The regime change scenario: Another ’56?

Dayan Jayatilleka
"We shall not allow the UNP to raise its head for the rest of history."
- Anura Bandaranaike
at Nittambuwa , Sept. 29th

I understand now, one decision that President J. R. Jayewardene made. Having appointed young Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Deputy Foreign Minister, he removed him from that post before a year was up. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe confirmed the wisdom of his uncle’s decision with a characteristically sagacious move last week. When he needs the support of the Muslim community and its Parliamentarians, to respond to the LTTE’s Interim administration proposals and to survive in office, he openly endorsed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in his UN General Assembly address.

This came on the heels of the Sri Lankan decision to break ranks with the rest of the world, our natural allies, and support the handful of rich nations at the Cancun summit. It is one thing to be not to antagonize the US. No responsible Sri Lankan leader or political party should do so. It is another to be a friend and ally of the US. That should be a policy of any Sri Lankan Govt. or political party that aspires to governmental office. It is something else to be a shoeshine boy. This is the role Mr. Wickremesinghe has cast Sri Lanka in.

It not only brings disgrace to our country; it humbles a nation already humiliated within its borders by the arrogant expansionism of the Tigers, the Government’s prostration and the international community’s spinelessness. It is damaging to ethnic relations in our society and to the standing of one of the two major democratic parties, i.e. the UNP. In return it will bring no benefit commensurate with the damage inflicted.


It is Bandung all over again. Now all we need is a barbecue and a good cartoonist. 1956 was a confluence of three impulses and events: The Hartal of 1953 and the shooting of 8 unarmed citizens who were protesting against the UNP’s welfare-slashing budgetary policy. The Buddha Jayanthi celebrations and the Buddhist Commission Report which gave a mighty boost to the Sinhala Only slogan. The supinely pro-Western conduct of Sir John Kotelawala at Bandung in 1955 which did violence to the Ceylonese people’s sense of belonging with the Afro-Asian and newly independent countries, in short, countries of color, as distinct from the imperial and neocolonial ones.

The combination of the three factors (fortunately) dislodged the UNP and (unfortunately) doomed with it the healthily cosmopolitan post-war, post-colonial social culture, opening the floodgates to the onrush of Sinhala chauvinist populism. Historically (that is apart from the significant episode of the Premadasa presidency) UNP governments were delegitimized by their alienation from nationalist sentiment. The UNP appeared, in its profile, attitude and behaviour, as inorganic, alien. The second source of nationalist alienation was the UNP’s foreign policy, which seemed too foreign, having more to do with representing foreign interests over here, than our interests over there! But never has a UNP Govt. been as artificially Sri Lankan as this current one, giving the impression of a Western embassy on Sri Lankan soil. That is, when it is not doing its day job as embassy and travel agency for Tamil Eelam.

In order to stave off an inner-party rebellion stemming from his electoral defeats of 1999 and 2000, Mr. Wickremesinghe resorted to the numbers game, destabilized the PA Govt. and opened the path to power through a snap election. Is the same fate about to befall his administration, owing to the same compulsions now acting on President Kumaratunga? In her animated address to the Samurdhi animators, she coyly signaled the possibility of regime-change. Now that, if it comes off, can be a breakthrough, or a mixed blessing, or a tragic farce. It can be the fight-back most Sri Lankans are waiting for, one which calls a halt to national humiliation. Or the convenient exit that Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been waiting for, to relieve him of the Interim Administration conundrum, but keep his peace credentials and international profile intact for later use. Or the trip-wire that Mr. Prabhakaran has been waiting for the South to cross. In fact he may be delaying the Interim Administration proposals awaiting Southern events, misleading the President (through gullible or double-dealing intermediaries) into thinking that a peace deal is possible, while actually waiting for her to walk into his minefield.

There is way in which regime-change may work, do some good. That is if it is more a case of regime recomposition than outright regime-replacement. The product would be a preponderantly Blue-Green bloc, as the central and thickest ‘band’ of a Rainbow Coalition with the ethnic parties, with perhaps a dash of Red at the fringe. Put less cryptically, the Red component would get only Social Service/ Welfare delivery ministries (Health, Transport, Food and Co-operatives) and perhaps one or two Ministries to do with productivity: Fisheries, Light Industries and Handicrafts.

North Korea

Any party that says on public record that North Korea, where babies are dying of starvation, has a "very advanced agriculture and industry", should not be placed within light-years of the Ministry of Agriculture. Irrigation may be safe, though. The JVP’s credentials for the other post it has laid claim to, Education and Higher Education, are striking. The bomb explosion at Marrs hall, Peradeniya in early 1971, Colombo University VC Prof. Stanley Wijesundara, murdered by JVP gunmen in his office in ’88, and student leader Daya Pathirana, abducted, stripped and his throat slashed on a Poya day in December ’86 by a JVP death-squad. Its referees for the Media Ministry are equally impressive: Premakeerthi de Alwis and Sagarika Gomes.

The JVP’s request for the Deputy Ministry of Defence, can certainly be entertained by the SLFP’s more desperately greedy (or ‘"patriotic"?) mediators and negotiators, if their party is willing to risk a complete Western (and therefore Israeli) embargo of military contacts and support, on grounds of high security risk. We shall be lucky if it stops short of a Western/Israeli tilt to the LTTE: the Contra, Afghan Mujaheddin and Kosovo Liberation Army scenario! In any case, one doubts whether a party whose top leaders, including its military wing leader, met their richly deserved end without firing a single shot in self-defence (a fate that would never befall a Tiger commander, let alone Prabhakaran), is qualified to bid for the Defence portfolio. That is unless one counts the obliteration by T-56 bullets, of the face of the handsomest Sinhala man then alive, Vijaya Kumaratunga, to be sufficient qualification for the post.

So quite a bit depends on whether President Kumaratunga can get (and is allowed by her party’s hungrier hawks to get) the Rubik’s Cube right, i.e. the composition and complexion of an incoming regime. If it is preponderantly a Blue-Red alliance, it will trigger recoil by the world community and investors, and be used as a casus belli by the LTTE. It will face a siege from three concentric, constricting circles: LTTE, UNP, and the West, and eventually alienate our middle classes and rich peasantry. It will be a sharply polarized Southern society, a cold war within, a hot war without. No support from a friendly neighbour can offset all these adversities. Our neighbour is a giant kaleidoscope of interests and perceptions, and it would be folly to seek to confront it with a fait-accompli and expect open-ended commitment as we inexorably ascend the escalation ladder.

Whoever is at the helm of the affairs of state, the script will be written by the crisis itself. Any leader must accurately "read" the character of the protracted Sri Lankan crisis and the nature of this particular stage of that crisis. What are the fundamentals of the Sri Lankan crisis? What constitutes the crisis today? Mature, ripened Tamil nationalism, militantly mobilized Sinhala mass-nationalism, latent Muslim youth radicalism, and above all, the tense interplay of these triple challenges.

Open Economy

The JVP Robespierre, Mr. Weerawansa, may exhibit the breath of knowledge of a frog in a village well: "We ask all those who speak of power sharing, where was power devolved on the basis of nationality?" "The people of this country shouldered the Open Economy for 26 years. That journey only brought inhumanity, barbarism, a nationally divided country" (Lankadeepa, Oct 1, p 8). But the man has an uncanny sense of history, though perhaps not quite in the way he supposes. In his Nittambuwa speech (the same Lankadeepa report) he said: "Since there is a harvest as yet not reaped from the field that was sown and fertilized by the Pancha Maha Balavegaya in 1956, we, the Deshahithaishi Jathika Vyaparaya shall reap that harvest!

Right On! The Tamil separatist dynamic was the most significant seed sown by the Pancha Maha Balavegaya in ‘56, with Sinhala Only. Its harvest is about to be reaped, with the help of the Children of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya, by the illegitimate yet most legendary Child of ‘56, Velupillai Prabhakaran. In a gladiatorial contest between these Southern children of ‘56 as represented by the JVP/DJV, and the Northern ones led by Mr. Prabhakaran, I must confess some reluctance to recommend that anyone place a large bet on the former. And I’m (chronologically) a child of ’56, and the son of a partisan of ‘56 who was also a gambling man.

Tamil nationalism, the growth of the Tamil nation, has achieved such mass, velocity and sharpness that it is about to burst through the integument of the Sri Lankan State. Though a long time coming, the last spurt of accelerated growth was the direct product of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s peace process, amply bearing out Alexis de Tocqueville’s dictum that it is not the most repressive regime which makes for revolutionary overthrow but precisely a regime which begins to liberalize unwisely. Mikhail Gorbachev provides the classic proof of that dictum.

So long as the Sri Lankan state, under successive administrations, UNP and SLFP, kept contesting and thereby containing the LTTE, Tamil nationalism could be kept within the parameters of that state. Mr. Wickremesinghe abandoned any version or notion of containment, military or non-military, of the LTTE. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Under this or any successor administration of whichever hue, the Sri Lankan State now finds itself at a historic crossroads, faced with three choices: (I) Expand to the point of being able to accommodate and contain some significant component of Tamil nationalism. (II) Remain brittle and snap, as the inevitable consequence of surrender to the slogans of the JVP/DJV marches: "We don’t want power sharing! We don’t want Federal systems!’ (III) Retreat and surrender: cede the Northeast to the LTTE.

Even from a coldly clinical point of view, one problem with the third option of triage, is that it does not really cut losses, but creates deadlier new ones. As Theda Skocpol’s massive research shows, such a territorial retrenchment, rupture or shrinkage of the state, such traumatic loss and diminution, has almost always been accompanied by radical or revolutionary upheaval. That leaves options (I) and (II). Option (I) is rendered problematic by the forceful impact of the anti-devolution Opposition. Option (II), of staying put, has the same outcome as option (III) i.e. traumatic loss of the Northeast. Therefore the best bet, however hazardous, is option (I): the expansion, through enhanced flexibility, of the Lankan State; the enhancement of its capacity to accommodate and thereby contain within its natural geopolitical boundaries, the increasingly self-conscious and assertive Tamil nation. That will depend on the capacity to neutralize and paralyse Option (II).

UNP on way out

What renders the situation utterly fraught is its coincidence and interaction with the crisis in the South. This UNP administration is on its way out. The only question is whether it will be feet first or head first. Will it happen in a context of instability and ungovernability? How much of the System and social order will it take with it? Can its departure and the transition be adequately managed so as to contain the consequences? In case my conclusion is thought apocalyptic, may I rely on the world’s most renowned living historian Eric Hobsbawm’s summary of the criteria of a revolutionary situation?

"The classic analysis of them is Lenin’s which comprises: (1) a ‘crisis in the policy of the ruling class which causes fissures through which the discontent and the indignation of the oppressed classes bursts forth’ (2) a sharpening of the discontent of the lower classes, and (3) a ‘considerable increase in the activity of the masses’." (Lenin Collected Works Vol.5, p174, cited in Hobsbawm, ‘Revolution’ in ‘Revolution In History’ Eds. Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, Cambridge University Press 1999). Apart from the myopic Sri Lankan governing elite, its donor/DPL patrons and its paid up peacenik intellectuals, no observer could fail to see how this definition superimposes itself upon the developing Southern situation.