Power doesn’t always flow from a gun barrel | Daily News

Power doesn’t always flow from a gun barrel

Large crowds gathered at the Presidential Secretariat on July 9. Picture by Sulochana Gamage
Large crowds gathered at the Presidential Secretariat on July 9. Picture by Sulochana Gamage

How is power maintained over the masses? Be it in a democracy or some other form of government, a regime governs because the governing cohort enjoys a monopoly on violence. It is true when it comes to the crunch that the existence or otherwise of ‘a monopoly on violence’ is moot, but then it’s very rarely that revolutions are launched and a regime’s ability to use violence is tested.

A regime survives as much by symbolism as it does by enjoying a monopoly on violence. The trappings are sometimes the means by which that monopoly on violence is established. It’s why totems that signify power involve gold and jewelry — thrones and crowns in a monarchy — and sometimes abstruse symbols that involve some level of mystique, such as the Mace in Parliament for instance.

But usually the symbols of power are more intricate. There are the flags that people swear allegiance to, and the insignia and the anthems etc etc. Those who enjoy economic power over others are quick to arm themselves with these symbols and ‘mark their own territory.’

There are other symbols that operate at a somewhat more subterranean level and are not openly manifest as the insignia of State are. Among these are powerful Corporate trademarks and badges, or rosettes or other paraphernalia of members of exclusive clubs for instance.

The flexing of a State’s power through various elements other than the Armed Forces that maintain the monopoly on violence comes in various ways, and sometimes it comes through the trappings — the pomp, the pageantry and at other times, the motorcades and the guards, and entire retinues.

In the very recent past or in the last three months or so, the Sri Lankan state was witness to the diminishing of the power of such symbolic extensions that denote the ability of a State to stamp its authority. There was a sudden absence of the motorcades of politicians amid the arson attacks and the sudden targeting of Members of Parliament, and other politicians in positions of power.

There was, to be precise, a sudden absence of confidence among politicians altogether. People came away with the impression that entire political parties and the leaderships of these political parties had no confidence to get involved in governance at all — they were avoiding governance as if it was the plague.


This was in stark contrast to other times in which they were trying to trip somebody up and catapult themselves into power. Politicians were always trying to ‘game’ the system in some way so that they could, if they cannot win an election, come to power by some other means such as by manipulating constitutional provisions. But in the last few months politicians were avoiding governance like the plague.

Along with that went the confidence that was often exuded with the trappings of power. The trappings of power per se disappeared, and there were no motorcades for instance that used to power their way through traffic with blaring sirens and motorbike outriders driving at breakneck speed.

Now, once again these trappings are back. Slowly but surely they have returned, or are returning and those who heaved a sigh of relief at seeing that they do not have to tolerate politicians being whisked away in motorcades in heavy traffic jams, are now back to the realization that superficial trappings of power die hard.

Are these trappings back by design or because there is a general return to the status quo ante where relative normality reigned before the recent upheavals began? In other words are politicians — at least some of them — asserting themselves and overtly showing they still command power and heft, when before this they were unable to show confidence, when the recent upheavals had society totally convulsed?

There is also the assertion that’s very loudly articulated that the outward edifices that signify power should remain intact and unmolested. For instance much has been made of the fact that the artifacts in the President’s House and Temple Trees should not have been tampered with, and that these are items that signify a national heritage and so on.

But was there much that was destroyed? Apparently the Archeological Department states that there was no significant inventory of the artifacts so-called, or other items of historical import that were stored in these prime ministerial and presidential residential complexes. While preserving artifacts is important, it is a good guess that what’s in fact galling to those in power is the fact that their authority by way of these trappings and outward manifestations was challenged to such an extent that their power per se looked brittle and on the verge of being taken from them.


So it seems that the system fought back and first among the order of business ensured that the trappings of power and the outward manifestations were all restored. If not fully restored they are in the process of being restored.

It’s not the outward manifestations and the trappings that matter but it is also the assertiveness of politicians i.e their attitude of being among the chosen few, or the chosen elected few to be precise.

In the face of their diminishing confidence and increasing avoidance of serious governance in the last few months in particular as was documented in the early part of this article, politicians have been feeling that they are losing their legitimacy and individual standing in society. But they have quickly tried to reassert their power by being vocal, even if they do eschew serious governance.

They have as a unit generally backed the moves to return to the status quo ante by vilifying and bringing protestors to justice. They can only be brought to justice for violence and not for peaceful protests, but then even when the line between these two wears thin, politicians have generally been quite manifestly for the ‘restoration of law and order.’

By and large ‘restoration of law and order’ can mean many things, but if it means that their outward trappings of power and other edifices that signify their status remain untouched, politicians have been quite happy with such ‘restoration of law and order.’ In other words the politician does not want to be shorn of his elite status, be that status imagined or otherwise.


Most of that elite status so-called is kept aloft by maintaining a studied disparity between their own condition and that of the voters. This disparity may manifest in terms of wealth of course, with politicians having more vehicles and other facilities and most often feeling extremely entitled to these benefits. But, usually the disparity is manifest in terms of how different the politicians are from the voters in terms of privilege.

Call it trappings if you will or by any other name, but these outward manifestations of a politician’s elite status have found a status of exaggerated importance in these times. But during the recent upheavals all of this seemed to be at stake. Now, it appears that things are coming a full circle and politicians are getting back to the habit of using their retinues, their outriders and their motorcades with sirens with which they whisk past the hoi polloi.

But indeed these trappings are fragile. The recent events proved that though they confer a certain status of privilege, that politicians may not be fully comfortable using these privileges and exhibiting these trappings. Or, on the contrary, maybe some of them don’t care and find that the more conspicuous they are the better.

But it is unfortunate if some of them have not learnt that the trappings and the outward displays of power are ephemeral and that these things are not lasting.

They are of a very transient nature – these outward displays of authority — but they are not what they are superficially but are more than the sum of their parts. It’s by the trappings that the veneer of power — or sometimes you may even call it the illusion of power — is maintained. That’s probably even more powerful than enjoying a monopoly over violence.

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