The spiral of repression and response
Economy not repression can stabilise Lanka
Kumar David

For the purposes of this article I will not contest the validity of the official results of the presidential election. I have done so previously, pointing out that the actual fraud was perpetrated long before polling day in the massive abuse of the state media and state resources during the campaign; I stand by my assertion that the results are fraudulent in that sense. However, though I am still open to credible substantiation of misconduct in counting and computer software, no concrete evidence of large scale deception in this respect has surfaced as yet. Therefore, till something exciting enough to titillate my jaded senses pops up there are other things enough to write about.

The government is making a huge mistake by focussing on repression and not economic development; this leads to magnification of opposition and a fresh cycle of repression using trumped up charges, false allegations of coups and imagined conspiracies. The motive may be plain malice, or more likely to get rid of or transfer police and army personnel who are not stooges in preparation for the general elections. The attack on JVP politicians and press is of course plain political vengeance; such repression will end up creating a second Wijeweera.

One would have thought that with a victory on this scale in the bag the government could afford to brush off opposition and get on imperiously with the tasks of economic development and nation building. The key to the latter is national unification, a.k.a. making an open settlement with the Tamil and Muslim people about their autonomy and rights. The really worrying question then is why the government and President Rajapaksa are unable to switch tracks, ignore the flea bites, and get on with the real job, get on with the higher responsibilities of development and national settlement. I have a hypothesis that I will share with you today.

The uses of power

In last week’s piece (Sunday Island, 7 Feb: "An Anti-Fascist Front before the elections") I drew attention to the difference between someone like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew who concentrated authoritarian power for the purposes of carrying through the programme of transforming Singapore, and crappy dictators like Suharto and a dozen other African thugs who wield power for its own sake. The behavioural form or outer structure of a regime is shaped and coloured by this distinction. The question is not whether one likes Lee’s policies or not; if not substitute a policy-driven left-wing authoritarian like Hugo Chavez. My point is not about content, that is the socio-economic substance and class nature of a state; it is about form, the manifest political behaviour of a regime.

This distinction between form, that is manifest political behaviour, and the class cum economic substance of society, has its most stark paradox in the Hitler-Stalin duality. The repression, tyranny and totalitarianism of both regimes were similar. Some even refer to Stalinism as the "socialist" version of Nazi barbarism and interchangeably speak of Hitler and Stalin in the same breath. However, the economic core of the Nazi and the Stalinist systems were different, despite superficial similarities such as substantial involvement of the Nazi state in economic programmes.

The hypothesis

These two paragraphs were a digression to drive home the point that the behavioural nature of the state is relatively autonomous of its class character; India and Sri Lanka for example, a muddle along democracy and a crippled democracy. Contingent events and the immediate past history in which regimes are trapped is one factor in shaping their form, their behaviour in daily life. Family and personality factors are the second. For example if corruption in country A is horrendously out of proportion in comparison to country B, that will greatly discolour the regime. If dynastic distortion in country A is horrendously out of proportion compared to country B (Rajapaksa dynastic excesses verses the Gandhi family ambitions) then a difference in the behaviour of the political establishments will be manifest.

Staying with the Indo-Lanka example, and taking into account geographic size, population and economic differences between the countries, I will contend that corruption in Lanka is a far more severe problem. Notice that I say severe, I avoid the word widespread. In its generality it is perhaps equally bad in India (on what scale does one measure and compare?), but here in Lanka it is closer to the epicentres of state power and no one, neither press, nor police, nor prosecutor dares question it.

It is politically driven and/or politically protected at every level, much more so than in India, relatively speaking. The domain of public criticism is free and influential in India; it is an abduction zone here. Over there they can’t seal a newspaper and drag away and lock up the editor for exposing the construction of a hotel by a member of the dynasty on land reserved for a religious site. Corruption in China too is huge and problematic, but in proportion to its size and economy it is not as severe a malady in the sense described here, not as corrosive of society and economy, not as bald-faced at the apogee of power as it is in Lanka.

So much for the cancer of corruption, let us next consider the plague of dynastic putrescence. Dynastic ambitions are not new in Lanka, India or other backward countries – or for that matter advanced countries, think of the Kennedy sprawl. The UNP was not known as the Uncle-Nephew Party without reason and the Bandaranaike-Ratwatte clan spread itself far and wide. These clannish concoctions swept into politics, the public service, business and the corporations - thank god they lacked the brains to make a takeover bid for academia and the professions.

Old style nepotism made slow and steady progress; it corrupted the body politic at a measured pace. Suddenly, in the last three years we have seen an explosive growth, a sarcoma bursting out like a great family tree in every vital organ. The Rajapaksas, new comers from a less privileged location on the social ladder, are in a hurry; the political equivalent of the economic impatience of the post-1956 new riche classes.

None of this constitutes my thesis, none of it is new, it’s all well known. My thesis is that this process has entered a spiral, a spiral spinning downward ever faster, and there is no escape, no way of stopping it. The President, even if he wants to - and I cannot vouch for that - cannot escape from the snare. The corrupt dominate political space and cabinet, the agents of the kudu vendors occupy the corridors of power, the Royal Family is spread far and wide and is beyond recall. The regime is trapped; it cannot escape the spiralling vortex of politically driven venality and dynastic sinecures.

My thesis then is that the regime has no way out, it is trapped by:(i) a cocoon of pervasive corruption spread through many levels of state and government, and (ii) voracious family beneficiaries, ravenous for more, who cannot be dislodged so late in the day. It is the blight of this land that we must live through this and make atonement by paying a political price.

Now all you good people must throw up your hands and refute my pessimism, you must reject this dismal hypothesis. How can it be! It can be salvaged, you must cry out! I would love to have a serious analyst, not a paid government slime-ball or sinecure aspiring hack, prove me wrong. Still there is a way out.

I would be overstating my case if I insisted that economic growth will not take place. Circumstances are smiling on Lanka; tourism is picking up, thanks to global factors inflation and interest rates are keeping low, investors are watchful but interested after the war, global capitalism is in the doldrums but small countries like Lanka are oddly placed in propitious niches – tea prices are holding up, oil is down, and the India-China-West tripod can be exploited to advantage by making post-war strategic corrections. Therefore, the circumstances for improvement of the economy are propitious.

I am surprised that not much comment has been made about an important factor that contributed to Rajapaksa’s victory in the rural hinterland; the improvement in rural infrastructure. Roads, culverts, electricity, improvements to schools, the possibility of getting government business transacted nearer home without coming to Colombo, these things did deliver lots of votes. Not as many as the Sinhala-Buddhism after-the-war factor, but still lots.

In gross economic terms improvement in rural infrastructure is small fare, much of it funded by foreign grants. It does not count for much against the big picture of stalled economic takeoff, and the macroeconomic malaise of budget deficits, and bleak local and foreign indebtedness. Low official figures also mask large real unemployment and underemployment; twenty three-wheeler johnnies hanging around every junction with hardly a fare-paying passenger a day, are they employed? The effect of the withdrawal of GSP+ has still to hit. The promise of collecting, transporting and marketing agricultural produce has not come to fruition. There are different ways of measuring how severely corruption pulls down economic growth, but no one contests that it is substantial. Hence though there are opportunities for enhancing growth, the impediments too are quite serious.

This is what makes the tension between currents pulling in different directions within the government interesting. A striking illustration was the difference in emphasis between the President and his Defence Secretary sibling. The former, in his Independence Day message, laid emphasis on economic growth and reconstruction. "Come and help build Sri Lanka" one newspaper headlined. On the other hand the verbal and body language of the latter in a recent BBC interview, exemplified disturbing aggression. I presume the rest of the government too is torn between such tendencies. So which will it be: Repression or Economic Development? That’s still uncertain but trying to marry the two requires us all to cry out "Yes" when the question "Does anyone know good reason why this couple should not be joined in marriage?" is asked. It won’t work.

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