Sri Lanka, much like many other countries in South Asia and elsewhere, has a rich accumulation of dynastic politics. There is little new in families ruling a country or a community but they do throw up some interesting situations of privilege, planning and posturing that are noteworthy just for the insights they provide.
The most obvious, of course, were the events linked to Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) Arumugam Thondaman’s funeral, which resulted in a special curfew being imposed in Nuwara Eliya. The processions, the national broadcast, and the flagrant disregard for COVID-19 social distancing measures made it a jaw-dropping display of power and privilege.
The Government, which has been quick to crack down on any other gathering, including limiting funerals of least ten grieving families, and many others who have placed themselves under self-isolation rather than risk spreading the disease, in this instance simply turned a blind eye. Perhaps the needs of dynastic politics is best understood by another family well-versed in dynastic politics, and the Government simply bowed to the commonality. Why follow rules when there is no punishment for breaking them?
The Hill Country community is obviously allowed to grieve the passing of its political representatives, but this could have been done while observing COVID-19 social distancing measures that would have been appreciated by stretched health professionals and the rest of the country. But with elections around the corner, this was not just any funeral appreciating a community leader. It marked the next political chapter of the most well-known family of the Hill Country Tamil population, and with it the message that dynastic politics will continue to thrive in Sri Lanka, because that is simply the way politics is done.
Given the racial and ethnic connotations that has coloured Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response, it is important to take a moment to consider, however briefly, what could have happened if these same steps were taken by a different minority community, and whether it would have been so readily accepted by the Government. The reality is that for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to get a two-thirds majority at the General Election, they require strong support from the Hill Country Tamil voters, and therefore combining funeral with political consolidation was just sensible.
Dynastic politics of a different sort and hue are also taking place on the other side of the political divide, with the rift between the United National Party (UNP) and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) now all but complete. The suspension of 99 members, including former Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, has set in motion a fight to see who will succeed current leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and whether the UNP vote base will side with the Premadasa name or stay with the UNP, which includes other old guard families.
Forming a new political culture in Sri Lanka is often talked about, but the events of last week showcase just how hard moving the public away from dynastically-driven politics really is, even when those politicians have not achieved much to justify the generational loyalty they are given. When non-dynastic politicians have also been unsuccessful over the past 70 plus, years it may be there isn’t much difference from the voter’s viewpoint.