Rajpal's Column

5th March 2000

Culture of the goonda equation and SB, of course

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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Political violence a necessary evil?

Writing the story of election violence and malpractice in Sri Lanka cannot be done in one column. Especially the recent story. Opening the discussion on the political culture of Sri Lanka in 1987, Professor Shelton Kodikara said that, "The current impasse in Sinhala Tamil relations resulted from the fragmentation of the Sri Lankan political culture."

The political culture of elections, of the sort we see now, was not imagined by Dr Kodikara. He should have spoken today, maybe yesterday.

Fragmentation would have been a great understatement if he did. The late Mervyn de Silva joked that, "Even Howard Wriggins could not have predicted the rigging that took place in the 1989 elections.''

Late last year, several opposition supporters had their noses slashed and kneecaps smashed in electorates where government party sponsored election rigging was at its highest. S. B. Dissanayake's Hanguranketa electorate was the rigging field. PA thugs had said they wouldn't hesitate to make it the killing field soon.

The 1987 seminar on 'Political Culture' sponsored by the Foundation Institute scarcely mentioned political violence, indicating how things have deteriorated in the political fabric since those balmy days. Said Godfrey Goonetilleke, "That in the process of political mobilisation, the parties have organised clans which divides society and on occasions even threatens the country with civil commotion." He said the party organisations are far too centralised.

Contrast that to the here and now, where political goons operate in their own fiefdoms, perpetrating the most obnoxious kind of political violence and intimidation during poll time.

Political violence which was first identified with the UNP has become encultured to the extent that it is associated now with any ruling party. The PA motto is: "Anything the UNP can do, we can do better".

It's dangerous that there is political violence, but what's more disastrous is that the process has sought and obtained legitimisation. The goonda equation is: "Our thugs + our supporters = assured government". The election in December was one of the more glaring examples of that legitimisation

Events such as the attempted assassination of the President and the frenzy that accompanied that incident, plus the general euphoria that accompanies a national election seemed to kill the impact of the violence. Now, the story may be seeping through via the tabloids, but the polity is too immersed in other issues to give it a thought.

But, the government's haughty undertone in its call for consensual politics ignores all that happened on the way to power. With a 51 per cent vote, and the real possibility that the vote could have gone into a second count, there is a very real possibility that this government is not legitimate.

The opposition wants the courts to solve that problem, but all intelligent men in the opposition - there are some really - know that the only way to meet the goonda equation is on the ground. UNPers and PA supporters in the grassroots know all of this however by the body count.

Deaths are an inevitability in national elections now, and grassroots political culture is replete in the wisdom that a poll is a war between who is mightier in the thugs department.

This was confirmed for instance in an election in Rantapura - a bye-election which was a contest of firepower between the late Nanda Ellawela's toughs and Susantha Punchinilame's toughs.

Nanda Ellawela knew the equation, and he told me in Ratnapura that he will win the contest because the correct amount of thugs have been brought to meet any hanky panky. There was no doubt that the UNP at that time was the evil aggressor.

The thugs equation has turned a full 180 degrees now and this was most poignantly evident after the assassination of Nalanda Ellawela and the events that immediately preceded and followed that tragedy. It was a question of Susantha Punchinilame vs Ellawela, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle v Wijeyapala Mendis and basically each of these worthies had their thugs department pitted against the other.

The UNP has the disadvantage of being associated for a long time with a benign kind of political violence - the kind that the rumbustious gentry such as Sir John Kotelawala indulged in. (Apparently Sir John had a penchant for referring to his political rivals as thakkadu horu). So the PA when it follows the UNP in the thugs department has been at an advantage - if the UNP was political Velcro and everything stuck to it, the PA seemed to be Teflon - wrinkle free.

But things have been pushed much too far by the People's Alliance now, and maybe this column is only a sneak preview for that discussion. The general election is going to be much worse, certainly in Hanguranketa for instance, considering S B. Dissanayake's self- apotheosis of recent times and his monumental post-election arrogance.

But, Dissnayake's bite is much worse than his considerable bark. What's worse than the possibility of a stolen election, is the tendency to treat it as a fait accompli that the people have forgotten-the tendency to legitimise a farce. More about that later though.

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