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The Mother of all discontents

Oct 16, 2010 7:53:01 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka

Opposition to dynastic rule is laudable but not when it comes from a member or faithful serf of a deposed or earlier dynasty, whose only problem is with which dynasty rules rather than the phenomenon of dynastic rule itself.

How much of what passes for opposition to dynastic rule today is inter-dynastic rivalry, between ascendant and declining dynasties; those on the inside and those deposed or in decline? How much of current politics represents a bloc of dynasties in decline or stagnation, in embittered opposition to what they perceive as a more dynamic, ascendant or newly emergent dynasty?

What is still less credible is when criticism of the contemporary is used to glorify a dynastic past and mask its crimes and follies. What is the historical truth? Does the Bandaranaike reign of the ‘70s represent a fairer, nobler age, in stark 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 present and in certain respects far 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?

Was there any significant or meaningful attempt to extend the tenure of the then incumbent?

Minister T.B. Ilangaratne broached the possibility publicly while a senior 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 Jayewardena 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.

Cabinet Minister TB Subasinghe, a man of unimpeachable integrity, resigned and in his letter which he made public he warned the country of the existence of “extra-constitutional centres of power” at the top. 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. On almost all major issues of vital civic concern, the negatives germinated or grew under that political dispensation and 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) with Velupillai Prabhakaran was 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. The Bandaranaike administration sowed the dragon’s teeth and it took Mahinda Rajapaksa to slay the marauding dragon, with all the corollaries and consequences that entailed. By the time it ended, Sri Lanka had lost 35 years and a hundred thousand lives 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. These travesties of justice 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 not only an instant trigger of Tamil youth militancy and violence, but (together with 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 in Asia in the early 1950s not least because we had an independent and well qualified public service. That was dismantled under Sirimavo 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 Report of the Commission concluded that the partisan politicisation of the public sector and recruitment to jobs was one of the main causative factors, tracing this to 1972 when the new Constitution abolished the independent Public Services Commission. The subordination of the state officials to government politicians and stooges was buttressed by the appointment of District Political Authorities and the misnamed 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. (A JVP suspect named Kamalabandu was dismembered with an electric saw). 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 Government promptly deported Lord Avebury of Amnesty International. The ‘72 Constitution incorporated the draconian Pubic Security Ordinance into our basic law. My fellow ‘fresher’ 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 the Sirima-Felix years would prove my point.

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 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 demise of the matriarch).

7. Media freedom, democratic space, authoritarianism: The Bandaranaike regime 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’ Rajapaksa regime; a factor that cannot but provide considerably greater democratic space structurally, than under Bandaranaike rule.

Gamini Fonseka directed a widely popular movie called Sagarayak Meda depicting that kinder, gentler age. Authoritarianism isn’t a bolt of lightning; it is a process (of ‘authoritarianisation’). In an important sense, JR Jayewardena’s 1978 Constitution (and its latest amendment) made de jure, the de facto concentration and centralisation of power which commenced under Mrs Bandaranaike, and took it to the next level.