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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Sri Lanka: Intra-regime change has taken place; Gota drives the policy

Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka Interviewed by Chamitha Kuruppu
“The ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ is in danger; it is increasingly overshadowed by the ‘Gota Chinthana,’” stresses Sri Lankan Diplomat and Political Scientist Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka.He warns that President Rajapaksa has devolved far too much of his power to those close to him. “I am not sure really whose hand is consistently on the tiller. I am not sure who is really driving policy.”Dr. Jayatilleka points out that the country is experiencing an intra-regime change.“The centre of gravity is shifting from the pragmatic populism of Mahinda Rajapaksa to a harder, harsher neo-conservatism, which is more visibly represented by Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: It’s been four years since the war ended. Are you satisfied with what we have achieved?

A: Yes and no. I am very happy that the Sri Lankan State and citizenry prevailed over the LTTE. This is no small deal. Then there was a shootout. We had large-scale terrorism for decades. But Sri Lanka succeeded, defeating that very dangerous terrorist movement. I am very happy about that.

 But I am exceedingly unhappy as to how we have wasted the peace. By ‘we’ I do not mean our citizenry, because the citizenry is not at fault here. By ‘we’ I mean the Sri Lankan State and the Government that we have elected. Sri Lanka has won the war but has not won the peace and is not on the road to winning the peace. In fact, we are on the road to losing the peace.

 I am deeply distressed by the enormous opportunities that we have lost. Let us set aside the criticisms from the human rights community and the West. What is depressing is that we have disappointed our friends in Asia. Asia has taken off as a continent; the two engines of this take-off are India and China. Both these countries were our friends in 2009. We could have been part of this take-off using these two engines. We could have been part of the Asian renaissance. But we have not done that. That would have presupposed an ethnically integrated, fair and multicultural society, which is not the kind of society that we have been building after the war.
 We are in reverse evolution; socially and culturally we have been moving backwards. I am very distressed that Asia was willing and ready to welcome us with open arms. Asia was completely supportive of our effort to eliminate terrorism. But we have not integrated ourselves into modern democratic Asia and we have therefore missed the chance of catching up for thirty years or more that we lost. My feelings are profoundly dualistic; positive about having won the war. But I am very sad at the situation that we are in now. It is intellectually and culturally claustrophobic. We have not attracted the better educated Sri Lankan youth who are second generation diaspora; an essential component of the economic miracle of any country.

Q: Where did things go wrong? Why did it happen this way?

A: Ours is not the only society that has been through this negative evolution. Israel had a splendid military victory in June 1967. The victory was applauded pretty much all over the world. But Israel did not invest the political capital of that victory wisely. The leadership was a very good one but they did not have a notion of which direction to proceed. Due to that lack of clarity or otherwise admirable leadership by default as it were, certain hardline elements within Israel society were able to insert an agenda of settlements and annexation which was never part of strategy of Israel leadership that won the war in 1967. But Israel proceeded along that path and 40 to 45 years later finds it morally, ethically and strategically isolated in the region.

 Sri Lanka is not Israel; we are far more vulnerable. We don’t have an open-ended commitment from the world super powers which Israel does. But we have made a similar mistake. We have squandered the political capital of the war. You asked why? We arrived at a cross road. On the one hand we could have proceeded along the road of fulfilling the commitments we had made to our friends who had supported us in the war. I call this the Geneva consensus of 2009. We could have deeply analysed the reasons the war took place and proceeded to uproot those reasons. And from this rose the opportunity provided by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC). This could have been our post-war manifesto, which we could have implemented and in fact fast track. We have not fast tracked the implementation of the LLRC. Within the Government and the State apparatus there are powerful voices that are critical of the LLRC.

 So this was the road which King Asoka took. This is what I would call a truly Buddhist road. While I am not myself a Buddhist, I think from a philosophical point of view. There is no doctrine produced by humanity which is more conclusive to healing reconciliation and harmony than authentic Buddhism. But that would be Buddhism that is not tainted by excessive attachment to ethnicity. In other words it would be Buddhism, but not Sinhala Buddhism. But we did not take that path. We have taken another path; a path which is for purposes of brevity, I would classify as neo-conservative. Within the post war administration we see the emergence of hawkish neo-conservatives. This is what has blocked our transition to stable unsustainable peace.

 Q: How can we rectify this? What needs to be done?

A: There are two levels at which rectification can take place. One is that reality itself will cause correction. We can see some possibilities of that in President Rajapaksa’s reiteration that the elections in the Northern Provincial Council will be held in September this year. I don’t expect that to be a cakewalk because there are obviously very powerful voices within State and Government which oppose that decision. I think that will be a major political and ideological battle within the Government even within the ruling circle on this issue. But the announcement is a sign of that economic and strategic reality is beginning to make its impression and certain cause corrections. So this is one dimension in which positive change can take place.

 There is a more important dimension in which rectification has taken place. We have to understand why neo-conservatives were able to prevail. That is because the more liberal or progressive minded administrations which preceded President Rajapaksa were unable or unwilling to defeat the Tigers. The administrations of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and President Premadasa who were both far more pluralistic and moderate than President Rajapaksa failed to defeat the Tigers. They really did not set about it wholeheartedly. Their failure discredited the more pluralist liberal or progressive perspective. And by default left the Sri Lankan electorate with no choice but to opt for a far more robust approach. President Rajapaksa recognised the wishes of the people and implemented it. So the problem lies in the polarisation in Sri Lankan politics between those who are plularist, which is a good thing but hardly insufficiently patriotic, which is a bad thing. And then on the other hand there are those who are patriotic, which is a good thing; but are patriotic in the narrowest ethno-religious sense, which is a bad thing.

 The political market place today in Sri Lanka is uncompetitive; and it is uncompetitive not merely because Mahinda Rajapaksa has been repressing the democratic opposition. It is uncompetitive because the main democratic Opposition has been in collapse for a very long time. That is because it has lost the confidence and trust not only of the electorate at large but even of its own vote base. Unless and until this downward spiral of the main Opposition is halted by a regime change within the Opposition, it would very difficult to alter either the regime’s behaviour democratically, or in fact regime change in the country as a whole. So this is what I see as the second deeper dimension in which Sri Lanka has to start making a turnaround if we are to stop the haemorrhaging of the opportunities.

Q: Are you saying the Government continues to remain powerful due to weaknesses of the main Opposition?

A: There is a lack of democratic opportunities. Who are the people supposed to vote for? Critical as I am of omissions and commissions of the Rajapaksa administration and of the President itself, I must admit that when I watch him interacting with masses on television he still has a vibe and his main opponent at the moment is absolutely wooden.

 In the United States there is something called the ‘Beer Test’. I think in Sri Lanka it would be a tea test. Which of the two candidates available at the moment would you prefer to have a cup of tea with? I think the answer is fairly obvious. What is particularly ironic is that perhaps most of the members of the Opposition party would also prefer to have a cup of tea with the President rather than with their own Leader. Unless that changes, none of this is going to change. The only thing that can make the Rajapaksa regime behave differently and better is if it perceives an electoral threat within its Sinhala constituency. Then you will find the things changing for the better and even the President would have a reason to tell those close to him there are certain things they shouldn’t do because they will lose power. Right now he does not have any such reason or excuse to give.

Q: Who are the potential alternatives who could challenge the President?

A: As a political scientist I look at the figures. When I look at the figures I see that the main democratic Opposition party under the present leadership is like a swimmer competing against a powerful swimmer while swimming with an iron ball tied to an ankle.

 Provincial council elections are scheduled for later this year. Two to three provinces are former strongholds of the UNP. I wonder just how they would do that? During the 1994 election the UNP was clearly on its way out after 17 turbulent years in office. Its top leaders have been wiped out by the Tigers. Gamini Dissanayaka was assassinated and his widow Srima Dissanayaka who was not even a member of the UNP was pressed into service as the candidate. One would have thought this was the worst possible time for the UNP. She secured 43% of the votes. After 19 years of SLFP-led rule that low point of 43% seems like an impossibly high ceiling for the UNP today. It’s a dream if they can hit the 43% that a non member of the party got in 1994. The closest they came to it was when General Fonseka was a common candidate in 2010.

 What used to be the base vote for the UNP has now turned into a high ceiling. This is simply not a question of Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war and being re-elected. This argument is nonsense because the present UNP leader lost to Chandrika Kumaratunga as well. And he lost to Kumaratunga at a time she had not won the war. If there is anything consistent, he just keeps losing and taking the party down with him. First, that ball and chain has to be removed. Rajapaksa has been in office for only seven to eight years. The real establishment has been the UNP because you have one leader in office from 1994. If we need to have an Arab Spring in Sri Lanka, we have to do it with the UNP.

 The problem is that the middle ground in Sri Lankan politics is vacant. The SLFP pretends to hold it. But it is no longer holding the middle ground. The middle ground has not been occupied in Sri Lankan politics. That is where serious politics has to aim at. You cannot have a Leader of the Opposition who is identified in the public mind as one who had appeasement with the Tigers. If the Tigers have become a memory that faded, perhaps this would not be so important a factor. But thanks to the agitation in Tamil Nadu where Prabhakaran and the LTTE are put forward as symbols, the electorate which is largely Sinhala can easily be reminded of the threat. However bad the economic crisis gets, finally when they go to the polling booths, they will vote not only as Sri Lankans, not only as citizens, but also as Sinhalese. They will not vote for someone who reminds them of a dark shameful past.

Q: The President may have eliminated terrorism, but has he been successful in addressing the issues related to the ethnic conflict?

A: Absolutely not. The most intelligent leader alive in Asia today is recognised as Lee Kuan Yew. In an interview in 2010 Lee Kuan Yew said that he regrets that President Rajapaksa is too wedded to Sinhalese extremism to capitalise on the opportunity that has opened up due to his own success in eliminating terrorism. Lee Kuan Yew said that Sri Lankan rulers think that by defeating the Tigers they have defeated Tamils. He says that the Tamils are a community that cannot be defeated though the LTTE can and has been defeated. This does not mean that Lee Kuan Yew was foreseeing Tamil Eelam, but he accurately predicted that Sri Lanka would fail to win the peace because the power elite was too wedded to the ideology of Sinhala extremism and was not seeing things in a truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Sri Lankan terms. I think Lee Kuan Yew has once again proved to be correct. One must not underestimate Lee Kuan Yew at all. He has been consistently correct on Sri Lanka and sadly he is correct on Sri Lanka today where the Sri Lankan administration and Government have abysmally failed to address the roots of the problems.

 The problem is that the Sinhalese and the Tamils have not found a way to coexist and cohabit politically on this small island that we both have to share. That requires attitudinal change in the part of all communities. This attitudinal change has to be led by the leaders. But the leadership has failed to do that. President Rajapaksa still has that potential. But he has devolved far too much of his power to those close to him. These elements do not have the same political experience as Mahinda Rajapaksa and therefore their views are far narrowed.

Q: Who are these elements?

A: The brother of President Rajapaksa Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was and is a very good Secretary of Defence. I think the role he played in managing and coordinating the branches of the armed forces and in ensuring the equipment and supplies during the war was an absolutely crucial element in the Sri Lankan military victory. But he has a habit of pronouncing on policy matters which are outside the remit of a Secretary of Defence. And increasingly he appears as a driver of policy. Everything ranging from the post-war arrangements in the north to matters in the south is being interpreted or misinterpreted through a prism of security. There is hyper-securitisation of Sri Lanka. This has nothing to do with the professional Sri Lankan armed forces.

 After President Rajapaksa returned from Japan having reiterated his pledge to hold elections in the Northern Provincial Council in September this year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave a newspaper interview in which he said that it was a bad idea to hold the elections and that the provincial council system itself is not a good idea. This is clearly at variance with the policy position taken by President Rajapaksa. The ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ is in danger; it is increasingly overshadowed or overtaken by the ‘Gota Chinthana’. This is a major problem because there is no electoral mandate for such thing. Sri Lanka cannot successfully manage relations with its minorities and also with the neighbourhood and the world as a whole with a bunker mentality.

Q: What do you think about President Rajapaksa’s foreign policy?

A: Which foreign policy? Because I don’t seriously see any foreign policy. Within Government we have this strange combination of ideas; some days of the week or some hours of the day we are willing to be the new geopolitical and strategic alliance of the United States in its pivot to Asia. At other times we don’t have to worry about anything including the United States because we have China on our side. What we have is policy schizophrenia. I don’t see Sri Lanka having a foreign policy. There is no strategic policy either. It has a security policy; domestically. I don’t think there is any analytical thinking within the Government.

Q: You have worked under many politicians; you are a political scientist and a former diplomat. If the country is not heading towards the correct path, don’t you believe people like you have a responsibility to guide and alert the rulers?
A: One of my favourite singers is Leonard Cohen and he has a song, ‘First we take Manhattan’. The opening line of that song says, ‘They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within’. I have tried. I think I did my bit for the country in Geneva and in France as well. I don’t believe that any purpose is served in continuing to say these things within the system because I have said all of this to the President. He is a very sharp and a very intelligent man. That aspect of him is underestimated in Colombo. I also find him a warm personality.

 President Rajapaksa’s political ideas are not consistently translated into actions because there has been a shift in the centre of gravity or power at the apex of the State. President Rajapaksa has wittingly or unwittingly enabled himself to play the role of a human shield. I am not sure really whose hand is consistently on the tiller. I am not sure who is really driving policy. Therefore, I see no purpose in wasting my time continuing to say the same things that I have told the President and the Foreign Minister all these years. It’s not that they don’t understand; they do. But there are other powerful elements, forces and factors in the mix which I can do nothing about from within. Therefore, I think it is my duty to raise public consciousness, to play a role in the public domain.

Q: When you say powerful elements, are you once again referring to the Secretary of Defence?

A: In 2006/7, the Secretary of Defence was a very different man. In the first year of the war he was not the most hawkish element in the mix; it was the then Commander of the Army General Fonseka. But as the war was ending I noticed a difference in the perspectives of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I witnessed this happened in the 1980s with President J.R. Jayewardene and Lalith Athulathmudali.

Q: Do you think the Secretary Defence has any desire in becoming the leader of this country?

A: I don’t know. I don’t think so. There may be others who would prefer him to do so. But I have not seen any such sign in him. But I think he has very firm and decided views of a character that is ideologically driven. By ideologically I don’t mean right or left; I mean neo-conservative. I think it was unwise for him to open the so-called political academy of the Bodu Bala Sena at a time this organisation was very controversial. Nowhere in the world would somebody of that rank be seen to associate himself with a religious fundamentalist movement, especially one that has openly agitated and hate speech openly against minorities. By doing so you not only give the wrong signal to the fundamentalists as well as to the minorities, you also implicate the State and the Government at the highest levels with any kind of inter-religious violence that may take place.

Out there in the West there are those who are looking for evidence complexity of the Sri Lankan Government and State; evidence of command responsibility, which they are collecting in order to initiate international inquiries and may be even proceeded to file cases. When a top official who happens to be the brother of the President publicly stands next to a religious fundamentalist organisation at an occasion, that is crossing a red line that a no State official anywhere in the world would do.

 Q: Would you describe Mahinda Rajapaksa as a successful President?

A: He is definitely a good politician. Overall, on balance and I believe he is a good man. Whether that good man within him is salvageable, I do not know. Let me tackle the question very squarely; I prefer Mahinda Rajapaksa as president of this country than the available alternatives today. There are only two choices; Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. I would prefer Mahinda Rajapaksa. I believe the majority of the people feel the same.

Q: What are your views about Sarath Fonseka?

A: Unfortunately he is not fully enfranchised, so he is not in the running at the moment. Sarath Fonseka would never be underestimated because he was one of the historic personalities who did something that nobody else could. If you take it in the order of importance, he was only second in importance to Mahinda Rajapaksa in the victory over the Tigers. The problem with Sarath Fonseka is that it mirrors the problem with the Rajapaksas. They like to wipe him out of the equation of history and he tends to airbrush them and their contributions. I don’t think the people of Sri Lanka have bought any of these versions.

 General Fonseka has proved himself; he did something that was a tremendous achievement by any historic or international standards. What people also underestimate is his level of education. People never think of him as an educated man. In order to be the Army Commander you have to graduate from many foreign military academies, which he has done. Furthermore, he is one of those very few Army officials who graduated from one of the top military academies in the world; that is the Royal College of Defence Studies in United Kingdom. It is absolutely an elite academy.

 I do not rule him out. But of course he has not been able to make the transition from a wonderful military chief to a successful politician. As a politician he has a great strength. Because Sarath Fonseka unlike most of the politicians has guts. He had guts during the war and he demonstrates that he has guts in politics. He says it as it is or at least the way he sees it. He is unafraid to say it. All of those are pluses. But General Fonseka has not been able so far to make that transition. I am not saying he can’t because he has made some growth during the period he was in jail. You cannot rule out a man who has achieved as much as he has. He obviously has self-confidence and that’s well placed. It will all depend on the circumstances of the time and the challenges the country has to face.

 With the upsurge in Tamil Nadu, they may look for somebody who can defend the country once again but also read it from nepotism, from the clan-centric family-centric rule that we see today and then who knows, they may look in the direction of General Fonseka if he is only enfranchised and can be a candidate. And if he has grown as he has not so far, to the point that he can match the mass appeal that Mahinda Rajapaksa continues to have. Sometimes it is also a question of personality.

Q: Do you think the country is in need of a regime change?

A: There has already been a regime change. That is what I have been distressed about. There has been an intra regime change. The centre of gravity is shifting from the pragmatic populism of Mahinda Rajapaksa to a harder, harsher neo-conservatism which is more visibly represented by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. So there has been as intra regime change which is not in a positive direction.

 But I think what you asked whether there should be a complete change of government. That depends on what kind of change we are talking about. I don’t think we need a change to a regime that will barter away the splendid military victory that we have achieved. Nor do we need a regime that will continue along the path of majoritarianism. Today we have a strange situation in which the Government is unable to win an election anywhere overseas and the Opposition is unable to win an election anywhere at home. Which is symptomatic of a Government that cannot win the peace and the Opposition could not win the war.

 If there is a change in the leadership in the Opposition I would say yes. Even though I like and respect President Rajapaksa, I would say that there is too much of a risk that we would lose the peace. And therefore we will also lose what the armed forces and the citizenry have won in the war if we continue along the path we are going. If there is a change in the Opposition leadership, and of course I would prefer that change to be one in which the UNP’s so-called reformists take over the path, I would feel much safer with a UNP that moves back to its liberal nationalist roots.

 Let me be honest, I would like to see a Sajith-Karu combination at the helm of the UNP. But even if that doesn’t work out, anybody but Ranil Wickremesinghe leading the Opposition as a candidate. I would say the way the economy of this country is going, the way that client-based rule is being consolidated, there is cartelisation of economic resources decision making in power, I would say yes we need a regime change. But if the choice remains Mahinda Rajapaksa or Ranil Wickremesinghe, I would hold my nose and say let’s keep Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Q: You warned of an intra regime change. Where would this lead?

A: It may be popular domestically because as Tamil Nadu grows more and more stridently anti-Sri Lankan, it is possible that the Sinhala Buddhist voter would prefer an even more hawkish leader. This cannot be ruled out. But if you look at it as a country, I think it would make almost certain that we will see a Tamil Eelam carved out by external forces in our lifetime. That is probably the biggest tragedy that we could face. Even the most powerful nation in the world found that neo-conservative and unilateral militarist policy of George Bush undermined the status and strategic interests of the United States itself. And therefore the United States opted not for Vietnam-war-returned hero John McCain, but for Barak Obama and recovered the lost prestige, status and strength of the United States.

 Soft power is absolutely important in strategic strength. Sri Lanka has virtually depleted all of its soft power. There won’t even be an iota of soft power left if there is a more hawkish policy than we have now and a more hawkish leader. That makes us strategically brittle and vulnerable. It may appear that we are stronger but we are not stronger. If that can happen to the United States, imagine what can happen to small island like Sri Lanka on the doorstep of India and more specially Southern India. Given this massive convergence between the United States and India, Sri Lanka will be really at variance with that. A more hawkish leader would make it more isolated, more brittle and we will be broken the way that former Yugoslavia, Sudan was broken. That is a nightmare scenario.




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