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The Spectre of an Authoritarian Regime Based on a Putschist Model

Photo by AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, via Yahoo!

Living in challenging times can be a blessing if changes during that time move one’s country towards a fair and progressive era. Otherwise its society will be cursed for electing ‘charismatic strong men’ who offer much, but actually ruin the country, as has been the case in countries like the USA, Brazil and the Philippines, just to mention a few. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has been ruled in turn by leaders that came from the two majoritarian parties, the SLFP and the UNP, promising much, but in reality, delivering very little. Succession of ruling elites has occurred in 1956, 1965, 1970, 1977, 1994, 2005, 2015 and 2019, but despite the many pledges made by them to ameliorate the economic and social issues that divide us, Sri Lanka has yet to see any such issues successfully ameliorated, let alone solved.

The Constitution stipulates that the sovereignty lies with the People and it is inalienable. This sovereignty is exercised through elected representatives who, during the time of their election, pledge to abide by a specific mandate. However, one could observe unambiguously that, since 1977, most of those elected representatives have not stayed true to their mandate due to many short-sighted, unethical and unlawful influences. This issue continues to persist even today as a fundamental problem that destabilises the country, its parliamentary democracy and law and order. Under the executive presidential system, none of the presidents elected by the people can be said to have stayed true to their pledged mandate.

The reason is not hard to discern. It is the lack of safeguards in the constitution, whether implicit or explicit. The institutions of the country have failed the people in terms of commitments to social justice and social harmony. Democratic institutions were and are being weakened and hollowed out, while some of those appointed to run them are found to be inefficient, totally unaccountable and corrupt. Lack of public enthusiasm for demanding accountable and transparent processes in the running of such institutions has resulted in the enrichment of the clans in power and their political allies at the expense of the nation, leaving the country even more indebted. Since 1956, the country was marred by expanding communal triumphalism, growing corruption on a grand scale and worsening human rights violations. From 2015 to 2019, communal triumphalism was less evident and several mechanisms to make state institutions accountable for the protection of human rights were mooted. Unfortunately, the core features that ensured human rights violations remained.

The current President, who was a key figure during his brother’s reign between 2005 and 2015, was elected  President in 2019 on the pledge of nationalism, law and order, security of the people, efficiency, and no-nonsense government, as well as wiping out corruption and other social ills. Yet, the regime’s actions so far do not bode well for the future. The track record during his brother’s presidency,  their behaviour during the 2018 coup to capture parliamentary power, the arousal of anti-minority sentiments to consolidate their popularity within the majority Sinhala-Buddhist base, and the escalating authoritarian characteristics during the last six months,  ring alarm bells about a path being taken for the repetition of  same. It makes us feel at the very least sceptical of the claims they made during the last presidential election time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the socio-economic and cultural consequences of the unequal and unsustainable economic model that we have been forced to endure for decades. A model in which the political and economic elite of the country astutely and cruelly exploited the ‘national question’ to shift the focus of the masses away from the looting of the public purse. These elitist regimes dismally failed to move the country from a neo-colonial plantation economy to a service-oriented and knowledge-based vibrant manufacturing economy. The tertiary sector engendered an educated populace, but they were not well equipped to transition into such an economic model. Even now, the endeavour to move towards a STEMA (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Arts) based model of education does not seem to have taken root.

Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to the world financial markets and to the Chinese government is reaching woefully unsustainable levels. Yet the regime does not appear to be doing anything to reform and root out those who are benefiting from this iniquitous situation. Tackling this state of affairs has become urgent. Instead, a crisis is being manufactured to divert the gaze of the people, and ethnic scapegoats are conveniently found. It worked out well in the past, why should not it work out now. Shutting down legitimate debates on accountability and scapegoating are the only ways to cover up the economic and social fissures that have been exposed by the pandemic. So, a move away from civil administration to military administration seems to be a chosen option for the ruling clan and their cohorts, who have allegedly engorged themselves on the wealth of the nation.

The term of the last Parliament was to end in September 2020. Using the power vested in the executive presidency, Parliament was dissolved six months ahead of schedule on March 2. Apparently, this was done in the hope of getting a full budget approved after the general elections. Politically, though, this would have enabled the ruling party to:

  • gain a two-thirds majority by capitalising on the ongoing infighting and disarray within the opposition;
  • use this new majority to rollback the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that limited the executive power of the president;
  • remove the checks and balances on presidential powers thus annulling the need to be accountable for their actions and policies; and
  • gain freedom to build an authoritarian power structure that promotes majoritarian nationalism.

However, by the time the parliament was dissolved, the virus had already started to spread globally as well as locally. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented elections being held within the constitutionally mandated time. The elections scheduled to be held on April 25 were postponed by the Elections Commission until June 20 because of the virus. The constitution requires the President to bring issues like fiscal expenditure to parliament for approval, till the new parliament is elected. Nonetheless, the President vehemently refused to reconvene the parliament.

The Elections Commission has since declared that the polls cannot be held on June 20, and to hold elections it will need 10 weeks after the health authorities declare the country is safe from the virus. The Supreme Court declined to rule on the 15 fundamental rights petitions that sought annulling the gazette notifications issued to dissolve the Parliament and hold elections on June 20. Despite being argued for ten days, the Supreme Court did not explain its decision. A three-judge bench of Supreme Court in general is not legally obliged to provide reasons at the leave stage. Though Five-judge benches of Supreme Court did not have to, they have previously reasoned out their decisions on matters of vital importance. Considering the national importance of this decision, it would have been better if the five-judge bench of Supreme Court did clarify its reasons.

This is because one could argue that the constitutional provisions have been flouted as the constitution stipulates that:

  • the country cannot run without a parliament for more than the mandatory time limit of three months;
  • as such, the president has no legal authority to spend government funds after the end of the three months; and
  • therefore, the sovereignty of the people and the rule of law have been undermined.

By ignoring the normal democratic procedure as per the constitution, the President and the ruling parties appear to have created unnecessary confusion and distrust about the democratic process. By manufacturing this ‘constitutional impasse’, they appear to be sending a message that current democratic norms might not be equipped to handle a ‘national crisis’ we are currently in. Could this manufactured crisis be a prelude to designing a more authoritarian future?

Meanwhile, the number of human rights violations is on the rise. Most of the victims of these violations are civil society activists, protestors, journalists, opposition MPs and government officials. The announcement made on April 1 that ‘those found to be criticising and pointing to the short comings of the government will be arrested’ is highly disturbing. A typical example was the arrest of a human rights lawyer who had appeared for and been vocal for the rights of the minority communities on what appears to be trumped up terror related charges. So far, he has been denied access to a lawyer which is a breach of fundamental human right.

Police Officers involved in key investigations suddenly found removed from the cases they were handling without any explanation. Officers convicted/prosecuted for criminal offences during the civil war and afterwards have been reinstated and promoted. At the same time, noted human rights violators, who are credibly accused of torture, disappearances and killings, are appointed to top positions of the state apparatus. Further, public servants such as police officers, public health officers, excise officers et al, who are mandated to conduct their official functions face harassment and reprisals, and their tormentors are never brought to book.

All this occur under the President’s watch whose authoritarian tendencies are well known. He has openly stated that the 19th Amendment of the Constitution – which reduces some of the overweening power of the President and gives some teeth to oversight bodies – is a hindrance to the Nation. If he and his cohorts are successful in getting their way and establish an authoritarian state based on a putschist model, one can only expect more human rights violations and, an even greater emasculation of the democratic space and militarisation of the public service.

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, two Presidential Task Forces were appointed. It is evident that the President has used the paralysis of parliament to appoint them. The Chair of the Task Force to create ‘a virtuous disciplined and lawful society’ is the Defence Secretary, retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne. It comprises 13 members, all of them from a military and police background. They are expected to take immediate steps “to curb illegal activities of social groups that violate the law that is emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society in some places of the country” and to take necessary measures for the prevention of the drug menace. According to the Gazette notification, it will “take necessary measures to take legal action against persons responsible for the illegal and antisocial activities conducting in Sri Lanka while locating in other countries”.

Apart from the disturbing Orwellian overtones, the irony of it would verge on the absurd, if the views of some of its members were not so chilling. This task force includes Major General Tuan Suresh Sallay, the recently appointed Director of Intelligence. Credible allegations have surfaced against him (but were never investigated) that he played a pivotal role in coercing a medical doctor, Dr Thurairajah Varatharajah, to give false testimony after the end of civil war in May 2009 by illegally detaining and threatening him. Dr Varatharajah had been treating Tamil civilian victims with fatalities inflicted by both sides of the conflict during the last phase of the war.

The views of the Chair of this Task Force retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne, on democracy, are very well known. It was during a speech in the presence of the current President and his fans, who were openly applauding and laughing he stated that those who want to change the constitution are traitors and he wants them dead. As if that is not enough, he does not even want to give them a proper burial. He wants Buddhist priests not to attend and give blessings or provide consolation to their grieving families.

This was when the mask of civility and even paying lip service to the key norms of a civilised democratic society – the right to dissent, political pluralism, accountability, transparency, social justice and communal harmony – dropped. By appointing this Task Force, has the President empowered it to act beyond the Constitution and the law of the country? One can only reasonably conclude that under a militarised authoritarian regime comprising such individuals, key democratic norms will become the very things that they will try and extinguish in the name of building a ‘virtuous disciplined and lawful’ society.

The other 11-member Presidential Task Force was appointed for ‘archaeological heritage management’ in the Eastern Province. While Archaeological Chakravarthi Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thero, an academic and hawkish nationalist politician chairs this Task Force, the Secretary of Defence retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne and, Chairman of Derana Media Network, Dilith Jayaweera, a prominent but controversial figure in the pro-regime advertising industry, are among the Task Force members. The entire Task Force comprises Sinhalese and some of them have a background in archaeology. However, the question is how unbiased they would be in assessing the archaeological claims of the Tamil speaking people remains to be seen. The lack of any Tamil or Muslim representatives – communities that collectively make up over 70 percent of the Eastern Province’s population, is a major drawback. Are their rights, linguistic, cultural and devotional practices, and tenure of the land, again to be denied and airbrushed out of the history of the land?

We therefore appeal to all those who want democratic norms protected, and build a country where all citizens live as equals enjoying a fair-go; wish to work towards building an egalitarian society based on the firm principles of equity, social justice, economic freedom and participatory democracy at all levels; who are also desirous of  cleaning up the parliament and bureaucracy from the non-accountable, corrupt, criminal  personages and their nefarious activities. One good country to learn from its experience is none other than Germany. We are talking about the Beer Hall Putsch[1] that ultimately brought Adolf Hitler into power, which brought with it all the subsequent significant destructive consequences.

When Hitler’s putsch failed, he and the Nazi Party manipulated the political system using the national attention the putsch gained in Germany. Hitler held an elaborate march every year on the anniversary of the putsch and used a so-called blood flag to rally the faithfuls to Nazi ideology. A decade after the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler became chancellor of Germany and went on to lead the country into World War II and to mastermind the Holocaust. It led to the systematic, state-sponsored murder of nearly 6 million European Jews, along with an estimated 4 to 6 million non-Jews. In Germany, there are still some who admire Hitler and his nefarious murderous activities. We know that there were admirers of Hitler in Sri Lanka. And there will be some who will continue to admire such personages that will bring disastrous consequences to the fabric of the whole country and its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

Given the above chilling scenario, all citizens of Sri Lanka who value human and democratic rights have an extremely important responsibility: If and when the elections are held, make it your duty to vote against the regime and for parties of the Opposition[2], whatever their antecedents and weaknesses are. Most of the political parties who have been in power during the last seventy odd years have nominated their old guard and want them to be re-elected. If you do not elect candidates that you know for their probity, then the outcomes of the ‘new regime’ will be no different to the outcomes you have experienced during the last seven decades.  This is an appeal for you to reject those who are trying to trample our democratic rights under the guise of building a mono-cultural nation, fraying even further the already fragile communal harmony.

If any candidate has a character blemished with corruption, thuggery or criminal activities, it is your duty and democratic right to reject them. That is how you can become accountable to the future generations of this wonderful land. You have a better understanding of who are the most capable and honest candidates, especially at the local level. Irrespective of the political party, if you find anybody with an unblemished character, better suitable and better capable of serving this land of ours, consider it your duty and responsibility to elect them so that we all could start a new journey, as a result of which the future generations could live in peace, harmony and abundance.

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[1] In November 1923, a coalition group led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party attempted to overthrow the German federal government. Their first meeting place was at Bürgerbräu Keller, a beer hall in Munich. They wanted to capture the state government, march on Berlin, overthrow the federal government, and establish a new government towards creating a unified Greater German Reich, of which citizenship were to be based on race. However, the putsch failed and nine participants, including Hitler were prosecuted. Later on, they redefined the putsch as a heroic effort to save the nation. This attempted coup d’état came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

[2] Under the current system of voting, a voter first needs to vote for a party and then for three candidates of that party. No cross-voting is allowed. So, the Party for whom you vote is very important. Hence, the need to vote against the government, but at the same time, the need to vote for better candidates.

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