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Authoritarian (in)efficiency and the undermining of democracy in Sri Lanka



The enactment of the twentieth amendment to the Constitution, militarisation and efforts to curtail civic rights have generated discussion on the state of democracy in Sri Lanka. This paper argues that this discussion needs to pay heed to current processes, both visible and invisible, that are changing social value systems and public perception in ways that undermine democracy and respect for the rule of law. These processes, which are not new but part of a continuum spanning decades and have been successfully harnessed by the Rajapaksa regimes, are discussed in this paper.
Monday Jan 25, 2021
Authoritarian (in)efficiency and the undermining of
democracy in Sri Lanka
The President’s view of the rule of law is illustrated by his remarks to public officials in September 2020, when he instructed them to take
his verbal instructions as circulars, and his February 2020 statement that ‘It is important that the Judiciary does not interfere needlessly
in the functioning of the Executive and Legislative branches of the Government’
The enact ment of the twent ieth amendment t o the Constit ution, militarisation and effort s to curtail civic rights have generated
discussion on the state of democracy in Sri Lanka.
This discussion needs t o pay heed to current processes, both visible and invisible, that are changing social value systems and public
percept ion in ways that undermine democracy and respect for the rule of law. None of t hese processes, which have been successfully
harnessed by the Rajapaksa regimes, are new, but part of a continuum spanning decades.
-   - 1413Monday, 11 January 2021 00:00
The pioneering work of t wo women, Alena Ledeneva, a Russian political scientist and Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish
journalist, help understand the ways in which democracy is being eroded in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the social
corruption, which Temelkuran says takes place during the evolution of a populist leader to an autocrat, consists of
changing social belief syst ems, i.e. changing what is socially accept able/legal/illegal etc.
When bigotry becomes socially acceptable
One of t he key st rategies identified by Temelkuran that autocrats-in-t he-making use is to create a populist
movement, which the Rajapaksas have done successf ully through grassroots mobilisation and the cult of
personality. One of the critical tasks of t he movement has been to generate t he belief t hat it is patriotic to openly
express prejudice and bigotry, such as against Muslims, that previously may have been socially unacceptable, at
least publicly. When people feel confident to express and act upon prejudice it leads to a change in their behaviour
towards their colleagues, neighbours and even friends.
Many Muslims express shock and hurt t hat t hose they believed were t heir friends are not supportive of t heir struggle to bury t hose who
die of COVID- 19. When I listen to t hem I am reminded of similar remarks made to me by scores of Muslim women who were harassed by
colleagues, neighbours and friends for wearing the Abaya after the Easter att acks in 2019, and before that, fears held by Muslims due to
the anti-Muslim rhetoric and act s that took place during the first Rajapaksa regime. This is hence part of
a continuum. In such a context, t hose who express and act upon prejudice are celebrated as the ‘real
people’ who love their country, while those that challenge bigotry and ethnocentrism are portrayed as
traitors, unpatriotic and a danger to t he country.
The leader portrays himself as the ‘anti-politician’ and inspires public t rust mainly because he is viewed as
different and unconnect ed to t he seedy world of politics. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has proclaimed that,
‘People want non-t raditional politicians. People t end to select such nontraditional politicians’, and that ‘I
am not a politician. I have never been a politician’, thereby portraying himself as the antithesis of a
The politically disillusioned Sri Lankan public that has suffered inequality, discrimination and povert y for
decades and feels alienated from politicians and civil society, that are viewed as privileged or
cosmopolitan and not sensitive t o the issues that affect the ‘real people’, not surprisingly gravitat e
towards the anti-politician.
The P resident astutely reminds the people that just as he saved the country from the LTTE he will now
save the people from poverty, corruption, the underworld/drug lords and extremists. In Sri Lankas
patronage driven culture with a feudal hangover, in which people expect the dispensation of f avours in
exchange for obeisance, he is hailed a hero who people believe will save t hem and the country f rom
corrupt and unscrupulous politicians.
Why people act against their self-interes t
The f açade of t he saviour caring for the marginalised and poor doesn’t ext end to tackling deep seat ed issues of struct ural inequality. A
few examples of t he regime’s callous disregard for t he poor and marginalised include the reduct ion of t he health budget during a
pandemic and not funding the repat riation of migrant workers stranded and destitute abroad, leading families to sell personal belongings
or private citizens to raise f unds for repatriation.
A recent egregious example is allowing visiting Ukrainian tourists to undertake excursions in breach of all health regulations, thereby
forcing local tour guides to be placed in quarantine for two weeks resulting in the loss of income to t hem.
Communities that were adversely impacted by the inaction or negligence of t he Stat e, such as the aforementioned Yala Safari Drivers’
Association, stranded migrant workers, Free Trade Zone employees and low-income families that were quarantined for weeks without
income and hence basic provisions, have been expressing surprise and disappointment at t he treatment met ed out to t hem, particularly
because they say they had voted for t his Government. What is surprising is that t hese groups are surprised by t he callousness of t he
regime given the regime’s track record when they were previously in power.
Why do people, while demanding an equitable societ y, paradoxically, gravitate towards saviours and paternal figures who perpetuate a
culture dependent on maintaining the status quo? This non-rational core of t he country and the cult of personality t hat supports t he
creation of a paternalistic state can be understood through a Sri Lankan analytical construct c alled the Ashokan Persona.
According to Michael Robert s, the Asokan Persona is ‘a cultural paradigm which encapsulates a relationship between a superior and a
subordinate; and which describes a superior who is regarded as a righteous exemplary, one who is
expected to f unction as a source of benevolent largesse, an apical fountainhead of status and pontifical
authority and, in effect, as a central and pivotal force’.
Michael Robert s states t hat Buddhism was constructed into a legitimating force and invested t he
Sinhala kings with immense authority...they were also constitutive act s of world renewal, in which the
king-elect was transformed into a god or re-renewed as a god. President Rajapaksa’s oath-taking
ceremony held at Ruwanwelisaya, a Buddhist sacred site that was built by King Dutugemunu who
according to legend defeated a Tamil prince t o rule over the whole country, can be seen as an evocation
of t his notion.
In modern times, loyalty and obeisance to this saviour-leader is demonstrated through sycophantic
action, such as statements praising the regime, constructing cut- outs of the president, prime minister
and ministers, and posting obsequious messages on billboards with the names and photos of t he
president, prime minister, ministers and even minor politicians announcing that st ate initiatives using
public f unds were implemented under the guidance of these holders of public office.
Even Udayanga Weeratunga, a Rajapaksa relative reportedly responsible for bringing the Ukrainian tourists t o Sri Lanka, issued a video
stat ement t hat his venture was undertaken upon the P rime Minister’s advice, with the President’s approval and Basil Rajapaksa’s
oversight. The State is thereby merged with the individual politician and the individual becomes the St ate. In this instance, t he President
or the Prime Minister becomes the centre around which the Stat e revolves. This process was symbolically f ormalised when public
officials took an oath on 1 January 2021 not only t o serve t he public but also to implement President Rajapaksa’s elect ion manifesto
‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.
A strategy identified by Temelkuran that plays an integral role in making people vot e against t heir self- interest, is ‘infantilising political
language and destroying reason’. In a society still dependent on astrologers t o decide elect ion dates, logic has no place and ad hominem
att acks are employed to counter and control criticism and dissent. People caught up in the hyper-nationalism that relies on
communalism and fake news churned by media affiliated to t he regime, pay no heed t o truth, analysis or reason. As Temelkuran says,
‘eventually t he armies of alternative t ruth became strong enough to change the political realities through lies and to build what felt like
new countries out of nonsense’.
A perfect example of t his, which Alena Ledeneva describes as the st ate and its affiliates no longer distinguishing “between analysis and
propaganda”, is the statements and act ion of t he st ate and its affiliates with regard to t he struggle of the Muslim community t o bury
those who die of COVID- 19. The att empt t o disregard scientific evidence-based authorisation by the WHO, the Sri Lanka Medical
Council and the College of Community P hysicians of Sri Lanka, has led to contradictory and counter-f act ual statements by diff erent
ministers and members of parliament and farcical justificat ions by persons with no expert ise to comment on the issue.
When formal syst ems don’t wor k, infor mality reigns supr eme
Another process that undermines the rule of law is the creation of a new form of law and order, whereby while t he law becomes the
stat e weapon of choice t o control social behaviour, particularly dissent, lit tle respect is shown for the rule of law.
The P resident’s view of the rule of law is illustrated by his remarks to public officials in September 2020, when he instructed t hem to
take his verbal instructions as circulars, and his February 2020 statement t hat ‘It is important t hat t he Judiciary does not interfere
needlessly in the f unct ioning of t he Executive and Legislative branches of t he Government’.
On 7 January 2021, at an event at Temple Trees t he Prime Minister stated t hat if public servants go beyond the law and regulations to
serve t he public in good faith the regime will protect them. When legal systems and processes become t ools to be employed or
dispensed with at the executive’s/regime’s convenience, the result is select ive application of t he law. For instance, while t hose who do
not wear masks continue t o be arrested, no act ion was taken against a t elevision station supportive of the regime that is reported to
have held a large Christmas party at which no health protocols were observed. When this happens, the public lose trust in the rule of law.
When formal rules and procedures do not f unct ion effect ively or are applied unequally or in a biased manner, a parallel informal system of
‘getting things done’ which undermines instit utions and legal processes, comes into being. This too is steeped in our culture and is
nothing new, but has taken on new life, f orm and importance during the Rajapaksa regimes. Alena Ledeneva’s description ofsistema’ in
Russia provides useful parallels to understand how it works.
Sistema ‘combines the idea that t he state should enjoy unlimited access to all national resources, public or private, wit h a kind of
permanent st ate of emergency in which every level of societ y—businesses, social and et hnic groups, powerful clans, and even criminal
gangs—is drafted into solving what t he Kremlin labels “urgent state problems.” Under Putin, sistema has become a method for making
deals among businesses, powerful players, and the people. Business has not t aken over the state, nor vice versa; the t wo have merged in
a union of t otal and seamless corruption.
She says that while “Russians are sincere in their denunciation of corrupt offic ials’ they also ‘defend and take pleasure in the paternalist
comfort of sistema. They are proud of its manoeuvrability and flexibility: you can always find a way to get something done.” This sounds
very similar to Sri Lanka where it is common to find a shortcut t o get t hings done because the formal system does not work. Instead of
fixing the system politicians step in personally t o get things done, which further undermines the system and entrenches
An example is the President’s visits to villages as part of the ‘Discussion with the Village’ programme, the purpose of which is to “talk to
the rural communities without intermediaries about their long-standing unresolved problems, solve t hem instantly t o the ext ent possible
and direct the rest which take time to deal with to the officials for solutions.”
At a meet ing in Balangoda in December 2020, “Political leadership in the area was advised by the P resident to intervene to facilitate to
prevent delays in transportation of t ea leaves”. The t ransportation of t ea leaves, for which tea growers need to find solutions with the
assistance of St ate officials, instantly becomes an issue t hat is deemed to require political intervention. Yet, instead of being viewed as
politicisation of administrative processes it is being used as an example of the President’s efficiency.
An outcome of t he dominance of t he informal system is the appointment of t hose known to and trusted by t he regime to positions of
power in the interests of ‘getting things done’, such as family members or friends. These persons also seem to be able t o act in ext ra-
legal ways with impunity.
For instance, based on a let t er by head of t he Sri Lanka Tourism Authority (SLTA), it appears that Udayanga Weeratunga, who is a relative
of t he President, has been able to bypass all health regulations and conduct t ours without adhering to undertakings given to SLTA. The
message is that one can escape legal act ion through patronage. In time, such action can have the eff ect of making institutions seem
‘superfluous,’ leading to people ask if t hey are needed, which provides the perfect justification to t he Government t o abolish them.
The P residential Task Forces est ablished under Article 33 (f) of the Constitution, which is a catch-all provision that contains the residual
powers of t he President, have drawn criticism for t heir composition, ad-hoc nature, broad powers and lack of accountability. The critical
point is that once again this strategy is not new but part of a continuum; they are merely using tried and test ed.
For example, one of t he most powerf ul informal structures t hat superseded formal structures was the Presidential Task Force for t he
North (PT F) established in May 2009. The PTF had no Tamil member, but included the Secretary to t he Ministry of Def ence, t he Chief
of Defence St aff , Commanders of t he Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Inspect or General of Police.
Although it evolved, at the t ime, into a seemingly permanent st ructure t hat controlled and monitored the work of the non-governmental
sect or in the Nort hern Province until May 2014, its working methods and regulations were not public or transparent. At present an
informal structure t hat attempted t o usurp the power of a formal institut ion, i.e. the judiciary, is the Commission on Political
Ledeneva points out t hat when using informal net works ‘you think you are pursuing the target s of modernisation through the use of the
tools which seem to you, as a leader, ef fect ive. But you cannot escape t he long-t erm consequences’. The current regime uses, to
borrow Ledeneva’s term, a ‘glitt er ball of words’, such as ‘vistas of prosperity and splendour’, ‘innovation and development’ and
‘sustainable inclusive development’ t o portray a modern outlook, while in practice entrenches patronage driven, informal methods that
undermine public institutions, rule based systems and processes, and ultimately transparency and accountability.
Can democracy be undermined and elect oral authoritarianism entrenched because democratic values have not been internalised in Sri
Lanka? Do we Sri Lankans think democracy begins and ends with casting our vote? Do we not understand that it is our civic duty to hold
the government accountable between elect ions? One t hing that is unquestioningly evident is that many Sri Lankan politicians,
particularly the current regime, view critique of t he government and dissent as anti-national and unpatriotic instead of as the civic duty
of every citizen. Therein lies the biggest problem.
The writer is a Fellow, Open Society Foundations. She was a Commissioner, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka from 2015-2020.
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