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The Authoritarian Impulse

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

“...The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner is another instance of this attention. This has been accomplished mostly by the actions of the LTTE linked groups, which have many trained LTTE cadres and operatives who are now fully engaged in propaganda activities.” – Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Defence Seminar 2013, Sept 3rd

( September 7, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The ancient Greeks were the first to draw distinctions between types of regimes. The three basic types were democracy, oligarchy and tyranny. Aristotle also introduced the concept of mixed regimes. Thus Sri Lanka could be said to be an admixture of democracy and oligarchy. Following in the footsteps of the political philosophers of Ancient Greece, the modern political thinker Hannah Arendt drew the clear distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

If there is a latent totalitarian thrust in Sri Lanka, I doubt that it comes from President Rajapaksa. One must fervently hope that he is not entrapped and eventually consumed by it. Those who regard President Rajapaksa as the fount of all evil should consider what would change if he were no longer in office and if there were a power vacuum, who and what would fill it. At the risk of political incorrectness, I venture to suggest that not only would we not have Northern Provincial elections without agitation and blood in the streets were it not for the incumbency of Mahinda Rajapksa; much more importantly, he is probably the only one that stands between society and some form of ruthless, brutal militaristic rule, a glimpse of which we had in Weliweriya-Rathupassala.

Sri Lankan political discourse is a bit of a nightmare for any political observer who is literate and rational. Consider Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that the holding of elections does not mean that a leader is not a dictator. This is both spin and nonsense. It is a spin on Madam Navi Pillay’s identification of Sri Lanka as headed in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Authoritarianism is not ‘dictatorship’, ‘autocracy’, ‘tyranny’ or ‘totalitarianism’. For instance the JR Jayewardene regime, of which Mr Wickremesinghe was a notoriously outspoken and reactionary element, was authoritarian, but it wasn’t a dictatorship.

Furthermore, if the Rajapaksa regime which holds elections, is a dictatorship, what would Mr Wickremesinghe wish to call the Jayewardene regime which chose not to hold the parliamentary election scheduled for early ’83 and substitute for it a referendum—a decision heartily endorsed by Mr Wickremesinghe whose participation in the referendum campaign (widely denounced as fraudulent and coercive by human rights activists) was rather robust?

What does Mr Wickremesinghe call a regime that removed the civic rights of its leading political opponent (Mrs Bandaranaike), jailed the Opposition’s main political campaigners (Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygoonesekara), sacked 60,000 workers who were striking for a pay increase, and postponed a parliamentary election, as did the Jayewardene regime in which he was hardly a dissenting liberal but one of the most prominent rightwing hardliners?

While it is true that some dictators assumed power through the ballot box and even hold elections, it is no less true that once elected to office, the elections that are held are characterised by the coercive crushing of the Opposition, especially the main opposition, just as the Muslim Brotherhood was banned for decades under Nasser and Mubarak and is being ruthlessly repressed once more by the Egyptian military.

There has long been an authoritarian tendency in Sri Lankan politics, but that tendency, though recurrent, has never hardened into a permanent condition. Two characteristics are observable. Firstly that this tendency was almost never located in the person of the top political personality of his or her time, but in yet another powerful figure, usually associated with certain apparatuses, roles and functions of the state machine.

The locus of authoritarianism in the administration of 1956-’69 was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke the Governor General, rather than Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike. In 1965-70 it was the Minister of State JR Jayewardene and his main ideologue Esmond Wickremesinghe, rather than the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. In 1970-’77 it was Felix Dias Bandaranaike (advocate of “a little bit of totalitarianism”), nicknamed Satan, rather than Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In 1977-88 it was Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali rather than President JR Jayewardene. In 1989-’92 it was Ranjan Wijeratne rather than President Ranasinghe Premadasa. In 1994-2005 it was Gen Anuruddha Ratwatte rather than President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Today it is Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, though it must be stressed that he was preceded in this role in 2009 by the then commander of the Army, Gen Sarath Fonseka.

In case a reader is tempted to view this as a simple case of a division of labour along ‘good cop/bad cop’ lines, it must be recalled that Lalith Athulathmudali used a variety of allies and proxies ranging from elements in the Sri Lankan armed forces to radical organizations, to actively subvert and sabotage the Indo-Lanka Accord signed by President Jayewardene. The Accord was a strategic move de-linking India and the Tamil separatists, which President Jayewardene was committed to.

The closest that Sri Lanka came to an authoritarian state was in the eight years from the July 1980 general strike and the smashing of the trade union movement through the sacking of 60,000 workers, up to the first round of provincial council elections and the decompression of 1988. Within these eight years the most intensely authoritarian were the five years from the referendum of 1982 up to the electoral re-opening of 1988. Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe was a leading defender and driver of this authoritarianism which witnessed among other things the attempted murder of Vijaya Kumaratunga during the Mahara by-election (he was saved because his bodyguard took the lethal shotgun blast). The chief electoral organizer of the ruling UNP at the Mahara by –election was the present leader of the UNP and the Opposition.

In the middle of the last century Harold Lasswell focused on the trend towards a Garrison State. This was followed in the 1960s and ’70s by the study of the phenomenon of the National Security State. A third related but distinct concept was theorised in the 1970s by Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who later became President of Brazil) and Guillermo O’Donnell, namely Bureaucratic Authoritarianism. The danger in Sri Lanka today is military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, in which the military bureaucracy becomes the dominant element in the State and a disproportionate amount of resources – in relation to education and health--are devoted to the Ministry of Defence. In Sri Lanka a negative modification is the attempt to extend the reach of the military bureaucratic stratum so that it is dominant not merely in the state but in society.

The recent speech by Mr Rajapaksa at the third defence seminar with its proliferation of perceived threats from a wide variety of sources—external, internal, Tamil, Muslim, Leftist, street demonstrators, websites—is an illustration of the ‘search for enemies’ that attempts to legitimize a panoptic view of security and the ‘management’ of the citizenry in a manner utterly inconsistent with democratic values. A symptomatic sentence of his keynote speech is the following: “...The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner is another instance of this attention. This has been accomplished mostly by the actions of the LTTE linked groups, which have many trained LTTE cadres and operatives who are now fully engaged in propaganda activities.” Given that the recent visit was the result of an invitation extended by the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN Geneva in early 2011, a senior official of the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs, with either the prior permission or the subsequent approval of the Government of Sri Lanka at Cabinet level at least, this assertion is especially curious and utterly illustrative of the ‘disconnect’ between the worldview of the security bureaucracy and reality.

The country’s popularly elected leadership stands in danger of being transformed into a quasi-ceremonial president; a mere electoral machine; an industrial strength vacuum-cleaner of votes. Who rules Sri Lanka? The answer increasingly suggests itself that we are ruled by the so-called national security or defence apparatus.

Previously in Sri Lanka the authoritarian drive never succeeded in changing the essentially democratic character of the system because of the presence of (a) the external factor in the form of powerful democratic neighbour and (b) a strong democratic opposition, which in turn kept the armed forces neutral. The danger today is that the second countervailing factor does not operate due to the organic crisis and resultant electoral meltdown of the UNP, and that therefore, for the first time, the authoritarian project may succeed in entrenching itself and transforming the nature of the system and the game.

What is the cause of the electoral meltdown of the UNP? The shocking success of pro-Tiger opinion in pulling the movie ‘Madras Cafe’ out of cinemas not only in Tamil Nadu but also cinemas showing Indian movies in the UK, and oddly enough, the election manifesto of the TNA provide the answer. The latter’s salute to or more charitably whitewash of the LTTE is indicative of the sensitivity to opinion in the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu, which in turn reflects a Pan-Tamil consciousness, politics and project. Dating back many years, perhaps decades, this Pan-Tamilianism undergirded the LTTE and provided the outrageous Teflon factor for it in the Tamil communities here and overseas, despite its hideous depredations. In an instinctive reaction to this Pan-Tamil nationalism, an undeclared Pan-Sinhala political behaviour has manifested itself, which has marginalised Ranil Wickremesinghe and therefore the UNP. This marginalisation is historico-structural in character, constituting a tectonic shift.

As long as the UNP leadership remains, the marginalisation cannot be reversed even by economic crisis because of the deeply emotive nature of the perceived existential threat from pan–Tamil politics, especially the militant anti-Lankanism of the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu. The structural crisis of the Opposition can be overcome and balance restored to the polity only if there is a ‘game changer’ of a new UNP leadership which can attract or end the ruling coalition’s monopoly of the pan–Sinhala vote through a ‘smart patriotism’ that wins back the political centre. The bitter irony is that it is once again authoritarianism that thwarts the re-branding of the democratic opposition so that it can thwart authoritarianism, because the authoritarian drive of – or within--the incumbent regime can be changed only if the most authoritarian constitution and political entity in Sri Lanka can be displaced: the UNP’s Constitution and the Ranil Raj. The shift of regime and state in an increasingly authoritarian direction can be reversed only by re-balancing the polity.