Why SF is good enough to confront strikes

Ranja Jayasuriya (Daily Mirror)

Cabinet Spokesman and Minister, Rajitha Seneratne earlier confided to the media that President Maithripala Sirisena had asked Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to take over the army for two years to ‘discipline’ the country. The government ministers are now competing with each other to deny this.

Their explanations are contradictory and ridiculous. Minister Seneratne stands by his remarks and insists that he acted ‘with full responsibility with the blessings of the President and the Prime Minister’.

Social Empowerment Minister S.B. Dissanayake believes the president was only joking when he asked the former army chief to take over the army. Rural Economy Minister P. Harrison thinks it was a joke blown out of proportion. Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera says there was neither a proposal by the President nor a request by Fonseka. Labour Minister W.D.J. Seneviratne goes a step further to insist that the president had ‘not even dreamt of offering’ Field Marshal Fonseka the post of commander of Army.

Apparently, it had struck the government a little too late that reappointing the former army chief to the army to prepare it to tackle civil exigencies would be tantamount to reversing democratic reforms that it had embarked upon. A respectable distance between military and civilian affairs is in the interest of the democratic health of any state. Using the army to ‘discipline’ the country blurs that separation. Nigeria’s current president Mohammed Buhari when ruling as a military dictator in the early 80s was known to deploy whip-cracking soldiers to make the public queue up for buses. His era of discipline did not last long, he was ousted in a counter coup and Nigeria went to make a name for its ingenuity in scamming and corruption.

However, in Sri Lanka, a government which promised (and to a certain extent undertook) to dismantle the strongman rule of its predecessor is now handicapped by the relative freedom it ushered in is patently clear. This government strengthened constitutional restraints on its power which effectively limited its maneuverability and has shunned extra judicial means that its predecessor used with brutal efficiency in dispute resolution between the government and other stakeholders. But, it did not lead to social stability.

The recent spree of protests is often misconstrued as an outburst of pent-up emotions that were held back by the former oppressive regime. Perhaps a more dispassionate explanation of the current unrest is that it is a manifestation of numerous vested interest groups with or without party affiliations exploiting the limited state power and political will of the current administration to advance even the most minimalist of their interests. These are not protests, but blackmail. Some of these protests are purely opportunistic.

“The bottom line of state power, in any state, be it democratic or authoritarian, lies in its ability and willingness to use coercive means to achieve legitimate ends, when a negotiated solution is not forthcoming. For instance, had it not been the declaration by a presidential decree of garbage disposal as an essential service, residents of Colombo would by now be living amid heaps of rubbish”

Under the Rajapaksa regime, it would have taken just one phone call from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make doctors of the Government Medical Officers Association to amend their ways. Back then, villagers did not dare to protest against the government’s development initiatives. Squatters moved to alternative houses, having only waged a nominal protest. University students did protest, but not as recalcitrantly as they do now. There is an explanation for that manifest moderation then because any attempt to override the then limits entailed a heftier retributive cost.

Political institutions need to be both accountable and efficient if they are to be sustainable in the long-run. However these two properties entail a trade-off. In a blunt example, India’s is an accountable government with a fragmented authority across the states and the Centre and checked by a myriad of independent institutions, a merciless media and a civil society. But, at the same time, the evolution of its institutions is such that India has been widely acknowledged as one of the least efficient for the most part of its independent history. On the other hand, China is none of the above: It is authoritarian, with no pretense of established norms of checks and balances and highly centralized with an enhanced level of social control. At the same time, China is one of the most efficient states, an efficiency unprecedented for its demographic size.

Trade-offs between efficiency and accountability do not necessarily need to be as black and white as above. But, a government that constrains itself by limits often stipulated in the Constitution has to bargain and negotiate with numerous stakeholders, trade unions, student activists, ethnic minorities, etc. However, how successful this process would be is a function of existing social, political and cultural dynamics of a given society. Some social structures such as the strains of Confucianism dominant in South East Asia is more amenable to respect a centralized authority than South Asians. This is however not unique to us. Margaret Thatcher is both loathed and applauded for decimating the British trade unions which had a penchant to hold the government to ransom. Having done that, she went to make Britain the financial capital of Europe. JR Jayawardene might have had the same objective when he sacked hundreds of thousands of strikers in 1980. But, he failed in the long-run.

There is a general realization within the government that it has failed to confront the rising wave of protests. The explanation for this failure lies in the government’s failure to use (legal) means at its disposal to reestablish the status quo. It is the mumbling of different things at different times and offering contradictory solutions. It has failed to act uniformly and cohesively. It tends to think that acting decisively would place it on par with the Rajapaksa regime, from which it seeks to distance itself.

When faced with future social troubles, the government should evolve a cohesive and effective strategy. Setting up an emergency mechanism to confront strikes would be a good idea. And Field Marshal Fonseka would also be an ideal candidate to head that. Some institutions which are meant to come to a collusive course with certain elements of public need to derive legitimacy not just from the law, but also from the people who run them, if they are to function forcefully and effectively. That is why it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa and not Sajin Vas who could relocate slum dwellers in Colombo with a minimum protest. Similarly, Sarath Fonseka can derive from his legitimacy as the war winning army chief.

The alternative to this is the gradual breakdown of governance, which to put bluntly, for a country at our economic and social level, is more dangerous than the breakdown of democracy. Indeed, the majority of people, especially those in the South are sickened by the spree of strikes than they were in the past by white vans. The government should do something to fix this mess, if not, it would not last much longer in office.