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The trouble with Sri Lankan political and civil society

Oct 16, 2010 6:17:21 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Everyone’s an amateur psychologist. That’s the trouble with Sri Lankan political and civil society. Instead of listening to or reading what someone says and treating it on its merits, the name of the game is to speculate on what motivated him. What’s s/he after? Who is he with now? Thus it is that gossip substitutes for analysis.

The upshot of the personalised normative reactions of Sri Lankan society, i.e. reacting to who is saying it rather than what is said, deprives us of learning anything of value that the writer or speaker may have to offer.

So, it goes something like this. If you are critical of Ranil Wickremesinghe you are either a supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa who is trying to disrupt the unity of the UNP or you are a clandestine opponent of Mahinda Rajapaksa who disregards his wishes and interests with regard to the leadership of the Opposition.

What if one is a supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa but also a supporter of a healthy democracy which presupposes a viable opposition? What if what one is saying about the UNP has nothing to with Mahinda Rajapaksa at all? Not bloody likely, you’d say, but what if it can be proved? Keep reading.

If one asserts that Sri Lankan democracy is not dead, and the country is neither totalitarian nor a dictatorship but that Sri Lankan democracy has always been unevenly developing and subject to contractions and expansions, the automatic response is that the writer or exponent of this view is attempting to whitewash the Rajapaksa rule. But again, what if the Rajapaksas do not enter the picture? Why not examine or debate the point rather than speculate about motives?

To provide one final example, if one advocates architecture for Sri Lankan foreign policy which is designed for sovereignty and security and laden in favour of Eurasia and the ‘East’, one is echoing President Rajapaksa’s predilections and prejudices with a view to currying favour. Once again, what if it is demonstrably NOT about Mahinda Rajapaksa?

Let’s test out my proposition. When was the following written, who by and how accurate is it?

“If things remain unchanged, the UNP is going to lose, and lose big, at the forthcoming parliamen tary elections. Take cricket, for example. If we didn’t make changes at the top, that is to say the captaincy, the coach and the Board, Sri Lanka could not have pulled out of the nose dive it got into during the last World Cup. But we did make those changes — not early enough to avoid humiliation at the World Cup, but soon after, and here we are, back in the big league and close to the top. And let us always recall that the cricket captain we had no choice but to replace (belatedly, it should have been done in ‘97) is one who led us to a historic victory in 1996; once a very popular leader and always a fine cricketer.

“By contrast Ranil Wickremesinghe has scored a hat-trick in reverse. He had led his party to consecutive defeats at three (of the four) levels of the political structure: local authority, provincial councils, presidential. And it’s three out of four only because elections have not yet been held for the remain ing level! Nothing short of reshuffling the leadership helped restore our cricket for tunes. Nothing short of that will work in re storing the UNP’s political-electoral fortunes either. But the pay-off is big. Once the change is made, once the surgery is over and done, recovery time is pretty short and the take-off is almost vertical, because the potential has been lying within, locked up.

“Even the re placed captain performs better, carrying less freight, playing his natural game. It worked for our cricket, it’ll work for our Opposition. Nothing — and I mean nothing — else will, because nothing else can.” (‘Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Game’ Weekend Express, Saturday, March 11 – Sunday March 12, 2000, P6)

Now that was published in March 2000, and written by me. I’m still saying the same thing.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was merely a cabinet minister at the time, years away from the opposition leadership or the prime ministership, let alone the presidency. Ok, so was it for or against the president of the day? Who knows? I had been critical of CBK for years, but supported her at the December ’99 presidential and year 2000 parliamentary elections. From what she told S.B. Dissanayake and Mangala Samaraweera at the airport before emplaning for London after surviving the Tiger suicide bomber, she very much wanted Ranil to remain as UNP leader.

That had nothing to do with me, so I called it as I saw it, as I tend to do. What is important is whether what I wrote has stood the test of time and is evidence of accuracy in analysis. What is even more important is that the struggle to dislodge Ranil from the UNP leadership has been on for at least a decade (in my case, from 1997).

Next up is Sri Lanka’s democracy. Consider this text:

“What are the special features and distinguishing characteristics of democracy in Sri Lanka? I would list the following: its unevenness, its dual embattlement, its co-existence with the archaic, its zero-sum nature, its nexus with the unitary state, and finally its resilience. Lankan democracy has been an uneven democracy. Its unevenness is manifest in two senses.

Firstly if one takes a decades-long view, there has been a spasmodic rhythm in our democracy. There have been periods of high democracy and low democracy. The pattern is one of expansion and contraction of democracy. And even this expansion and contraction itself has not proceeded in any regular cycle.

“The heartbeat of our democracy has been arrhythmic. The unevenness of Lanka’s democracy has been present in a second sense too. At any given time an overhead satellite photograph so to speak of Lankan democracy would reveal its uneven distribution and exercise.” (‘Sri Lanka’s Uneven Democracy’ Kandy News, March 4, 1998) Now this surely is a defence of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Mussolini-esque totalitarianism! Hang on a minute — this piece by me was published in 1998, when Mahinda was an obscure minister whose portfolio I cannot recall.

Ok, so then it was probably a justification of whoever was president at the time. The problem with that explanation is that in 1998, CBK was the president and I was strongly opposed to her ‘union of regions package’. So, my political scientific conclusion with regard to Sri Lankan democracy has remained consistent and must be examined today on its own merits.

A final example from the field of foreign policy: “ In the East, that is from Russia to China through India, there is an equally powerful mood against separatist terrorism… The Chinese leadership chose the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the Peoples Republic last October to officially prioritise this threat and designate it as that of ‘ethnic splittism’… A strong Eurasian ‘heartland’ thrust, arcing from Moscow through Ankara, Tehran, Delhi and Beijing can be conceived of and operationally undertaken in the form of shuttle diplomacy and summitry.”

Both Western and Eurasian thrusts can be complimentary ‘arches’ in a single foreign policy architecture for Sri Lanka… The central pillar of our foreign policy architecture must be the relationship with India, not in contrite genuflection to anyone as a regional hegemon or because we are in anyone’s backyard but because we have certain common strategic interests.” (‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Vacuum’, Weekend Express, March 18, 2000 pp.6-7)

This is obviously a pandering to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s turn to the East and embrace of China, and written to secure an ambassadorial posting (once again). Well, actually, it is my column ‘Reflections’ in the Weekend Express of a decade ago. Was it perhaps to secure a DPL posting from the then president and foreign minister?

If so, it could hardly have carried the caption that it did, namely ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Vacuum’, a stricture hardly designed to flatter either President CBK or Minister Kadirgamar. This was published years before LK’s re-orientation towards China and even before his rapprochement with the JVP (which may have been a domestic driver of that shift).

A postscript if I may. The no confidence motion against the External Affairs Minister proved instead to be a massive vote of confidence in him. As expected, the affair proved pathetic, with the UNP unable to mobilise either its own ranks or those of the Opposition overall. Prof Peiris provided documentary proof of Wickremesinghe’s ‘behind the lines’ perfidy, echoing the LTTE propaganda during the war, and paralleling the Diaspora campaign afterwards with regard to economic pressures and cutbacks.

One of the more amusing aspects of the debate was the media spokesman of the UNP’s Ranilist ‘rump faction’ lecturing the Professor and former Rhodes Scholar on the importance of ‘the highest professionalism’ in the conduct of our external relations, unmindful that the sole professional — and highest educational — qualification he can lay claim to is in dress design!

More designing than discerning, he also attempted to negate my role in the UN Human Rights Council special session vote of May 2009 (which went considerably better than the no-confidence vote did for his side), even transferring merit across the Atlantic ocean. The Economist which Karl Marx described as ‘the most intelligent defender of capitalism’ chose instead to write: “…Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Geneva, who warded off the threatened UN war-crimes probe in May…” (‘Behind the Rajapaksa Brothers’ Smiles’, The Economist, August 6, 2009).