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Sri Lanka: Rising Autocracy and Historical Experiences

Photo courtesy of The New York Times 

S. P. Huntington has presciently warned that democratic transitions are vulnerable and reversible if ruling elites do not show genuine commitment to democratic values. He argues: “When they are out of power, political leaders have good reason to advocate democracy. The test of their democratic commitment comes once they are in office.” Many leaders that now rule several major countries have autocratic personality traits. Many of them share similar character traits and flaws “that proved predictably common and actionably comparable to other failed leaders throughout history”.[1]

Authoritarian leaders make decisions with little or no input from the rest of the society; they do not often illicit opinions or expertise from experts in their fields; as a person, family, clan or a party they make all decisions for the country. An autocratic leadership has ominous responsibilities not only for making all the decisions, but also for making all the right decisions. While in the military, superiors are encouraged to make such unchallenged autocratic decisions, in civilian situations such as guiding a country or leading a civil society, appear to have not been well served by these autocratic traits. On the other hand, democratic leadership involves a consultative approach, encourages group participation in decision making and decision are made that are transparent, accountable and fair to all members of society regardless of their creed or community.

Sri Lanka: general

In Sri Lanka, despite the escalating but fragmented opposition of many sections of the society against amending the Constitution, almost everybody knew enacting the 20th Amendment was only a matter of time. Only the judicial reservations made the President withdraw, at least for the time being, a couple of absolutist powers he was wishing for, prior to enacting the amendment. One could say the amendment, does not grant absolute power to the executive presidency, but it still infringes on the fundamental rights, freedoms and sovereignty of the people, paving the way for bringing out the dormant and unresolved tensions in society.

This time, the authoritarian space can be utilised even harsher than it was under the 1978 Constitution designed and created by President J. R. Jayewardene, who boasted that he can do anything except making a man a woman or vice versa. He armed himself with brutal ruthless legislation, led the way to subverting parliament and undermining the independence and powers of the judiciary. Since then, all those who pledged to abolish the executive presidential system, made full use of it when in power. Nevertheless, any of those authoritarian rulers could not prevent the chaos and destruction caused since 1978.

Democracy is not an unavoidable objective of many countries such as Sri Lanka. The question we need to ask ourselves in the post 20th Amendment Constitution situation is the manner in which we could move towards rebuilding a viable, responsible, accountable and mutually complementing system of governance. How can we harness, coordinate and synergistically use our strengths for achieving positive and constructive futures for the whole of society? Working to defeat absolutist and autocratic trends need deeper insights as to why authoritarianism and erosion of democratic space are on the rise in countries like Sri Lanka.

Autocracy and personality traits

Close to half the world’s population live in countries where political imprisonment and brutality are common. Coercive violence communicates the cost of dissent, and is designed to maximize fear through graphic torture, public executions and enforced disappearances. Citizens in these countries need to make tough decisions on dissenting against their callous autocratic regimes, in stressful and emotional environments. In decision making, the information they receive are sporadic and uncertain. Based on such information, citizenry rationally revise their beliefs about the challenges and benefits of protest. Authoritarian regimes, particularly when they are unpopular, rely on fear and threats of repression to suppress dissent and prevent large portions of their populations from mobilizing for regime change. Any decision to dissent will be affected by the emotions of citizenry that perceives the risk of repression and the pessimism generated by such perceptions.

The best examples of autocratic leadership are Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. In the more recent past, these leaders share four general traits: (a) their ability to make all the important decisions, (b) their primary concern with task accomplishment, (c) their ability to maintain a considerable social distance (not due to the corona virus!) from followers, and (d) their ability to motivate followers by threat and punishment rather than rewards.

While less self-uncertainty appears to create more support for non-autocratic type of leaderships, more self-uncertainty has generated more support to autocratic leaderships. What happened during the April 2019 Easter Bombings can be seen and interpreted in this light. Uncertainty has pushed communities towards autocratic leaders, who are certainly strong and directive. The uncertainty created the necessary environment for regime change in 2020. In such times of uncertainty, people look to strong and directive leaders, who provide a clear and unambiguous agenda and a path to follow.

Autocracy

Autocratic leadership is effective when quick decisions need to be made to pursue deadlines with no time to devote to consult others and use their creativity and skills, to prevent stagnation due to lack of leadership and poor organization. The expectation of obedience by the rest of the society to follow rules and procedures can only be realised when the leadership also do the same and live by rule of law. Society tends to cooperate when the leadership communicates well with society by providing details as to what the rules and procedures are and why they are used. Wherever the autocratic leadership has met with success, communication and consultation have become a valuable element, even if the proposed ideas and concepts are not adopted, society values the freedom of thought and expression.

Society needs to be provided with channels of communication for consultation and room for expressing their views and suggestions. However, most of the time, a powerful personality, family, or a clan is found to abuse their power and authority, breaking down communication channels between the regime and the broader sections of the society stifling the creativity of society and its innovative capabilities, with the youth and intelligentsia getting alienated and frustrated to the extent of resisting the leadership. Society will respect fairness and unbiased treatment generating trust and mutual respect, but autocracy will create distrust and conflict, stagnating society to the extent of giving rise to rebellious situations and regime change.

Personality traits

When previous regimes and governance systems are no longer trusted or accepted, the leadership voids have often been filled with self-serving, self-focused despicable leaders and their clans.[2] Globally, the responsibility for many prolonged hostilities and internal conflicts are attributed to many numerous unresolved situations that have been left over by such regimes. No wonder the current era continues to be dogged with so many protracted internal hostilities, conflicts, battles and wars. The ongoing instability we witness today appears to be persistent, chronic, nation-wide, state-wide, regional and global. Sri Lanka is not an exception in terms of not addressing the root causes for ethnic, religious and cultural hostilities.

Historically, autocracies and their leaders have found to be unsound. They have led to many hostilities, conflicts, and wars, mainly due to imposing limitations on the negotiated outcomes that could have been achieved at right times. Examples are ripe not only from the autocrats in power but also from those who had been in opposition. In Sri Lanka, from J. R. Jayewardene to Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Prabhakaran, the only negotiation they knew of was suppression of the other and the use of violence in doing so. Globally, this has been valid for many developing countries. The current global situation appears to be ripe with opportunities for autocratic behaviours to consistently emerge and dominate societies.

A majority of autocratic leaders from many cultures shared similar personality and character traits, found to be resulting from cognitive and emotional developmental issues leading to static thinking patterns that obstruct abstract thinking. On the contrary, rather than depending on concrete details and impulses alone, critical reasoning allows a leader to consider the broader significance of ideas and information the whole society conveys. That is why apparently autocratic leaders find limited capacity for empathy, love or guilt. Their everyday decision making is guided by lack of empathy, love, or guilt. It is said that “…once in power, a leader with an Antisocial Personality Disorder thrives on continuing conflict and never seeks peace.”

Sri Lanka: Economy and Corruption

Economy

The economy of Sri Lanka is in a pretty bad shape. Neither the fast dwindling revenue base nor the critical issues in relation to post-1948 economic policies have hardly been critically examined with the aim of overcoming their inherent limitations. With the revenue base hitting rock bottom, sustenance of the day to day expenditure appears to become challenging for many citizens. Premium and interest payments for servicing foreign loans appear to have reached unsustainable levels and is on par with the country’s gross national income. Despite the rhetoric of many politicians, bureaucrats and specialists, one cannot belie the fact that Sri Lanka’s economy is in dire straits and continue to march towards economic abyss, unless an economic “messiah” appears from the skies to save the country and its people. Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings remained very low, even before the corona pandemic outbreak.

This critical situation will be further exacerbated by the uncontrolled circumstances of the COVID pandemic. National earnings are currently insufficient to cope with the payments required to be made for imports and servicing the debt burden, leading to a crisis in country’s balance of payments. Our attention on the new version of the Constitution also needs to take this dire economic context into consideration. To avoid being declared bankrupt, Sri Lanka appears to be counting on an easy path, i.e. by resorting to taking more loans be it from China, India or the United States, with the lamentable being that the sovereignty of the people could be transferred from Sri Lanka to the international arena. How long can the “paradise” last without the whole of society participatively developing a way out of this abyss?

Corruption

Corruption plays an important role in a country depending on the nature of leadership it has. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”[3]. The world has seen unprecedented mass protests against entrenched authoritarian regimes, mainly triggered by unbridled corruption. On some cases, significant political concessions have been won, and in others protests continue, most recently in Belarus and Thailand. The promise to achieve results through decisive action has been easier to sell than the more abstract concepts of democracy and rule of law with a system of checks and balances. For example, the Thai and Philippine autocratic leaders openly promoted their resolve to prioritize order before law addressing widespread concerns of the citizenry.

In Thailand, the junta had strong approval ratings soon after seizing control. Now that support is declining with escalating protests against the junta as well as the lèse-majesté law protecting the royal dynasty. The decline in support appears mainly due to the failure to tackle issues such as corruption, cost of living and drugs. In the Philippines, despite the extrajudicial killings and intimidation of political opponents, Duterte keeps his approval ratings the highest on record. This is due to the perceived success of his campaign for reversing rising crime rates, destroying the drug trade, reducing corruption, and rebuilding the infrastructure.

An autocracy needs an effective but hierarchical bureaucracy to maintain political order. For example, the paramount leader of China maintains an ongoing campaign against corruption. Despite the allegations questioning the sincerity of this campaign as a cover for intra-elite struggle and purging opponents, primarily it has been found to be an earnest attempt to cut down widespread corruption that undermines the efforts for developing an effective governance based on meritocracy. China appears to be selecting and promoting talented people within the state structure under the supervision of the Communist Party based on their loyalties and governing abilities. It does not appear to be so much based on family, clan and acolytes. When facing serious social and economic issues, the anti-corruption campaign provided for rapid and sustained economic growth by offering a hierarchy that could efficiently implement its policies and procedures.

In countries like Sri Lanka, corruption and its patronage has become a debilitating problem. However, even while the autocratic leadership was not so strong, the repercussions for exposing corruption were life threatening. Since 1978, the situation further deteriorated with members elected at all levels of government openly engaging in business dealings with the government despite the conflict of interest situation that created. Corruption appears to have reached peak proportions now, and those at the top appear to be openly resorting to plundering of public resources. The governance reforms introduced since 1978 have further strengthened this plunder.

Even established democracies are not free from corruption. However, their governments are considered less corrupt. And related issues can be openly discussed and exposed. Corruption in newly acquired democratic governments and institutions may be high due to, among other things, political instability. Corruption is found to increase when a country transitions from a more autocratic phase to a democratised phase, but appears to be more related to the instability during the early transition period. In several countries where the Arab Spring led to regime change this was the situation. When changes are proposed to tackle corruption in some countries with recent regime changes, they say that any new governments may not be any better than the stable, albeit repressive, autocracies. However, the drive towards more open democratic societies should not be diminished due to the unfounded fear that any new government will be more corrupt than the overthrown autocrats.

Without taking the factors such as economy and corruption into consideration, none of the other issues can be put in context. In Sri Lanka, the government that acquired power with an overwhelming majority, paradoxically never discussed a way out of this growing and precipitating crisis yet. Rather the focus has been capturing state power and reinforcing it by hook or crook. During the elections, the primary issues highlighted were securitisation, majoritarianism, and protecting the interests of Sinhala-Buddhist natives against the so-called Tamil and Muslim immigrants. Of course, the electorate was made to believe in a super-efficient, super-fast, action-oriented military fella, who was a panacea to the ills confronting them much like a large part of German populace felt about Hitler. Even after acquiring an almost two-thirds power in the parliament and then almost the absolute power to an executive presidency, the current regime is yet to clarify its policy position for coming out of this looming economic precipice.

Amended Constitution

The danger of absolutist power has not faded mainly due to two factors. Firstly, the regime has initiated the process of developing an entirely new Constitution; secondly, the regime’s disregard for the rule of law. The new constitution will become reality and in force sooner than later, and appears to be progressing at a fast phase. Sri Lanka’s citizenry do not appear to grasp the interconnectedness and interdependency of the Constitution as the country’s basic law with the rest of the socio-economic policies a regime pursues, may be related to economy or corona pandemic, or any other major issue, currently impacting their daily lives and the prospects of their future generations. If the citizenry is conscious of this interconnectedness, their empowerment due to democratic governance, and the manner it could be used to make their future more certain and successful, then the majority may seriously oppose violations of the country’s basic law.

However, the constitutions adopted so far since 1948 are not people’s Constitutions. At a minimum, the citizenry had neither been consulted, nor informed, nor made to participate in the constitution making process. Rather the very regimes that adopted these Constitutions have been regularly violated through loopholes, interpretations and technicalities designed to undermine the intent of the basic law itself. For example, disenfranchisement of Malaiyaha workers; non-investigation of many state sanctioned killings and assassinations during the 1953 general strike; the ethnic riots in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and the Black July massacre in July 1983; massacres in several prisons of those held in custody from 1985 onwards; killings during the 30 year separatist struggle; and killings[4] and forced disappearances in repressing newly emerging political forces in 1971 and 1985-1989. Violation of the basic law has been in existence pre-20th Amendment and will be in existence post 20th Amendment (demonstrated by the recent killings of suspects in police custody).

What a privileged and immunised autocratic lot, the ruling elite and the top bureaucrats of these regimes have been.

The committee appointed to draft a new Constitution has requested submissions from interested parties. Nevertheless, public discussion and participation of the relevant issues are limited. While encouraging all interested parties to make submissions, the question that needs to be posed is, how is this going to make the Constitutional making process either participative or democratic? Without the stakeholders such as the government itself, those in opposition and civil society networks taking the relevant issues to the people and mobilise them into creating the necessary awareness, how could the society be expected to be an active participant of this constitution making process? It is the society that needs to consultatively and participatively develop a constitutional framework that will address the major issues affecting their daily lives and their futures.

The other factor that perpetuates absolute power is the lack of rule of law. The global rally held recently to express concerns of overseas Sri Lankans identified what currently exists in Sri Lanka is an unaccountable autocracy using rule by law instead of enforcing rule of law. For example, even when the previous Constitution did not allow the current president to hold onto the Defense Ministry but he held onto it. Pro-family, pro-clan, pro-autocrat persons are accorded perks and privileges while those critical are liable to be charged or framed is nothing new. Except for certain intermittent periods, this situation prevailed throughout Sri Lanka since 1948. As such, whatever the Constitution proclaims, whatever the legal framework specifies, does not seem to matter in exercising absolutist power by the executive president if history is of any guide.

In that light, the political and legal transformation caused by the new Constitution with its checks and balances removed or debilitated will be more effective in carrying out what regimes have been carrying out in the past by according more and better privileges to their acolytes while discriminatively disadvantaging their opponents. This will become a serious threat to the exercise of peoples’ sovereignty in the imminent future. The electoral mandate the regime was able to achieve, cannot be a blank cheque to do anything and everything the head of the government choses to do, particularly that will undermine citizens’ rights and their sovereignty, as there will be serious but obvious repercussions on the society as a whole.

As such, this situation will ultimately pave the way for an autocratic system of government by a singular leader, clan or a group holding absolute power. The entrenchment of an all-powerful executive Presidency appears to be delayed for later until a new Constitution is adopted by a parliament that appears to bend according to the whims and fancies of a supreme leader/family. The increasing concentration of power in the hands of such a supremo would be a precursor to future dissension and turmoil. At the end, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms will be seriously undermined making room for the death knell of the parliamentary democracy as we know of it.

A comparable example

An enhanced autocracy in Sri Lanka can be compared with the autocracy that existed under Slobodan Milošević, the Yugoslav and Serbian leader who served as President of Serbia. He was overthrown in October 2000. Milosevic’s turn from his original “communist” ideology to political nationalism was pivotal to his autocratic rule. This ideological change followed a five year long civil war, sanctions against Serbia and inflation of economy. This led to the expansion of criminality. The war in the neighbouring Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia attracted military and paramilitary units from Serbia. Some of them committed war crimes and profiteered. Many were charged and imprisoned but some came back to Serbia to be later charged, or were killed by other criminals. Some joined already existing political parties, while some even made their own. Many criminals were glorified as war heroes and turbofolk[5] became the “soundtrack” of their activity. What an example to cite!

In the 1990s, Milosevic and his political elite maintained an autocracy with typical hysteric characteristics of the Serbian society. Under their watch, Serbia underwent a rise in crime, war profiteering and developed the new popular cultural phenomenon of turbofolk. Turbofolk is said to have served as a dominant paradigm of the “militant nationalist” regime fully supported and controlled by a strong pro-regime media propaganda campaign. It was the only music genre available in the mainstream media. That is why many call it the “soundtrack” of Milosevic regime and became an unavoidable part of everyday life of the youth, whose “new idols were individuals who measured their success by the number and importance of their criminal ventures”.

Crimes went unpunished and criminality became more a rule, than an exception. Many criminals represented themselves as national heroes and crimes they committed as necessary in defence of national interests. Older generations of respondents make a connection between nationalism, criminal activities and war in the 1990s with the music genre turbofolk. War profiteers and criminal organizations had strong networks and were also connected to the regime. The connection between politics and criminals was stronger than the state’s jurisdictional system.

A way out?

Sri Lanka does not need a new Constitution to ultimately protect the self-greed and autocratic power for those in authority and their acolytes. While moving away from colonial repressive legislative frameworks, Sri Lanka needs to develop a new constitution “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. It should not be made to fit personalities or blindly follow Constitutions of other countries. Rather it should be a legal framework that accommodates the needs of and provides the space for plural polity of Sri Lanka and allows independent institutions to function in harmony within a set of common laws designed to serve and protect all its citizenry.

We need to express our national values based on the fundamentals consisting of a common law applicable to all citizenry alike: values of equity and equality of opportunity for all, safeguards for protecting the independence of institutions such as the judiciary and audit, election and police commissions, anti-discriminatory legislation ensuring tolerance, respect and inclusiveness, providing for enjoying the freedoms and rights as provided in the UN Charter of Human Rights, assuring guaranteed access to quality education, healthcare and housing to all citizens, provision of nutrition and special care for children, the disabled and the elderly. We also need to have a better way of accommodating the needs of diverse communities not only by reforming the electoral process of representation, but also developing a better format of power devolution away from the centre to regions and provinces.

For this to occur we need to move away from the tribalist, nativist, ultra-nationalist and fundamentalist ways of thinking. We need to find a way to accommodate all citizenry irrespective of their diverse backgrounds within a united and undivided country. We need to recognise the basic human identity of all citizens rather than their caste, ethnic, religious, and political affiliations, thus bringing an end to the still unresolved majority minority syndromes. This political and civil environment needs to make space for society to air all their agreements, disagreements, and compromises irrespective of their political differences. With the ultimate aim of building a political culture, institutions et al that we can all can agree and work together with. The new Constitution will need to proscribe any political entity utilising communal and religious differences for the purpose of strengthening their political hegemony.

Conclusion

Many leaders have emerged “first as saviours then as despots, or as common criminals claiming to be patriots” sharing a psychological framework that differs little from those responsible for multifarious hostilities, conflicts, battles, wars and world wars. It is most concerning to see that today, one-third of the global population lives under outright authoritarian regimes. Democratic practice, rule of law and good governance have shied away from the hearts and minds of the people, driven by the need for the physical and material desire to survive in a society that is being increasingly characterised by increasing inequality, exploitative profit maximization, market-driven consumerism, and individual greed.

The constant fear of insecurity and the insatiable need for power of autocrats can be found in their self-serving sociopathic and narcissistic behaviours. Freedoms, human rights, rule of law, empathy and care will be increasingly sacrificed at the altar of what they call national security under autocratic rule. The power grab is accelerating with whatever the democratic space that has been previously created being made to disappear. As has happened previously, the autocracy will become more infectious with the culture of collective selfishness and its collective power permeates the political base of their loyalists who will now start enjoying political and economic opportunities, benefits and perks themselves, their families and clans at the society’s expense. Their moral compass will be self-serving to their greedy exploitative interests. The autocratic leadership will ignore, defend and excuse or immunise any bad behaviour by their loyalists.

How does democracy emerge from a society gripped in authoritarianism? Democratization occurs not because incumbents chose to but because, while trying to prevent it, they make critical mistakes, blunder and lose control, thus weakening their hold on to power. Structural factors, strategic choices, and sometimes the circumstances will do the rest. Rather than being granted by farsighted elites or forced upon them by the rise of new classes, democracy appears to have spread most often because of the missteps that triggered social reactions. Some incumbents deliberately choose to share or surrender power to prevent revolution, motivate citizens to fight wars, outbid elite rivals, or limit factional violence. Transition to democracy from autocracy needs to replace the dominance of an individual or narrow group with a broader model of sharing of power.

The democratic character of Sri Lanka was completely overturned when a presidential system of governance was established in 1978. As a result, the parliament lost its supremacy and became a mere rubber stamp of the president. Under the circumstances, a system of granting privileges, special rights and immunities were granted to keep their acolytes happy. It was contrary to law and accepted democratic traditions, and conducive to corrupt the character of people’s representatives.

As a long-term tendency, Sri Lanka has been moving away from the path of accommodating the principle of unity in diversity. We can assume that the new Constitution as is, or a future one, will only serve to reinforce division and tension amongst the diversity and continue the post-independence political ethos and praxis of division, fragmentation and compartmentalisation of the pluralistic society. It will only safeguard the interests and privileges of the ruling elite and their minions. Majoritarian exclusivism and authoritarianism will be used for leveraging regime’s popularity. Centralised power and limited political freedoms will be the accompanying essential features of governance.

Success in terms of prosperity, harmony and well-being of a pluralistic polity such as the one in Sri Lanka depends on the ability of its governance system to incorporate difference and equality as its cultural, economic and political bedrock. We need to do everything in our power to widen the democratic space and ensure that the rule of law, the separation of powers, accountability and transparency lie at the heart of our democratic practice and institutions. It is heartening to know that in doing so, some societies have come together with a united voice for the purpose of collectively curtailing the phenomenon of autocracy that had ruined their lives keeping their future hopes and aspirations incarcerated in the darkness.

[1] Burkle F M Jr. 2019, Character Disorders among Autocratic World Leaders and the Impact on Health Security, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Care. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 34(1)

[2] Burkle F M Jr. 2019, Character Disorders among Autocratic World Leaders and the Impact on Health Security, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Care. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 34(1), 2–7

[3] John Dalberg-Acton, J 1887, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, Transcript published in Historical Essays and Studies, edited by Figgis J N and Laurence R V 1907

[4] For example, only those engaged in the April 1971 uprising were prosecuted at the Criminal Justice Commission following a completely lop-sided judicial process, while none of the state agents of repression and massacres having been prosecuted to this day.

[5] The turbofolk phenomenon existed long before Milosevic and is present until today. Rambo Amadeus, Montenegrin musician, came up with the name in 1988 to convey the idea of “uncritical use of technology”. Later on, turbofolk, got all the media attention with turbo-folk and its close counterpart Serbian Eurodance having the monopoly over the officially permitted popular culture. However, the British culture theorist Alexei Monroe calls the phenomenon “porno-nationalism”, but turbofolk, with some adjustments, remains the dominant musical genre in Serbia to date. Although popular, it is described as pseudo-folklore often linking it to the Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian ethno-religious conflict in the nineties. The left- explicitly viewed this music as vulgar, almost pornographic kitsch, glorifying crime, moral corruption and nationalist xenophobia.

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