A return to the Mahavamsa era? The game of thrones

Indi Samarajiva, in The Nation, 27 May 2012

The Mahavamsa (a history of Sri Lanka) is full of conflicts between generals and kings. Usually, the more bloodthirsty and unscrupulous would win. Our current elected ruler Mahinda Rajapaksa has had his own general conflicts, namely with one Sarath Fonseka. In the old days, Fonseka would have staged a coup, as in literally try to cut Mahinda’s head off, and Mahinda would – if that failed – tie him to four elephants and split his parts asunder. Can’t do that anymore. Instead Fonseka ran for office and lost and Mahinda tossed him in jail. Now, however, Fonseka is out. Which is weird.In the old days, Sri Lankans played the game of thrones. To quote from the (awesome) TV series of the same name, “When you play a game of thrones you win or you die.” Today, however, you can lose without dying. Which is nice.

Power transition: Nowadays there are pressures on leaders to not behave like brutes, and Sri Lankan power, in general, transitions peacefully. At various points the Bandaranaike and Jayawardena families have had near absolute power which was not nearly as absolute as they thought. Premadasa is one counter example that ended with a bomb, but even he served at the mercy of significant democratic forces. All this is good, and it’s why neither Fonseka nor Mahinda is dead and why the country is not a mess. This is how such conflicts used to go down, from the Sixteen Kings:

“Thereupon the powerful general Kitti had the eyes of this king put out… Having deposed this Monarch, the general Ayasmanta, a man of almost unsurpassable courage, a supporter of his royal family, prudently had the government carried on with wise policy for six months…
Thereupon there reigned for one year a royal prince Dhammasoka by name, who on coming to the throne was aged three months. The Mahadipada Anikanga came at the head of a great army from the Cola kingdom, slew the ruler in Pulatthinagara, Prince Dhammasoka, together with the general Ayasmanta and reigned seventeen days. But the general, Vikkantacamunakka, the villain, slew the Monarch Anikanga…” (The Sixteen Kings, Culavamsa I think).

Power is not so unstable now, which is a good thing, because such jockeying only really happens in an extractive economy where average people are getting screwed and the strong are fighting over who gets the spoils.

Get power or die trying: My only wonder is what the play is now. In the Mahavamsa, every general conflict proceeds towards the same inevitable conclusion – get power or die trying. What we have here is a novel situation where the General is out, but stripped of his rank, his Parliament seat, possibly his civil rights and with his only shot being democratic rather than force. Yet, an election is four or five years in the future. There have been kings stupid enough to take Generals back into military service, or to let them escape, but I’ve never read a situation where the General was out but so hampered by invisible fetters. Mahinda has presumably planned this so that Fonseka was locked up while he locked power down and then out before he dies in jail (he’s in poor health, what from losing much of his innards in the war). So, now Fonseka is out and criticizing the government, but power has already been consolidated and it look like he will be tied up in court cases for the rest of his life. But, as with any reading of the Mahavamsa, you never know. Power is more predictable than before, but it’s still not predictable. The game of constitutional thrones is less bloody than our past, but the future is no more clear.

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Filed under historical interpretation, life stories, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, world affairs

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