Government, legitimacy and the ethics of violence

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The ancient Chinese, most notably Confucius, used to call it The Mandate of Heaven. Rulers may rule successfully only so long as they respect and enjoy the Mandate of Heaven.

The last war started when the terrorist Tigers deprived Sinhala farmers of water by shutting off the supply at Maavilaru. The war came home to the South when the same army that was deployed to liberate Maavilaaru was brutally and stupidly deployed against unarmed Sinhala protestors demanding potable water for their daily consumption.

In doing so, the regime has irreparably gashed the social contract. Credibility and legitimacy are leaking through that gash.

More distressingly, by the brutish behaviour of its units deployed in Weliweriya and Balummahara, the Sri Lankan army has damaged its social prestige. The army’s real protection is not its Buffel armoured cars and body armour but the love, respect and support of the citizenry. Without that social support it will be vulnerable to those external forces who wish to haul it up on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The support of society does not rest on eternal gratitude for winning the war against terrorism. It has to be earned daily. In Weliweriya, the army lost the hearts and minds of quite a few Sinhala people and sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of a great many more.

One cannot resist posing the question in passing: what has done greater damage to the prestige of the Army—the movie ‘Flying Fish’ and its screening at the French Film festival or by the Army’s flying bullets and guns pointed at nuns?

By behaving in a lethally predatory fashion and maintaining a heavy troop presence in a Sinhala township with Buffel armoured cars on street corners, the authorities have lost the most vital of all real estate: moral-ethical high ground. If that ‘moral capital’ is not recovered by a sincere public apology by the highest decision makers, a transparently fair, independent and impartial inquiry and a just outcome, it could be socially and in the last analysis, politically, fatal to the regime.

Furthermore, if there is a cover up about Weliweriya, who in the whole world would believe anything the Sri Lankan State says about the army’s conduct of the war in the North, even if it were totally true? And if this is how things went in Gampaha in 2013, what might have happened in Matale in 1989-90?

In Sri Lanka, the regime is dying by the hypertrophy of repressive force and the atrophy of ethical, moral and mental power. However, the new, that is to say an Opposition with a credible project and profile that can save Sri Lanka from the abyss, has not yet been born.

While the regime will keep winning Presidential elections so long as it is a choice between Mahinda Rajapaksa (who enjoys the Teflon factor that Ronald Reagan did) and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the regime itself has passed its zenith and is on the downswing. That downswing may be parabolic rather than dramatic, an arc rather than a downward spiral but that could change into a corkscrewing downturn due to its own behaviour. The turning point was Weliweriya. The regime’s hegemony has been eroded because it has been shown to be callously insensitive and lethally brutal towards the very people it is supposed to represent and protect.

The problem in Sri Lanka is not Mahinda Rajapaksa or his Presidency. It is his extended family, his clan, his tribe and the power and authority they wield. It was the same with the Bandaranaike administration of 1970-1977. The problem was not so much Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike but the Ratwatte-Bandaranaike family tree; the ‘family bandyism’ of the Ratwatte Bandaranaike clans. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity is threatened not by Ranil Wickremesinghe but by excessive concentration of political and economic power in the hands of his kith and kin and their resultant public behaviour.

The Army’s conduct proved the validity of the poser by the classical Romans: who will guard the guardians, by which they meant who will guard us from the guardians? In our case it can be re-framed as who will defend us from the defence authorities?

Winston Churchill famously said at the turning point of the Second World War, that it was neither the beginning of the beginning nor the end of the end; rather, it was the beginning of the end. Future political history may note that Weliweriya signalled the beginning of the end.

This must not be taken to mean that the end game is predictable in its form or time frame. Nor does it mean that the Opposition as it stands will benefit automatically. While the regime is descending in a parabola, the Opposition under Ranil Wickremesinghe is plummeting vertically.

History knows not only zero-sum, win-lose outcomes but also and as many lose-lose outcomes. After all, who – which side– has won in Egypt today? Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto of an exceptional outcome of the ‘mutual ruin of the contending classes’. Antonio Gramsci wrote of a situation in which ‘the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born’; warning that ‘it is precisely in this interregnum that a great variety of morbid symptoms’—even ‘monsters’ (in Zizek’s translation)—appear. They appeared in the streets of Weliweriya and outside St Anthony’s Church, Gampaha.

[Dr Dayan Jayatilleka is the author of Fidel’s Ethics of Violence (Pluto press, London 2007)]

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