Rajapaksa Raj and student power

Thursday, 15 July 2021 00:03 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Sri Lanka has never witnessed so extreme a concentration of familial power. Nor has South Asia, which is familiar with the familial in politics. Nowhere in the world today is power concentrated so thickly in a family. Not in the liberal democracies; not in the illiberal democracies; not in the autocracies


A few things became obvious since my last column. 

Firstly, the ruling clan doesn’t know why the notification or announcement in the elevator—even a Chinese-built elevator—says it can carry only so many passengers. 

Secondly, the phrase ‘the optics are wrong’ and the colloquialism ‘cringeworthy’ do not figure in the Rajapaksa vocabulary. The PM stood for a photo-op with the man convicted by the Supreme Court of murdering his Labour advisor (during his second presidency) and pardoned by his brother, the President.

Thirdly, they haven’t noticed that no administration which frontally took on the student movement of this country, prospered or even survived politically. 

Fourthly, they do not know that Joseph Stalin, the tubby trade unionist, not the wartime Soviet leader, was quoted in The Economist (London) a few years ago. 

Fifthly, they haven’t grasped the decisive importance of soft power, which depends on the narrative, the story of the country in the world. The piece in the world’s most influential newspaper the New York Times was titled ‘In Sri Lanka the Government Looks Increasingly Like a Family Firm’.

Family bloc

With Chinese money and support, the Gotabaya Government is building the kind of unjust order that the Communist Party of China was founded a century ago to overthrow. 

There are four Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya, Mahinda, Basil and Chamal, and a son/nephew, Namal, constituting a Cabinet cluster of a Rajapaksa Quintet clustered in Cabinet. Add to the mix nephew Shasheendra as the State Minister whose list of subjects “cannot fit on a business card” (NYT). 

An institutional mapping of the State should show just how great a share of State power, authority, patronage, resources and access to resources is in the hands of one family, given the interlock. 

True, every one of these individuals were elected. But that is where my analogy of the elevator and the number of persons permitted, comes in. Though the analogy is mine, the point isn’t. If I may recycle a story, it was Dr. George Yeo, at the time the Foreign Minister of Singapore and one of the most incisive minds I have met, who told me when I paid a farewell call on him, that the main problem faced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the Tamil diaspora but the fact that his system was “far too top-heavy to last”. He was right. MR lost the next Presidential Election (2015). When Dr. Yeo sounded that prophetic note (end-2010), the system was nowhere as top-heavy as it is now. 

Sri Lanka has never witnessed so extreme a concentration of familial power. Nor has South Asia, which is familiar with the familial in politics. 

Nowhere in the world today is power concentrated so thickly in a family. Not in the liberal democracies; not in the illiberal democracies; not in the autocracies.

Nowhere in the world in modern times, i.e., in current and contemporary history, has there been such a formal concentration and institutional occupation of State power in a ruling clan outside of Arabian despotisms: Rajan Phillips has correctly noted the Saudi parallel; I’d add some Gulf states. 

Even in Latin American oligarchies or post-war Middle Eastern/North African autocracies, the model was the autocrat making his brother the defence minister or army commander, and his brother, son and grandson being the successors. Succession was sequential; there was never a simultaneous occupation and domination of state power by a family bloc, remotely to the extent there is in Sri Lanka today.

Better management is no compensation for structural hyper-concentration in a family cluster, which among other things will only marginalise further, the non-family members in the Government. Their hope of feeding at a Chinese or Chinese-built trough will not offset their loss of politico-institutional real-estate, and anyway, they may find themselves crowded-out even at the trough. 

One of two dictums carved on the Temple of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece was ‘Nothing in Excess’. Due to systemic overload—excess—the Rajapaksa Raj cannot sustainably stay alight or afloat. 

Throughout history, people have put up with authoritarian political superstructures so long as their standards of living were manifestly improving. That’s how the UNP lasted 17 years in government. Broadly speaking this was also true of the SLFP’s 20 years in office. It won’t work today because (a) authoritarianism has turned autocratic and (b) there is a collapse in the everyday standards of living of the citizenry, unprecedented since the Sirimavo Bandaranaike years—but even she didn’t touch the peasantry.

President Gotabaya seems to have only two policies: Ban and militarise. (I feel a Ban-ki-joke coming on). Ban imports including industrial inputs and fertiliser, and throw the military and police at every problem. President Gotabaya is not trying merely to plug the holes in the global supply chain due to COVID-19 or survive the economic effects of the pandemic; his project is terminating the 45-year Open Economy. 

The rulers will find that (i) imposing the heavy burden of a political structure overladen with a conspicuous clan, (ii) increasing material burdens on all classes of the people barring a small elite, (iii) reversing the Open Economy and squeezing the middle classes, and (iv) cracking down on peaceful protest and dissent, will prove a combustible combination.   

According to social theory, what catalyses revolt, rebellion and revolution is not absolute poverty but relative deprivation. In short, it is poverty into which they are plunged after a long period of comparative prosperity; or democratic space that is lost after a period of enjoying it. In Sri Lanka it is both. 

KNDU Bill and student power 

Mapping the political sociology of the island would reveal two vitally important zones: The peasantry and the students, especially the university students. Every leader since D.S. Senanayake took care to cultivate—the pun is intended—the rural peasantry. To antagonise the peasantry was unthinkable because it was recognised as socioeconomic and electoral suicide. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the first ever, since the British, to do the opposite. 

The second, smaller but no less crucial zone is the student community, which broadens out into the students and teachers, and narrows down to the live wire of the university student community. The student community is crucial because free education is inextricably embedded into the country’s ethos and has expanded this into a large, influential constituency. 

The two zones of political sociology overlap and intersect. Most students come from rural backgrounds, as do a sizeable community of teachers. Today there is a more intense interface: the heart-breaking spectacle of students and teachers in rural areas, studying at night on treetops and hilltops, by torchlight, tossing large fire-crackers to scare off marauding elephants.

It has taken the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take on both these social constituencies at the same time. 

Several governments have taken on the university students and none have succeeded. 

The Dudley Senanayake Government had a confrontationist Sinhala nationalist man of letters, IMRA Iriyagolla, as the Minister of Education. Today, Sarath Weerasekara seems to be playing the role with more pugnacity and greater truculence. In 1965-1970, the Police and the Army confronted the university students in 1966 and 1968 at Colombo and Peradeniya respectively. 

Not only did clashes erupt which provided a base of recruitment for Wijeweera’s JVP, but more relevant to this story, the leftwing student organisations went on house-to-house campaigning at the 1970 elections and helped defeat the Dudley Senanayake Government, ensuring a landslide for Madame Bandaranaike’s United Front coalition. The students especially targeted Iriyagolla, who was never re-elected. 

The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, with its two-thirds majority, antagonised the student community in the north and south, just as the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is doing. The discriminatory policies of district-wise and media-wise standardisation in university admission awoke two powerful organisations: the Manavar Peravai and the Ilaingar Peravai, i.e., the Students Federation and the Youth Federation, which formed the backdrop and feeder of radical, militant Tamil nationalism. 

That was the avoidable result of government policies and a Police shooting at the outdoor event following the IATR conference of 1974. The Bandaranaike Government was wiped out by the TULF in the Northern Province at the 1970 election.

More dramatic, though nor perhaps more consequential, was the development in the south. The opening of Police posts on campus led to unrest at Peradeniya University around 1975. In November 1976, the freshman Arts student Weerasooriya from the village of Uhumiya was shot dead when Police opened fire on students early one morning. 

The student movement boiled over, with all universities on strike, soon to be followed by schools, including Colombo schools. The students uprising fed into a festering working struggle which had started with the strike at the Government Printers in the mid-1970s. The most decisive factor was the Railways strike that triggered a General Strike. 

The convergence and cumulative force of the students and workers strike caused a major crack in the regime, with the Communist Party and progressive SLFP MPs leaving the government. With its two-thirds majority lost, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government had to abandon any thoughts of remaining in office beyond the date of the scheduled general election. The Government was wiped out at the election and J.R. Jayewardene won by a landslide.  

When the JVP was de-proscribed and its leaders released by the Jayewardene Government as per a pre-electoral agreement reached through the good offices of Ronnie de Mel and more particularly his wife Mallika, Rohana Wijeweera had no intention of ever returning to armed rebellion. He concentrated on wiping out firstly the old left and then the SLFP politically, winning over the middle classes, and strengthening his legitimacy. Space was provided for him by Minister of Local Government and later Prime Minister Premadasa who gave him the Colombo Town Hall for his mammoth May Day meetings.

The trouble started with Minister of Education Ranil Wickremesinghe whose followers indulged in picking up leftwing student activists off buses and taking them to the UNP headquarters Siri Kotha for rough treatment. Ven Baddegama Samitha, who died recently of COVID-19, rose to hero status in 1978 when he led a group of students in defending themselves from an incursion by UNP goons at Kelaniya University. The goon-squad was headed by Christopher Jayatilaka, a Kelaniya gangster, who was killed in the clash. His funeral was attended by Minister Wickremesinghe. 

The real radicalisation of the university student movement during the post-1977 Jayewardene administration came with the White Paper on Higher Education (the infamous “Davala Pathrikaava”) presented by Minister Wickremesinghe. 

The student agitation on that lasted from 1980-1982, included a hunger strike at the Moratuwa University (then known as the Katubedde campus), and a baton charge by mounted Police of demonstrating students on Galle Face Green, with a young woman student breaking her leg when falling off the embankment. It was these student struggles that drew the JVP back into militant (unarmed) agitation, and it is these students, radicalised by the government’s policies and tactics, who became the cadre of the JVP’s second uprising—which itself was caused by its banning on utterly false grounds of participation in the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots.  

The ‘officer corps’ of the JVP and smaller revolutionary groups of the 1980s came from the generation of university students politically incubated and gestated in the five years spanning the Weerasuriya shooting of 1976 through to the agitation against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s White Paper on Education in the early 1980s. 

The Jayewardene government, the ruling UNP, the democratic system and the market economy were almost overrun and eliminated by the second (1980s) uprising of the southern youth. 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2015 defeat proved a little easier due to the militaristic ‘leadership training’ that university students were subjected to mandatorily and involuntarily. The JVP went flat-out against him. 

The tide of public opinion against the SAITM bill, helped defeat the Yahapalanaya government—especially the Wickremesinghe UNP.

Today’s Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill, which has evoked widespread fears of the militarisation and privatisation of education, has all the signs of having the same catalytic radicalising effect as Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 1980 White Paper.  

Globalising solidarity

Meera Srinivasan registers in The Hindu, more than two dozen ex-military brass in the Lankan bureaucracy/administrative structure. Logically, if the normal, civilian democratic system and dialogic politics which facilitated the political rise of Rajapaksa clan since the days of the State Council, remains blocked and distorted by militarisation and despotism, there will be a radical reversal of that upward trajectory, culminating in deadfall.     

The Government obviously thinks that it can hand over the Sri Lankan State and the destinies of its citizenry to one family; depress the living standards of almost all classes and strata (north and south); jeopardise the livelihoods of the peasants, workers and fisherfolk; send schoolkids up trees and hilltops instead of deploying television and radio for distance education; ‘rendition’ peaceful demonstrators to distant military camps under cover of quarantine, and ignore its neighbours and international opinion. 

Nothing since 1948 indicates that such conduct can succeed. It is ‘Time for Outrage’ as Stefane Hessel, one of the co-authors of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, famously put it.

Firstly, any repression of a non-violent segment of society or even one person, must be understood as a danger to all. Freedom, democracy and justice are indivisible and must be fought for. Every single injustice, every single act of repression, must be non-violently challenged in the media, the Courts, the Parliament, Pradesheeya Sabhas and every possible space. 

Secondly, the struggles of the students, teachers, peasants and fisheries workers must converge. Urban resistance must not far outstrip the rural, and must draw the latter along.

Thirdly, all currents of the Opposition, except for the unrepresentative and collaborationist, must resolve to present a united platform for a protest vote at any referendum on a new Constitution. The defeat at the October 1988 referendum triggered Pinochet’s fall. 

Fourthly, all Opposition parties must resolve to help each other to form an administration at any Local Authorities and/or Provincial Council election.   

Fifthly, “the globalisation of solidarity” that Pope Francis urged in a Papal encyclical, must be embraced.  

Globalisation of solidarity must not be confused with lurid labels of ‘genocide’ or lobbying foreign governments—though if the Gotabaya Government (re)turns to the Rathupaswela model of military (or STF) repression, the latter option becomes imperative, before Sri Lanka becomes another Myanmar. 

The ‘globalisation of solidarity’ was manifested in global protests against the murder of George Floyd and later, in sympathy with the Palestinians, against the war on Gaza. 

Students, teachers, peasants, workers, women, fisherfolk, minorities, parliamentarians, lawyers, poets, consumer activists, mass and social media— every victimised or threatened Lankan sector can and should reach out across borders to their organised counterparts and relevant international organisations. With legal avenues to suppress Sirasa being officially explored, its Board should alert and mobilise counterparts in the international television networks and associations of the global media industry. 

The ‘globalisation of solidarity’ is people-to-people, community-to-community. The objective is to raise global consciousness and generate global action. The weapon is world opinion.

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