Democracy – on a razor’s edge

Tuesday, 1 October 2019 00:33 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Gotabaya Rajapaksa – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


  • “Some have said I am cruel.  I am the gentlest of all brothers” – Gotabaya Rajapaksa


The past four-and-a-half years have been maddeningly messy. 

Provocatively puerile politics of Maithripala Sirisena has exasperated the nation.

The systemically shabby cronyism practiced by Ranil Wickremesinghe has undermined public trust.    

A sceptical electorate does not regard facts as valid currency. Half-truths have a resilience that truth can no longer match. 

The purpose of this essay is to remind ourselves that we must not throw the baby with the bathwater. 

On 8 January 2015 we dismantled a garrison state. The present mess should not detract us from that simple solid lesson of history. History may or may not repeat, but events past indicate that history can rhyme.   

These are interestingly uncertain, alarmingly tentative times. In addition to candidates of the two mainstream political streams, civil society formations have sprung into action, exploring their path to the ‘Presidency of the Republic.’  

The conditions, compulsions and constraints we grapple with are vastly different to those that existed when Maithripala Sirisena summoned his surprise press conference on 22 November 2014 to reveal his intent to run against his boss.  

The moving principle of the ‘strongman’s state – mutual fear between citizen and ruler – is non-existent today. 

Ordinary people smothered by aimless hot air of four-and-a-half years of humbuggery under the pretext of ‘good governance’ have let out a sickening shriek – ‘a pox on both houses’!  

In this newfound freedom, a disaster is quietly taking shape. The nation has either abandoned hope or demands easy, instant answers. That is open season for demagogues and dictators.  

The would-be saviour promises to restore the country to greatness. He demands nothing except patriotic passion. 

The people are separated in to two categories – those for him and against him. The patriots are for him. The traitors are against him. 

Deliberative democracy is utterly, totally rejected. Pure propaganda is used to sedate the support base. Venomous invective and pitiless persecution are deployed to anathematise the opposition.   

Post war triumphalism and herd hysteria unleashed by the Rajapaksa family transformed the executive presidency into a modern-day sultanate.

It is time to revisit the subject of the garrison state – the ruthless secretive power base that Gotabaya built. 

What is a garrison state? It is a militaristic state with decidedly fascist tendencies. The American political scientist Harold Laswell who coined the term ‘Garrison State’ has defined it. It is a state where ‘specialists on violence’ are the most powerful in society. 

I leave it to the reader to recall what and who we were before 8 January 2015. That exercise of recall and remembering will help us decide; who constituted the ‘most powerful’ of that society.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa the presidential candidate has presented his vision and promise in a document, he calls ‘Actioning the Blueprint’.

It is a blueprint to return our land to a fortress of fear, what we were before 8 January 2015 – the garrison state.

He says that ‘national security was not a mere defensive mechanism’. It provides a broader social, political and economic security to the people. He reminds us that the terrorism that existed for 30 years in this country was a grave problem for our people.  

“We continued to strengthen national security, which is why it took 10 years for terrorism to raise its head again.

Candidate Gotabaya is convinced that terrorism has again raised its ugly, terrible head. He offers his solution. 

“We must re-establish this secured environment that is at present compromised. To do so, we must reinstate the intelligence mechanism that was proactive until 2015. We must bring the intelligence operations of the tri-Forces and the Police under the responsibility of one head and thereby connect all these units together.

“This responsibility must be again handed over to capable officers. At the same time, we must introduce a legal framework that will provide these officers the protection from the kind of political interference that we saw in the recent past that severely affected the confidence of our intelligence officers.”

Indeed, we cannot underestimate the impact of the terrible carnage on Easter Sunday. We must take every possible measure to avoid a recurrence of such mindless horror. 

The hypothesis that we are constantly under an imminent, immediate threat alters the structure of society and the State. 

Should we, in the next Presidential Election, vote to reinstall the fortress of fear with its shadowy squads of regime enforcers operating under the protection of a shadowy deep state?  

Should we forget the fact that Keith Noyahr lived to tell the tale after Karu Jayasuriya reached out to the fountain head of the deep state? 

Should we forget that Member of Parliament Felix Perera assured the mother of a vanished youth that her offspring was still in the land of the living, but he was unable to locate his whereabouts!  

These instances are unrelated to separatist terrorism or jihadist terrorism. That is the kind of state candidate Gotabaya hopes to resurrect in order to win the presidency.   

What Gotabaya plans is a political police state.  It is the same kind of state that Gotabaya built singlehandedly without even his brother the President noticing it until after his shock defeat in 2015. 

Military interests constantly and convincingly crossed the border into civilian areas.  Mainstream civilian issues were quietly moved into military authority. No one noticed because it started innocuously with the Navy building mausoleums, Army remodelling colonial era buildings and the Air Force manicuring lawns and designing public parks.  

What really happened?  The slick hypothesis of a constant threat to social order and societal wellbeing was harnessed to undermine civilian supremacy in the polity.

A secretive group of violence specialists formed the nucleus of the deep state. It marked the rise of a military elite to positions of political power. Post war military elites claimed a superior grasp of international relations, diplomacy, provincial administration and even jurisprudence. There was also a little noticed foray into quantum physics. 

The military’s incursion into civilian supremacy has weakened our democratic institutional structure. 

Freedom within society has become proportionate to our preparation to combat the threat of terrorism, perceived or real. 

Under a Gotabaya presidency, our war against terrorism will be the dominant thrust of society. We will never be free of fear. 

The garrison state model relies on a military elite with managerial abilities. They will overshadow the professionals and technocrats.  

The push towards a constant readiness to combat terrorism can have but one result. It will erase the distinction between civilian administration and paramilitary agencies. 

The military will play a larger role in arbitrating on issues that belong in the sphere of political ideology. Already, candidate Gotabaya has ex-military types working on issues of social justice, economic opportunity, political participation of minorities and the role of ethnicity in allocating state resources for materiel progress. 

The sense of continual crisis and perpetual preparedness will end up passing the central control of the state to the hands of a militarised power elite.

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