by Anuradha Kodagoda, The Sunday Observer, Colombo, April 28, 2019
A series of coordinated bombings on Easter Sunday shattered a relatively calm period in the country, threatening to restore factional tensions that fueled a three- decade civil war. The government has acknowledged major lapses in governance and its failure to prevent the dreadful Easter Sunday tragedy, despite a prior intelligence warning.
In this interview with Sunday Observer, Political Scientist Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda gives an in-depth analysis on the brutal terrorist attack on Easter Sunday and the formation of global Islamic terrorism which is a new phenomenon for Sri Lanka
Q. The good governance regime came to power promising to strengthen democracy which was suppressed by the previous regime. However, this Government can be identified as a hybrid version of Chinese capitalism. How do you define the current political situation in the country?
The real problem of this government is the crisis in governance which started in 2015 when it came into power promising economic development, democracy, human rights, reconciliation and a huge reform package including constitutional reforms. Yet the regime has not been able to deliver many of these major promises. At the same time, some serious differences within the regime which eventually developed into a power struggle between the President and the Prime Minister. That had a debilitating impact on the coalition government.
Governance means a number of things, such as managing the State, the economy, the state – society relations and the relations between Sri Lanka and the external world. It is a complex area to manage. What President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have failed to achieve is political stability within the framework of democratic governance.
The crisis which this failure produced eventually exploded on October 26, 2018, when President Sirisena decided to break up the coalition and form a new coalition with his former political opponents.
However, apart from that restoration of constitutional government, the two warring centers of power within the government once again failed to establish any degree of corporation and compromise, resulting in further weakening of not only the structures of governance, but also of the State structure itself. Few days ago we saw what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Minister Rajitha Senaratne and his Cabinet colleagues said about the breakdown in the relationship bewith the head of the executive. As the President has concentrated all the powers in relation to national security, law and order and State intelligence and if he excluded Prime Minister in matters of national security that indicates there has been a serious breakdown in the functioning of key State institutions and the national security atructures.
Q. The fundamental principle of a Cabinet is collective responsibility. Can the president arbitrarily misuse his powers? Couldn’t the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have brought this matter to Parliament and taken immediate actions to solve it?
These so-called terrorist attacks do not take place in isolation. They usually take place in the context of larger political crises. In Sri Lanka for the past few months the political instability was very much visible to the outside world. So for that the president, the prime minister and his Cabinet all are equally responsible. Therefore, we see a serious crisis not only in governance, but also in the State structure of the country. The power crisis we experiences in March and early April was also a manifestation of State paralysis. But, beneath that paralysis has been an infinitely more serious paralysis, at the level of security apparatus which is the core of the State power. This has to be rectified immediately. In order to do this, restoration of the government, with a President accountable to Parliament and responsible to the Cabinet is crucial. Now they are blaming each other for this failure. They seem to have developed a consensus to sacrifice heads of the Police and intelligence for their political failure. The Secretary of Defense has already accepted his role of being the first scape goat. As citizens we see that this is not just an intelligence failure but it’s the failure at the highest level of managing the State and security by the political leadership.
Q. How do you define radical Islamic terrorism which is based on religious extremism, a new development in the country and the young radical Islamic fighters coming from the elite Muslim community?
Religion extremism is only one dimension of present phenomenon of what one may call global Islamic militancy or terrorism. There are many forms of terrorism in the world today and at one level the US government is also spreading terrorism across the world, in legally sanctioned ways. There are also other forms of responses to US State terrorism. This involvement of A young Muslim group is not necessarily coming from the elite Muslim community. They are middle class, educated men. All over the world militancy attracts educated men; it’s a common fact in all militant agencies in the world. The problem Sri Lanka faces now is the emergence of a new form of militancy. This one is quite different from the form of militancy that the State had to fight with for the past thirty years. The main difference is the religious identity. Religious beliefs play a certain role in terms of indoctrination and mobilization.
On the other hand this is a global phenomenon. During the past few years we saw similar attacks in Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa. Therefore, Sri Lanka has to deal with this situation in which an entirely new form of militancy has emerged which doesn’t threaten Sri Lanka as such, but forms part of a global insurgency. If we analyze last Sunday’s brutal attack, it is an attack on Christians, foreign tourists, and the US-led global security-political order. That is a different form of manifestation of terrorism which is new to Sri Lanka. .
Considering religion it’s important to understand that all Muslims are not part of extremism. There are Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim groups who interpret their religion in militant and exclusivist forms. Islam is not the only religion which has been subjected to extremist interpretations which we call fundamentalism.
But the so-called radicalization of Islam has a unique feature. It has associated itself with a global armed insurgency, or a global war. What is necessary now is a global conversation about all religions’ secular role.
Q. What reforms do you suggest to overcome the present crisis in the country?
I have two proposals. The first is defending democracy and human rights. Slightly similar to the 9/11 attacks on American and global democracy, the Easter Sunday tragedy could be used by certain sections in Sri Lanka to curtail democracy and bring in an authoritarian form of governance.
The Sunday tragedy could bring right-wing political views back to politics and legitimising them. There has been an emergence of a discourse on national security in Sri Lanka in the past few months.
Those who stress on national security mistrust democracy and human rights. They want to restrict democracy and human rights as democracy and human rights are detrimental to national security. This has been the response to the Easter Sunday tragedy. I think it is important for the government to realize that the resurgence of such views against democracy and human rights has to be countered. To do that re-consolidation of the democratic structures and practices is important. That is my first proposal.
My second proposal is for the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to adhere to the principles of collective responsibility, checks and balances and dispersal of executive power between ministries, departments and ministers. What we find at the moment is an excessive concentration of power in one individual, the President. We also have a situation where the prime minister and the Cabinet abdicating their authority willingly after the 20th of December. This has to be changed to restore the democratic equilibrium between the President and Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Restoration of the institutional balance between the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet is vital for Sri Lanka to resolve the political crisis which paved the way for the Easter Sunday tragedy.