Learning from Western Australia – a responseMarch 20, 2017, 8:03 pm
By Vinod Moonesinghe
Perhaps symptomatic of the extent to which the Yahapalanaya regime has failed to fulfil its promises is that its supporters among the intelligentsia are now distancing themselves from it. The latest of them appears to be Prof. Laksiri Fernando ("Western Australian Elections and Possible Lessons for Sri Lanka", 17 March 2017).
One of the principal reasons why intellectuals such as Fernando, who were associated with the international non-governmental organisation (INGO) sector, threw themselves so heartily into the Yahapalana camp was that they had imbibed so much in the INGO discourse that they had lost the ability to perceive the wood for the trees. That, unfortunately, remains the case.
For example, Fernando equates what he refers to as the "extreme nationalism" of the extreme right of the Western political spectrum with what he describes as "the insular/extremist nationalist policies of the type of the Joint Opposition".
Unfortunately, it seems that Fernando, a resident of Australia, is not quite au fait with the politics of his chosen domicile. Far from being nationalist, the right wing of the Australian political spectrum is the remnant of the Bunyip Aristocracy, which fought tooth and nail against separation from Britain - only achieved in 1986. Pauline Hanson, the figurehead of this so-called "nationalist movement" has spoken out again and again for retaining the alien Royal Family, as did her ideological godfather, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in his time.
The equation of anti-colonial movements with far-right racism is essential to the hegemonic discourse of the mainstream ideology of the so-called "liberal" West, the same discourse that the INGOs force-feed to our "civil society".
This discourse equates the nationalism of the oppressed black Afro-Americans, as expressed by the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, with the sordid racism of such White supremacist institutions of oppression as the Ku Klux Klan and likens the oppressed pan-Africanist Negritude of Frantz Fanon, George Padmore or Steve Biko with the jackbooted racism of Apartheid.
This identification is no accident: it springs from a need to tar opponents of imperialism and neo-colonialism with a "racist" brush. The Joint Opposition's ideology does have Sinhalese-nationalist core, but it could not be characterised as "racism" - it does not seek to oppress other ethnic groups, but to build a broad nationalism.
Name calling or renaming can be an effective weapon. It was to de-legitimise Kenyan revolutionaries that the British referred to them as "Mau Mau" - which summoned up images of savage tribal "fuzzy wuzzies". The Americans spoke of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front with the pejorative "Viet Cong". The first Indian War of Liberation became "the Sepoy Mutiny".
This discourse also has an automatic, universal formula: majorities oppress, minorities are oppressed. So, automatically, the Sinhalese, Buddhist majority oppresses the minorities. The Sinhalese are said to be "a majority with a minority complex", because of this same formula.
I daresay that the Black Africans of Apartheid South Africa, and even today, have the same "majority with a minority complex". The Palestinians must, surely, feel the same way!
Movements of liberation tend to have a nationalist component. In colonial countries where the majority was particularly and specifically oppressed, the liberation struggle tends to be fuelled by it.
Hence, nationalist, pan-Slavic feelings fuelled the Czechoslovak revolutions of 1918 to 1948; often directed against the privileged Sudeten Germans. In Algeria, anger was aimed at French colons.
The British Empire made something of an art form of privileging minorities in order to keep the majority in check. It is no secret that it was the British Foreign and Colonial Office which first induced Jews to settle in Palestine, and tried to settle them in Uganda. Indians and Cape Coloureds provided the intermediary layers between the oppressed Black African majority and the Afrikaner colons - themselves an intermediary layer who converted themselves into the Apartheid upper layer.
The British Empire used Sri Lanka as something of a test-tube in this: before settling on the Burghers, North-East Tamils and the Muslims, they experimented, with little success, with introducing classes of Chinese and Thanjavur Christian landholders into the mix.
Religion often played an important part. During the resistance struggle against Nazi occupation, Orthodox Christian Serbs provided the backbone of the Partisans led by Tito (himself a Croat). The soldiers received communion from Orthodox chaplains who accompanied the Communist-led guerrilla army.
Nationalism and Buddhism played a huge part in the struggle for independence. The strongest support for the movement came precisely from the areas in which Anagarika Dharmapala had been most popular. Reading the language in the Samasamajaya newspaper in the 1930s shows how much of a role the appeal to nationalism took in the Left upsurge. What comes out in particular is the resentment at the treatment of the Sinhalese Buddhist leaders in the aftermath of the 1915 riots. This resentment sprang from the position of the Sinhalese as an oppressed group, only the Indian Tamil population being worse oppressed.
Which brings up another point. The government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was regularly assailed for being "anti-Tamil." The affirmative action policies of media-wise standardisation and the district basis are referred to as "discriminatory" or "racist", because they affected Jaffna Tamil students, who had disproportionate representation in the crucial science subjects in the universities. Yet it was Mrs B's government which nationalised estate schools and gave Indian Tamil children a real chance of an education, and of going to university.
Similarly, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was accused of racism. Yet, under Rajapaksa, for the first time action was taken to make the Tamil language provisions of the constitution meaningful. For the first time, the people of the North were enabled democratically to elect a Provincial Council in which the majority of members opposed the government in office.
In Australia, says Fernando "there is a broad political culture created based on Labor policies and values... [which] is not a narrow ideology. ‘Labor’ is a ‘social trade mark’ in that sense. But there is nothing like that in Sri Lanka, although ‘SamaSamaja’ (equal society) concepts could have created such an effective ‘social trade mark.'"
One truly wonders at the lack of insight he displays into Sri Lankan society! It appears that, in common with the rest of "civil society", he is unable to see anything beyond the urbanised bourgeoisie and its adherents - the rest of the country constitutes a savage "Baiya Land", labelled "here be dragons" and populated by village idiots.
When the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna took office in 1956, it did create a political culture - one based on co-operation and welfare. Schools and roads were built using real voluntary labour (shramadana). The broad system of local government democracy enshrined in the Gam Sabha (village council) was supported by a system of democratic, real civil society institutions, such as death donation societies, tank councils, cultivation societies, thrift and credit societies, mahila samiti and of course, co-operative societies.
Philip Gunawardena intended the Multi-Purpose Co-operative Societies, drawing upon the Sandalankawa example, as agents of participatory democracy - a sort of rural soviet system. State institutions were supposed to fit into and supplement this system.
The 1970 government built further on this model - NM Perera's Credit Councils, and the Employees' Councils, were expected to do for state institutions what the MPCS system did for the village.
This broad "social trade mark" was smashed by JR Jayewardene's 1977 regime, which abolished not only the employees' councils, but also the village councils. "Robber barons" became, instantly, more powerful than voters. It was with JR's relatives and political descendants that Fernando and his ilk allied in order to create "good governance" in Sri Lanka.
Probably nothing proves how far the INGO intelligentsia has distanced themselves from the grassroots polity than the extent to which they ignored the significance of the string of Joint Opposition victories at the MPCS elections. "Civil Society" did not recognise these ripples in the "broad political culture" of the Left.
Of course, Fernando and his fellow INGO intellectuals should, at least, have recognised that these were expressions of popular discontent. They faulted the Rajapaksa regime for its "despotism" and "authoritarianism" despite the fact that it held regular elections to Parliament, provincial councils and local government institutions. The current Yahapalana regime has sought consistently to delay even local government elections. However, neither Fernando nor his fellow "civil socialites" appear to find this in any way "despotic" or "authoritarian", or even vaguely worrying.
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