Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dayan Jayatilleka on democratic resistence

Dayan Jayatilleke has articulated a manifesto for what he calls democratic resistance.While Mr Jayatilleka's learning and erudition are beyond doubt, he seems naive when he hopes that "almost nothing done can be reversed when elections come around".

The error lies in assuming that the holding of elections could result in a change in regime. This has happened only once in the last 32 years - in 1994 when Chandrika Kumaratunga succeeded in toppling the UNP regime, which, as we were ceaselessly reminded, ruled for 17 years. We were only spared the propaganda once the present regime clocked up its 17th year. They are about to embark on their 19th year and show no sign of slowing down.

Under previous constitutions, incumbent regimes changed in 1956, 1960, 1965, 1970 and 1977. In the thirty years since 1948 five changes in incumbency took place.

Since the constitution of 1978 there has only been a lone instance of an incumbent losing: in 1994. Given that the 'born loser' Ranil Wickremasinghe lead the opposition at the time, perhaps the loss is not so surprising.

It is also worth noting that each and every incumbent, bar one, succeeded in serving the full term permitted under the constitution, until handing over to his chosen successor within the party. The only one who failed to serve the full two terms permitted by the constitution was Premadasa, who was assassinated.

The reason for the lack of change is in the constitution: the incumbent is all-powerful, has control of all the resources of the state that can be wielded against his opponents. The recent amendments to the constitution have increased the power of the Executive enormously; most notably by abolishing term limits and independent commissions. Further amendments to curb the little independence enjoyed by the judiciary should seal the power of the Executive permanently.

The essence of a functioning democracy are the institutional curbs placed, by constitution or tradition, on the power of the Executive. Traditionally the institutional curbs comprise:

a) an independent civil service (which runs day to day administration, serving citizens equally irrespective of political affiliation);
b) an independent judiciary;
c) the separation of powers between the legislature and executive and the accountability of the executive to parliament;
d) a free press which exposes the faults of Government.

In the current set up where members cross over for cash reward, parliament is little better than a rubber stamp. The civil service was disbanded in 1965 and its last vestiges of independence probably disappeared in the 1980's. Of the press, enough has been said, most that are left standing have learned that it is best to tow the line and the judiciary, already greatly compromised, have now been brought to heel.

As there are no institutional checks left, the rulers enjoy unprecedented power to distribute largesse to voters at elections, intimidate or cripple opponents, disenfranchise minorities, stuff ballots and otherwise 'manage' the electoral process to deliver expected results.We have witnessed many instances of this in the past, only the degree of the tactics need to be increased to compensate for the inevitable decline in popularity.

Eventually the tactics will need to be so blatant that only the blind will refuse to see, but elections will continue to be held, regularly. Even Robert Mugabe managed to to be returned to office, with come conviction, over a good thirty years.

Of the four points Mr Jayatilleke highlights only the fourth: that the most significant political enterprises in the politics of this island have taken the form of ruptures with pre-existing organisations; has any validity. In this case, as other actors and organisations have no power and do not matter, the rupture will take the form of a family squabble.

This is the other important point of note: previously the baton of power was handed down within the party; as in the case of communist China; now it will be handed down within the family, in the traditional feudal fashion.

His other points have some meaning only in the context of a reasonably free election. For the reasons pointed out above, elections are heavily weighted in favour of the incumbent and are thus hardly fair, even if they may be reasonably free, which may not necessarily be the case.  


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A never ending nightmare: will 2015 witness a recurrence of 1915?

"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience." George Bernard Shaw

"The Buddhist-Muslim riots of 1915 are often depicted as an eruption of religious animosity and friction between Sinhalese Buddhists and a section of the Muslim population. According to this viewpoint, the riots were sparked by religious fanaticism as the Buddhists saw in the ‘intolerance and aggressiveness of the Muslims, a permanent danger to their religious practices and celebration of their national festivals.’ This interpretation of the riots, however, disregards several signficant economic and political developments which influenced the events of 1915 and leaves unanswered the important question of why, if the riots were merely a reflection of religious tensions, the British colonial officials took such drastic measures during the riots and exacted severe reprisals long after the rioting was over.
In the years before the riots, an awakening had taken place among the Sinhalese Buddhists which was not only a reaction to British political domination, but also an act of self-assetion against the economic power of minority groups in Ceylon. The rioteers of 1915 have often been portrayed as criminals and hooligans out for plunder; but there is evidence that in Colombo it was not the criminal and rootless elements who led the riots, but the skilled, better-paid, more militant segments of the working class. The government was aware of this potentially explosive facet of the Colombo rioting, which turned into an expression of revolt against economic exploitation. Furthermore, many British officials in Ceylon, alarmed by the spread of nationalism and industrial unrest in both India and Ceylon and perhaps apprehensive about the prospects of German intrigue in Asia during the First World War, were convinced that the rioting was directed against British rule…" Kumari Jayewardena (1970). Extracted from here.
The quote from Kumari Jayewardena is eerily reminiscent of sentiments being expressed today. DBS Jeyaraj's article on an incident in Kuliyapitiya one of a series that have taken place of late; sets a pattern that should alert the authorities to trouble brewing.

While a report from a commission to learn lessons lies mouldering in the grave, the promise of the appointment of yet another parliamentary select committee to investigate the problem gives little hope. They will produce yet another report that will be buried, assuming that they even get as far as producing a report, while the storm clouds continue to gather.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Kotagala - Nuwara Eliya Road (A7) in a bad state

Just a travel update, the Kotagala - Nuwara Eliya road (the main A7 road, see map) is under repair and in a very poor state. The heavy rain and recent landslides seem to have washed away most of the surface of the road leaving it a mass of pot holes.

The road is not impassable for cars but it is very bumpy and can take a severe toll on the suspension. Would advise anyone contemplating travel on this road to do so in a high clearance vehicle (van or 4WD). There is an alternate route, through the Fordyce Estate (see map) , a longer route on estate roads (which are not great either) and difficult to navigate (as I am told it is not well sign posted) so get clear directions from someone familiar with the area or have the route premarked on Google maps. On the plus side, this route is supposed to be the prettier of the two.

The repairs seem to be part of a huge exercise in road widening so are likely to take some time to complete.

One of the mysteries on the road were short stretches (of 2-3km) that had been repaired which were sandwiched between long tracts of rutty road. The worrying thing was that on several of the rutty stretches there were no building materials or people in sight, although there was some visible activity on others.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Democracy works

DD has posted something that concludes with the  above line. I tend to think it does as well, but why?

Most probably because in Britain (and in the 'West') it has evolved and been refined over time. The freedoms of the citizenry of England were hard fought and won over the course of many centuries. The freedom that they enjoy is freedom from the King, once all powerful, now reduced to a mere figurehead, sometimes an object of ridicule. The concept is now in their bones and the king dare not reassert his authority.

When Britain abandoned its empire in haste, democracy, the only form of governance they knew, was transplanted. In the wilting heat of the tropics the flower only took root in a handful of places. It flowered wherever the gardeners left the plant in its pot and did not prune it too harshly, until it became a part of the natural way of life, its processes beyond question.

In places where, post-independence it was tinkered with, it withered.

The various kings who evolved over eons to lead the many tribes of mankind did so because they offered their tribesmen protection from external enemies and as an arbiter of internal disputes. Later minimal public services were offered. The king was the most powerful, he came to run the militia, so he made the rules. Naturally there were costs associated with this, so the king extracted money from the tribe to pay for these costs-this was taxation.

The problem was that eventually the King tended to start misusing the proceeds of taxes for his own benefit and otherwise abusing power. As the King had the army with him, doing anything about an exploitative ruler was a difficult struggle.

The fruit of that struggle was democracy. In Sri Lanka with two new constitutions and almost a score of amendments to the last one; the tree has been dug up at the very roots. A feudal kingdom is in the ascendent. "We shall reclaim our glorious history", cry the courtiers. The population, blinded by their hatred of the decadent West, applaud.

Our rulers claim to offer protection; from enemies without and terrorists within, just as the kings of old did. Sure, they will save us from our enemies but who will save us from them?

LBO has an excellent article on a related aspect.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anniversaries, 2003, 1933 and 2013

Anniversaries are strange things, the only ones worth remembering as children are birthdays and Christmas. As adults, they matter less and are mostly a preoccupation of the old.

The old have little to look forward to and as the sands of time pass, school reunions and obituary notices take on an importance that is little understood by the young.

Looking back is not only an exercise in nostalgia, it also an opportunity to reflect on events past. Distance brings detachment and perspective.

I just realised that it was ten years ago this year that the UNF government was sacked (that took place on the 4th of November), but in January 2003 we were not to know how fast we were approaching the cliff face. Those were heady days of boundless optimism and seen from the perspective of today, from an altogether different era, closer to 1953 than 2013.

This month, another anniversary has crept up, nearly unnoticed. It was in the January of 1933 that Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and by August 1934, he had declared himself Führer - the leader of Germany. In a few short months he dismembered Germany's democracy.

A mysterious fire in the Reichstag in January 1933, provided the excuse to crack down on the communists who were said to be behind the attack. Hitler urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to counter the "ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany". (Wikipedia)

The Reichstag Fire Decree was used as the legal basis of imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis, and to suppress publications not considered “friendly” to the Nazi cause. The government instituted mass arrests of Communists, including all of the Communist parliamentary delegates. With them gone and their seats empty, the Nazis went from being a plurality party to the majority (Wikipedia).

In March 1933, the Nazi's passed the Enabling act. The formal name of the Enabling Act was Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (English: "Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich"). (Wikipedia)

An innocuous act for the uplifting of lives. Now why does that ring a bell?

It was passed with the assistance of the SA (Sturm Abteilung also known as stormtroopers or brownshirts) who intimidated the opposition.

Before the vote, Hitler made a speech in which he pledged to use restraint.
"The government will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures...The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one," Hitler told the Reichstag. (Link to source)

Under the Act, the government had acquired the authority to pass laws without either parliamentary consent or control. Unprecedentedly, these laws could (with certain exceptions) even deviate from the Constitution. The Act effectively eliminated the Reichstag as active players in German politics, though the existence of the body, alongside that of the Reichsrat and of the office of President were protected under the Act (nonetheless, the two latter were abolished in April and August 1934, respectively). (Wikipedia)

In April 1933, the system of local government was reorganised with the country being administered by 42 local Gaus which are run by a Gauleiter. These Gaus are separated into areas, localities and blocks of flats run by a Blockleiter.

With effective control of local government the Nazi's replaced anti-Nazi teachers and university professors and encouraged German's to report on opponents and "grumblers".

On the 2nd of May Trade Unions were banned, on 14 July political parties were banned. In April 1934 People's Courts were set up.

The "People's Court" was set up outside the operations of the constitutional frame of law. The court had jurisdiction over a rather broad array of "political offenses," which included crimes like black marketeering, work slowdowns, defeatism and treason against the Third Reich. These crimes were viewed by the court as Wehrkraftzersetzung ("disintegration of defensive capability") and were accordingly punished severely. The death penalty was meted out in numerous cases in this court. (Wikipedia)

In a few short months, while the world looked on in wonder and bemusement, Germany was set on the path that would lead to the destruction of Europe.

When the fighting stopped lessons were thought to have been learned. In great hope the United Nations was formed to prevent the outbreak of wars. A global policeman to step in when things looked like they were getting out of hand.

As Sri Lanka looks set to clash once again with the UN in March 2013, is it time to stop and reflect?

A good summary of Hitler's rise to power is here. The key structure through which the Nazi's exercised power is here. Some further reading here.

Update: Berlin commemorates Hitler's rise to power.

Christmas dilemma

Why do we always have so much brandy butter left after the pudding is finished?

Happens every year and have often resorted to eating the left over brandy butter with plantains.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Animal Farm - Colombo style

The United States, the Great Satan to our good friends from Iran (we think of them in the same terms, although we are not quite so impolite as to openly say so) have had a wee problem with their embassy in Colombo.

A monkey (not Comrade Wimal W who has been seen scaling the walls of many an embassy and may be easily mistaken for one on account of his on his activities if not just his appearance ) had invaded the premises.

Spot the similarities

Toque macaque (Macaca sinica) is a reddish-brown-coloured Old World monkey endemic to Sri Lanka, where it is locally known as the rilewa or rilawa.

Comrade Wimal W (apparatchik extraordinaire "I will stop using my gmail account. Let us boycott Pepsi, Coca Cola, Google and McDonalds", commonly known as a buffoon).

(Images borrowed from here and here, hope nobody minds)

Sources within the embassy have also revealed that it is infested with...Rats. Gigantic rats that eat anything, from paper, to clothing, to electric wiring.

The unsolved mystery is where this wildlife is coming from, given that the the embassy lies between the sea and the main road and is surrounded on all sides by a concrete jungle that is about as hospitable to animal life as the face of Mars. There is only one patch of greenery on the entire stretch, the sprawling gardens of Temple Trees, official residence of the Prime Minister.

The prevailing theory is that the monkeys and rats have crossed over the Galle Road to take up residence at the American embassy. (Note : Crossovers, crisscrossing, double crossing and backstabbing are all part and parcel of the great parliamentary tradition of Siri Lanka so it is quite possible that the animals have learned a lesson or two).

More cynical members of the public (and assorted INGO's, and other international busybodies) may wonder if this is a case of the rats fleeing a sinking ship. True patriots however believe that these intelligent animals are in fact a fifth column, sent to sow confusion, fear and embarrassment amongst the enemy. So far, it appears, they have done a good job. New diplomats posted to Colombo are now advised to leave their families behind and bring a cat along instead......