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Sri Lanka: Strange Happenings In Serendib – Analysis

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By Dr Kumar David

It’s quite bizarre but a few weeks ago a cohort of senior Cabinet Ministers convened a press conference to formally announce that the government does not intend to impeach the Chief Justice. It reminds me of a statement, some twenty years ago, issued by the Presidential Palace in Impala that assured the nation and the world that President Idi Amin had not eaten the Ugandan Chief Justice; so you cannot say that the strangest things in the world happen in mother Lanka. There is however a venomous sting in the tail to the Lankan tale to which I will drift anon.

The trend picking up velocity in opposition circles is a campaign to abolish the Executive Presidency (EP) which system gives near unchecked powers to the President; far more than in the American and French versions. There has always been opposition to EP but anger mounted sharply during the Mahinda Rajapakse presidency. His presidency is linked to a never before seen sprint in abuse of power – abductions and disappearances, government party politicos on the rampage, a police force cowed down before politicians, and a parliament best known for genuflection; and mind you I not even mentioned Tamils and alleged war crimes. The charge of impunity is matched by perceptions of imperious arrogance. It has been too much not only for opponents but also broad middle sections of public opinion; now sections of the UPFA governing alliance are letting it be known that they too would like to be rid of the EP system.

Easier said than done

I have been promoting the concept of a Single-Issue (SI) challenge for over two months and it is catching on. The concept is that everyone gets behind one trustworthy candidate whose manifesto consists of the sole promise to abolish the Executive Presidency and amend the constitution in favour of a parliamentary system. Having done this, which will take say six months, the SI challenger quits (there is no other option anyway once EP is gone!), and different parties present their programmes and ideologies to the people at the ensuing parliamentary elections. The purpose of the SI concept is to get a rainbow coalition (reds, greens and blues, Tamils, Muslims and Singhalese, workers, elite and middle classes) together. It represents the one common issue on which all agree. That done everyone can get back to the melee of politics as usual, but in a democratic ethos.

Despite universal agreement on the urgency of abolishing EP, getting Lanka’s fissiparous, sectarian, subjectivist and not very intelligent political entities to cooperate in practical ways on a minimal, collectively endorsed demand, is proving difficult. The principal troubles, as usual, come from the two ends – the rightwing UNP and the sectarian left. The former is problematic; sectarians can go fry themselves, they are too tiny to worry about. The UNP is rent in twain by a self-destructive power struggle between loyalists of leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and dissidents led by Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa (former President Premadasa’s son). They say that people don’t take their health seriously until after they have had a heart attack; well the UNP has had several and still can’t get its act together!

My point is that the UNP, the largest opposition party in the country, despite claims (now) to be against EP is so consumed by internal turmoil that it is now an obstacle to the joint campaign. For example if someone from one faction mounts the stage at a SI rally called by an outsider, the other faction invents trumped up excuses for attacking him. A rally demanding the abolition of the EP was organised on 18 October by loyalists of General Sarath Fonseka. It was a defiant and bold first step in mass public mobilisation, but Ranil’s wing of the UNP tied itself up in knots and refused to join. He says he does not wish to play second fiddle, but is not prepared to lead the campaign either.

Divineguma and empire building

The Divineguma Bill currently stuck before parliament seeks to consolidate several poor relief programmes now administered by the country’s eight Provincial Councils (PC) and the Governor of the Northern Province (NP) on behalf of the NP-PC, for which the Rajapakse regime refuses to hold elections because it does not want Lanka to have even one Tamil led PC. Consolidated administration of poor relief will be vested in a newly established Divineguma (which means life-uplifting) Department under Minister Basil Rajapakse, the president’s brother and the boss of the nations economy. This is will lead to a wholesale reversal of the economic base of the Thirteenth Amendment (13A) to Lanka’s constitution, but equally seriously, further consolidate the economic empire in the embrace of the Rajapakse siblings.

If the Divineguma Bill is enacted, the share of government recurrent and capital expenditure under the control of the Rajapakse siblings, rises to 64% of all government expenditure leaving aside servicing of the Public Debt. (MR stands for Mahinda, GR Defence Secretary Gothabahaya and BR Basil Rajapakse). If the Bill is withdrawn under intense public protest and judicial opprobrium, then the BR share falls back to 11% and the total empire of the Rajaapkse siblings remains at 55% of the total. [1 INR = 2.43 LKR]

(Budget Allocations 2013 D&UD: Defence and Urban Development; MR-Other:)

While undermining the core of 13A should be of futuristic concern to Tamils and to current Indian and international opinion (and may arouse Delhi from its perennial slumbers) what is of great concern to the public in the south is the intention of the Rajapakse sibling-regime to size control of state finances. This has to be read in the wider context of attacks on the judiciary, the denied rumour of impeaching the Chief Justice, and broad plan to consolidate a corporatist or syndicalist state by politico-constitutional processes. Yes I know this last phrase is a bit of a mouthful; I will say it in simpler words before signing off on this essay.

Why go hunting the judiciary?

The provisions of 13A require the government to secure the approval of all PCs before presenting a parliamentary bill that impinges on the jurisdiction of the PCs, which the Divineguma Bill obviously does. The Supreme Court naturally asked the government to obtain such endorsement. The regime is accustomed to acquiescence all around and this mild assertion of independence by the Court had all three Rajapakse siblings livid, green at the gills, frothing. Then attacks on the judiciary became serious. The Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission was assaulted while sitting in his car and in the public eye the government is the prime suspect. Rumours of constitutional amendments to render the judiciary servile are in circulation; people ask what the dreaded Nineteenth Amendment now being hatched contains? There is talk of getting rid of the Chief Justice, if not by a stick, then by offering a juicy carrot for retirement.

Eight of Lanka’s nine provinces have PCs controlled by the government so pronto, endorsement was forthcoming, but the North became contentious. Rajapakse won’t let the Tamils have a council in the NP and be administers the North through a Governor he appoints – an aspect of the military occupation of Tamil homelands. Of course he got his Governor to endorse the Bill on behalf of the people of the North! The Tamil parties went to court rejecting the suitability of a Governor appointed by the President himself to represent the voice of the people where popular sentiment is strongly opposed to the Bill. The matter is before the Supreme Court again but the law is stark; no way can the Governor be counted as representing the public will.

The government can still constitutionally enact it using its two-thirds majority in parliament, but that would leave the truth raw and exposed. The Tamils doggedly opposed, but the government and the Sinhalese majority pushing it through in the teeth of this opposition. We will be back to the bad old days, the forerunner of a civil war.

Towards autocracy

Many threads now come together; a servile court is a necessity for autocracy. The conflict between the Executive and not just the judiciary but the whole legal profession is maturing like a witches brew. It may pan out in many directions. Lanka is not, and is not on the way to becoming a military dictatorship. The Generals are poodles on a leash and dance to sibling tunes; they have no independent national power base; they never really had even in the brief months overlapping the end of the war. Lanka is not, and is not on the way to becoming a classic fascist state. Despite the ennui of a clientele public, there is sufficient reside of resistance in the youth and radicals, religious leaders, the opposition, the educated, business classes, and the working class, to render an experiment with naked fascism untenable. Above all, the international climate, and democracy in India, however chaotic, makes a military regime or naked fascism impossible here.

What we are sliding towards, if the siblings get their way, is totalitarianism of the Corporatist variety. Allow me to elaborate. Though the word fascism is of Italian origin (fasco, meaning tightly gripped bundle), high fascism in its classic materialisation is identified with Hitler and the Nazis; the original Mussolini version is a more corporatist, a softer nuanced version: ardent nationalism, bringing everything under the umbrella of the state, a perverse kind of socialism, and top-down regulation of trade unions, public administration, police, military, judiciary and economy. The Mussolini state did not smash every vestige of independence in trade unions, Church, learned and voluntary societies, universities and scientific bodies, as Nazism did. Hence it was called syndicalism, in that it gathered populist organisations, anti-communist unions, business interests, the media and some notable Italian intellectuals under the patron umbrella of Il Duce. There was a patron-client relationship in Mussolini’s Corporatist State, in Peron’s Argentina and in Marcos’s Philippines. If you sense you are reading about Lanka in 2012, and not Italy in the 1920s or these other places, well the similarity is not of my making!



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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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