Uyan and Jehan: The Tasks and Problems Ahead in Sri Lanka

I. Jayadeva Uyangoda: “Rebuilding Institutions in the Transition from Soft Authoritarianism,Island,  9 February 2015,

the THREEA political goal that warrants sustained attention of the new Sri Lankan government as well as the democratic reform constituencies is the rebuilding of public institutions of democratic governance, accountability, autonomy, and checks and balances. Democratic governance requires the presence of institutions of governance that are strong enough to withstand the pressures of authoritarian regimes and at the same time flexible enough to re-invent themselves to meet the new challenges of democratic demands, coming from various social constituencies. Such institutions are crucial for the sustenance, continuity, and survival of a democratic political order.

Similarly, the presence of strong institutions is a key feature of democratic governance, because in democracies, rulers come and go, but institutions stay to ensure the continuity of the state and its structures of governance. Besides, democracy is a rule by law, and not rule by men alone. Democratic institutions mediate the relations and resolves disputes between the citizens and the state on the basis of the principle of popular sovereignty. They mitigate, control and act as a check on the oppressive, potentially tyrannical, and violent behaviour of the state.

Thus, democratic governance has an impersonal element as well, the concrete manifestation of which is the presence of strong institutions of governance, accountability, procedural openness as well as checks and balances.

Weakening of Institutions: One key feature of the political transformation which occurred under the regime led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the deliberate undermining and weakening of democratic institutions of governance. This process began slowly during his first term, but gathered momentum and reached alarming heights after 2009, during the second term, paradoxically when the war with the LTTE came to an end. As Prof. Neil DeVotta, a Sri Lankan political scientist working in the US, has shown, Rajapaksa regime was surely authoritarian, but in its soft version.

The defining feature of soft authoritarianism as a regime model is the shift to authoritarianism while democratic elections and institutions such as parliament are still functioning and the rulers still seek political legitimacy through the electoral process. Manipulation of the electoral process, undermining of democratic institutions, frontal attacks on the rival opposition parties as well as democratic civil society, and the promotion of the personality cult of the leader are usual practices under soft authoritarianism.

The J. R. Jayewardene regime of 1978-1989 was Sri Lanka’s first encounter with soft authoritarianism. Mahinda Rajapaksa regime of 2009-1014 marked a step forward from the Jayewardene model of soft authoritarianism.

As the Sri Lankan case shows, Rajapaksa’s soft authoritarianism had a well-defined populist ideological platform, which combined economic developmentalism, xenophobic as well as majoritarian nationalism, cult of the national security state, patriotic militarism, and a machismo-type personality cult.

In contrast to soft authoritarianism, hard authoritarianism overthrows democracy, its institutions and practices, and replaces them with military-bureaucratic structures. If Rajapaksa obtained a third term at the last Presidential election, there could have been a shift from soft to hard authoritarianism, due to political, ideological and political-economy reasons. Discussion of this theme requires a separate essay.

In contrast to hard authoritarian regimes, soft authoritarian regimes––as Sri Lanka’s exceptional case demonstrates––may run the risk of being overthrown by democratic means and through mass upsurge, not even being able to mount an organised resistance to the popular electoral verdict. Dislodging a soft authoritarian regime without bloodshed by means of the assertion of popular sovereignty through the ballot paper, is perhaps a good reason for Sri Lanka to qualify to be the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Key Features:  The point that soft authoritarian regimes unlike their hard counterparts do not destroy institutions of democratic governance can be elaborated in relation to Sri Lanka’s own experience. The following are the key points:

* Establishment of the soft authoritarian regime took place against the backdrop of a protracted and violent internal war. At the end of the war, the Rajapaksa regime began a process of re-militarizing the state, paradoxically under conditions of no-war, by elevating the defense establishment to the status of a power center that could rival and even surpass the parliament and the cabinet. This led to a situation of re-configuration of the institutional equilibrium of state power in Sri Lanka in favour of the armed forces and the defense establishment, by diminishing, and not eradicating, the power and role of the democratic institutions of state power such as the legislature, the cabinet, and the judiciary.

* Diminishing the capacity and the character to be independent of the regime, of those public institutions that could and should hold the executive, legislative and security branches of the state accountable and answerable, and making them appendages of the executive, while being subservient to the supreme power holders of the regime. The Supreme Court and the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission, and the Bribery and Corruption Commission underwent this radical transformation. The office of the Election Commissioner managed to escape this fate for some inexplicable reason.

In fact, the way in which the 43rd Chief Justice was removed from office very clearly demonstrated that the Rajapaksa regime wanted to transform the Supreme Court into the ‘Justice Department’ of the office of the President, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Economic Development, all held by three brothers!

* Undermining the institutional autonomy of key public institutions such as the armed forces, the police, the University Grants Commission, the Central Bank, the Treasury, the Department of Census and Statistics, the universities, and the public service.

With regard to the armed forces, what the Rajapakse regime did was to re-define, in a thoroughly distorted manner, the concept of the ‘civilian control of the military and the police’ by subjecting them to politicization and making them institutionally subservient to the President, his Secretary of Defence and the regime. The police department became almost like a personal security agency of the leaders and members of the regime. The UGC and University Vice-Chancellors began to be proud of their achievement of turning the institutions of learning and autonomy they headed into party branches of the ruling SLFP.

The economic statistics churned out by the Central Bank, the Treasury, and the Department of Statistics lost credibility primarily due to the voluntary political subservience to the regime, proudly displayed by heads of these unique public institutions which have a history of prestige, relative autonomy, and public trust. With political patronage earned through political subservience, the gentlemen who headed the Treasury and the Central Bank became in their public conduct, the most arrogant public servants one can encounter only once in one’s lifetime.

Tasks Ahead: Now, against this backdrop, if the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe administration is really keen about restoring democratic governance, it has an urgent, although somewhat difficult, task at hand; rebuilding the public institutions of democratic governance.

Difficulties should not deter them from undertaking the responsibility, because without re-building independent and democratic public institutions, there is no way for them to serve their own agenda of good governance. This, in a way, is a mini revolution. It may be the case that Messers Sirisena and Wickramasinghe were not adequately alert to the very serious political and policy implications of their election slogan of ‘good governance’, when they used it, quite effectively, to persuade the majority of the Sri Lankan voters, just a month ago.

Sri Lanka’s political challenge today is centered on the task of effective transition from soft authoritarianism to democratic governance in a manner that would make the return to authoritarianism — whether by Sirisena, Wickramasinghe or Rajapakse — difficult, if not impossible. That calls for a well-thought out and comprehensive agenda for rebuilding and re-vitalizing the institutions of democratic governance, accountability, autonomy, and checks and balances.

The commitment of the present ruling political coalition to this agenda does not seem to be either strong or heart-warming. Therefore, this is a theme that requires the intense attention of the JVP, under the leadership of Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the seemingly reformed JHU, and the civil society movements such as the FUTA, trade unions, human rights and women’s organizations and various coalitions for good governance and democracy.

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II. Jehan Perera: “Ethnic nationalism remains a potent force until supplanted,” Island, 9 February 2015

In the immediate aftermath of the change of government and government policy following the presidential election there has been a flurry of visits to Sri Lanka by representatives of foreign governments. The representatives of the foreign governments who are currently visiting Sri Lanka come with a broad mandate to get acquainted with the new situation and to assess the prospects for sustained change. Sri Lanka has several unique factors that give it an importance that is disproportionate to its size. Its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and its large and active Diaspora in many countries would be two of the issues that cater to the self-interest of those countries. There are also more altruistic explanations too.


The peaceful transition from an increasingly authoritarian government that appeared to be entrenched in power to a multi-party government in which there is cohabitation between a president and prime minister who come from rival parties has few if any precedents. The new government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the international community is another positive change of direction. The constructive engagement of the present time in contrast to the approach of the former government whose lack of engagement with the international community was based on an emphasis on Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. In their eyes, engagement accompanied by change was equated as giving in to international pressure. The former government feared that any accommodation on issues of human rights would open the door to an international probe on war crimes.

The outcome of this refusal to engage was detrimental to the country’s national interests. The former government’s response to the international pressure on it was to appoint its own bodies, such as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing Persons Commission. But even here its implementation of recommendations made was not convincing and did not give any appearance of a change of heart. This led to the gradual imposition of economic sanctions, such as the withdrawal of EU GSP Plus concession, and to the setting up of the independent investigation into war crimes by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This special UN mandated team is scheduled to present its findings at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council meeting. The report is likely to generate controversy within Sri Lanka, both on account of its findings and the recommendations that are made.

CONTRARY MESSAGES:  The representatives of the international governments who are currently visiting Sri Lanka are getting two contrary messages regarding the timing of the release of the UN report on war crimes. One opinion is that they should seek the release of the report as scheduled in March. The other opinion is that the report should be released after the general elections scheduled for June. The first of these two points of view reflect the concern that if the report is not released for the March session of the UNHRC, it may be overtaken by other events and lose its relevance. The other view is that an early release of the report, in the run up to the general election, will enable it to be used as a political weapon within Sri Lanka, and this will be injurious to inter-ethnic harmony and reconciliation in the country.

The promise of the joint opposition, which has been repeated after President Sirisena’s election victory, that the new government will hold snap general elections as promised in their 100 day programme may come back to haunt them. Elections in a multi ethnic and multi religious society can become divisive as rival political parties seek to gather votes to themselves. One of the easier ways is to rouse up issues of ethnic identity and the threats to one ethnic group from the others. Now that the joint opposition forms the new government they have to face this challenge, and the reality of competition between political parties that formed their joint opposition alliance. But this will also narrow the options for change, and for dealing with contentious issues, prior to the holding of the general elections.

The victory of President Sirisena at the presidential election was by a very narrow margin. Although he got the largest part of his vote from the Sinhalese community, his opponent, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, got even more votes from the Sinhalese community than did President Sirisena. The former president utilized the power of ethnic nationalism to the maximum to bolster his voter base. This is a reality that those who are desirous of change in the polity, be they Tamil nationalists or international human rights activists, need to be conscious of. It is also a reality that the new government is also conscious of, and makes them careful in relation to nationalism. The defeat of the former president who sought to mobilize Sinhalese nationalism will be seen as a setback for Sinhalese nationalism. Therefore the new president will need to be especially careful not to make the Sinhalese community feel that their interests are being undermined. It is necessary for the political leadership of the ethnic minorities to realize this and to give more time and space to the new government.

TAMIL NATIONALISM: Despite the need to be cautious the government has made some symbolic concessions to reconciliation. At the Independence Day celebration a statement on peace and reconciliation was read out in all three languages. The statement responded to the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation which recommended that a separate event be set apart on the National Day to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict. The Declaration of Peace stated, among others, that “As we commemorate the 67th Independence Day of our nation today, we pay our respects to all the citizens of this country, of all ethnicities and religions, who lost their lives due to the tragic conflict that affected this land for over three decades, and for all the victims of violence since Independence.” The breadth of this statement included the rebels who died as well, not only in the LTTE led separatist conflict but in the JVP insurrections as well.

However, reflecting the power of nationalism on both sides of the ethnic divide, the participation of some of the top leaders of the TNA at this year’s Independence Day celebration, after a break of over four decades, has given rise to controversy within the Tamil polity. Tension within the TNA which is the largest Tamil parliamentary party has risen over the participation of two of its leader R Sampanthan and deputy secretary M A Sumanthiran at this event. The last time the Tamil leadership attended the ceremony was in 1972 prior to the passage of the first Republican Constitution which replaced the Soulbury Constitution bequeathed to Sri Lanka by the departing British colonial rulers. The 1972 Constitution was passed without accepting any of the proposals made by the mainstream Tamil parties, which saw the worsening of the political alienation of the Tamils from the Sri Lankan polity. Those who opposed their participation appear to have done so as there is still no agreement on a political solution that would meet the aspirations of the Tamil people.

The role of the ethnic and religious minorities in the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election was considerable. Between 80 to 95 per cent of the Tamil and Muslim vote respectively went to President Sirisena. This has led to a renewed sense of confidence within the minority communities of their power and role within the Sri Lankan polity. Along with their greater sense of confidence is an expectation that the wrongs of the past will be rectified soon. It is to be expected that there will be impatience that the political and human rights they have long fought for and lost would soon be vindicated following the election result. The victory of President Sirisena at the presidential election was only made possible by the joining together of a rainbow coalition of opposition parties representing different political ideologies and ethnicities. But this has not reduced the power of narrow ethnic nationalism in the country. It continues to exist on all sides and will continue to be a potent force until supplanted by a broader Sri Lankan nationalism, as evidenced by the Tamil leaders who chose to attend the Independence Day celebrations.

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