SRI LANKA: A Gulag Island — a response to Dayan Jayatilaka — the mentality of the phantom limb — Asian Human Rights Commission

Basil Fernando

Dayan Jayatilaka begins his article with the words, “I am proud of my country, Sri Lanka.” To demonstrate the differences in our points of view I would like to begin by stating that, while I am proud of some aspects of Sri Lanka I am also very ashamed of many other aspects of my country, Sri Lanka. I have publically stated that many times, over many years, beginning particularly from the cruel repression of the innocent in 1971 under the pretext of dealing with the JVP insurgency. In my book of poems, The sea is calm behind your house, I have expressed many times that when a motherland turns into a ‘murder land’ it is a matter that the citizens should begin to recognize. This theme of the motherland turning into a cruel land towards its own children is also one of the themes in the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenisyn (my book of poems is available at:, kindly see particularly the introductory essay by Professor K.G. Sankara Pillai of India).

There are several reasons why Dayan does not think that Sri Lanka is a gulag island. One such reason is the fact that he was allowed to ‘express my criticisms on TV’ which makes him think that this would not have happened in a gulag island. The history of Russia from 1918 to 1956, which is the period referred to in Solzhenisyn’s book has examples of literally hundreds of thousands of persons who expressed themselves in varying kinds of dissident views, despite of the harshest possible repression that existed within that country. Some paid for their publishing with their lives or by being subjected to long prison sentences. Strangely, there were others who even survived within the system with all privileges despite of expressing some dissident views. In fact, such persons were kept as long as they could be used for one or another purpose. Sometimes, they were allowed to express their views for the very reason of denying that there was any repression at all.

Thus, being ‘allowed to’ express views of one or another person is not a criterion to evaluate a gulag island. The very use of the word ‘allowed’ when talking about free speech has a very sad connotation. Why should anyone be worried about being ‘allowed’ or not by somebody else when it comes to expressions of views? The very acknowledgement of having been disallowed speaks of a mentality that could only happen in a place where free speech cannot be taken for granted.

Dayan says the “defining characteristic of the Gulag is that it was a system of forced labour camps”. In fact, the defining characteristics of a gulag are many which I will mention shortly. Solzhenisyn does not use the term ‘labour camps’ at all in his book. He talks about ‘prisons’ and a secret security authority that runs the prisons. In these prisons the citizen is reduced to a zero. Virtually hundreds of thousands were just killed and millions were destroyed through this system. They ceased to exist. Ever since 1971 in the small island of Sri Lanka tens of thousands of people have disappeared in the south, north and the east. All decisions relating to such disappearances were taken by ‘security agencies’ and not by any by any judicial authority. The displacement of genuine judicial authority and its replacement by security authorities regarding the lives of large numbers of people is not a characteristic of labour camps; it is a characteristic of death camps.

Dayan also speaks of elections where a ruling regime may get even 70% of the votes as demonstration of a free country and not a gulag island. The history of Russia during the relevant period and many other countries which became gulag states is that the ruling apparatus can produce whatever result it wants because of the perfection of its coercive authority. While a democracy is a system that relies on the least amount of coercive authority, a gulag is one that has achieved perfection or near perfection in the use of coercive authority. For example, in North Korea now, if you were to hold any election the ruling clique would get, not just 70% but even 100% of the vote. In fact, rather hilariously, in some places they get even more than 100% of the vote – there being more votes than people! When the threat of a coercive authority looms large everywhere, with possibilities of abductions, disappearances, strange accidents and other forms of attacks on person and property, elections are no longer free and fair. It is no longer a test of the existence of a democracy.

A further argument of Dayan was that “there is nothing “totally”, or “systemically” warped in a country which can be put right by restoring a basic political equilibrium, as can Sri Lanka.” There is something which is totally and systematically warped in Sri Lanka which is the constitution of the country itself. The 1978 Constitution is a constitution of a dictatorship. At the early stages of its operation the country’s institutions and the mentalities of people operating at various levels were able to resist the full impact of this terrible constitution. However, after three decades of the operation of this constitution all the institutions have virtually collapsed and the mentalities of people have become inured to the cruel circumstances that they are now faced with.

Take Sri Lanka’s policing system now. Can it be turned into at least a basic level of a law enforcement agency by even a change of government? Anyone who has that kind of illusion needs only to read the reports and comments about the police which appear constantly in the press. Take the Attorney General’s Department, does it anymore enjoy the credibility of an impartial, non politicized agency committed to the strict enforcement of the rule of law only. Take the civil service and reflect on the extent of corruption spread everywhere. Take the case of even the military itself where General Sarath Fonseka was quoted in the media about corruption relating to military purchases which amounts to around Rs. one billion. This is just to mention a few. To believe that there is nothing irrational in this country would amount to nothing less than saying that there is nothing irrational in the world at all.

What I have written had nothing to do with the UNP or any other political party although Dayan tries to see it that way. I am talking about a system that has been systematically destroyed by the very constitutional process itself and where the democratic process has been replaced with a security process. That was not the work of this government only, it is a process that began in 1972 and became worse with each year ever since.

The discussion on irrationality was relating to a remark by Dayan that his removal from the post of Ambassador to Geneva was an irrational act because it was not taken in terms of assessing merits. I did not disagree with him; I only said that it is as irrational as all other acts taken without regard to merit. The very essence of the rejection of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was the displacement of merit as having any relevance to appointments, dismissals, transfers and disciplinary action. The 17th Amendment applies to all Sri Lankans. Therefore, by the displacement of the 17th Amendment all Sri Lankans are treated irrationally. Why doesn’t Dayan who rightly complains about being treated irrationally worry about the rest of his countrymen who are also treated irrationally?

Defining characteristics of a gulag

This is a subject for a lengthy article where each of the elements mentioned below need to be dealt with at length. Such an article was under preparation at the time that Dayan’s comments appeared. I hope to publish that article shortly. I mention below the characteristics that I have identified as the defining characteristics of a gulag.

The concept of the gulag ever since Aleksandr Solzhenisyn used it in the Gulag Archipelago, 1918 – 1956, has come to mean a particular system of repression imposed within a whole country which has some definite characteristics. These characteristics may be described thus:

1. The loss of the meaning of legality within a particular country.
2. A predominant position played by a security apparatus which can virtually do whatever function relating to life and liberty of citizens without being bound by any rules.
3. The emergence of a propaganda apparatus which is not bound by any rules relating to truth or falsehood; in fact, the meaning of any distinction between truth and falsehood disappears.
4. The emergence of a superman controller who manipulates all the three elements mentioned above in any way that he wishes.
5. A doomed citizenry who keep on believing that nothing has really changed while, in fact, everything has changed and who are unable to control their own destinies in any significant manner. One particular section of citizens may by suffering the worst at a particular time, but, in fact, the entire population of the country is affected more or less with the same degree of intensity but at different times.

The position on which this article is based is that Sri Lanka is now such a gulag. All the above mentioned characteristics are now quite prominently visible within Sri Lanka. However, a phantom limb complex still continues to exist. The people wish to believe that the old legal system and the social system are still intact despite of some unhappy new aspects that cannot be denied.

In a separate article I hope to deal with Dayan’s view on the 13th Amendment in relation to the 1978 Constitution. As much as a living branch cannot sprout out of dead wood no new political concept of democracy, participation or power sharing can arise out of the constitutional dictatorship which exists under the 1978 Constitution. What happened to the 17th Amendment has already proved this.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-053-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,