction’ be activated on the grounds that the Sri Lankan system couldn’t be counted on to ensure the justice, fair-play and the rule of law.   

Meanwhile the US media widely reported the following story:

Two words summed up Tamani Jayasinghe’s exuberance for the first Indian American and Black woman to run for vice president: “Kamala Aunty.” That title of respect that goes beyond family in Asian circles immediately came to mind when Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. So the 27-year-old with Sri Lankan roots tweeted it as a wink to others who understood the significance of the term. “The fact that she is both Black and brown is what makes this so exciting. The Asian American experience is one that is complicated and nuanced and robust,” said Jayasinghe, who works in financial communications in New York. “I feel connected to that.” …

The Denver Post article is captioned ‘“One of us”: South Asians celebrate Kamala Harris as VP choice’. 

If Biden-Harris make it, imagine the tumultuous welcome “Kamala Aunty” would get on her first tour of India and the soft power tsunami it would unleash in Asia.  

The delusion of Sri Lanka being/becoming another Israel, can last only as long as our neighbor remains too preoccupied and dormant to adopt a ‘tous azimuths’ panoptic perspective which exercises a ‘Look South’ policy to complement its ‘Look East’ policy.  

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