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Historical roots of diverse authoritarianisms

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China’s millennial centralised state; Donald Trump, America’s evil incubus

by Kumar David

The resilience of authoritarianism occupies much of political discourse today. Discussion spreads from Trump’s debasement of American electoral democracy, to Modi’s barefaced Hindutva intolerance, to a spate of dictators, most recently Belarus’s dictator-incumbent for life Lukashenko. The growing list is thrown into bold relief by the backdrop of Trump, Modi, Putin and Brazil’s Balsonaro. Despite common features every case is different and specifics are as enlightening as generalities. Today’s column features Chinese history, Lanka, and US developments. I will dwell on the strong centralised state across dynasties in China and the continuity of this into the Communist present. I have benefitted from the first three chapters of Lee Kwan Yew’s One Man’s View of the World, Strait Times Press, Singapore (2013). At times I have accepted and at times rejected his insights but it is not possible within the confines of this column to point out which is which. I urge readers to read the book because LKY’s grasp of the ‘big-picture’ is unequalled among post-WW2 leaders.

This quote, edited a little for length, gives LKY’s approach to the history of China. “For millennia the Chinese have believed that the country is safe only when the centre is strong. A weak centre leads to confusion and chaos, a strong one to peace and prosperity. Every Chinese knows this cardinal principle drawn from history and there will be no deviation from this. This mindset predates communism”. From this premise LKY concludes that a strong centralised state (called authoritarianism in modern discourse) is endemic to Chinese civilisation and psyche. He sees Western style democracy as unlikely to take root and expects the one-party PRC system to last for long. Participatory government may evolve sui generis but “China will evolve its institutions and systems in a distinctly Chinese way. Whatever their reforms one thing will not change; it will retain a strong centre”.

Let me pick two graphs from Ray Dalio’s chapter 9 of an online series “The Changing World Order” (https://www.principles.com/the-changing-world-order/). The graphs (not copyrighted) measure dynastic power in China. Fig.1 is “relative”, that is progress through time. Numerals 1 to 6 stand for stages in evolution. Stage 1 is the beginning of a new order, stage 2 consolidation, 3 is peace, prosperity and the dynasty forging ahead, followed by 4, profligacy, overreach in resource use and spending. Stage 5 is when the economy enters a tailspin and internal conflict begins. Finally stage 6 denotes civil strife and collapse. Every civilisation has its peculiarities and no two can be expected to replicate each other but in a rough way we can say that the USA today is between stages 4 and 5. I have referred to Trumpism as proto neo-fascism many times before. Well we can drop proto now; armed Trump instigated neo-fascists have starred attacking the homes of electoral officials.

 

Fig. 1 Progression of dynastic power in China

The more interesting illustration is Fig.2 which is an “absolute” scale relating the dynasties to global power. A word about the scales; in both graphs, presentation begins with the Tang Dynasty (618 to 900AD) called the Golden Age, well after the earliest dynasties and does not include Confucius (551-479 BC). RC stands for Republic of China after Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 democratic revolution which ended Dynastic rule. What is relevant to my discussion of Chinese authoritarianism are the peaks and troughs. The vertical scale is all-time rank. I presume that 1.0, the all-time max, would be the British Empire or US Imperialism at their global zenith. The USA, if sketched into the graph, would be at 1.0 from the end of WW2 to the mid-1970s, then it would slide down, with a pip-up from 1989 for five years after the end of Soviet and East European communism, and then resume its decline, ranking between 0.8 and 0.9 today.

 

Fig 2

underlines LKY’s point. The end of the Tang Dynasty due to war-lord uprisings and peasant revolts, wrecked the centralised state leading to a chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The calamity caused suffering, sorrow and hunger until, out of this chaos, Song Emperors fused a new dynasty half a century later. Yuan, the rule of the Mongols, began with Marco Polo’s fabled Great Khan, Kublai, grandson of legendary Genghis. Despite the achievements of the Mongols, Dalio rates it as bad because it was a foreign occupation and Kublai’s military exploits caused big losses of life and wealth. The downfall of the Qing (Manchurian) Dynasty is in part due to a weakening of the centre from about 1830, but also due to foreign (Western) invasions;

the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) humbled China. This storyline underlines why hopes of prosperity and fear of chaos drive the desire for a strong centralised state. In conversations with Chinese in Hong Kong and the Mainland, I know of no one of any political hue, who wishes to see a weaker less cohesive China.

 

Fig.2 Power of Dynasties measured globally

Only fools extend the experiences of history to countries or periods to which they have no relevance. My aim is to illustrate the difference of China’s dynastic story from Lanka. From the end of the Polonnaruwa period, about 1300AD, our history is incomparably different – that is a difference spanning 700 years. From middle-late Anuradhapura period, through Chola rule and in the Polonnaruwa era there were similarities; a hydraulic civilisation, though on a far smaller scale – a quarter of Lanka’s landmass – and the similarity of a centralised sate. Colonisation changed it all, and Lanka after independence is a diametrically opposite political milieu from before. Our ethos of the last half-century has been liberal democracy. JR’s brief Bonapartism and Gotabaya’s effort to impose authoritarian rule are deviations within the big picture. The former failed, the latter will fall flat when the masses now toadying to racist and religious muck awake. Gota’s cack-handed attempt to dismantle the Public Utilities Commission and his Health Minister’s highhanded sacking of Medical Council members, undoubtedly in consultation with him, have caused outrage. He is now on the backfoot, attempting to force resignation of PUC members because he has no power to abolish it and his attempt is anti-democratic. I have had plenty of differences with PUC decisions but attempts to abolish it unconstitutionally and anti-democratically must be resisted. Gota’s authoritarianism is coming a cropper; the masses may be asses but past practice is missing

Given 70 years of liberal democracy, comparison with the time-honoured central state in China makes Gota’s authoritarian exertions seem like farting against thunder. Apples don’t flourish in ground prepared for oranges. Nonetheless it is not a cockeyed President throwing his weight around but livelihood issues that will finally agitate the masses. China’s economy is doing well and more than six hundred million have been pulled out of poverty. People see no reason to upset the applecart and endanger prosperity. China’s authoritarians and bureaucrats (Communist Mandarins) are smart, but Gota has surrounded himself with jackboots and blockheads. The outlook for Sri Lanka is grim. It’s very different tunnels that the two are peering into. The authoritarian cock won’t fight in this corner.

What could falsify my projections is a massive and catastrophic annulment of secularism and democracy in India if Hindutva fascism overruns the country. The chips are down, the gloves are off, the Modi-Amit Shah faction of the BJP and a cow-belt religious-opium besotted, Muslim-hating, secularism-spurning populist mass is mobilising. Unification and organisation of opposition to Hindutva neo-fascism is nowhere near what is needed. Therefore, external circumstances that could facilitate authoritarianism in Sri Lanka cannot be ruled out.

I have argued previously that “Trump is the last warning” meaning Trumpism augurs neo-fascism. He is an incubus who, with his Republi-can’t toadies (the party majority) and goons reminiscent of Hitler’s Brown Shirts (Sturmabteilung or Stormtroopers), is trashing electoral institutions, seeking to subvert polls and subjecting the country to an unending stream of Gobblesian lies. Is my last warning too late, is a fight to the finish already upon America? Yes and no. The final fight in on for sure; but a majority of people and constitutional institutions are probably strong enough to throw back the challenge. If the results of a bourgeois democratic presidential election are overthrown in America it would be mana from heaven for authoritarians and authoritarians-in-waiting in all continents. Institutions and courts have been resilient so far and stood up to the wrecking-ball, but damage is being done. Though the US seems to have weathered the storm so far, the bigger setback is not Trump who can be written off as bonkers, but tens of millions of Republi-can’ts who live in an alternative universe. They damn the very ideals they deem precious in the land of the brave and the home of the free. It is not Chinese dynasties but the grip of the incubus, tightening on the American throat and serving as an example to copycats elsewhere, in societies pledged to bourgeois-democracy and a liberal ethos, that is the peril.



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South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and what it means for SL

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At the head table (L to R): High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in South Africa Prof. Gamini Gunawardena, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya and Executive Director LKI Dr. D.L. Mendis.

State circles in Sri Lanka have begun voicing the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the country, on the lines of South Africa’s historic TRC, and the time could not be more appropriate for a comprehensive discussion in Sri Lanka on the questions that are likely to arise for the country as a result of launching such an initiative. There is no avoiding the need for all relevant stakeholders to deliberate on what it could mean for Sri Lanka to usher a TRC of its own.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI), Colombo, took on the responsibility of initiating public deliberations on what a TRC could entail for Sri Lanka. A well-attended round table forum towards this end was held at the LKI on November 25 and many were the vital insights it yielded on how Sri Lanka should go about the crucial task of bringing about enduring ethnic peace in Sri Lanka through a home-grown TRC. A special feature of the forum was the on-line participation in it of South African experts who were instrumental in making the TRC initiative successful in South Africa.

There was, for example, former Minister of Constitutional Affairs and Communication of South Africa Roelf Meyer, who figured as Chief Representative of the white minority National Party government in the multi-party negotiations of 1993, which finally led to ending apartheid in South Africa. His role was crucial in paving the way for the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. Highlighting some crucial factors that contributed towards South Africa’s success in laying the basis for ethnic reconciliation, Meyer said that there ought to be a shared need among the antagonists to find a negotiated solution to their conflict. They should be willing to resolve their issues. Besides, the principle needs be recognized that ‘one negotiates with one’s enemies’. These conditions were met in South Africa.

Meyer added that South Africa’s TRC was part of the country’s peace process. Before the launching of the TRC a peace agreement among the parties was already in place. Besides, an interim constitution was licked into shape by then. The principle agreed to by the parties that, ‘We will not look for vengeance but for reconciliation’, not only brought a degree of accord among the conflicting parties but facilitated the setting-up of the TRC.

Meyer also pointed out that the parties to the conflict acted with foresight when they postponed considering the question of an amnesty for aggressors for the latter part of the negotiations. If an amnesty for perceived aggressors ‘was promised first, we would never have had peace’, he explained.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fanie Du Toit, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa, in his presentation said that the restoration of the dignity of the victims in the conflict is important. The realization of ethnic peace in South Africa was a ‘victim-centric’ process. Hearing out the victim’s point of view became crucial. Very importantly, the sides recognized that ‘apartheid was a crime against humanity’. These factors made the South African TRC exercise a highly credible one.

The points made by Meyer and Du Toit ought to prompt the Sri Lankan state and other parties to the country’s conflict to recognize what needs to be in place for the success of an ethnic peace process of their own. A challenge for the Sri Lankan government is to ban racism in all its manifestations and to declare racism a crime against humanity. For starters, is the Lankan government equal to this challenge? If this challenge goes unmet bringing ethnic reconciliation to Sri Lanka would prove an impossible task.

Lest the Sri Lankan government and other relevant sections to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict forget, reconciliation in South Africa was brought about, among other factors, by truth-telling by aggressors and oppressors. In its essentials, the South African TRC entailed the aggressors owning to their apartheid-linked crimes in public before the Commission. In return they were amnestied and freed of charges. Could Sri Lanka’s perceived aggressors measure up to this challenge? This question calls for urgent answering before any TRC process is gone ahead with.

Making some opening remarks at the forum, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya said, among other things, that the LKI discussion set the tone for the setting up of a local TRC. He said that the latter is important because future generations should not be allowed to inherit Sri Lanka’s ethnic tangle and its issues. Ethnic reconciliation is essential as the country goes into the future. He added that the ‘Aragalaya’ compelled the country to realize its past follies which must not be repeated.

In his closing remarks, former Minister of Public Works of South Africa and High Commissioner of South Africa to Sri Lanka ambassador Geoffrey Doidge said that Sri Lanka’s TRC would need to have a Compassionate Council of religious leaders who would be catalysts in realizing reconciliation. Sri Lanka, he said, needs to seize this opportunity and move ahead through a consultative process. All sections of opinion in the country need to be consulted on the core issues in reconciliation.

At the inception of the round table, Executive Director, LKI, Dr. D. L. Mendis making some welcome remarks paid tribute to South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela for his magnanimous approach towards the white minority and for granting an amnesty to all apartheid-linked offenders. He also highlighted the role played by Bishop Desmond Tutu in ushering an ‘Age of Reconciliation’.

In his introductory remarks, High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in South Africa Prof. Gamini Gunawardena said, among other things, that TRCs were not entirely new to Sri Lanka but at the current juncture a renewed effort needed to be made by Sri Lanka towards reconciliation. Sri Lanka should aim at its own TRC process, he said.

During Q&A Roelf Meyer said that in South Africa there was a move away from authoritarianism towards democracy, a democratic constitution was ushered. In any reconciliation process, ensuring human rights should be the underlying approach with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights playing the role of guide. Besides, a reconciliation process must have long term legitimacy.

Dr. Fanie Du Toit said that Bishop Tutu’s commitment to forgiveness made him acceptable to all. Forgiveness is not a religious value but a human one, he said. It is also important to recognize that human rights violations are always wrong.

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Cucumber Face Mask

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*  Cucumber and Aloe Vera

Ingredients

• 1 tablespoon aloe vera gel or juice • 1/4th grated cucumber

Method

Mix the grated cucumber and aloe gel, and carefully apply the mixture on the face and also on your neck.

Leave it on for 15 minutes. Wash with warm water.

* Cucumber and Carrot

Ingredients

• 1 tablespoon fresh carrot juice • 1 tablespoon cucumber paste • 1 tablespoon sour cream

Method

Extract fresh carrot juice and grate the cucumber to get a paste-like consistency. Mix these two ingredients, with the sour cream, and apply the paste on the face.

Leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse with lukewarm water. (This cucumber face pack is good for dry skin)

* Cucumber and Tomato

Ingredients

• 1/4th cucumber • 1/2 ripe tomato

Method

Peel the cucumber and blend it with the tomato and apply the paste on your face and neck and massage for a minute or two, in a circular motion.

Leave the paste on for 15 minutes. Rinse with cool water. (This cucumber face pack will give you brighter and radiant skin)

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Christmas time is here again…

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The dawning of the month of December invariably reminds me of The Beatles ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again.’ And…yes, today is the 1st of December and, no doubt, there will be quite a lot of festive activities for us to check out.

Renowned artiste, Melantha Perera, who now heads the Moratuwa Arts Forum, has been a busy man, working on projects for the benefit of the public.

Since taking over the leadership of the Moratuwa Arts Forum, Melantha and his team are now ready to present their second project – a Christmas Fair – and this project, I’m told, is being done after a lapse of three years.

They are calling it Christmas Fun-Fair and it will be held on 7th December, at St. Peter’s Church Hall, Koralawella.

A member of the organizing committee mentioned that this event will not be confined to only the singing of Christmas Carols.

“We have worked out a programme that would be enjoyed by all, especially during this festive season.”

There will be a variety of items, where the main show is concerned…with Calypso Carols, as a curtain raiser, followed by Carols sung by Church choirs.

They plan to include a short drama, pertaining to Christmas, and a Comedy act, as well.

The main show will include guest spots by Rukshan Perera and Mariazelle Gunathilake.

Melantha Perera: Second project as President of the Moratuwa Arts Forum

Although show time is at 7.30 pm, the public can check out the Christmas Fun-Fair scene, from 4.30 pm onwards, as there will be trade stalls, selling Christmas goodies – Christmas cakes and sweets, garment items, jewellery, snacks, chocolate, etc.

The fair will not be confined to only sales, as Melantha and his team plan to make it extra special by working out an auction and raffle draw, with Christmas hampers, as prizes.

Santa and ‘Charlie Chaplin’ will be in attendance, too, entertaining the young and old, and there will also be a kid’s corner, to keep thembusy so that the parents could do their shopping.

They say that the main idea in organizing this Christmas Fun-Fair is to provide good festive entertainment for the people who haven’t had the opportunity of experiencing the real festive atmosphere during the last few years.

There are also plans to stream online, via MAF YouTube, to Sri Lankans residing overseas, to enable them to see some of the festive activities in Sri Lanka.

Entrance to the Christmas Fun Failr stalls will be free of charge. Tickets will be sold only for the main show, moderately priced at Rs. 500.

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