Strong in Appearance but Weak in Conduct:

The Post-war Sri Lankan State and the Nemesis of Rajapaksa Regime


by Prof. Gamini Keerawella

Before July 2013 Rathupaswala was a little known village near the emerging township of Weliveriya. The people in Rathupaswala and in a few adjoining villages gathered together in the month of July 2013 to launch a peaceful protest against the authorities for turning a blind eye to their burning problem relating to pollution of water in the area. They charged that the water in the area was polluted due to the release of industrial waste by a factory nearby manufacturing latex gloves by processing natural rubber. On July 16 the villagers lodged their formal complaint at the regional office of the Central Environment Authority in Gampaha. The lukewarm response on the part of the authorities to the urgent issue affecting their day to day life prompted the angry villagers to intensify the protest on July 27. In the backdrop of the escalation of protest, a discussion was held between the government representatives and the villagers but the parties failed to reach an acceptable settlement. Subsequently, the protest escalated further and on August 1 the villagers began to block the main road. At this point the government decided to summon Special Task Force and the Army and they used force including live bullets and water cannon to disperse the crowd. The outcome of the use of military force against the protesters was the death of three protesters, in addition to hundreds of major and minor casualties.

This was not the first incident of this nature that took place in the South since the end of war. In June 2011, when the workers of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) staged a non-violent political protest demanding the withdrawal of proposed legislation relating to their pension, the government mobilized the police against the agitators. The police used water cannon, tear gas and batons and rounds of live bullets. As a result, a 21 year-old worker in the FTZ died from gunshot wounds and scores of casualties were reported. After the incident, the government withdrew the proposed legislation. Again in February 2012, when small scale fishermen in Chilaw area took to the streets in protest against rising fuel prices, the police used tear gas, water cannons and live bullets to stop demonstrators killing one person and wounding three. The protest was stopped but not the anger over the use of force.

When one looks at the above chain of events that took a score of human lives it is not possible to avoid raising two key questions as to the conduct of the Rajapaksa regime. First, why did the political authorities fail to find a negotiated settlement to the issues of the people before their protests grew out of proportion to a point of no control? Second, why did the government use such an excessive military force against unarmed civilians engaged in ‘non-`violent’ protests and legitimate political action in a democratic framework?

The use of coercive force including military power against unarmed people engaging in legitimate political protest is not a characteristic of a stable and confident state. It definitely reflects a demeanor of a weak state and a threatened regime. However, the Rajapaksa regime put up a façade of strength, especially after the war. President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed all the credit for eradicating terrorism and liberating the country from the throes of separatism. The euphoria at the end of war was visible everywhere. In addition, by enticing the crossover of MPs from the opposition, the regime was able to secure the two-thirds majority in the Parliament which hitherto has been considered unattainable under the present system of proportional representation. Furthermore, the opposition was intensely divided and engaged in fratricidal conflicts allowing the regime a free play in the power game.

The protest of the people of Rathupaswala and adjoining villages was by no means a threat to the existence of the regime. It was simply a civil society initiative with no political party behind them. Why was the regime, outwardly stable and powerful, compelled to employ such repressive methods instead of seeking peaceful settlement of the conflicts? This is exactly where the paradox of Rajapaksa regime lies: despite all the politically favorable conditions, the regime was essentially insecure and suffering from a besieged mentality. The mobilizing of armed squadrons, with uniforms and without, and the use of fire power against its own population on non-violent protests was definitely a demeanor of a weak regime. Its nemesis should be analyzed in the light of the contradiction between the appearance and the reality in governance in post-war Sri Lanka.

Contradiction between appearance and reality

In order to understand this contradiction it is necessary to pay attention to certain salient features of the Sri Lankan state. These features evolved over quite a long period of time. However, they became more conspicuous and got accelerated under the Rajapaksa regime after the war. As far as its political implications are concerned, the most fundamental among them was the disappearance of the boundary between the state and the regime. The regime is a crucial component of the state but it is something more than the regime. There is a subtle and important difference between these institutions and maintaining the difference is very important for the democratic political process. It is this difference that underlies the crucial democratic principles such as the rule of law, the constitutionalism and other fundamentals of good governance. The failure to identify and demarcate the sites of two parallel institutions and to mutually respect the spheres of each other disturbed the balance in mechanisms of democratic governance. The process of infringing the relative autonomy of state structures and making them overtly subservient became more naked under Rajapaksa. The state and the regime become one entity; the Rajapaksa regime tied up the security of the regime with national security. As the domestic security of the regime was tied with national security the regime invoked the concept of national security to justify the use of force to suppress legitimate political protest. With the margin between the state and the regime blurred, the Rajapaksa regime manipulated and subverted the institutions of the state to serve its narrow political interests.

The disappearance of the margin between the state and the regime led to another related development: the merging of political power with state power. The political power became de facto and de jure state power. It had serious political implications. First, those who held political power in the regime saw no limit to their exercise of power and authority. The institutions of the state were made subservient to the narrow political interests of the regime. The institutions of power and authority of the state became the instruments of power and authority of the ruling alliance. Second, the ability to exert control over the state institutions went to the wider section of political agents through the party in power. Those who exercised power and authority over state institutions and the bureaucracy were not necessarily linked to any legislative structure; what was required was only to indicate that they represent the political power of the regime. The political authority prevails over the all state institutions. In deciding who heads the local state institutions such as the police, the Divisional Secretariat and state schools in the area, the voice of the local political leadership was decisive. All internal departmental mechanisms and institutional structures and procedures were made secondary to the political will. What really happened in the constitutional sphere along with this was that all remaining barriers, checks and balances to the exercise of power by the all powerful Executive Presidency have been removed one by one. It peaked with the 18th amendment to the constitution in September 2010. As such, the regime weaved step by step all the constitutional paraphernalia required for constitutional despotism. When people lose their faith in the institutional apparatus of the state and in the administration of justice, the only alternative left for them is to take the law into their hands.

In order to locate these trends in a broad politico-historical canvas we need to pay attention to two seemingly contradictory but in fact interrelated political developments. Increasing concentration of state power at the center in the hands of the executive president is the first and the more conspicuous tendency. The second is the co-option of a large section of political agents of intermediary layers to state power. Though these two processes are seemingly contradictory, in really it is not. Dialectically they form the unity of the order. The executive president with unprecedented concentration of power through constitutional and political means is in need of a wide array of operators and agents to exercise his authority at different levels—centre, districts and village. There are many ‘owners of the state’ at different levels. As a result, there are many personalities who can claim ‘I am the state’ in their respective geographical spheres. These two processes, namely, concentration of power at the center and the co-optation of provincial political commissars as sub-contractors of power formed the unity of the system. In the light of working of the political order it was far from a modern democracy; it is in fact a form of ‘neo political feudalism’ in democratic garb. Furthermore, those who exercised state power believed that they ‘owned’ the state and it is their cardinal duty to protect it as it is. As their access to state power solely depended on their political power they were ready to do anything to stay in power. It was a matter of life and death for them. Their entire social recognition and command rest on political power. Many of them would become non-entities without political power. The Provincial Councils system was introduced in 1987 as a second tier of government in order to promote devolution of power. Without accompanying devolution-friendly political culture and practices of good governance, the prevailing political culture and practices subverted the entire Provincial Councils system to make it another avenue for the parasitic ‘political class’ to gain access to state resources.

The economic and political exigencies linked with these developments demanded continuous expansion of the public sector. The need for direct intervention of the state in economic affairs was presented after 1956 as a necessary step to facilitate economic development and ensure distributive justice. Before long it was realized that the expansion of the state sector would bring an enormous reservoir of resources and economic activities of the country under the control of those in power. The direct interventionist role of the state expanded continuously and the state sector has become an overburdened Goliath. It is a holy cow that no one dared to touch. Under Rajapaksa many state-run, service providing institutions in effect became rent collection institutions. Many of them are run at a huge loss mainly due to sheer mismanagement and bureaucratic and political corruption, according to the COPE report. It revealed numerous instances of waste, corruption and mismanagement of State funds running into billions of rupees, in all the examined institutions, with little or no follow-up action to bring to book those responsible for such lapses. The Ceylon Electricity Board, The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and MIHIN Lanka are not the exceptions but the rule. Political power was the key to gain access to state resources, the entry point to the El Dorado. As this system evolved numerous avenues were offered to the ‘political class’ to extract state resources at various levels. The political power not only bestowed them social recognition but also offered wide opportunities to siphon state resources. The unimaginable wealth amassed by those who were attached to the ruling alliance for some years cannot be explained otherwise. On the one hand there are accepted concessions and privileges to the top rung of the ruling alliance. Who would get contracts and sub-contracts in all big development projects was decided by the top political leadership. The second and third layers in the political agents were also compensated by making other small-scale state contracts and sub-contracts to them. Without this filtering process the system could not be maintained. All these developments contributed to a sea change in the attitude of the people towards the state and the Rajapaksa regime.

Parallel to these new developments as to the nature and the functions of the state, the entire political order was also gradually changed from a party-centered political system to an individual-centered one. The gap between the party hierarchy and the members became very wide. The party leader prevailed over the party organization firmly, making the party only an appendage to the leader. It was the not the party organization but the leader as an individual with the counsel of his personal advisers that decided policy directions of the party. As far as party matters were concerned, all other factors were secondary to the will of the leader. The personal loyalty to the leader was more important than the party loyalty. The entire state craft and political order gravitated around the Fuehrer and everything in the state came under his will. What matters in this context was not policy or political ideology but the loyalty to the leader. In this context, moving from one party to another was very easy.

Ethnic conflict: a key aspect of the state crisis

By the time of the end of the Elam War in 2009 the Sri Lankan state and political order was faced with the strong need of profound political reforms in order to check continuous erosion of democratic institutions and processes and to arrest the institutional collapse. Five years after the end of the war, in the absence of any meaningful democratic reforms, the entire political system was affected with multiple political maladies. The Rajapaksa regime believed that the people in the South could be made to overlook the issue of democratic political reform in the context of pervasive war triumphalism following the defeat of the LTTE. However, it failed to recognize the fact that the issue of democratic reforms in the South and the ethnic issue in the North constituted different though organically linked elements of the crisis of the state. In the final analysis the ethnic crisis and the resultant Elam war was an outcome of the failures of liberal democratic project in Sri Lanka. The conclusion of the civil war does not mark the end of the end of ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. However, it opened up a new political space to have a new political dialogue among all communities in order to find a mutually acceptable solution to the national question.

Thus, with the end of the war Sri Lanka reached a critical historical juncture. This historical moment offered Sri Lanka many opportunities and possibilities; it was also impregnated with new challenges and problems. The challenge was how to move from conflict to post-conflict society. The transition was not a fait accompli with the silencing of the guns. It had to be a long and multi-deck process that needs to be carried out assiduously with a clear vision as to future direction of the post-war Sri Lankan state. It had to be an integral part of broader systemic political reforms in the direction of restructuring the state. The modus operandi of Rajapaksa regime during the last five years clearly showed it had no political will or vision to proceed in that direction.

Another striking feature in the post-war scenarios in the North is the failure of the regime to move away from the war-security framework and mechanism to a post-war framework. But security of the state continued to remains the highest priority. However, in the post-war context it is necessary to develop new security concepts to suit ground realities with a clear vision and direction as to the role of the military. In this context, any reemergence of a secessionist threat has to be checked in the political sphere. After a realistic assessment of security needs, new security operational mechanisms need to be introduced. Visible military presence in every nook and corner of the North is practically counter-productive and security interests of the state could be taken care of by well-trained, strong and smartly less-visible military presence with a new security perspective.

The military victory over the LTTE strengthened the narrow perception of state-centered national security. The concept of national security goes beyond military-strategic security of the state. The security of collective identities and individual security must be a part of national security. In the post-war context, the Sri Lankan state cannot afford to consider a section of its own citizenry a security threat. The difference between dissent and subversion must be identified. Dissent is an important safety valve necessary for healthy democracy. When the regime failed to make this difference and act accordingly, any democratic dissent and peaceful protest of ordinary citizens of the country came to be considered a security threat that should be suppressed by using force instead of dealing with it in the political plane. The lack of vision as to post-war reconciliation made the regime consider those who were not with the ruling alliance in the North a security threat to the state.

It became abundantly clear after five years of the conclusion of the war that the Rajapaksa regime failed to transform the hard-fought military victory against the LTTE into a foundation for durable peace. In order make use of the opportunities offered at the post-war historical juncture it is imperative to have both a clear political vision and a will to achieve a political solution to the ethnic issue. The first concrete step needed to be taken in this direction was to widen democratic political space to integrate those who felt alienated on ethnic grounds from the decision-making process and institutions and processes of power and authority. The ultimate outcome of the inability to summon the political will and courage to initiate reforms to promote democracy and national reconciliation was the gradually slipping away of this unique opportunity to build a cohesive society and a healthy state. The real objective of political reforms must be the empowerment of the people through widespread distribution of political power. The devolution of power must be viewed from this perspective and the devolution would not be effective without relevant democratic political practices and mind-set. This underscored the importance of democratic reforms and good governance, the need of the day.

In order to negate the call for democratic reforms, the Rajapaksa regime needed an alternative mission. In this context, the regime assumed a mission of ‘saving the motherland’ and for that it needed an ‘enemy’. Even after the defeating the LTTE, there were ‘enemies’ of the state everywhere. There were conspiracies against the state in every nook and corner. The main task of the state was to identify and counter internal and external enemies who were waiting for an opportunity to destabilize and divided the country. Therefore, any means used to defeat or control these enemies was justified. Thus, there came to be only two types of citizens: patriotic and non-patriotic. The criterion was very simple; those who support the regime were patriotic. It created fear and thereby curtailed and narrowed the range of public debate on broader political and economic issues.

A direct consequence of the failure of the regime to embark on necessary political reform was the continuation of Sri Lanka as a weak state, curiously even after militarily defeating one of the most ruthless and well organized terrorist groups in the world. The political space opened up by the collapse of the LTTE could have been used to chart out a new political path towards a strong state by initiating political reforms to address the ethno-political crisis that pushed Sri Lanka to a protracted civil war. The strength or weakness of the state principally correlates with the degree of socio-political cohesion, not always with military power. Some countries that can claim to be militarily strong are in fact weak states. The concept of strong and weak states is based on the structural component of state and there is no single indicator to define the difference between strong and weak states. Barry Buzan identifies a number of conditions that can be found in weak states: high levels of political violence, conspicuous role for political police in the everyday life of citizens, major political conflict over what ideology will be used to organized the state, lack of a coherent national identity, or the presence of contending national identities within the state, lack of a clear and observed hierarchy of political authority and high degree of control over the media.

In weak states the challenge to the key components of state, namely the idea of the state, institutions of the state and its human and physical base emanates internally. These challenges are diverse and come from different forms. For example, the functional capacity and the legitimacy of institutions of state are destroyed by over-politicization, political interference and nepotism. As a result, the citizens of the state do not have a faith and confidence in state institutions and they are often subjected to the wrath of the people. In this situation, weak states define its national security in terms of internal threats. The threatened regime resorts to coercion rather than accommodation and compromise. The manner in which Rajapaksa regime handled aspirations of the citizens is an ideal example for a conduct of a threatened regime in a weak state even it appears to be politically powerful. It explains the nemesis of the Rajapaksa regime.

The political solution to the ethnic problem and the issue of political reform in the country are two intertwined elements of the solutions to same crisis of the post-colonial state. The ethnic reconciliation and political integration in the North and the East must be a part of broader political reforms. The rebuilding and rehabilitation of North cannot be isolated from the political reforms in the South. Without political empowerment of the people in the North, true national cohesion is not possible. It should be done in the context of broad democratic reforms to ensure good governance. Therefore, the key to political, social and economic rebuilding of the North is democratic political reforms in the South.

In the changed political environment after the war the Rajapaksa regime had a historic opportunity to embark on essential democratic political reforms in order to restructure the state and set a new direction to politics. The changed conditions in the ethnic issue in the North and the multi-faceted political crisis in the South made democratic political reforms a key issue in the post-war political discourse. Instead of bringing necessary democratic political reforms into forefront what the Rajapaksa regime really pursued was the ‘national security state’ project. The democratic impulses of society and the thirst of the people for good governance and rule of law forced the opposition forces to unite and provide catalysts for the nemesis of the Rajapaksa regime.

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