Frenemies of democracy: A response to Dayan Jayatilleka

Who is a frenemy? Someone who pretends to be your friend but is, in fact, an enemy. It was this word that flashed into my mind when I read Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s column ‘Lanka Guardian’ in the Daily FT on 22 December. 

Dr. Jayatilleka is a staunch supporter and, probably, a key theoretician of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party in Sri Lanka. The SJB, as Dr. Jayatilleka rightly has shown on many occasions, has a major role to play to ensure that Sri Lanka remains a democracy. This role is emphasised by the hurried centralisation of power in the form of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka that personifies the dictatorial predispositions of the present regime. 

Unfortunately, Dayan Jayatilleka continues to make two mistakes that are likely to hinder the SJB’s chances of unifying the Opposition into a formidable force that can withstand an onslaught on democracy by the ruling coalition. 

First, he tries to undermine the democratic spirit of the people of Sri Lanka by justifying the failed constitutional coup in October 2018. Second, much of his recent writing is full of divisive tropes that burn bridges with other parties and forces in its camp, including the SJB’s predecessor UNP, the TNA, the and civil society. Sometimes, he has a little bit of substance in his attacks. But, at other times, they are utterly unsubstantiated and inconsistent. 

Whatever it is, if SJB, Dayan’s party of choice, is to graduate from being the main Opposition party into the main stakeholder of a ruling coalition, that is only going to be possible with a true commitment to the spirit of democracy and by a building a broad platform that unites all democratic forces against the regime. 

When distrust in democracy and divisive rhetoric become the defining characteristics of his writing, he undermines SJB from gaining a critical mass to resist the regime effectively and meaningfully. For these two reasons, as I will show below, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is an enemy of the opposition than a friend. 

Diluting the spirit of democracy

What makes Dr. Jayatilleka a frenemy of democracy is not what he believed in 2018. He has the right to hold and change his opinion (He is famous for this, anyway). But his continuous justification of the constitutional coup earns him no credibility. 

The 2018 constitutional coup began when Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister on 26 October 2018. At the time, Dr. Jayatilleka was the newly appointed Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Russia and maintained it was the right thing to do. 

The advice he offered to Mahinda Rajapaksa on how to counter a comeback of the deposed Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Cabinet was widely shared in the public sphere ( 

That was wrong but understandable. But, despite his crossing over to the other camp, on 2 August, he wrote to Colombo Telegraph: “…the myopic overthrow of the moderate Mahinda-Maithripala equation in Nov 2018 (which) provided an option for a ‘soft landing’, radically polarized politics and narrowed the candidacy options for change.” (

The essence of the present Opposition is its democratic ethos. Whether UNP or SJB, both parties have shown a commitment to strengthening institutions of democracy, uphold rule of law, and embrace diversity. Yet, Dayan does not seem to have got this. Can that be a ‘soft landing’, if the Constitution of Sri Lanka was blatantly violated and you just pretend as if nothing happened? 

Maybe the answer is an ironic ‘yes’ to those who do not believe in constitutionalism but anyone who thinks that all games should be played by rules would find it horrific. What is surprising is the adamant justification of violating the Constitution even after the Supreme Court decided unanimously that it was wrong to dissolve the Parliament prematurely.  

The danger of an ideologically diluted Opposition is not merely political. Catalysed by the 20th Amendment, the first signs of institutional erosion are only beginning to appear. Institutions of democracy such as the Judiciary, public service, or law and order seem to shake under pressure from an impending dictatorship, sugar-coated often in populism. 

The real rallying point against the present government may emerge on a platform of restoring democracy, which is strangled now. Any proposition to compromise the constitution for ‘practical ends’ must remind us of Greeks bearing gifts. 

Other than Dr. Jayatilleka is there anyone else in the Opposition right now who is not ready to say what happened on 26 October 2018 was not a constitutional coup that needed to be defeated at any cost? Who in his camp, other than Dayan Jayatilleka, discredits the truly statesman role played by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya in reversing the constitutional coup?  

Promoting divisions within 

If aspiring authoritarians succeed in transforming weak democracies into nasty dictatorships, they do it by crushing the opposition in their countries. Millennia-old absolutist’s playbooks from Chanakya to Machiavelli and their modern-day counterparts offer step-by-step advice on how to crush the opposition.

The essence of this advice is encapsulated in a 5-D approach: divide, deceive, demonise, destroy, and deal. These 5-D tactics are deployed to keep the oppositions weak, scattered, unpopular, and compromised. The Opposition is already under its 5-Ds onslaught. However, these attacks do not necessarily come from outside. The banner-waving enemy at the gate is far less dangerous than the disguised traitor in your camp.

Dr. Jayatilleka’s rhetoric contributes to destabilising the camp and block further unification ever harder on three accounts. First, well after the General Election and emergence of the SJB as the sole major political party in the Opposition, he continues to grin at SJB’s predecessor UNP – now in on life support. 

Second, he mistakes the TNA for a terror outfit, despite himself been a convict of supporting terrorism, specifically, for ‘conspiring to overthrow the State through violence’ in 1986. Third, his unfounded attacks on the civil society sets it at odd with SJB, as the new home for democratic struggle. An extension of this is his attacks on former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is presently the Chairman of a formidable social movement that made the 8 January victory possible. 

End ‘Battle for Sirikotha’ 

If SJB is serious about its national role, it must not allow the adversaries to reduce the party that is burdened with its past. Often reduced to the catchphrase, ‘a battle for Sirikotha’, SJP is set as the arch-rival of the UNP, which it is not. For the most part, the SJB is a rebranded UNP, as most voters have effortlessly migrated from UNP to the SJB as the election results suggest. 

Importantly, both SJB and UNP, however different are they in scale and how little in thought, form part of the same ideological camp. The transition from UNP to SJB has taken place much smoother than the UPFA to SLPP transition. UPFA and SLFP have fought against the SLPP in the Local Government election in 2018. 

Yet, both Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa have shown the flexibility to come together in the camp that they belong, after taking the measure of each outfit. What UNP and SJB should have been able to do was to come together, learning from the pragmatic flexibility of their opponents. 

However, pre-and post-election rhetoric of the SJB and the UNP has not helped them in this cause. Now, after one missed opportunity, they can do so, and the intellectual giants, the likes of Dr. Jayatilleka should help this happen.

Civil society 

On 22 December in Daily FT, Dr. Jayatilleka writes of a ‘para-UNP neoliberal civil society’. Does he make difference between a UNP vs SJB civil society? A non-neo liberal civil society? SJB has built bridges with the Colombo civil society. A good example is Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, in his new hat as the SJB ideologue finds ample publishing space on so-called civil society opinion spaces such as 

As I have argued above, the transition from UNP to SJB has occurred almost fully, and as Dayan himself has argued in an article ‘The election result and the intelligentsia’ on Colombo Telegraph (This article’s link was inaccessible at the time of writing): ‘Perhaps the most striking datum is that in Colombo city (not the district), the metropolis with the most advanced consciousness and pluralist composition, neither the UNP nor the JVP survived, but the SJB swept through, defeating the mighty Pohottuwa.’ Advanced consciousness? Colombo is certainly a very diverse place. However, what does he mean when he says ‘advanced consciousness’ of Colombo. 

Isn’t Colombo the closest to what he picks and chooses to bash on another occasion ‘neoliberal civil society’? A cherry-picking approach does not get you anywhere. The SJB must understand its role as the centre of democracy and build the platform accordingly. Civil society is not just the donor-funded project outfits. 

The movement ‘Sadarana Samajaya’ (National Movement for Social Justice) led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, for instance, was one of the most crucial civil society forces that catalysed a regime change in 2015. Name-calling at others below and away from the platform by those who stand tall on it is not going to help that party, in whatever sophisticated manner you do it. 

Misplaced assumptions 

Some of the unsupported claims of Dayan Jayatilleka in his 22 December columns needs attention, not merely for factual correctness. But without a proper understanding of the electoral strengths and weaknesses of SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa, it’s difficult to map recovery. His claim was that had Ranil Wickremesinghe or Karu Jayasuriya had been the presidential candidate in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have gotten 60% of the vote. 

Wrong. As an election in 2020 as tested Ranil Wickremesinghe, we may agree that Dayan is right about Ranil Wickremasinghe, but not about Karu Jayasuriya. The main strength of the camp was its commitment to democracy and its pluralism. The main weakness of electoral appeals of the UNP camp was its lack of nationalism (national security, Buddhist clergy’s displeasure). 

In the run-up to the Presidential Election of 2019, there were three potential candidates in the UNP camp, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, and Karu Jayasuriya. Ranil had the power but a bad electoral history and a damaged public image, mainly due to not responding positively to attacks levelled against him by President Sirisena. 

Sajith Premadasa was portrayed as a long-time presidential aspirant and the candidate of the common man. It was true to an extent, and those who lobbied for his candidature harped the ‘common man’ card often and forcefully, that he managed to get the candidacy. 

Karu Jayasuriya, on the other hand, was relatively silent and had the image of the ‘incorruptible statesman’, a strong supporter of democracy. Many pre-election opinion polls were publicised and some favoured Sajith, and others favoured Karu.

One of them had been done by a professor emeritus of Peradeniya that suggested that Karu Jayasuriya had the best chance (–is-the-Candidate-Does-he-need-to-name-a-PM–Why-Karu-Jayasuriya-is-the-best-bet-for-all-con/172-165259). The claim was that the UNP camp needed a moderate who can address to the middle class. 

When the Presidential Election was over, we have the real evidence. Candidate Sajith Premadasa, despite odds, got 42% of the vote. A fair number. But where did he go wrong? The assumption that Sajith commanded the support of the poor as did his father three decades ago, was proven to be unfounded. There was no significant change of votes in rural areas. 

However, a major erosion of middle classes was evident as in the results of the predominantly Sinhala Buddhist middle-class Kalani Valley. The gaps were unprecedented: Homagama – 67,000; Maharagama – 42,000; Kesbewa – 62,000; Kaduwela – 57,000; Biyagama – 32,000; Dompe – 40,000; Mahara – 45%. This result suggests that the NDF based its electoral strategy on a wrong assumption. 

That is, you need to reach out to the votes of the poor common man instead of consolidation of the existing middle-class vote. A paradigm shift has taken place in the three decades between father and son Premadasa. 

Ranasinghe Premadasa represented the conservative UNP camp, where the support base includes the down-trodden and the elites. But the UNP camp of Sajith Premadasa in 2019 was essentially a progressive party whereas Gotabaya Rajapaksa represented a nationalist conservatism. 

Democracy and nationalism 

Karu Jayasuriya espoused democracy and nationalism. By the time of the 2019 election, he had emerged as the strongest defender of democracy, having smothered 2018 coup, braving chilli powder and chair-throwing. He also had a military background. 

He has been the UNP side’s leader by choice of the Buddhist clergy for a long time, with all Nikayas having conferred their highest layman honour to him. Given the slogans of the election, Karu easily outperformed his two contenders. But why he did not get the ticket was a different matter. 

The lesson learnt for SJB and Sajith Premadasa is to understand the miscalculation in their electoral strategy and to correct their course. Mere bragging about a respectable loss does not make it a victory, but escapism. 

Way forward 

Sri Lanka’s descent into dictatorship can best be kept under check by uniting all anti-authoritarian forces. In the current political landscape, it is the Samagi Jana Balawegaya that has the best chance to unite all of them under the umbrella of democracy. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka can help SJB and the progressive camp to defend the country’s democracy if he understands the importance of two things. 

First, you must believe in democracy, and if you did not do so in the past, that’s okay. The good thing about democracy is that it allows you to change your position and welcomes you to do so. Second, you must realise that SJB alone cannot defend democracy or form a government. You are now in a camp and the camp must be united. Throwing stones at others can please the benefactors in the short run but not for long, as the realities are going test them.  

-By Harindra B Dassanayake-

-Daily FT-