Sri Lanka: Inept government stuck between the legacies of 1956 and 1977

It is not always that political economy and class interests drive and explain politics. Political outcomes are invariably shaped, or ‘over-determined’, by a host of factors. Oftentimes politics succumbs to human depravity, stupidity, and of course ineptitude.


by Rajan Philips

( February 26, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There is no good governance in Sri Lanka, only inept governance. But the alternative, i.e. bad governance, could be worse, as it has been. Last week, like every week for that matter, saw consequences of earlier bad governance getting worse under current government incompetence. The one positive news in a long time was the arrests of the alleged kidnappers of journalist Keith Noyahr. His kidnapping was the result of bad government gone arrogant. What will the current inept government do – let the police finish their work, or come up another cover up? That became the editorial question of the week. Apart from choosing between cops and kidnappers, the government is in deep water over the SAITM business of private medical education. It has got into mud over the appointment of a High Court judge, and lot more of it can be expected when it goes about finding a successor to Chief Justice Sripavan. His retirement announcement gave the impression that there was no longing in him to wait a second longer, quite unlike some of his barnacle-like predecessors.

And the constitutional waters continue to run murky, duly thickened by the visit of India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, and notwithstanding adjournment pleas from both sides of the aisle in Parliament. There is another ripple inside the government as to whether President Sirisena’s term is five years or six years. The internal arguments in public are like playing a same-side goal soccer game. Has anyone advised the President how much he has left in his historic one term? He will not be amused.

It is not always that political economy and class interests drive and explain politics. Political outcomes are invariably shaped, or ‘over-determined’, by a host of factors. Oftentimes politics succumbs to human depravity, stupidity, and of course ineptitude. The worst manifestation of depraved politics is when political power is used with impunity to harm helpless individual citizens. Many Sri Lankans believe that Keith Noyahr and others after him were victims of depraved politics under the previous government, with some of them paying with their lives for being critical of the then government. Rugger player Wasim Thajudeen was not even involved in politics, and the mystery of his brutal death at the age of 28 is yet to be officially explained.

It is not for political critics like me to name or pre-judge people who may or may not have been involved in abusing power and harming helpless citizens. What is everybody’s business, however, is to speak out that the police must be allowed to complete their work and lay charges against whomever, when they have a provable case. And the people so spoke out in the 2015 presidential election when they defeated President Rajapaksa and elected his opponent Maithripala Sirisena. That election was not won or lost on the grand questions of political economy, national sovereignty, or class solidarity. If at all President Rajapaksa lost the election in spite of invoking the spectre of threats to national sovereignty and national security. The people settled for much less and just wanted a change in government to restore the old decency in public life and simple honesty in government. Letting the police complete their work without political interference is the least that this government can do, and is the easiest of all of its promises to keep.

1956 and 1977 legacies

Since when and how did it become so difficult for governments to leave the police alone to do their work? In his reminiscing and reflective book, Cop in the Crossfire, retired Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne alludes to developments since 1977 that have undermined police organization and eroded its political independence at every level. Like the cabinet, the police force was also expanded at the top to reward former security officers of political patrons with high promotions. The old ways of seniority and internal interviews have given way to public canvassing of politicians by aspiring candidates for senior police positions. The new Police Commission can do nothing about the internal police organization that is top heavy and with a ‘double-team’ (like in basketball) for every senior position in every range, district and division. There is too much talk in the abstract by too many commentators about devolving police powers to provinces, but hardly anyone among them has touched on the need for restoring the police organization to what it used to be in terms of geographical layout and clear lines of command and communication.

The more recent development, i.e. after 2005, has been the alleged involvement of military personnel in the kidnapping, and, in some cases, killing of political opponents of the government. A related development is the notion that military personnel should not be subjected to criminal investigations because they are the war heroes who defeated the LTTE in 2009. The political context for this was brilliantly sketched out by Victor Ivan in his July 2014 article: “The Shadow of Gotabhaya.” He contrasts the public attitude in the south to military operations against the two JVP rebellions, on the one hand, and against the LTTE, on the other. The soldiers were not considered ‘war heroes’ when they put down the JVP rebellions. In fact, there was much public and political criticism of the armed forces for excessive brutality and it became a major factor in the UNP’s sweep of the south in the 1977 election. While acknowledging the ethnic emotions in the fight against the LTTE and the LTTE’s own brutality, the point Victor Ivan makes is that the notion of ‘war heroes’ was also deliberately cultivated by the Rajapaksa government. While ‘war-heroism’ is understandable in the context of direct and indirect battlefield actions, it would be a travesty to use it as a cover for blatantly criminal actions not at all connected with the battlefield and targeting people who had no connection whatsoever to the LTTE.

A part of the government’s ineptitude is its inability to come to terms with conflicting socio-political compulsions in the areas of national reconciliation and the remaking of the constitution. While these areas are infested with ethnic emotions, the government is at a loss even when it comes to a relatively ethno-neutral field such as private medical education. Not that education in Sri Lanka is ethno-neutral, given the Swabasha segregation of students and the old standardization scheme for university admissions, the SATIM controversy has brought into relief the contradiction between material aspirations and nationalist pretensions in Sri Lankan society.

JR Jayewardene may not have quite envisioned how the island universe will unfold, but it is not unfair to suggest that his overarching objective in 1977 was not necessarily to reverse but to circumvent everything that had happened in Sri Lankan society and politics between his humiliating Kelaniya defeat in 1956 and his resounding victory in 1977. The orgy of privatization that began after 1977 was by no means a dictatorial imposition on the people. It was a popular rejection of the autarchic past. Professionals loved it because there was money in it for everyone like no one had seen before. The privatization in healthcare and in education became immensely popular. Even Indians, who are not usually welcome, were allowed to set up a major private hospital in Colombo. Private ‘international’ schools sprang up everywhere and found a way to make English the medium of instruction regardless of the students’ mother tongue. They all took a toll on state schools and state hospitals, but no one seriously cared. It is not so when it comes to SAITM. How so?

The institutional, administrative, and bureaucratic neglect and blunder on both sides – SAITM organizers from its inception to now, as well as the ministry, university, and regulatory agencies – are simply abominable. But my point is about the contradictory positions taken by the same people who seem to be opposing SAITM, on the one hand, while being the beneficiaries of private schools and private hospitals, on the other. The truth of the matter is that these are false contradictions. Christian skeptics poke fun at their devout brethren about their wanting to go to heaven but not wanting to die. The late Bernard Soysa use to chuckle about his compatriots wanting to eat meat without slaughtering cattle. But it is a serious matter for the unfortunate SAITM students who have been led up the garden path and have now been turned into a political football. More unfortunately for them, there seems to be no one around either in government or outside of it to give them a firm and helping hand.

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