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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Sri Lanka’s Democracy Conundrum –  Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” Barrak Obama (Speech on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington)

Violence has no place in the teachings of the Buddha. Yet when violence was unleashed on Kandy’s Muslims, in the name of Sinhala-Buddhism, only a handful of Buddhist monks had the moral courage to speak out. Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero was among that handful. Recently he used Buddha’s teachings to enlighten and inform another ‘hot-button’ topic – how the end of the long Eelam War should be commemorated. He did so by asking a rhetorical question – what was Buddha’s teaching about war victory? – and answering with a stanza from the Sukha Vagga (Happiness) in the Dhammapada.

“Victory breeds hatred in the conquered. The defeated live in sorrow. Giving up both victory and defeat, the appeased live in peace.”i

Sri Lanka could have based her post-war policy on this stanza alone, and gone a long way towards reconciliation. Instead, it did the opposite; a policy of triumphalism was adopted and every possible humiliation was heaped on the defeated; domination rather than reconciliation was the desired goal. Costly, disruptive and in-your-face military parades to mark war-victory constituted an essential component of this approach, a militarised revelry in which both Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revelled. It was not commemorating but crowing of the most infantile sort.

This triumphalism – and the concomitant veneration of ‘war-heroes’ – went hand in hand with neglect and even humiliation of flesh-and-blood soldiers. While politicians sang their praise from platforms, the actual soldiers were forced to sweep sidewalks, uproot weeds and clean city parks; even the demand by disabled soldiers for a full pension went unheeded.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration often lacks the moral courage to do the right thing. In many instances, ceasing incorrect practices is as far as the government is willing to go. For instance, the government is yet to implement one of the most sensible recommendations of the LLRC – assign a date to commemorate all those who died in the war, combatants and civilians, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, Burghers, Malays… A commemoration in which everyone can participate equally, as human beings and as Lankans, could have helped in the formation of a truly Lankan nation. The government hasn’t implemented this recommendation, probably because it fears the backlash of the Rajapaksa opposition and extremist Buddhist monks.

What the government has done was to stop some of the more in-your-face practices. It no longer commemorates war-victory with massive military parades. It has also allowed the Tamils to mourn their dead, a basic right the Rajapaksas denied. This year, busloads of Tamils returning after commemoration ceremonies in Mullivaikkal were offered cool drinks by the army – small improvements, but ones that matter. They contribute towards

psychological detoxification of society sans which neither peace nor reconciliation is possible.

All that would end, if the Rajapaksas return, especially if that retrogression happens under a Gotabhaya presidency.

Triumphalism will play a key role in a Gotabhaya Rajapaksa candidacy and a Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presidency.

Already Mr. Rajapaksa has ordered the revival of umbrella organisations of former soldiers and their families (Ranaviru Sansada), according to a report in Lankadeepa. Under a Gotabhaya presidency, every pigmy step taken by this government towards reconciliation will be abandoned. The occasional Ifthar breakfast or Nallur pooja notwithstanding, Sri Lanka will officially embrace Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and the practice of targeting this or that minority whenever the government is in need of an enemy. The war hero will become an object of veneration in the abstract while the actual soldiers will be back to cleaning parks and sidewalks. Imprisonment or worse will await anyone foolhardy enough to point out the disconnect.

A New and Radical Realignment

2015 was a watershed year. It ended Sri Lanka’s rapid march towards familial autocracy. But it did not end history. Believing so was a monumental mistake. I was guilty of it. Democracy is here, but it will stay only if enough Lankans vote for its retention. Indications are they might not.

Two defeats, back to back, didn’t make the Rajapaksas go away. It is easy to blame their continued presence on their power hunger. Power hunger did play a colossal role but that alone wouldn’t have sufficed. They are still here, because there is acceptance for them from a segment of the electorate. They are still here because they are the organic representatives of a large swathe of the electorate – anything between 38% to 43%.

There was room for factual ambiguity before the Local Government election of February 2018, none afterwards. There is no SLFP vote. There is a Rajapaksa vote. That vote will go whither the Rajapaksas go. It is currently with the SLPP; it will stay there, if the Rajapaksas stay there. It will return to the SLFP if the Rajapaksas recapture power in the SLFP. What was once the SLFP’s base is now the Rajapaksa tail.

This radical realignment which cuts through traditional party allegiances, this coalescing of majoritarian-supremacist and retrogressive segments of a populace around a ‘strong leading figure’ is not a phenomenon unique to Sri Lanka. This transformation is happening in real time in the US as the Republican Party remakes itself as a Trumpian entity. Lamenting the victory of a white-supremacist candidate in the Virginia Republican primary, the state’s Republican governor tweeted, “This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served.”ii True. The Republican Party is no longer the party of Reagan or the Bushes (let alone Lincoln); it is the party of Donald Trump. Which was why in state-primary after state-primary, Republican voters decimated anti-Trump Republican candidates. In this new landscape, a Republican would be considered a true Republican by the base only if he/she backs Donald Trump and is backed by Donald Trump.

The SLFP seemed to have undergone a similar metamorphosis during the Rajapaksa years, turning from a Bandaranaike party into a Rajapaksa party. The transformation was both organised and spontaneous. The Rajapaksas made a concerted effort to remake the SLFP in their own image. But that effort succeeded so spectacularly, because an absolute majority of the party’s base was responsive to the Rajapaksa appeal and Rajapaksa narrative.

The SLFP came into being and lived most of its life as a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist and socially conservative party. The Chandrika-years marked not a change but an anomaly. The base went along with the party leadership but its core-beliefs remained unchanged. In Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLFP base found a leader who is akin to them, a leader who gave voice to their innermost desires and fears.

Maithripala Sirisena took the official party, but not the base. In the immediate aftermath of his presidential victory, he could have rebuilt the SLFP as a modern social democratic party. He chose not to. The time for such a transformation has come and gone. President Sirisena is left with a shell and very little else. He might think that by launching regular diatribes against a wide variety of targets he can win back the SLFP base, but it is an illusion. The SLFP, for most of its existence, used racial and religious fears and resentments as political weapons, from Sinhala Only to media and district-wise standardisation. Given this history, the Rajapaksas are the organic leaders of the SLFP. Mr. Sirisena cannot wean the SLFP base away from them. In trying to do so, he will merely destroy his own legacy and weaken Lankan democracy, perhaps fatally.

The upcoming provincial and national elections will not be three-way contestations. The main contestation will be between the UNP and the SLPP. The SLFP will have its work cut out retaining the third place. If Mr. Sirisena is hoping to recreate an Emmanuel Macron outcome in the next presidential election, he will be disappointed. If all candidates fail to overtake the 50% mark, the runoff will be between SLPP and UNP candidates and not SLPP and SLFP candidates.

“The past is a foreign country,” LP Hartley said in The Go-Between; “they do things differently there.” In Sri Lanka, 2015 is not even a foreign country; it’s another incarnation of which the government remembers nothing, not how the election was held, not how the victory was won.

The victory of 2015 was not the exclusive preserve of one party, one leader or one organisation. Nor was it a forgone conclusion. Without the right candidate and the right coalition, that election would have been lost. Any puppet couldn’t have won that election, as some UNPers claim now; victory required the kind of imaginative experiment which had never before been attempted in Sri Lanka – the SLFP’s General Secretary backed by the UNP and almost every other major party in the opposition spectrum. Defeating the Rajapaksa juggernaut required a vast joint effort; without that genuinely collective effort, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have won his third term.

The vast majority of faceless and nameless Lankans who worked and voted for a Rajapaksa defeat did not do so in expectation of portfolios, duty free vehicles or other perks and privileges. They did have hopes though of a better, safer country, a place of political democracy and economic justice, with rule of law and decency in public life. Most of those hopes lie in tatters today. Instead of trying to repair the situation, Mr. Sirisena and the UNP squabble in public. It is indeed a case of plunging from sublime to the ridiculous.

Dangers of Tribalism

A new book on the Obama years quotes the former president trying to understand the Trump victory and stating that in times of vast changes some people want to “fall back into their tribes.”iii

When one’s economic position is secure, change can be an exhilarating thing. But when one exists in constant dread of losing a job, losing a home, and slipping down the income – and thereby class – totem pole, change is often frightening. When personal economic uncertainty coincides with vast societal changes, people tend to fall back on what is secure and unchanging – the primordial, mainly race and religion, often a combination of both, ‘blood-and-faith nationalism.’

This tribalisation tendency was a key factor in the horrendous triumph of Donald Trump; it will be a key factor in a Rajapaksa return. For Sinhala-Buddhists, beset by economic woes, a Gotabhaya-presidency would hold the promise of stability, the promise that even if their economic situation fails to improve, their place of collective primacy as members of the majority ethno-religious community would be returned to them. The more the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government mishandles the economy, the greater the danger of tribalisation and of a Rajapaksa comeback.

‘Spillover of racialisation’ is a concept introduced by Prof. Michael Tessler of Brown University to explain the findings of a research he conducted about racial attitudes during the Obama years. He uncovered that whites who resent/fear blacks would look not only at politics but even at non-political matters through the racial-lense. For example, this ‘spillover’ even affected how Bo, the Obama family dog, was regarded.iv That such people played a crucial role in enabling a Trump presidency is not hard to fathom. That such people will play a crucial role in enabling a Gotabhaya presidency is not impossible to predict.

Authoritarianism is once more in fashion, the direction in which the world is moving. This tendency has been enabled by democracy’s inability to successfully address basic living condition issues. Democracy is, in the final analysis, a numbers game, a matter of straightforward math. That is why in times of growing economic distress and hopelessness, candidates who appeal to the baser instincts of an electorate have a better chance of victory. The solution is not to rail against the stupidity of people; the solution is not to push more people into the hands of would-be autocrats waiting in the wings. The solution is to do something in the here and now to improve living conditions of the masses and, through such concrete actions, to reignite hope of a better tomorrow. The promise of jam tomorrow no longer suffices. Some jam today for everyone is the only way Lankan democracy can beat back the growing tide of Rajapaksa autocracy.

i https://www.facebook.com/du.mahesh/videos/1910373625659790/

ii https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/12/politics/virginia-senate-race-corey-stewart/index.html

iii The World as It Is. – Ben Rhodes

iv http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/victory_lab/2012/06/racicalization_michael_tesler_s_theory_that_all_political_positions_come_down_to_racial_bias_.html

Courtesy of The Island.


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