Presidential putsch or political paranoia?

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Prof. John M. Richardson, Director of the School for International Studies and more recently, of the Centre for Teaching Excellence of the American University in Washington DC, a student of Lankan politics for fifteen years, has just authored a book on ‘ Development and Deadly Conflict: Ten Lessons from Sri Lanka’. Using his pioneering experience in model-building and trend-extrapolation with the Club of Rome, Prof. Richardson has traced Sri Lanka’s descent into what he terms ‘Protracted Deadly Conflict’. His models are based on all the conflict data relating to Sri Lanka for forty years. Answering questions on his forthcoming book at a recent seminar at the ICES Colombo, he revealed that his research shows two points at which different decisions by politicians and policymakers - decisions less authoritarian and more enlightened - could have forestalled the descent into hell. The first is around 1978, and the second and more important , around 1981-1982. After that it was a downward spiral, perhaps a point of no return.

Significantly, all of this took place under precisely the post-1977 UNP first term, regarded as the glory days by the Lankan Right including the present Government, and as preferable to the subsequent Premadasa period, by the Opposition. Today, this very moment , we seem to be at yet another such conjuncture, the consequences of which this country may not survive as a single entity, and not all of us will survive as individuals.

The history books will record that while a separate state is being carved out in the North-east of the island, the Sinhala ruling class was tearing itself apart. I am agnostic about the veracity of the ‘Presidential putsch’ document, and would have much preferred to see a copy displayed on TV and in the press. However what worries me is not so much the punch-up, but its context and consequences.

I have to say straight off though that even if the document is accurate, I notice nothing in it that is illegal , unconstitutional or violent. It seems the kind of analysis/scenarios position paper that most political leadership pay foreign consultants for these days, and Mr. Wickremesinghe certainly did have some, particularly in the run-up to the July 19th demonstration last year. ( I do recall the PA and JVP politicians ‘ scooping’ some of these documents from Sri Kotha itself).What the SLFP should be ashamed of is if the document existed, because in the days of Felix Dias Bandaranaike there would have been more thinking-through and decisive political action, and less paperwork!

Paranoia has been a staple feature of the Sri Lankan Establishment’s political style, irrespective of parties. The UNP however, has a far worse track record, with far more disastrous consequences for the country. The first such ‘conspiracy’ was the non-coup of 1966, which entered the sardonic public discourse as the ‘Kakkussi coup’ ( ‘lavatory coup’). It was in the aftermath of the opposition’s demonstration of January 1966, against the UNP’s reform bill on Tamil Language. A monk was shot dead on Galle road. The UNP, haunted by the tacit complicity of some of its own leaders (‘Shelly’) in the very real coup attempt of 1962, feared a Sinhala-Buddhist conspiracy involving the military. It focused its paranoia on the popular, supposedly pro-SLFP army officers Richard Udugama and Prasanna Dahanayake. It is during interrogations into the ‘coup conspiracy’ that Dodampe Mudalali died, either leaping or being pushed to his death from the 4th floor of the CID headquarters.

This was not the only paranoid moment of the UNP Government of 1965-70. Senior UNP politicians spoke of Chinese being seen taking photographs of Trincomalee harbour and its environs! This atmosphere of Cold War hysteria was studded by the first manifestations of serious student unrest. Clashes between students and the police, and students and the army took place at Peradeniya and Colombo, courtesy the enlightened outlook of UNP education Minister IMRA Iriyagolla. UNP stalwart and Velona boss Ruskin Fernando took a hard-line against striking workers. The oh-so-liberal UNP administration banned the transport of the popular oppositional newspaper ‘Aththa’ in CTB buses.

What is most important to the student of politics, is the upshot of the UNP’s paranoid style of 1965-70. It polarised Sri Lankan politics to the point of generating the harsh United Front backlash of 1970. Still more importantly, the Dodampe mudalali episode crystallised in the minds of the fledgling JVP, the idea that the UNP, or more accurately the Rightwing of the UNP, would never relinquish power peacefully. This oppositional or counter-paranoia was reinforced by the Indonesian coup of 1965, which resulted in the slaughter of half-a- million unarmed communists; a coup which the UNP leadership was in sympathy with, just as it tilted to Taiwan, South Korea and South Vietnam. All these factors fed into Rohana Wijeweera and the JVP’s decision to arm the party. It is that time-bomb that exploded on the SLFP’s watch in 1971.

The next episode in political paranoia was under the United Front when in the wake of the April 1971 Insurrection, Mrs Bandaranaike’s government not only arrested JR Jayewardene’s only son, Ravi, it locked up and kept under detention for years, a number of leftists who were actually the JVP’s bitter political foes; some even slated for execution in the event of the victory of the ‘Revolution’. These included N. Sanmugathasan, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, GID Dharmasekera, Gamini Yapa, and Kalyananada Tiranagama. However, even under a UF Govt, the prime example of political paranoia came from the UNP in Opposition, when JR Jayewardene moved a motion in parliament against a ‘coup conspiracy’ by the ‘Janavegaya Group’, led by Kumar Rupesinghe. Prasanna Dahanayake’s name figured again. The evidence of a ‘Janavegaya coup’ was limited to some bales of barbed wire and (doubtless dead) rope! (That Kumar behaved utterly offensively was not to be doubted, but that behaviour was in no way unconstitutional or dangerous to anyone but himself).

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga went one better or worse than her mother, when she arrested former UNP General Secretary Sirisena Cooray on totally trumped-up charges, which escalated to the point of accusing him of a conspiracy to assassinate her. The whole absurdity was thrown out by the Supreme Court, but not before Cooray had spent months in detention, under armed guard.

The worst epidemic political paranoia to hit Sri Lanka was of course during the Jayewardene administration, and it was the most dangerous in terms of its consequences to us all. Insofar as this UNF administration is - and proudly reckons itself to be - in direct line of descent from the elitist UNP of 1977-88( rather than the populist-developmentalist Premadasa administration of ‘89-’93) it is important to exercise the faculties that Edward Said insists upon in inquiry: "memory and scepticism". Today’s propaganda build-up of a ‘coup attempt’ is clearly reminiscent of two such moments under the UNP: the ‘Naxalite’ plot , and the framing of the JVP for Black July 1983.

Not content with removing the civic rights of the SLFP leader, and impersonating its candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa at the presidential election of 1982 the UNP Government arrested the SLFP’s Asst. Sec, foremost platform speaker and organiser Vijaya Kumaratunga, and several of his colleagues including Ossie Abegoonesekera, charging them of being ‘Naxalites’ - the appellation given to Indian Maoists, following an uprising in Naxalbari in the 1960s. One of the main speakers in Parliament on that occasion, hurling those charges, was Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe. Having thus decapitated the SLFP politically the UNP decided not to have Parliamentary elections, going instead for a referendum (which was semi-rigged). The result was the delegitimisation of the UNP Government (Mervyn de Silva was to hammer home the distinction between the ‘legal’ and the ‘legitimate’). The failure of the Indo-Lanka Accord has, as one its sources, the perceived illegitimacy of its domestic agency, the UNP Government of the day-something that foreign friends of the current peace process must surely take note of.

The ‘Naxalite plot’ was followed a few months later by the frame-up and proscription of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Taken together these twin acts of UNP political paranoia - or middlebrow Machiavellianism - set the stage for the island’s descent into chaos during the rest of the decade. Perpetrated in the name of ‘stability’ for ‘development’ (along the Singapore model !), the UNP’s authoritarian-paranoid mode only succeeded in what Mervyn de Silva termed ‘self-destabilisation’. (‘Crisis Commentaries’, ICES Colombo, 2001).