by Kumar David
The world was spared a Third World War through deterrence, that is, the threat of mutual destruction. If only one nation possessed nuclear weapons, all the others would be enslaved. Likewise, if the threat of military rule were to surface anywhere in the world, only the presence of a compensating opposition to ensure that the enterprise will be repelled can repel it. Morals and promises are poppycock; only power matters. Soft power is as pathetic and toothless as Aung San Suu Kyi; the good lady will end her life in prison. From the first dynasties four millennia ago to the coups of yesteryear, this is the hard lesson of history.
Let’s stop playing Russian roulette with authoritarianism, military dictatorships or fascism, as the case may be, nation after nation. The state in the Third World, after subjugating every agency of society, has become a supranational entity. It is a new phenomenon; it belongs to the last decades. Neither class, nor wealth, nor race, nor faith are barriers to which it is subordinated. When the nation-state emerged in 17th and 18th century Europe and later in America, it was different. it was the servant of commerce and of a rising bourgeoisie. With the decline of absolute monarchies, the nation-state did not emerge as a power in its own right, but rather the state and its instruments and institutions were subordinated to class, society and liberal norms – brief interludes Bonapartists like Napoleon aside. However, except in the metropolitan world*, a profound change has occurred; the situation is different in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Asia (Cambodia and Central Asia). Over the past two decades, there have been about 40 military takeovers or annulled elections by incumbent regimes who have called in the military to crush the people with appalling lack of conscience and compassion. Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Marx’s version of class and state’s relationship to military power can all be updated.
The change is that nation-state is no longer what that term meant when nation was synonymous with country as it was with the French, British, American, Italian and Soviet nation-states, although constitutional provisions have varied. At the time, the nation was synonymous with the fatherland, with all the people, but today the spectacular rise of narrow nationalisms has radically changed this. The nation-state is now the nationalist-state, that is to say the narrow nationalist-state which derives its legitimacy not from all but from some of the citizens. For example, the Hindutva state, the Sinhalese-Buddhist state, the Jewish state, the Burmese-Buddhist state, Islamic IS and military dictatorships that derive their livelihood from a tribal (ethnic) group in South Africa. the West or the Horn of Africa. The “Other” is not a foreign power but an “Other-Internal”. In these cases, they are the Muslims, the minorities, the Palestinians, the many ethnic peoples of Burma, the Shiites and the other neighboring black or brown peoples respectively. The Other is an Internal-Other, the enemy is an internal enemy.
I repeat, the critical factor is that fascist, militaristic or dictatorial states now derive their strength and moral compass from narrow nationalism, that is, from the manifestation of the state as the enemy of the Internal-Other. The enemy is no longer the foreign enemy but the Internal-Other. (Colvin once called our army “a toy army in wartime and a real army in peacetime”). Modi’s Hindutva draws legitimacy as a sworn enemy of Muslims, Sinhalese-Buddhist state legitimacy is a beacon against the Internal-Other in the sixty years of presidencies SWRD, JR, Premadasa, Mahinda and Gotabaya . This symbiosis of brutal military regimes with narrow ethno-nationalisms is the fundamental paradigm shift in the modern Third World.
Paradoxically, for this very reason, these regimes can massacre with impunity – horrific carnage in Africa, the civil war in Sri Lanka, the brutality of the Burmese army and the atrocities of the Islamic State. The politicians cheering for these one-dimensional nationalisms are populist tribunes shouting the crowd’s slogans or relaying army television and radio broadcasts. The phenomenon draws its strength from the fact that every member of the primary nationalist category, without exception of class or wealth, is united within it; brothers in the crusade against “the Other”. This is the basis of all military dictatorships of recent times. It had its origins in the obscenity of Nazism, of which the Internal-Other was the “greedy, licentious, dirty and avaricious Jew”!
I would like to develop further these theoretical propositions about the frequency and brutality of modern military rule as the embodiment of dictatorship that alienates an Internal-Other, but for reasons of space I must write my paper and go home. The harsh reality at home is that if there is a power grab in Lanka, then restoring democracy will be a path to hell. Does anyone imagine that restoring democracy to Burma, Sudan, Venezuela and wherever military rule as it has imposed itself will take less than decades of anarchy, economic ruin, blood , civil war and revolution? That’s when I was flabbergasted by the JVP and the Sajith-SJB. I am not stating that a military enterprise is likely. No, indeed the odds are less than even; it is not possible to predict the probabilities. But only a fool will say that an economic disaster, an intractable debt imbroglio, a president-induced fertilizer shortage, man-made electricity crises and food shortages are not breeding grounds for regimes to frantic search for desperate answers!
Is it asking too much of the JVP and SJB to admit that the danger is real even if the odds are less? Why not take simple measures to thwart it if the cost of such measures is insignificant? As with nuclear war, the cost of deterrence is nil compared to the burden that history will impose on a negligent world. What does it cost these two parties, the TNA, the small entities, the unions, civil society and the Churches and Temples to meet, discuss, warn and issue proclamations to the effect that any extra-parliamentary adventure will be resisted, will an attack on one be considered an attack on all, and will the postponement of elections not be allowed?
JR and Mahinda in their time led pada yatra, popular marches (on foot); peaceful and orderly, with the clergy at the forefront, expressing deep anger and public displeasure. The stakes are not lacking today for grassroots mobilization; “Hands off democracy”, “Can we farm without fertilizer? “Feed our children” are some examples that will galvanize people. The objective at this stage is in no way to bring down the government or to shorten its electoral mandate, but rather to deter authoritarian ambitions, to denounce idiotic decisions and to deter unconstitutional excesses.
Deterrence! How much does it cost participants? Nothing! There is no commitment to programmatic unity or to a future coalition government. No endorsement of the other’s ideology is implied. I’ve raised this many times in threads and in my columns, but have only received nonsense in response such as “We’ll look into it when the time comes”, “There’s no such danger now” and “Defensive preparations must be made in secret.” Why oh why did God rob some people of a brain!
Returning to my theme that the Third World dictatorship of recent times is the manifestation of a narrow nationalist state in crisis, it is helpful to understand that Sri Lanka may have progressed to a stage where this rooster will no longer fight. Has the usefulness of the call to war against the demala and the hambaya lost its resonance? The results of the 2019-20 election cycle may give you pause for thought, but what has lost its luster is the promise of this victorious regime. “Stupid 69 lakhs” is mockery even on the lips of those who themselves were part of the 69! Is the luster of narrow Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism fading? Has the theme song of portraying minorities as criminals lost its resonance? If you listen to the stories of misfortune on every street corner, the culprit is the government, such minister or such, the president and his aanduwa. A seizure of power to “save the nation from the Internal-Other” is no longer credible. It is not the same with the military machine. The three services were purged of Christian and Tamil vermin following the 1962 coup and are now a purified and sanitized Sinhalese-Buddhist triple gem! (For the full story, see Jayantha Somasunderam; The Island of January 26, 27, 28 and 29, 2022 and the Colombo Telegraph of January 25).
So we have an interesting dichotomy where narrow racist extremism is salable to the military but less so to the Sinhalese people in general. The appointment of loyalists to high positions such as ministers of state, cabinet secretaries and company presidents, the pardoning of convicted killers and the scuttling of trials against alleged military police murderers (murders of students from Trinco, killers from Médecins Sans Frontières) would no doubt have cemented the loyalty of the military. on a diet. Therefore, we have a mixed equation; Will a narrow nationalist extremist takeover (or a postponement of the elections), citing the Internal-Other as the internal enemy, only have legitimacy with the army? The only thing the JVP-NPP, Sajith-SJB, trade unions and civil society can do is make it clear that any such venture will be opposed by a counter-mobilization of the people, mainly the Sinhalese people. This is the sole purpose of my column, not in-depth scholarship and analysis – others surpass me in these respects – but to kick the asses (if the editor permits) of sleeping comrades who seem to have taken Robert Burns to heart. “My (comrades) are asleep by your murmuring stream: Flow gently, gentle river, do not disturb (their) dream”.
[However, all is not well in the First World either. The US Congress was informed last week that the Trump White House drafted two Executive Orders, one to the military the other to Homeland Security ordering counting machines be seized when the presidential election-count was going badly. The orders were not signed or issued, but this was a common practice in Latin America in the 1960s].