Death, Democracy and Lexical Ambiguity

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 9 2020.



On a mission in Augsburg, in 1604, Sir Henry Wotton said: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” A novel concept is an ambassador going abroad and accusing his president of lying. Is our ambassador to Russia more loyal to the president of Russia than he is to the president of Sri Lanka?

Democracy has not been doing too well lately. Trump is busy wrecking the USA and its reputation and causing unnecessary deaths after winning three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the UK, Boris Johnson struggled to “get Brexit done” with a majority of minus 43 and now struggles to cope with a pandemic with a secure majority of 80. The authority of the Irish Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (parliament) in the general election on February 8 but remain in Government. The Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is getting good world press for the way he is handling the crisis (and working one day a week as doctor – medical, not political science) but his party was defeated in the election. The Dáil hardly exists at present and its committees are in abeyance. The most influential body in the management of the crisis, is the NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team). Neither elected representatives nor the media have access to its meetings.

In Russia, Putin was re-elected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and faces no serious threats to his power. He has not been having a good pandemic. According to Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, “the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Mr Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes.”  Putin has been sheltering at his country villa and has not been pictured in public for nearly a month. Higgins described his Orthodox Easter message to the nation as “what, me worry?” Russia has had 1,537 deaths out of a population of 144.5 million.

Sri Lanka tackles the current pandemic well compared to the UK and the US and does so without a parliament. I understand the need to get back to normal for the economy as a whole and for individuals who are suffering grievously. I appreciate the risks to democracy of government by task force. I also appreciate the danger of going back to ‘normal’ too soon. Remember how ‘normal’ coped with the Easter bombings.

Dayan Jayatilleke PhD, former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation now has time on his hands  to impart some wisdom on the domestic situation in the homeland. He published an article in the Daily FT on April 23. I advise you to try to read it.

Grasping the Main Thrust

I had to read the article several times before I could get anywhere close to grasping the main thrust. One problem is the usual epic name-dropping: “My old friend and fellow doctoral student of Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara” (two name-drops for the price of one, there folks!). “My late father Mervyn de Silva, who edited the Daily News, the Times of Ceylon and the Lanka Guardian, would certainly have asked…” “I must admit that the College hosts an Annual Oration in memory of my paternal uncle Dr. A.V.K.V. de Silva, Univ of Edinburgh gold medalist, top epidemiologist and WHO program coordinator on AIDS.” What has any of this got to do with the price of fish? How many readers know or care about these names?

I have noticed a tendency with Sri Lankan columnists (and academics) to favour style  over substance. Rather than laying out a clear narrative line to help the long-suffering reader to establish what the writer wants him/her to take away from the article, he (it’s usually a he) prefers to launch a piece with rhetorical flourishes and move on with curlicues and rococo grace notes rather than setting out the Gradgrindian hard facts.

Dayan posits the case for a general election on June 20 against the arguments of “liberal critics”.  I am not sure what “liberal” means in 2020 – the word seems to have been fatally flawed by lexical ambiguity. I note that on his much-muted Facebook page, Dayan describes himself as a liberal and a Catholic rather than a Marxist. He describes himself as a politician rather than a political scientist or diplomat. He brings in “neo-liberal” at one point too. Anyway, let us judge these liberals by their arguments, which are “legalistic-constitutionalist points”. Unfortunately, he does not specify these arguments but describes them as “prissy proceduralism and legalistic literalism”.

Sinister Scenarios, Unnamed Plotters

Let’s recap. Those who are opposing an election are “legalistic”. Dayan concedes that their arguments may be true but they are irrelevant “because the real-world question is what if the Executive ignores all the ‘simply can’t do’ points they make and simply does them?” Simply can’t do what? Simply does what?

“Clearly the PM does not place himself among the ‘many [who] opine that there is no need for elections AT ALL’ (my emphasis – DJ)”. ‘Opine ‘is a favourite of Sri Lankan columnists and is rarely used anywhere else. Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to ditch democracy, apparently. Neither does his brother. “It is not that President Gotabaya has a zero-election project or extra-constitutional preference”. Let us work up a panic anyway and create a froth of hypotheticals involving sinister scenarios created by unnamed figures from “the postwar Far Right ranks”.

Dayan graciously gives the government a (dimmed) gold star for the way it has handled the Covid19 crisis so far. This faint praise is effectively withdrawn when he compares Sri Lanka (to its detriment) with Israel and South Korea. He concedes, “There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP governmental sub-culture. “

Shifting Enthusiasms

It is difficult to keep up with Dayan’s political philosophy and allegiances. He worked with Tamil separatists and the UNP. He often describes himself as a progressive (but resists defining the term) and endlessly cites men of the left like Gramsci and Castro. To my face he praised Trump’s fascist adviser, Steve Bannon and, in writing, defended Jeremy Corbyn’s Stalinist apparatchik, Seamus Milne. He has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as well as the grand old mass murderers, Stalin and Mao. In the Daily FT article itself he offers the apartheid state of Israel as an exemplar (is this because Mahinda Rajapaksa has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause?) Now I hear that he is working for his former boss’s son, Sajith Premadasa.

Sri Lanka Coping Well

How does he think Trump and Johnson are coping with Covid? What would Corbyn have done? Dayan thinks Brexit is good for Britain. He writes, “What are the ethics, values and morals of those who would put hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way, by fudging or embellishing evidence in a severe epidemic which has dealt suffering, death and bereavement to so many around the world? “He seems to be saying that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is lying.  His heroes Trump and Johnson are widely acknowledged to be serial liars. This is a very serious charge for a fomer  ambassador to level at the government that paid  him.

I have no wish to make unwarranted boasts about the way Sri Lanka is dealing with the crisis. However, I do find it odd to see the western media saying this country or that country is doing better than Britain. True, Britain is among the worst for total incompetence and mendacity. At the time of writing, Britain’s official death toll was over 30,000, and climbing.  Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 7 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed 1,429 deaths. Sri Lanka’s population is 21.4 million and there have been nine deaths. There is of course the danger of complacency but let’s give ourselves a little encouragement in these dark days.

In the hope of establishing what the point of Dayan’s article was, I went to the last paragraph. The very last words were a bit of pointless name-dropping. Before that, this: “It is not that there is no political motivation as well, but that isn’t a simplistic one of pushing for a premature general election. It is a more complex two-pronged tactic, or more to the point, an ambush, a trap. The two prongs are on one flank, a snap election on unfavourable terrain for the Opposition and at a dangerous moment for the voter, and on the other, the project of zero-elections and open-ended rule by the President plus a “power cartel” “

Where does that leave us? I would advise readers to check out an article by DBS Jeyaraj who covers similar ground in simple prose without obfuscation.