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A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka

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by Mathias Keittle

Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internal Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The Government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.

Background: After 27 years of bloody conflict Sri Lanka’s internal mayhem came to an end with the comprehensive defeat of the Tamil Tigers. In an Alice in Wonderland scenario, the country changed from an environment of unconstrained fear and uncertainty to peace and utter relief overnight. Thousands poured out on to the streets to celebrate in an outpouring of incomparable joy and restaurant keepers spontaneously distributed food to all passersby along busy thoroughfares.

Over the following months approximately 300,000 IDPs were returned to their own towns and villages, admittedly not to the best of living conditions. But one has to remember that their circumstances were hardly comfortable under the iron rule of the LTTE (Tamil Tiger Terrorist Group) for close to 27 years or as they were herded from one tent camp to another as a human shield and a bargaining chip by the retreating LTTE.

The LTTE had also removed roofing material from houses to prevent the return of their human shield to their homes. The captured child soldiers (approximately 600) have undergone rehabilitation and have returned to their communities. UNICEF documented 5,700 child recruits by the LTTE. Of the 11,700 former LTTE combatants, over 7,000 have been returned to their communities after rehabilitation despite the real risk of some returning to the only profession that they had been trained in – that of being trained killers.

The risk is magnified by the fact that caches of buried weapons continue to be unearthed in the North and the Tamil militants in the West continue to drum up separatism and violence from their safe havens. The continued presence of the military in the North is naively criticized, but the above background factors are ignored. Only a fraction of the detainees will face trial as the evidence against the rest may not be adequate to satisfy the evidential requirements of the courts. A vast effort has been undertaken to restore the economy of the North and huge sums are being pumped in for the purpose. All this receives hardly a mention in the West while an intense campaign is being orchestrated to pin down individuals allegedly guilty of war crimes and human rights violations.

This must surely be the only case in history that a winner in a conflict has been hounded in this manner to account for alleged war crimes and breaches of human rights in the process of winning the conflict – leave alone defeating a ruthless terrorist group. There have been no such demands made following World War II, or after the Korean Conflict, after Vietnam, after Gulf War 1, the continuing occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq. Remarkably, all sorts of people have flocked together to demand accountability from Sri Lanka.

It cannot simply be that they all were encouraged by the sexiness of the subject or simply by the nobility of advancing humanity’s highest ideals. The Reasons: It is difficult to pin down one reason for this attitude of a number of key Western countries and some high profile individuals. Were pure principled attachment to humanitarian standards the reason, then Sri Lanka would, in their view, appear to be the one egregious offender in the whole world. This obviously cannot be the case. But Sri Lanka is certainly a developing country from the non-Western world and hence easier to beat up. Sri Lanka also was unusual in not responding positively to intense pressure when a number of Western leaders demanded a ceasefire towards the very end of the conflict and this refusal set an uncomfortable precedent.

Bernard Kouchner, David Miliband and Hillary Clinton, all demanded a ceasefire which Sri Lanka rejected. Both sides had good reasons for the approaches that they adopted. Sri Lanka had the Tamil Tigers on their haunches and victory after 27 years of brutal bloodshed was temptingly within grasp. The Western leaders were under intense pressure to intervene from the Tamil Diaspora, which wielded enormous financial and some political clout. Cities like Toronto, London, Melbourne and Sydney were brought to a standstill by massive Tamil demonstrations. During his visit to Sri Lanka in the middle of May 2009, David Milliband was told in no uncertain terms to butt out and mind his own business by the Sri Lankan leadership and may not have forgiven this slight by the former colonial minion.

The US proposed an evacuation of the trapped civilians and, perhaps the LTTE leadership, using its naval assets and this was rejected both by India and the Sri Lankan Government. There were predictions of a blood bath and, at the time, no one claimed that it actually happened. (Subsequently and, suspiciously, evidence began to be produced by interested parties to establish that a blood bath did actually happen!). Interestingly, allegations of war crimes and human rights violations have emerged from countries that have provided refuge to massive numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils. Many have used the then existing violence as a basis for their claims for refugee status.

The LTTE raised large amounts of money from the Diaspora to fund the war effort. Today these funds are used to advance their cause. Tamils for Clinton contributed substantially to her campaign until this was brought to public attention and the funds were returned. The LTTE has quietly funded politicians in many Western countries and continue to do so. The US lawyer, Bruce Fein, is funded by the Tamil Diaspora. The liberal end of Western politics, ever ready to champion the underdog, was a willing champion of the Tamil Diaspora cause. The shadow LTTE incessantly targets the media and the diplomatic community in Colombo.

The availability of funds, articulate advocates, the liberal tendency to take up the causes of apparent underdogs, horror stories, real or concocted, sympathetic journalists who were ever ready to use their privileged position in the Western media to support the cause, the sense of unhappiness with Sri Lanka among liberal political leaders in the West, the slow pace with which Sri Lanka countered some of the issues, were a cogent mix to activate the major humanitarian NGOS in the West. Many Western journalists unashamedly adopted the ‘Tamilnet’ version of the conflict and were willing to use influential Western newspapers (London Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) to propagate the version fed by the ‘Taminet’.

It would also seem that a not so subtle campaign is being mounted against the Sri Lankan leadership, orchestrated by elements of the Tamil Diaspora and picked up by the Western media. The settling of scores by using the international community, now that the battle on the ground has been lost, appears to be the major objective. Efforts persist to pin charges of war crimes and human rights violations, on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations and innuendo. This powerful surge is further augmented by allegations of abuses, corruption and nepotism. If these allegations stick, it would be a short step to drag Sri Lankan leaders before international tribunals. Recent history suggests that some allegations get a life of their own by the simple process of repetition. The Machiavellian story line is simple. “The Sri Lankan Government deliberately set about using its military to target the Tamil population of the North and killed thousands in the process”. This line is repeated for effect while the authenticated history of the LTTE’s murderous bombing campaign targeting civilians over a period of 27 years and killing thousands, the recruitment of thousands of children as child soldiers, the murder of dozens of moderate Tamil leaders, the extortion of millions from Tamils around the world, the ethnic cleansing of the Northern Province, the deliberate destruction of UNESCO protected places of worship, the deliberate and cynical use of thousands as a human shield, the human trafficking and the drug trafficking are air brushed as the frenzied campaign is cranked up using NGOs, eminent persons and the media to establish human rights violations and war crimes by the Government.

The focus is deliberately shifted from the murderous Tigers to the Government and these allegations are designed to stay around for a long while. The one goal of this campaign appears to be to punish the Government leadership, in order to avenge the defeat of the murderous Tigers, if not today then at some later time. A lie repeated often enough acquires a life of its own. This also gradually contributes to causing feelings of discomfort and doubt in the minds of ordinary Sri Lankans whose confidence in their Government, unshakable at present, could falter in time giving rise to prospects of regime change possibilities.

Some elementary fallacies: Were Thousands Killed in the Final Stages of the War? Were thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the conflict? Was the number 1,000? 7,000 (as claimed in an internal UN document, later denied)? 20,000 as claimed by Jeremy Page in the London Times?

 

40,000 as claimed in the book, Cage by Gordon Weiss (commonly known as Gordon the Unwise) and referred to in the Darusman Report to the UNSG? or higher. The exact number will never be known just as much as we will never know the exact number of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq following the intervention by Western governments. (The ‘Lancet’ claimed in 2005 that already over 500,000 civilians had been killed in Iraq).

But certain established facts cannot be ignored. In the final weeks of the conflict, the ICRC with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy evacuated approximately 7,000 injured and the sick, including pregnant women, and over 8,000 others from the last holdout of the LTTE. Is it likely that if there had been other injured, the ICRC would have left them behind and ferried out 8,000 healthy persons? Experience and records of other recent conflicts would suggest that the number killed must be substantially lower than the number injured. This is a fact derived from experience. Most importantly, at the end of the conflict both sides were hell bent on fighting to the end leaving no time to bury the dead. In the circumstances, the LTTE is unlikely to have had the time to bury the alleged large numbers of dead.

The Sri Lankan army never found large numbers of dead bodies either. But what is a fact is that in April and May 2009, close to 300,000 civilians streamed out of the LTTE enclave to seek the protection of the Government Security Forces. Importantly, the Government which adopted a zero civilian casualty policy had learned from the experience of other armies fighting amongst civilians that indiscriminate attacks on civilians only result in producing more volunteer martyrs. In early 2009, the Committee to Coordinate Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) to the North was working on the figure that there were approximately 121,000 people in Kilinochchi and 127,000 in Mullaitivu for the purpose of directing relief supplies to the North. It is quite likely that the LTTE took with them around 100,000 from Mannar. Considering that around 60,000 escaped to Government controlled areas in the previous year, the numbers detained by the LTTE settles around the number accommodated in the Government organized refugee camps in May 2009.

It is also on record that the Government adopted a zero civilian casualty policy and consciously adopted an infantry based approach. This resulted in 6,000 deaths of security personnel as the final battles were fought by infantry when more devastating approaches could have been adopted. The allegation of deliberate targeting of civilians by the military and the large numbers killed appears to be a convenient and Machiavellian story to pin a charge of crimes against humanity. Was the Tamil Community the Target of the Security Forces? This is an accusation which could be dismissed outright if not for the seriousness with which it is expressed. The majority of the Tamils of Sri Lanka do not live in the North or the East. The vast majority lives among the majority community, the Sinhalese. It is estimated that 41% of the population of the capital, Colombo, is Tamil.

In Colombo, the Tamil community has schools, temples, flourishing businesses and a significant number of Tamils are successful professionals and businessmen in Colombo. Many business houses in Colombo are Tamil owned. The UN has acknowledged that for over 27 years, the Government funded the health services and the schools in the LTTE controlled areas and sent food supplies to those areas. The food requirements were determined by the Government Agents stationed in the District capitals, although in fact under the control of the LTTE. The CCHA which consisted of the Ambassadors of the US, EU, Japan, Norway and the ICRC, in addition to senior representatives of key ministries, monitored the supply of essentials to the North on a weekly basis. In the circumstances, to suggest that the Tamil community was targeted by the Government’s security forces, as was done in the Channel 4 documentary, is a base attempt to exacerbate ethnic divisions and create a negative impression of the Government.

It also appears to be part of an insidious scheme to pin a charge of crimes against humanity on the security forces and its leadership in addition to aggravating and perpetuating latent ethnic tensions. No armed conflict is a game played in the school yard leave alone a terrorist war unleashed by a brutal proscribed group. Civilians do get hurt in war. Elsewhere this is referred to as “collateral damage”, and we know of wars in the wider region where collateral damage can be counted in the thousands. But the Government of Sri Lanka adopted a policy of minimizing civilian casualties and to denigrate this approach now is reprehensible. It was because of the adherence to this policy that the Security Forces incurred over 6,000 deaths by approaching the last pockets of the LTTE on foot. Perhaps, it is also convenient for the thousands of Tamils who went to the West claiming discrimination and oppression to maintain this façade until their refugee claims have been processed. To acknowledge anything else may result in being sent back. It is also a fact that thousands who have received refugee status and travel documents from Western countries have travelled back to Sri Lanka to reclaim their properties and visit family and have not suffered any harassment.

 

(Mathias Keittle is a German researcher in Colombo hailing from Statalendorf.



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Political nostalgia in the land of forgetting

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Anxieties about the present, psychologists and social scientists have long ascertained, lead to a fixation with the past. A nostalgic yearning for how things used to be is hence one way through which our minds, even our bodies, put up with what they are today: a defence mechanism, in its simplest sense, to cordon us from the past.

When we channel the past, we prefer to black out what was considered bad then. This is so that we can procure from it a favourable comparison with the present. Hence, for instance, in the aftermath of Vietnam, with Watergate pummelling public confidence in the government, Americans turned to the memory of the Kennedy years. Donald Trump triggered a somewhat similar response: at the peak (or nadir) of his presidency, it wasn’t unusual for commentators, even liberals, to contrast it unfavourably with the Bush II years. The perceived failures of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime have similarly led the economist, the political commentator, and the Average Joe to reflect warmly on the yahapalana years.

In societies where memory fades over shorter time frames, nostalgia tends to play a major part in reviving disgraced oppositions and defeated strongmen. Thus the UNP, which suffered inexorable declines in 1960, 1970, and 1994, managed to rebound and return five or so years later; thus Mahinda Rajapaksa won by the thinnest of margins from any election he contested in 2005, despite popular perceptions of his opponent as a terrorism appeaser; thus in 2015 his party lost crucial divisions in the western and the southern province to a candidate who had emerged, from a united oppositional front, barely three months before the election; thus four years later, having reorganised itself, it won those very same divisions by margins wider than what its opponents had obtained at that earlier election.

What explains these reversals of fortune and misfortunes? The reason is the absence of ideology among mainstream parties. Why do I say this? In 1962, Daniel Bell predicted in The End of Ideology that with the dissipation of mainstream political creeds, more parochial sects would emerge, making the old divisions between the left and right irrelevant at best, archaic at worst. Bell may have been wrong in his predictions about the fading away of left vs right polemics, but he was correct in his view that these would be displaced by bigger debates. Bell was also wrong in his assessment that this displacement would occur in the liberal West; au contraire, it was in the peripheral countries of the South where the marginalisation of left-vs-right political debates eventually transpired, with much more vigour.

It’s important to understand why such a phenomenon transpired in the first place. Bell’s belief in the end of ideology was moulded by the post-war experience of Western European societies, where policymakers and bureaucrats believed they had struck a balance between equity and growth. For them, the disappearance of traditional ideological patterns followed from the so-called post-war consensus, in which market-led growth cohered with a dirigiste state. The 1960s, with its unyielding faith in managed capitalism – “We are all Keynesians now,” Nixon famously declared – thus appeared to have the best of it both: private affluence without public squalor. Barely a decade later, after the oil crisis and the abandonment of the gold reserve, however, we stopped being Keynesians: eight years of rising inflation and staggering unemployment later, we became monetarists.

On the face of it, Thatcherism and Reaganism signalled the end of old left/right divisions throughout the West, and the simultaneous rise of a new right. In the non-West, on the other hand, the old divisions did fade away, but not at once to a new right. Neoliberalism proper did not make waves in these societies until after the end of the cold war. Even those countries that enacted market reforms failed to oversee their Reaganite revolutions. Transplanted in the tropics, these reforms did not so much lead to an assault on the state as it did a widening of its powers. They generated a horde of contradictions: each dovetailing with the other, all of them at odds with the utopian outcomes predicted by World Bank-IMF technocrats.

In Sri Lanka, these contradictions led simultaneously if not concurrently to the expansion of the state, the slicing of the Left, and the emergence of a donor funded NGO-cracy. The one both led to and followed from the other: the annihilation of the Left yielded place to new civil society formations, which in turn facilitated an exodus to the latter of a great many activists and intellectuals associated until then with the Left. Unlike in other parts of Afro-Asia where neoliberal reforms squeezed the middle-class out of existence, moreover, in Sri Lanka those reforms served to empower a new middle bourgeoisie, more consumerist and less receptive to the Left. The ruptures and schisms of the Jayewardene years both entrenched them – hence their vote for continuity over a reversion to a pre-1977 status quo in 1989 – and turned them to ideologies cut off from mainstream politics. All these factors contributed to the emergence of a new political discourse, mediated less by the old distinctions between left and right than by new divisions between pluralist and exclusivist political polarities.

All politics since 1977 and 1983 – the liberalisation of the economy and the polarisation of the polity – has come to rest on these divisions. In 1989, the debate was resolved in favour of a populist Bonapartist, who sought to achieve equity with growth. In 1994, the murder of that populist led to the election of an ostensibly centrist, but in reality centre-right and neoliberal, candidate from what used to be the country’s foremost centre-left political party. Cut down in size, forced to capitulate, the SLFP under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga finished off what J. R. Jayewardene had begun and his successor had stalled, namely the liberalisation of the public sphere (and not just sector). This generated an exfoliating morass of contradictions which deepened the rifts that the Jayewardene regime had facilitated; these rifts entrenched both liberal and tribalist ideologues, leading the electorate to vote for the neoliberal UNP in 2001 while ceding political space to the nationalist Sihala Urumaya.

The cycle of memory and forgetting so inherent to politics over here has fed into a never-ending oscillation between exclusivist and pluralist polarities; from neoliberal peaceniks (the UNP, 2000-2004) to populist Bonapartists (the UPFA, 2005-2015) to neoliberal globalisers and liberalisers (the UNP, 2015-2019) to centre-right Bonapartists (the SLPP, 2019 onwards), we seem to be closing in on a maelstrom. If the second half of the 1970s heralded the end of ideology in the Global South, with the demise of the so-called Old Left, and if 1977 marked its end in Sri Lanka, the post-Cold War conjuncture continues to facilitate the rise of various totalising narratives to the exclusion of old political divisions, patterns, and trajectories. “We have to forget class in politics,” a popular political scientist, once affiliated with the Left, but now allied with a post-Marxist outfit, declared at a webinar recently. I disagree with him, yet this process appears to be unfolding across the spectrum: not just class politics, but politics itself, seems to have been thrown out of the window.

It’s easy to understand what’s taking place here. Split between left and right, politics used to be about issues, people, things: the price of rice and the weight of bread. These were primary concerns in an economy which had still not made a leap from agriculture to industry. In such societies, polarisation along lines other than Left versus Right has tended to push mainstream parties, across the political spectrum, to more peripheral concerns. This usually follows from, or accompanies, the replacement within civil society of vital economic and political issues by peripheral concerns: I call the latter micro-politics and single issues.

Now a failure to resolve primary concerns has lead parties to embrace these single issues, and to canvass as many votes as they can based on them. In Sri Lanka, accordingly, mainstream politics has come down to a trade-off between security and democracy. The latter used to be associated with the UNP, and the former with the SLFP/SLPP, but with the advent of the SJB and the electoral shrinkage of the UNP, government and opposition are effectively struggling to outdo each other over security matters; the SJB’s approach to the Geneva resolution and its handling of the all too tenuous issue of devolution shows that clearly. Whether or not such volte-faces bode well for the future, of course, one cannot really say.

Our collective memories are short: we forget, sometimes in an instant. It is easy for parties to make use of such a culture of forgetting, to play on nostalgia, to present the past as some sort of arcadia to which we must return. But the past is prologue, and nostalgia is neither here nor there. Our aim should instead be, not a politics of one polarity against another polarity, but a politics of democracy plus sovereignty. To that end, we must stop considering democracy and sovereignty as opposites, and focus on mobilising every class in pursuit of issues that matter, and have the potential of unifying everyone from everywhere.

In Sri Lanka, the foremost issue is, as it always has been, the agrarian question, the leap from agriculture to industry. Since 1977, we have failed to make that leap. That is our real national tragedy, and in ignoring and side-stepping it, we have managed to perpetuate it.

It is time parties across the divide realised this without engaging in polemics that have failed to get us anywhere: polemics based on polarities, oscillating from neoliberal globalisation to neoconservative nationalism. We remain stuck in a rut, in a never-ending cycle. To exit the cycle, we must exit these polarities. Yet parties across the divide seem content being where they are. That cannot be the case, and for our sake, it cannot be allowed to continue.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

 

 

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Explained: Peak of India’s Covid-19 second wave in sight, but end may still be far away

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After the April surge, the daily count of new cases has dropped in the last one week. Several other factors indicate that the peak is approaching. But the end of the second wave is expected to be a slow process.

All indications from the coronavirus numbers in India in the last two weeks suggest that the second wave of infections may already have reached a peak, or will peak in the next few days. The end of the second wave may still be a long distance away, though.

After reaching a high of 4.14 lakh last Thursday, the daily count of cases has dropped significantly in the last one week. This is not happening for the first time, though. After crossing the four-lakh mark for the first time on April 30, the case count had gone down for a few days, before jumping again. But the new thing is that the seven-day average of the case count, which adjusts for daily fluctuations, has begun to decline for the first time during the second wave. The seven-day average peaked at 3.91 lakh on May 8, and has begun to decline after that. On Wednesday, this average had slipped to 3.75 lakh.

A five-day decline in the average case count may not be a strong enough indicator in itself to establish a trend, but there also are other signals that are pointing in the same direction.

Decline in surge states

Maharashtra, which at one point was contributing more than 60% of daily cases, certainly seems to be in a declining phase now. It’s been more than three weeks now since the state reported its single-day highest case count of 68,631. After hovering in the 60,000s and 50,000s for two weeks, the state’s daily case count has dropped to the 40,000s now.

The decline in Maharashtra is likely to have the biggest impact on the national curve. For a few days, an unexpected jump in the cases reported by Karnataka and Kerala more than compensated for the decline in Maharashtra, but the chances of these two states sustaining their threat over a long period is showing signs of waning. The continued decline in Maharashtra could make Karnataka and Kerala the highest contributors of cases, but it appears unlikely now that either of them would contribute as many Maharashtra has done.

The biggest glimmer of hope is coming from Uttar Pradesh. The state has the potential to report even more cases than Maharashtra. And at one time, Uttar Pradesh indeed seemed headed in that direction when its daily case count rapidly progressed to 35,000 at the end of April. However, for more than one week, now, the state’s daily tally has remained well below 30,000, and is showing signs of declining.

Like Maharashtra, Delhi too seems to have reached a peak, and appears to be in a declining phase. The city-state had been reporting cases in the high 20,000s for some time, but this has now dropped to less than 12,000 a day.

The decline in Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and also Chhattisgarh, is not being compensated by any major rise in other states, though Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal could give anxious moments. The case count in Tamil Nadu has crossed 30,000 while Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have breached the 20,000 mark. All these states are in the ascendant phase right now.

Active cases

For the first time in two months, the number of active cases saw a drop this Monday and Tuesday. Until the end of April, the active cases were rising by almost a lakh every day. Through May, this daily increase has been reduced substantially. In the last few days, the active cases have increased by less than 10,000 a day.

A large part of this has to do with the fact that the number of daily recoveries has now caught up with the daily case count. The recoveries tail the case count by two weeks.

Now that the daily case count has remained more or less stable for the last two weeks, the number of recoveries has reached the same level as the case count. The runaway increase in active cases has been halted.

Current trends indicate that active cases could peak well under the 40-lakh mark. As of Wednesday, there were 37.1 lakh active cases in the country.

 

Positivity rate

The defining characteristic of the second wave was the high positivity rate. Out of those being tested, many more people were turning out to be positive as compared to the first wave. India’s overall positivity rate remained between 5% and 6% during the first wave, although there were small phases where it rose to more than 12 per cent. In the second phase, however, the positivity rate has exceeded 20%. In some states, it even went past 40%.

Positivity rate is a measure of the disease prevalence in the population. If a very large number of people are infected, many more would be detected positive when tested.

(The Indian Express)

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Champika’s challenge

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Patali Champika Ranawaka’s somersault into the political establishment remains one of the more interesting developments from the last quarter century or so. Beginning with the JVP, moving to the nationalist right, only to later turn to the neoliberal right, he remains shrouded in enigma, a cut above the rest: while most of his colleagues go round in circles, shifting parties as you would shift from one musical chair to another in a never-ending cycle, he prefers straight lines.

The issue has to do with where those lines are leading him. What are his beliefs and strategies? Who are his friends and enemies? Which side does he tilt to? These questions may remain unanswered for some time, well into the long run; to search for answers now would be futile.

Ruthless to a fault, yet quiet and tactful, our most perfectionist parliamentarian happens to be one of our most intelligent. He knows the numbers, and quotes them almost effortlessly. Even if he jumps to the wrong conclusions, he gives the impression of having taken a longer, more tortuous route to reach them. Whether he’s critiquing a development initiative or a financial scandal – of course while in the opposition – he resorts to logic, not speculation. His speeches are among the eloquent we hear from parliament today, at least by the standards set by both present government and opposition MPs in that unfortunate institution. He says what critics of the government want to hear, not what they’ve heard elsewhere. Insofar as opposition MPs are concerned, Ranawaka has thus laid the benchmark and set the yardstick, even if he lacks the charisma and charm of his opponents.

What explains his appeal? It’s not as though he’s been consistent throughout. The truth is that he has indulged in as much pole-vaulting as most of his colleagues and contemporaries: a dubious record to be sure, but one which hasn’t attracted for him the kind of outrage others have.

Take a look at his affiliations: the JVP, Jathika Chintanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, United People’s Freedom Alliance, United National Front for Good Governance, UNP, and finally SJB. His entry into the latter remains tenuous and debatable at best, yet it was with its formation that he let go of his past, for good: having served as leader of the most powerful nationalist party in the country, the JHU, he left that party, even if he did not disavow its ideology. What’s extraordinary about it is that regardless of where he has jumped to, his record has attracted less censure than that of most of his colleagues. Bottom line: consistency is not his forte, but his lack of it hasn’t worked against him.

If it’s isn’t consistency, is it survival? From the tail-end of the Cold War to the peak of a pandemic, Ranawaka seems to have been driven by two impulses: power and adaptability. But he’s hardly the only such politician who’s stuck to these credos. To say he’s survived due to some farsighted powers of adaptation is to overlook a crucial, inescapable fact: that adaptation for him signals not so much an ability to harbour different ideological affiliations across parties as it does an ability to adhere to the same ideology, the same worldview, while straddling different parties. In this, he is the superior of many colleagues and foes. Bottom line: he’s survived not because he’s changed so often, but because, at a fundamental level, he hasn’t changed at all.

At a Q&A session organised by a group of young activists a few weeks before last August’s election, Ranawaka was suave, confident, and a tad tired. He spoke about his journey from university student to political activist to politician, underscoring his achievements without bragging about them. The man has, if anything at all, a clean record as a minister, whatever his failings on other fronts may be, and this became apparent as one slide moved into another on the screen.

Yet what caught me wasn’t the conviction with which he outlined his achievements, but the answer he gave to my question as to why he abandoned his activism over alternative development paradigms (he called it Sanwardhanaye Thunweni Yamanaya, (“The Third Era of Development”). Ranawaka was polite, yet to the point with me: “We must bend when we have to, without clinging on to the same ideas, movements, and personalities forever.”

Does this offer a clue to his philosophy, if he follows a philosophy at all? Critics, especially from the Sinhala nationalist right, accuse him of peddling nationalism as a launch pad for his personal politics: a strange assessment, given that since at least the Donoughmore period politicians have been peddling nationalism, of all shades, for personal gain. What makes Ranawaka a target of nationalist vitriol here is not his tendency to shift parties so quickly, but his gift for dominating nationalist discussions while cohabiting with parties hardly amenable to such discourses: the UNP then, the SJB today.

That boils down to a simple truism: no matter the virtues he claims for pole-vaulting, no matter the vices he claims for sticking to the same ideologies, he’s achieved the best of both worlds, bending to the currents of political expedience while sailing on the same ship. If Ranil Wickremesinghe has been compared to a fox, Mr Ranawaka’s spirit animal, given these predilections, ought to be a leopard: not a leopard that doesn’t change its spots, but one whose spots can never change.

All this is peripheral to any proper discussion about the man, his dreams, and how he has set out to realise them. Far from concentrating on why he’s survived all these decades despite abandoning any pretence at ideological consistency, while sailing on the same (Sinhala nationalist) ship, it behoves us to consider the challenges his track record poses to his future prospects. Put in another way, what are the biggest obstacles he faces as he charts yet another new political course?

To ponder these is to ponder Ranawaka’s vision for the future. None of his critics, from the nationalist right or the pro-SJB opposition, has engaged him over that vision. In essence, it centres on the need to nurture what he calls “fifth generation leaders”, a meritocratic class of results-oriented politicians and officials. The emergence of that generation is, in fact, the objective of “43 Senankaya.” Rawanaka’s strategy to that end is to consolidate the Bandaranaike reforms of 1956 and the Jayewardene reforms of 1977, forming “an administration comprising of experts from various sectors.”

One can of course question how the reforms of 1956 will square with those of 1977 – can you think of a more contrasting, disparate set of policies? – but that is grist for another piece. For now, what needs to be understood is that Ranawaka’s political philosophy has engaged a suburban petty bourgeoisie, along with a young precariat milieu fresh out of university, engaged in part-time employment, and entranced by his talk of next generation leaders. The “43” in his brigade’s title refers to the year free education was enacted here: its aim, therefore, is the realisation of the hopes and aspirations of a post-1956, post-1977, and post-2000 educated class. This is ambitious, cutting across political differences and potentially unifying everyone from everywhere. Yet it is not without its problems.

Ranawaka’s showing at last year’s general election (he came second from last in the SJB’s Colombo district preferential results) confirmed two things: one, that the nationalist crowd he wooed long ago has defected to the SLPP today, and two, that despite a lack of support from this crowd, he could not canvass enough support from other communities and groups. The latter revealed a more fundamental failure: an inability to cut into a) Colombo’s upper middle-class and b) ethnic minorities from Central Colombo. In these constituencies he was upended by a neoliberal rightwing, populist centre-right, and minority bloc. Once these groups deserted him, he was left with only a Sinhala suburban middle-class: a paltry base from which you can aim for little, and achieve even less.

Ranawaka’s challenge then is two-fold, necessitating two strategies. Firstly, since he is locked into Colombo’s middle-class and ethnic minorities, he should cross the terrain, beyond city and district, canvassing popular support from other regions. Secondly, since he cannot do without city and district, he should scale the wall, winning support from non-suburban-Sinhala constituencies there.

To both cross the terrain and scale the wall is not easy. But given his dismal showing last year, he should opt for a strategy which squares the circle. Otherwise, he runs the risk of not only irrelevance, but also marginalisation: both of himself and of the “43 Senankaya.”

The problem for Ranawaka is that he has ruffled the feathers of three minority communities: Tamils (anti-federal postures, coupled with an ambivalent stance on devolution), Muslims (comments about them being outsiders 13 years ago), and Christians (anti-conversion campaigns vis-à-vis the JHU, following the passing away of Soma Thera). Simultaneously, his defection to the UNP and SJB has led to dwindling support from the Sinhala nationalist right. All these factors have led to losses on all electoral fronts, with no compensating gains.

Today, he courts support from a niche audience: an anti-Rajapaksist, pro-meritocracy Sinhala middle-class as conservative as rightwing neoliberals. Unless he claims real estate elsewhere, he will find it difficult to achieve either his aims or the objectives of his brigade, even with a Sinhala electorate on his side. In politics especially, the past cannot be allowed to determine the future. In Ranawaka’s case, the past seems to be coming back with much ferocity. He must do what he can to let go, paving a new road. A failure to do so can only condemn him to irrelevance and extinction.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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