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A brave new world

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By Uditha Devapriya

Divided from the Indian subcontinent, yet also deeply connected to it, Sri Lanka has never had an opportunity of forging and shaping a foreign policy of its own. The high point of its foreign relations, under the three Bandaranaike administrations over a period of 20 years, did signal an effort, and a sincere one, towards this end. Yet with the election of a staunchly pro-Western government in 1977, the emphasis on non-alignment that had been a hallmark of the island’s foreign policy ruptured, never to be regained or restored.

Of course, commentators would contend that Sri Lanka need not be non-aligned. They would also point out that non-alignment, in itself, doesn’t preclude making choices and siding with friends. The fact that the country lead the Non-Aligned Movement, at its peak years in the 1960s and 1970s, did not prevent it from privileging one set of interests over another: this is why, and how, while forging a close relationship with the Indira Gandhi administration, the United Front regime (1970-1977) was able to balance its ties with Pakistan vis-à-vis the 1971 War in Bangladesh and the West vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

In actual fact, the former colonies of Asia and Africa did not, in the wake of decolonisation, explicitly ally themselves with either side of the Cold War. Ideologically many if not most of them adhered to a socialist economic system, or something that could pass for one. But this didn’t always mean they bandwagoned with the socialist bloc, or, conversely, alienated the Western front. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempts at obtaining American funding for the Aswan Dam, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s ability to enlist Western aid against the 1971 insurgency, showed that the indigenous elites in these ex-colonies did not [always] identify their foreign relations with one side of the Cold War to the exclusion of the other.

For its part the socialist Left went along with these trends. Throughout the Third World, particularly in countries like Sri Lanka, where traditional Marxist categories did not make sense, the [significantly non-Communist] Left advocated alignments with parties which were, from a Marxist perspective, hardly radical or revolutionary. The LSSP advocated no contest pacts and later agreements and alliances with the SLFP, while Nasser carried on a troubled, ambivalent relationship with the Communist Party. It was only logical to expect a similarly ambivalent stand on foreign policy from these formations.

It wasn’t just those groups, of course; even the strongholds and heartlands of the ideologies and tendencies they stood for often deviated from the orthodox line. Thus, the Maoists in Ceylon, while holding the line against the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, could not quite withstand China’s decision to provide that regime with military aid against the 1971 insurrection. Internationally, it could not tide over or come to terms with the shock of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. In foreign policy as in domestic policies, discretion frequently took the better part of valour; ideological abstractions did play a part, but they were often dispensed with in the interests of better relations with other countries.

The lines that had been drawn during the Cold War sharpened considerably in the 1970s and 1980s across Asia and America, often disrupting the political divisions that had been drawn for decades in these countries. In Sri Lanka the election of a leftwing government failed to prevent an uprising among radical Left university graduates. Four years later, that avowedly leftwing government splintered, leading to the expulsion of the two oldest Left parties in the country. Neoliberal authoritarianism, of the sort which had been installed via covert US support in Chile, became a fact of life in 1977. The rhetoric of non-alignment and neutrality, evoked so frequently once, became passe now.

In Sri Lanka, the first and second waves of neo-liberal authoritarianism – the two UNP administrations of J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa – would be followed by the election of a Clintonian Third Way Centrist regime, led by the daughter of the same lady associated with the country’s dalliance with socialism. Under Chandrika Kumaratunga Sri Lanka’s nonaligned credentials were restored, yet never to the same extent as before: it was under Kumaratunga, after all, that Israel established an Embassy in Colombo, more or less breaching Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, which had been a hallmark and a motif of the Non-aligned Movement at its very inception.

It’s tempting to argue that none of these changes could have come about without the end of the Cold War. To say that is to assume that the end of the Cold War came about because of one set of forces triumphing over all others. For a brief time in history, from 1991 to 2001, the United States enjoyed its peak years: what Charles Krauthammer called, not unfittingly, the “Unipolar Movement.” For some it was the end of history, for others it was the victory of liberal democracy. In this brave new liberal world, we were told, power no longer had a say in international relations: hence the many calls, deplored by diplomats such as the late Gamani Corea, to do away with institutions like UNCTAD and NAM.

This argument has many pitfalls, not all of which deserve mentioning here. I would contend that the unipolar moment came to an end in 2001, when two planes rammed into the World Trade Center in New York, the capital of liberal internationalism. What began in 2001 more or less culminated in January 2022, when Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions in Ukraine and kickstarted a war that continues to redefine the frontiers of geopolitics in the present century. Viewed for long as a dependable friend of the West, Putin has now turned into a symbol of the continuing relevance of power in geopolitics: a point which suggests the Cold War never ended, and the old lines and distinctions still linger.

By all accounts, the new Cold War is different from the old. The clash today is not between two superpowers, but between various powers vying over different interests. The world was simpler then. It is more complicated now. While major powers like India and China vie with each other for dominance over specific regions and interests, developments like the Russia-Ukraine War have brought them to the same table. Xi Jinping’s congratulatory missive to the new Indian President and Wang Yi’s meeting with Delhi’s Ambassador to Beijing should not be taken as mere formalities, nor should Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s remarks be taken as ramblings of an annoyed government official. These episodes suggest clearly the complexities of geopolitics, where, more than the days when the world was divided into two warring halves, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

Sri Lanka so far has not been fortunate enough to benefit from these developments. It has been guided by a philosophy which died in 2001, a philosophy adhered to by the most zealous advocates of liberal internationalism: those who believe that Western rhetoric on human rights and democracy is what it purports to be and nothing else. As Rajiva Wijesinha has noted in Representing Sri Lanka, a book that deserves to be read closely, these groups make up a considerable part of our foreign policy establishment: a fact which has precluded the country from making some much needed choices in foreign relations.

In his book Wijesinha lambasts two tendencies within the foreign policy establishment in Sri Lanka: a line that hedges all bets for the country’s future on relations with the West, and a line that shirks and demonises the West and seemingly “Western” abstractions like human rights and democracy. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out only too eloquently, the former line almost lost us the war, while the latter has line lost us a durable peace. The result has been a grand mess, where, in a never-ending cycle, we latch ourselves onto one or another major power, only to switch sides unceremoniously to another power while neglecting the concerns of our ex-partners. The recent fracas over the Chinese “spy” vessel is the latest in a series of faux pas that will, I suspect, continue for quite some time.

Stripped of all abstractions, foreign policy is but a manifestation of a country’s interests. Trapped in the past, Sri Lanka is yet to come to terms with this fact. But in the face of an unprecedented crisis, it cannot afford to think this way any longer. It must take stock of what is happening outside, and realise that what matters is what we need. And what we need now is a foreign policy that coheres with our interests.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Politics

A pivotal shift in the status quo

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By Uditha Devapriya

The Mahanayakes of Sri Lanka’s three Buddhist monastic orders – Siam, Amarapura, and Ramanya – have written a letter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. They have requested concessions on the recent electricity tariff hikes, which they claim are impacting temples severely. Citing the “enormous service” they render to society, the monks have pointed out that these temples are not in a position to absorb the current rates. They moreover imply that since people visit them after work and in the evening, their contribution to the cultural and social life of the country cannot and should not be neglected.

The missive, seen as an attempt at reaching a truce with the government, followed from a number of demonstrations organised by Buddhist monks and other religious leaders. The protests centred on the point that religious institutions are being crushed by a 500 percent rise in electricity bills, whereas the impact on factories and business establishments has been less. Taking the lead in these protests, Venerable Omalpe Sobitha has threatened the government that Buddhist temples will not pay these bills.

The country’s Power and Energy Minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, took to social media immediately when the protests started. Pointing out that there had been no discrimination when finalising the list of categories for electricity users, Wijesekera bluntly stated that if temples did not pay up, power would be disconnected. He noted that ordinary people had not been spared these hikes, and that they were suffering too. These remarks aggravated an already tense situation, compelling the Mahanayakes to pen a missive to the President. For his part, the latter offered an olive branch to the Chief Prelates, flagging their concerns and assuring them that the State would look into installing solar panels at temples.

These developments mark an interesting turnaround in the country’s politics. Buddhist monks have traditionally been seen as political creatures, actively involved or playing the more passive role of patrons and financiers. Their justification for this has been historical: Buddhist monks played an important part in the lives and politics of the country’s kings, so it is only natural that they continue playing it, though the country has transformed from a hereditary monarchy to a constitutional republic. They have typically latched themselves on to parties and personalities that claim to uphold the trinity of populist politics in Sri Lanka: country, race, religion (“rata, jathiya, agama”). This has enabled some parties to take a lead over others, though all major parties have a history of flirting with the clergy.

Such attitudes belie deep-rooted feelings of insecurity and unease. Narratives, mainly Western, liberal, and Colombo-centric, depict Buddhist monks as authoritarian, proto-fascist, and no different to fundamentalist Muslim and Hindu clerics. But such commentaries fail to note the historical basis for the sentiments that monks air from time to time. To be sure, these sentiments are intolerant, illiberal, and ill-founded, particularly those that evoke fascist inclinations: Venerable Vendaruwe Upali’s call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to “become a Hitler”, if people assumed him to be one, is a case in point. Yet they underscore two points, which the monks themselves and their more zealous followers highlight: Sinhala Buddhism has no institutional support outside Sri Lanka (“We have nowhere else to go”), and Sinhala Buddhism is the centre of Sri Lankan society (“This country belongs to us”).

The biggest reason for the Buddhist clergy’s insecurity is a simple historical one: British colonial policies deprived temples of the wherewithal and the means to sustain themselves. As the historian Kitsiri Malalgoda has observed in Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, the effect of colonial legislation, which vested temple lands in the hands of the Chief Prelates, was to turn Chief Prelates into landowners and commercial-minded clerics. This had a debilitating effect on these institutions, compelling monks to seek sustenance through whatever means. Colonial reforms also turned the Church, especially the Anglican and the Catholic, into one of the country’s biggest landowners, a point which often gets missed out by narratives that frame Buddhist monks as rapacious landowners and political machines.

None of this justifies the excesses of Buddhist monks. The original conception of political Bhikkhus, as the United National Party derisively called them then, was along the lines of an activist and radical clergy: the prototypes of political Buddhism, after all, were two Marxist monks, Walpola Rahula and Udakendawala Sri Saranankara, the latter of whom received no less than the Lenin Peace Prize in 1957. Yet as often happens with such transformations, this gentle, humanist, and radical conception of the Buddhist clergy has been disfigured, and has now turned into an echo-chamber for intolerance. As Regi Siriwardena has observed more than once, Buddhist monks neglected to use their precepts and mores as a rallying cry for radical social and political change, on the lines of a Thomas Müntzer. Instead they deployed these values to entrench the status quo, and by extension themselves.

All these are interconnected. The economic base of Buddhist temples is no longer what it used to be, even though the lower peasantry still considers ordinations as a way out of economic misery for their children. The latter point has also been missed out by Western, liberal, and Colombo-centric commentators: not unlike the military, the Buddhist temple has become a rural subsidy, enabling a poor peasant youth to escape the drudgery of poverty. This has been so because, since the 1950s, the Buddhist clergy has become a beneficiary of State subsidies: the main reason for the recent protests.

The government has played its cards carefully and strategically, framing monks clamouring for State subsidies as moochers who cannot be given favoured treatment. The Opposition has also played its cards strategically, meeting the clergy and assuring them of an uprising against recent tariff revisions. The SJB, which heads the Opposition, is in itself housed by MPs who are in favour of tariff revisions and neoliberal reforms. Its attitude to these issues thus reveals its contradictory character, a point that Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has implied in his criticism of the party. What this means for the trajectory of relations between the State and the clergy is that a government which courted the support and approval of monks has now become the bête noire of the latter, while an Opposition housing MPs once seen as enemies of Buddhist interests is fast becoming the darling of those monks.

The response of the public has been even more interesting. Going by social media posts and memes, it’s probably not an exaggeration to conclude that the hikes revealed an underlying, seething, and barely concealed anti-clerical sentiment in society. Of course, social media is not Sri Lankan society writ large: when it comes to Twitter in particular, it is a self-contained and self-defined space. Yet social media memes are a significantly accurate gauge of wider, and widespread, sentiments. In that sense, as far as memes about the recent protests are concerned, Sri Lankans dwell on two points: that monks did next to nothing when the State imposed hardships on ordinary people, and that they are asking for favourable treatment at a time when even more hardships are being imposed on those people.

It goes without saying that both these points reflect larger, more widespread feelings of hostility towards these institutions. This is a remarkable turnaround from two or three years ago, when monks could say whatever they wanted to in favour of their preferred politicians and deploy people to do their bidding for those politicians. Now that politicians have fallen out of favour, and have lost their place among the people, those seen as supporters of such individuals have lost their prestige. These include Buddhist temples and monks, particularly the bigger ones, which as President Wickremesinghe stated were the only monasteries that have faced severe tariff hikes. One cynical friend noted for me that since monks preached humility and tolerance for politicians when people rose up in arms, people should respond in kind to monks who ask the public to rise up in arms against the State.

The Opposition and the government would do well to note these reconfigurations. For a brief while at least, people are bothering themselves less over cultural trivialities than over the immediate imperative of finding food, gas, and fuel. Economics, in other words, has triumphed over ideology, though ideology is very much present in the people’s discontent. Certainly, the government may find itself at a loss, come the next election cycle, if monks remember how it responded to their protests. The Opposition, by contrast, will find itself at an advantage here. The people, however, are fed up with both politicians and monks, the parliament and the temple. The SJB would do well to flag this, instead of capitalising on the fears and grievances of the clergy for petty, short-term electoral gains.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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DB Wijetunga’s political rise

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Excerpted from Sarath Amunugama’s autobiography

The appointment of D.B. Wijetunga as Minister of Information and Broadcasting (in 1977) was a surprise. A senior member of the UNP who had been inducted to politics by his mentor A. Ratnayake, Wijetunga was known as a diehard party man who was close to his constituents. When Dudley suffered a humiliating defeat in 1970 Wijetunga was unlucky to lose his Udunuwara seat by a few hundred votes.

For seven years after that he persisted in working for his electors in spite of the many obstacles that he had to face, including economic problems. Fortunately, his wife’s `Walawwe’ was located in the centre of Pilimatalawe town and it was within easy reach of his voters. He was not a person who pushed himself forward and no party bigwig thought he was a threat to their ambitions. Having been Minister Ratnayake’s Private Secretary during the DS and Dudley regimes, Wijetunga had a mastery of public administration and the goodwill of district officials.

The talk in Kandy was that no public official would deny Wijetunga a favour. With a good command of the English language having studied at St Andrew’s College in Gampola [where Thondaman was his classmate] he loved to write official letters in his own hand which his numerous followers took to senior administrators for relief. When I was the Director of Combined Services, I was inundated with his letters seeking redress for clerks and minor staff based in Kandy. I accommodated many of his requests which seemed reasonable.

While JRJ decided on the holders of the main ministries he relied on Menikdiwela, his secretary, for recommendations regarding the other positions. Menik would have recommended Wijetunga without hesitation and he was appointed as Minister of Information and Broadcasting since he was not in any one’s clique. His acceptability to every faction in the UNP carried him far in his political life. Later he was Minister of Finance, Prime Minister and President – a combination of posts that no other UNPer had enjoyed before or after.

For me he was the perfect boss since we were friends and relatives. He trusted me completely to run the Ministry though I was comparatively junior in the CCS. Equally, I made sure that he was well briefed and prompt in his responses to the President and the PM. Usually there were complaints that the media was not covering this or that minister’s activities. But the President was convinced that with Wijetunga who did not belong to any camp, there was no hanky panky or hidden agendas regarding media coverage.

It was Wijetunga who promoted the TV project with gusto as he knew that the President was keeping a watchful eye on it. I briefed him on the state of play before every cabinet meeting so that he could respond to his boss’s queries. His goodwill and courtesy, which fascinated the Japanese, helped in keeping up the momentum of the project. Unlike in the case of some other ministers who were delaying projects while bargaining for `kickbacks’, Wijetunga was scrupulously honest.

However, he refused to go out of the country be it to Japan or any other. Foreign travel never interested him. His only outing was his regular visit to home in Pilimatalawe every weekend. One reason for his reticence for travel was that he would miss his favourite local cuisine. Whenever we visited him in his Paget Road Bungalow, he would insist on our eating a simple homemade meal with him.

My daughter, Varuni, was then attending the lower classes of Sirimavo Bandaranaike College which was next door to the minister’s bungalow. She cheekily used to visit `Wije Aththa’ with her friends and demand cool drinks which the minister happily provided. Once I found Varuni and her friends busy with Wijetunga cutting up his broom sticks because they had forgotten to bring their ‘Li Keli’ sticks from home and were afraid to go to their dancing class without them.

His private staff led by Gamini Ratnayake, and Wilson were all from Kandy and the whole entourage would take off on Friday afternoons and reappear on Monday mornings. Since they were all Kandy boys, I could interact easily with them and get them to work cordially with my ministry staff. When the minister was transferred to the Telecommunications Ministry his whole entourage disappeared into Transworks House.

At that time W.J. Fernando, who was Wijetunga’s friend from his Kandy GA days, was a Director of the Davasa group which was very influential in the media field. This newspaper group supported our minister and that was well known to the President and the Cabinet. He was sought by his cabinet colleagues when they had problems with the Press. I will describe later how we earned much kudos by arranging a supply of newsprint to the Davasa group in an emergency.

Our actions were envied even by then Housing and Local Government Minister Premadasa. WJ Fernando was a pal of Sam Wijesinha, Secretary General of Parliament as both had attended Henry Kissinger’s annual Foreign Policy Seminar at Harvard. This was long before Kissinger became an influential advisor of President Nixon. Kissinger was a great networker and I have seen the letters he wrote to WJ from Harvard.

These two friends -WJ and Sam, were the most trusted advisors of Premadasa and they promoted Wijetunga to him as a counter-weight in the hill country to Gamini Dissanayake. This was the background to Wijetunga’s meteoric rise to several high positions.

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A post-mortem of Gotagogama

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By Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lanka is still living with the consequences of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, partly because his government has not left and partly because resistance to it, though repressed, is still alive. Under Ranil Wickremesinghe the State has asserted its will and imposed it on those who disagree with it. It has arrested protesters without as much as a blink of an eye from those who walked to Gotagogama. Today their (mostly middle-class) supporters have relapsed into silence, seemingly getting on with their lives.

When protests began in early March, I predicted that sooner or later, middle-class calls for IMF reforms would sour. While a section of the middle-class still bats for those reforms, the lower middle-classes have been so battered by price hikes and tariff revisions that they have wavered. Still, even they couch their hatred of such reforms in the rhetoric of resistance to political corruption. Sri Lanka’s middle-classes do not appear politically mature enough to take the leap from that sort of resistance to opposition to neoliberal reforms.

Sri Lanka’s middle-classes tend to sway from one extreme to another: from wholehearted support for the yahapalana regime, for instance, they shifted to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brand of Bonapartist nationalism. They are also so disenchanted with local institutions, particularly political institutions, that they believe any alternative is better than what we have. This explains their newfound love for the IMF, and their inability to translate their hatred of IMF reforms into a coherent critique of those reforms. Instead they have directed the brunt of their anger, not on the institution demanding such reforms, but the institutions enforcing them. This is a curious contradiction, and it needs examining.

The protests against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government did not begin in March and April. One of that government’s biggest blunders was its fertiliser policy. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out, the policy cost the regime its peasant heartland, a loss it could never hope to regain. The peasantry and the (predominantly Sinhala and Buddhist) middle-classes made up the biggest pillars of support for the government. It was these constituencies that gave the SLPP a two-thirds victory in 2020. The government had no better strategy for losing its momentum than losing these bases. This is what it began doing in 2021.

The class composition and preferences of these groups have not been seriously examined. The peasantry had been hit hard by the import bans. Yet what caught the headlines wasn’t farmer protests, but corporate opposition to those bans: in effect, the big estates and farms that would lose the most from the government’s policy. The outcome of such policies was to bring together a diverse array of class interests, which would otherwise not have united and coalesced into a resistance movement. The anger of the farmers was apparent enough, but it was left to corporate and middle-class elements to articulate it fully.

For obvious reasons, attitudes to neoliberal economic reforms differ from social class to social class. While the rupee was artificially pegged, and petrol was still going for less than 200 rupees a litre, the lower middle-classes felt no need to oppose such reforms, even as they were being imposed on the peasantry and the urban poor. When IMF reforms finally saw the light of day, they changed their tune. It was this that led to the peak in the protests between June and August. Once petrol prices hiked and shortages ensued in late June, the middle-class felt it had nothing to lose. So they walked to Gotagogama.

I have mentioned several times, in this column, that the ideological preferences of the bulk of the demonstrators at Gotagogama did not bear out progressive-liberal perceptions of the protests and the protesters. The UN Human Rights Council’s situation report on Sri Lanka, titled A/HRC/51/5, implies that the bulk of these protesters demanded accountability from the government. True as this may be, the document does not capture the essence of those demands. The reality is that middle-class perceptions of accountability, and transparency, differ considerably from liberal progressive definitions of such concepts. To put it bluntly, the call at Gotagogama was not so much the establishment of institutional mechanisms, as the restoration of fuel and gas supplies and uninterrupted electricity.

I am not suggesting here that the protests were regressive and reactionary, though at times they were almost that – particularly when their opposition to the political leadership in the country took on homophobic dimensions, as I personally witnessed on July 12. Yet, again as I have mentioned in this space, the Gotagogama demonstrations never fitted in with liberal progressive narratives that framed them as a mass, courageous, youth-driven and youth-led uprising. The youth themselves, who formed the crux of the protests, hardly ever bore out such stereotypes. Their class composition aside, the racial dimensions of the youth were so evident that one would have to be wilfully blind to ignore the cynical commentaries on the protesters authored by sections of Tamil civil society.

My point is that these divisions were never appreciated or understood when the protests gained steam. Had we taken stock of them, they would not have fragmented so soon. The middle-class’s confused attitude to IMF reforms should inform us that they are, as yet, not mature enough to take on the task of critiquing local and international institutions, including political institutions. Their resistance to power and privilege is couched in populist calls for personality and system changes. The task of the Left, particularly the New Left (the JVP and the FSP), is to transform these popular calls into a larger, broader programme, one that can carry the protests forward and ensure a leftward tilt within the middle-class. There are signs that the New Left is doing this. But more needs to be done. Much more.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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