We Sri Lankans treat government as a paternalistic feudal monarchy. We always have and from the looks of it, will continue to do so (not that we will ever admit it). Democracy is merely a stage to act out the brutalities of feudal politics. The rituals of electoral democracy, socialistic bureaucracy, and constitutional republicanism are essentially props in a political theatre barely changed since the bronze age. The props look modern and democratic if you are political or just got off the plane. Whether such a mind set is bad or good depends as much on the nature and tightness of your ideological underwear as the manners of the ruler on the throne.
A consequence of any form of government is a hierarchal power structure. It is supposedly the rule by a few for the good of the herd. The reality ends up being shepherding of the many for the benefit of the few. Whatever ism or cracy you want to call it, we are still a herd of apes who willingly or otherwise are “led” by a dominant caste with a leader. Whether this caste is a hereditary aristocracy, a corporate elite, party aparachiks, or anything else is, in the greater scheme of things, irrelevant. The primordial template is a monarchy.
At the summit of the political pyramid is the king. His power is enforced through tiers procured loyalties. At the top end are local aristocrats paid with titles (ministries), shielded from the inconveniences of laws and protected (often with life sustaining security details) by the king. These characters ensure local support for the king unless someone pays them better. At the bottom are serfs performing favours for powerful patrons be it a humble a task as providing faces at a political rally. They too may switch patrons if someone dangle a marginally better looking morsel. The only visible benefit is that changes in kingship are significantly less bloody. Election violence is almost Gandhian compared to the bloody power struggles of our ancient kings.
Sri Lankan acceptance of kingship is rooted deeper than the dynastic nature of south asian “democratic” politics or the kingliness of executive power. As in the centuries past, government IS the king (who is called something else these days). The king is seen as a stern yet distant paternal figure with the sole right to hump mother Lanka. He is perceived as infinitely rich, the giver of hand outs and funder of civic (irrigation/religious) infrastructure projects. In the old days all daddy government was supposed do was fight off invaders and maintain a basic semblance of public order. Any extra goodies are gratifying yet random acts of fickle generosity. Thanks to a generation or two of socialism we now expect free education, jobs, and a better life.
Cruelty, and mystery are the accepted consistent personas of daddy government. The individual is a pawn, to be used, crushed, rewarded or ignored by inscrutable whims of the throne and karmic flux. However there is always the perception that the crown will soften to flattery and pleadings of mercy from the helplessly weak. This can turn out be a successful strategy.
Crumbs of leniency from the throne pass off as virtuous fireworks, gets enshrined in popular myth and generally makes for good PR (specially if the ruler is concerned about his Mahavamsa and Chulavamsa profiles). These days things it is more efficient to show oneself directly resolving bureaucratic quagmires with a phone call before the cameras. It goes along with the timeless political charade of showing the common touch.
The awe of kingship lives in all of us serfs as it did in our ancestors. Their expectations of kings applied to all monarchs. Irrespective of the whether the monarch was in Anuradapura, Polonaruwa, Tanjore, Lisbon, London, Kandy, Senkadagala, Colombo, or Kotte. Tempting to say it is in the blood. A more accurate quip is that it is in the language.
Sinhala words describing government are rooted in monarchial references. The term for “government” is “Rajaya” which is has the connotations of “to rule/ruler/king” (right down to the root “Raj”). Even words used to describe employment — “Rajyakaria” — translates around permutations of “the tasks assigned by the king”. It is psychologically difficult to view term such as government service “raja-ye se-va-ya” (literately in the service of the monarch) as anything but monarchial.
Our view of government in feudal monarchial terms does not diminish the principles of democracy. I am certainly not suggesting that we uncivilised darkie primitives can’t govern themselves. Sri Lankans have long since adapted to living amidst feudal politics. It is our reality and we have survived wars, rebellions and other farts of history. No matter whatever shit that hit the fan, we are better off than Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, and other hell holes. Subconsciously I think we know accept the rituals of our politics into the rhythms of life. Fits in with the rambutan season, the “traditional” new years, and our interlinked families.
Yet Sri Lankan kingship is not totalitarian but a rather shaky set-up. That is for another post (coming soon). Must not keep these political rants going on longer than a glass of good arrack.
For a more dispassionate post on this topic check out this post by Dr Rohan Samarajiva Ph.D post.