Sirisena-Mahinda putsch: A step to dictatorship

There is no denying Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s economic agenda has failed. There is no denying he will have an uphill battle at the next elections. However, far more important at this moment is that there is no denying President Maithripala Sirisena has launched a political coup in brazen violation of the Constitution – specifically 19A – and deserves to be impeached. (Jayampathy Wickremeratne’s video gives a full account of the constitutional position).

This column, from the inception of yahapalana, rejected its rightist economic programme and called for a different state-directed mixed (public-private) strategy, an appeal that fell on deaf ears, or more likely, was never read by those in power. Even the Left, till recently, ignored my clamour. However, Sirisena’s flagrant violation of the Constitution and his barefaced falsehoods have pushed aside debate on the economy.

NM, Colvin and Pieter demonstrated that there are core values and institutions that Leftists (and Marxists) do not dismiss as empty liberalism or disparage as bourgeois niceties; standing against dictatorship is one. In the dark days of 1959 following SWRD’s assassination it was the LSSP and CP that steadied the ship and prevented a slide to lawless government – do you recall the brief, repugnant Dahanayake premiership? NM’s critique of JR’s constitution is not a revolutionary tract; it’s grounded on liberal principles and good old bourgeois-democratic norms. The same is true of the Left’s commitment from its origins till 1972 to justice as the answer to the national question. (Textbook Marxists call unification of the nation ‘a task of the democratic revolution’, not a socialist task).

Any left party that fails to denounce Sirisena for trashing the Constitution in cahoots with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the real puppet master, is on the slippery road to damnation. The LSSP and CP by failing, as yet, to decry this power grab have crossed a Rubicon; they walk in the shadow of a Lankan version of Mussolini’s March on Rome. They are smallish parties but the moral impact of denouncing the coup would have been valuable. Will they be able to wash the blood of future repression off their hands? Recall Macbeth’s lament that the oceans could not cleanse his blood-stained hand but would instead stain red. “This my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red”. Oh and Mussolini did not forget to execute his erstwhile leftish hangers-on.

In October 1922 the Partito Nazionale Fascistica plotted an insurrection; a march on Rome by squads known as Black Shirts who captured strategic local positions throughout Italy. King Victor Emmanuel III, weak and effete, did not have the courage to throw back the menace. Unlike Sirisena however, the King did not collude with the fascists nor was he an active co-conspirator. In Lanka, the President instigates his mobs to neutralise institutions – state-TV and the Daily News have been neutered; SLFP wolf-packs have driven away the Daily News editorial staff and state-TV has been seized Mussolini style. Reports of electricity cuts to Temple Trees echo the question: Why is the once proud CEB Engineers’ Union abetting an illegitimate plot?

The police and military will be subjugated to illegal presidential directives. Media reports claim that Gota has been (or will be) made Defence Secretary. If true the IGP and service chiefs will be replaced or detained. Make no bones about it, a coup political or physical, is a fight to the death. Parliament is holding out at the time of writing; it is shut, next will it be shot?

The JVP, wrapped in its own petty ambitions, is ignorant of history and bereft of Marxist perceptions. Large parts of Anura Kumara’s videoed press conference ( were good but he flopped on the critical issue. He refused to call Sirisena’s plot unconstitutional but only condemned Sirisena personally; the point is that if he said “unconstitutional” the JVP would have had to vote against Ranil’s removal in parliament. It is keeping its options hidden! More hilarious, in answer to a question he alleged: “Oh they all violated the constitution so what if it happens again?” Wijeweera and Gamanayake were shot by the state in bouts of extra-judicial killing. Is Anura Kumara telling us; “Oh, no problem if it happens again and they shoot the current leader too?” Funny fool!

The TNA wants to extract concessions for the Tamils from the pervading confusion. That’s fair; the only time a few crumbs fall from the table are when the big Sinhalese parties are drowning and clutch at every Tamil straw, thala-thel gathiya notwithstanding. So far the TNA has not called the plot unconstitutional; it too is not painting itself into a corner where it is compelled to vote against Ranil’s removal. It is throwing the Tamils into the fire by prioritising its squabbles with Wigneswaran and Gajan and leaving unsaid whether it is reconciled to a Mahinda-Got state. To be fair Sampanthan has demanded recall of parliament but he has not yet declared the TNA’s stand on the coup.

Is the left justified in denouncing the Ranil-UNP failed economic programme and its manner of execution – of course, welcome, join me. Should the left expose the pro-rich social policy stance of the UNP? Absolutely! But should the left for this reason soil itself by partaking in a political putsch in violation of the Constitution and open the road to would-be dictators? The prorogation of parliament to circumvent rejection of the choices foisted by Sirisena exposes the putsch for what it is. Rajapaksa has promised to dissolve parliament and go to the polls. I do not believe a word of it; the white-vans will be back before the elections, and specifically for the elections!

It is dark days; Sri Lanka is a new recruit to the ranks of banana republics. I am aware that nothing will make a difference to those who have decided to throw in their lot with the junta. It is a disturbing feature of modern politics throughout the world (Trump’s Base is the best-known) that partisanship has become ironclad whatever the merits or demerits of any conjuncture. Mahinda supporters have told me without a blush “So what if it’s unconstitutional or anything else; we don’t care, we want it”. In this world of irreconcilable partisanship where values count for naught and power speaks out loud, Lanka is humming her way to de facto dictatorship. This, let us grant, cannot happen in the worst Trumpian nightmares in America because traditions of democracy have matured for longer and institutions, despite assaults upon them, are somewhat more deeply rooted.

Mobilisation commenced on Tuesday with a rousing and angry rally of 25,000 at Colpetty. Bahu, Champika, Sajith and Ravi exhorted the gathering to enter battle in defence of freedom. Surely, recollection that Mussolini ended his life dangling from a lamppost could not have been far from Bahu’s Marxist mind-set. Now mobilisation must be taken all over the country and to workplaces. The downside is that people have been discouraged by the UNP’s liberal-bourgeois economics; what unmitigated idiots Charitha, Malik, Eran, Harsha and Mangala have been! But what needs protection now is democracy, not Ranil; what needs to be defeated is an attempt to subvert the constitution and deliver the country to despots. The people must stop this rot or pay a high price in the coming years. A mass movement can force the regime to retreat; otherwise the future is bleak. I do not have great confidence in the judiciary (the Supreme Court is likely to do a Pontius Pilate if asked to intervene); and regarding parliament, my inclination is to wait and see.

The US State Department (presumably at Delhi’s urging) and the House of Commons in Westminster have stepped in and demanded that Lanka’s parliament be recalled and democratic norms safeguarded. Petitions bearing in sum thousands of signatures have been issued by Lankans at home, abroad, students and intellectuals. Resistance to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa counter-revolution is manifest among intellectuals and swelling among the people at mass mobilisations.

Eventually power will count. The Rajapaksa cabal is more adept at seizing and wielding power than Ranil and his callow liberals; Sirisena’s machinations add the advantage of manipulating the organs of executive power. In this scenario illegitimate ‘black shirts’ are at an advantage over parliamentary legitimacy. Mass intervention can reverse this equation but the people of Lanka, the intellectual classes aside, are not much moved by democratic propriety – hence my remark about the difference with America. Foreign pressure may help but in the absence of mass engagement the dice will be weighted in favour of the ‘black shirts’. If the TNA and JVP explicitly declare they will use their votes to crush the coup it will transform the scene. That they have not done so up to now shows that petty advantage-seeking rather than the national interest sets the tone in Lankan politics.

As the alleged (it’s true) soul who kicked-off the Single-Issue Common-Candidate concept (executed by Ranil, Chandrika and the Serpent) I will be rebuked, again, that the Serpent’s venom has proved me wrong. Once more I repeat I was spot-on right. The goal of defeating a despotic MR third-term was achieved. The country is freer and legislation to strengthen transparency has been enacted. Unfortunately the criminals of the old regime have not been convicted and economic policy has been plain wrong. Worst and unanticipated, the Serpent has moulted into His Master’s toilet paper. So granted, apart from the crucial restoration of democracy not much else has been achieved.

This conspiracy has gone beyond a point of no return; the plotters will not accept defeat in parliament nor will they retreat. Mussolini methods come next; buying MPs (five pimped so far) or throwing a few behind bars; a mob blockade of parliament; whatever it takes. The last resort is that periods of instability are a pretext for instigating communal pogroms. Since 1956 the pattern has been anti-Tamil, but fashions have changed. The apex of the Joint Opposition, politicians and monks, is fired by Muslim-hatred. If the JO, facing defeat in parliament and growing domestic and international condemnation, rakes up racial unrest there will be reason to fear for the safety of both communities.

[Dispatched on Wednesday 31 October in the midst of the storm].

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