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Defending the indefensible: Rejoinder to Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama

Oct 16, 2010 6:14:10 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dayan Jayatilleka

The subtitle of Dr Nihal Jayawickrama’s reply to me is “a response to Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s spurious allegation”. Speaking of which, Dr Jayawickrama commences his piece with one, saying “Dr Dayan Jayatilaka continues his defence of the indefensible Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution”

This is easily settled. If Dr Jayawickrama can quote a single line authored by me which is “a defence” or endorsement of the 18th amendment (as distinct from a counter-critique of the hysterical and hopelessness-inducing wail that democracy died from it) I shall stop writing to this newspaper. Far from “continuing” to defend the amendment, I had placed on the record my support of Kalana Senaratne’s soberly pondered critique.

Dr Jayawickrama’s opening is of a piece with the rest of the article, the thrust of which is a falsification of Sri Lanka’s contemporary political history and truly a defence of the (truly) indefensible. He makes basically three points, one smallish, the other medium sized and the third, quite large in terms of historical import. Firstly, that that he had nothing do with any effort to extend the life of Mrs Bandaranaike’s tenure in office, secondly, that no such effort was made or contemplated, and thirdly, that Sri Lanka’s current situation is a Dark Age in contradistinction to the Camelot of ’70-’77 in which he was a Lancelot or Galahad.

What was the basis of the tangential and (admittedly thinly) veiled reference I made to him? While observing journalistic etiquette by not naming my source, I shall however reproduce below, the email I received (dated Sept 28, 2010) from the person who was a player in the ’70s power-bloc. The added emphasis on the operative sentences is mine:

“Re. Mrs. Bandaranaike, I remember well the party conference of the SLFP during my time, when she with Anura and others decided to get approval for her to move against the United Front regime and kick out the left. ...... I told her then, that if she breaks the United Front she will be in the political wilderness, and argued that the United Front was the only way for her to secure a reasonable majority at the next election. .. Then she concocted an idea to extend her term of office by two years and got Nihal Jayawickrema to amend the Constitution, and he brought this document to my house and asked me to comment. The poor chap did not realize that I would oppose such a move. I went to the Janavegaya office and told the editor to announce that the SLFP was planning a constitutional coup, and send copies of the constitution to JR, N.M. and the Governor General. This move was abandoned. She went for election, and you know the rest.”

This first hand information from a credible source provided the prompting for my remark. If my source was lying blatantly I am happy to accept Dr Jayawickrama’s protestation of innocence. I might add that I vividly recall a dinner conversation (either at the Intercontinental or the Capri) between Dr Jayawickrama and my parents during which he said in reply to my father’s query concerning a planned extension of the life of parliament (Mervyn had been sacked from Lake House by Mrs Bandaranaike), that when sounded out the Army Commander Gen Sepala Attygalle had told the PM that he could not guarantee the loyalty of the Army in such a scenario. (Dr Jayawickrama did not incriminate himself).

Was there any significant or meaningful attempt to extend the life of parliament? Dr Jayawickrama says no—but this came up on public platforms, both government and opposition. Minister Ilangaratne apart, a prominent parliamentarian from the Kandy district suggested that as Mrs Bandaranaike (in point of fact, Sri Lanka) had been elected Chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement representing two thirds of humanity (the absurd phrase was “Lokaye thunen dekaka naikawa”), her term of office should be extended to cover those three years! Opposition Leader Jayewardene warned that in such an event he would not only conduct a massive nationwide Satyagraha campaign but would also call upon the Armed Forces to disobey illegal orders from an unconstitutional government. (I believe that was the context in which Gen Attygalle was called in and gave the reply he did, or he could have been Mr Jayewardene’s source that something more serious than ‘kite-flying’ was afoot).

This is given credence, despite Dr Jayawickrama’s spin, by the letter of resignation of Cabinet Minister TB Subasinghe, a man of unimpeachable integrity. In that letter which he made public he warned the country of the existence of “extra-constitutional centres of power”. Dr NM Perera denounced an “invisible government”, while Dr Colvin R de Silva’s parliamentary speech, published as a pamphlet captioned ‘Sirima’s Blitzkrieg: Who Won?’ analysed the anatomy, growth and political economy of the hidden power structures, dating from 1971. Since Dr Jayawickrama’s immediate boss figured prominently in these critiques.

Does the Bandaranaike government of the 1970s, in which Dr Jayawickrama was perhaps the most prominent and pro-active ‘high functionary’, stand in marked and welcome contrast to the present day, or should it be seen as the progenitor and forerunner of our present discontents; in many senses responsible for that which is negative in the contemporary scene and in certain respects rather worse? Are the negative features and practices of the present day, clearly distinct and distinguishable from that past or on a continuum with it and at times a throwback?

On almost all major issues of vital civic concern, the abiding negatives – the ‘worst practices’--germinated in, grew under or resulted from the political dispensation which Dr Jayawickrama served and the record of which he still defends. In at least one of these areas, Sri Lanka is significantly better off than it was then.

1. The ethnic issue: Tamil separatists lost their deposits at the 1970 elections, but separatism became the sole platform of the TULF which carried the North and part of the East in ’77. Logically then, the seismic shift occurred during the Bandaranaike administration. The Constitution making process of ’72 ignored the moderate (non-federal) six point platform presented in Mr Chelvanayagam’s letter to the PM, which was not even accorded the courtesy of a reply. The new Constitution abolished the Soulbury safeguards for minorities, entrenched Sinhala as the sole official language, conferred pre-eminence on Buddhism (as DS Senanayake had declined to), and made explicit the unitary character of the state (which the Soulbury Constitution remained silent on). The Tamil New Tigers (TNT) formed in ’72. Eight unarmed persons died in the Police action at the IATR conference in Jaffna in ’74. Prabhakaran founded the successor organisation to the TNT, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in ’76. Dr Jayawickrama’s favourite administration sowed the dragon’s teeth and it took Mahinda Rajapakse to slay the marauding dragon, with all the corollaries and consequences that entailed. By the time it ended Sri Lanka had lost almost thirty five years and perhaps a hundred thousand lives (including those of more popular leaders of greater achievement than Dr Jayawickrama’s political pin-ups) with many more maimed.

2. Political prisoners: The UF government used the post-April 1971 situation to incarcerate political critics including those who were active opponents of the JVP or had nothing to do with it. This cannot be excused by the ‘fog of war’ because some unjust incarcerations lasted for years. Those locked up included SWRD Bandaranaike’s cousin and founder of the Bosath Bandaranaike Party, SD Bandaranaike, UF parliamentarian and youth leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Maoist leader N Sanmugathasan (Wijeweera’s a bitter foe, who had never wielded a weapon in his life)! Dozens of Tamil youth were imprisoned under Emergency for years, for the crime of hoisting black flags against the promulgation of the ’72 Constitution. As the high profile, high flying Perm Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Nihal Jayawickrama cannot exculpate himself from these travesties of justice on his watch, which were Sri Lanka’s pioneering episodes of victimising political foes and critics by jailing them.

3. The ruination of higher education and plummeting of standards: The policies of district wise and media-wise standardisation in university entrance were an instant trigger of Tamil youth militancy and violence. This scheme (and the straitjacketing into a ‘single university’) wrecked Sri Lanka’s excellent university system and led to a downward spiral of standards in all sectors, from which the country has not yet pulled out because these policies have become structural and have entrenched social constituencies. We shall permanently lag behind the rest of Asia as a consequence.

4. The hyper-politicisation of the bureaucracy and partisan control of the state: Our country was ahead of most of Asia in the early 1950s not least because we had an independent and well qualified public service. That was dismantled under Bandaranaike rule. Following the bloody and bloodily suppressed youth uprising of the late 1980s, a Youth Commission was appointed by the then President to investigate the grievances that led to the revolt. The Commission’s report concluded that the partisan politicisation of the public sector and job recruitment was one of the main causative factors, sourced in the ’72 Constitution’s abolition of the independent Public Services Commission. The subordination of the state officials to government politicians and henchmen was buttressed by the appointment of District Political Authorities and the Janatha (People’s) Committees.

5. Human Rights & Impunity: Emergency rule was kept in place for six years, though the insurgency was crushed in six weeks. The ‘tyre pyre’ was invented under Bandaranaike rule. Extra-judicial executions on a large scale, as evidenced in bodies with tied hands floating down rivers, were first seen in Sri Lanka in 1971. At the time, the quality British press named and quoted a top army officer commanding a district as saying “we have learned the lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. I have told my men, no prisoners”. As those who perpetrated this policy with impunity moved up the ladder, these practices were witnessed during the wars fought in North and South. The ’72 Constitution incorporated the draconian Pubic Security Ordinance into our basic law. My fellow freshman Weerasooriya was shot dead by the Police on Peradeniya campus in November ’76. A glance through the documents of the Civil Rights Movement issued in those years would prove my point. Dr Jayawickrama’s heroine was the Mother of All Repression and Impunity.

6. Nepotism & family/clan based oligarchy: The term ‘family-bandyism’ was ubiquitous in the discourse of that time, and one of the UNP’s winning cards was the book of cartoons which depicted a ramified family tree of Bandaranaikes and Ratwattes ensconced in positions of power and influence. The state owned most of everything and the Bandaranaikes owned much of the state. (A successor Bandaranaike administration, that of Chandrika, had herself as President, her mother as Prime Minister and uncle as Deputy Minister of Defence, with brother Anura as a Minister after the passing of the matriarch).

7. Media freedom, democratic space, authoritarianism: The regime that Dr Jayawickrama served, dissolved local authorities island-wide, delayed the holding of the KKS by-election, appropriated Lake House, never broad-based its ownership (vesting the shares in the Public Trustee who happened to be a trustworthy clan member), jailed Fred de Silva the Deputy Editor of the Daily News, sacked Mervyn the only editor who gave state-run Lake House some credibility and independence (having earlier banned him from writing to the foreign press because The Economist had illustrated his contribution with an unflattering photograph of the PM!), sealed the SUN/Dawasa press, censored the Daily Mirror so heavily that its editorials often appeared blank, and shut down for a time the press of the Communist allies of the government, the ATHTHA. The funeral of much loved ex-Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was not relayed real-time by radio but broadcast delayed --once the SLBC boss (Ridgeway Tillekeratne) had cleared the incoming reportage. Contrast that with the proliferation and pluralism of the print, electronic and digital media under the ‘indefensible’ Rajapakse regime; a factor that cannot but provide considerably greater democratic space structurally, than under Bandaranaike rule.

Dr Jayawickrama supports (or opposes the opposition to) an ‘independent international inquiry’ into ‘war crimes’ allegations against Sri Lanka, but in 1971, his Minister promptly deported Lord Avebury of Amnesty International. He coyly refers to ‘civic disabilities’ being imposed upon him and assumes an air of martyrdom, but fails to mention that it was by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry which found him and his bosses guilty of the abuse of power. Whatever one thinks of the penalty imposed, there would be many in the judiciary, the A-G’s Department and the legal profession in general who recall exactly what that meant. Gamini Fonseka directed a widely popular movie called Sagarayak Meda about that age (and depicted in it, some of these noble characters). One may safely conclude that Dr. Jayawickrama’s piously pontifical platitudes and punctilious standards on human rights, humanitarian law, accountability and good governance were the product of a late conversion.