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Covid-19 surge as an opportunity to re-calibrate

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Lockdown. Isolation. Quarantine. Wave. Social. Spread. Cluster. These are not new words. They are however words that have acquired fresh currency courtesy Covid-19. And, as often happens, when used frequently, they lost meaning or rather they are treated with (cultivated) nonchalance.

That’s as far as the general public is concerned. Meaning, all those who are not directly involved in designing policies and developing strategies to prevent or curb the spread of the virus, enforcing safety protocols and of course treating the infected. Yes, from Day One we were told that every single citizen has a responsibility. Indeed such communications were relayed not just through state media but private media institutions, social media and through innumerable notices. We saw them all. We heard them all. We continued to see and hear. We still do. Therefore, if there’s virtue in soul-searching then that’s a national exercise which neither government, opposition, institution (private, public or cooperative) nor individual can brush aside saying ‘not my/our business.’ We can ask, ‘where did we go wrong?’ We can ask ‘where did they (say, the government) go wrong?’ We can also ask, ‘where did I go wrong?’ The yet-to-be-infected or say the non-infected can say/think ‘well, I must have done something right,’ but then again if such an individual violated the basic safety measure of avoiding crowded places he/she would have unknowingly contributed to increasing people-density in certain places (say a shopping complex, a supermarket, a party or religious gathering). You add yourself and you make it that much harder to maintain social distance protocols. That’s one way of playing the blame game. There’s another. You turn your binoculars on the government. It’s fair enough. It’s the state authorities that have to design policy and enforce rules. So we can ask a lot of questions.Did they become paranoid too soon (March to June, 2020)? Did they become complacent thereafter? Didn’t they anticipate a second and third wave? Were they foolhardy in opening the country to tourists? Did they go overboard or were too indulgent with the so-called magic remedies? Have they done enough in terms of preparing for the unforeseen? Was testing done in a systematic way? Did they select and procure the correct complement of vaccines and in adequate quantities? Were they administered prudently? Were preparations for a surge in infections adequate? Then there are questions that are not asked or are not shouted out. Is there some kind of fail safe formula to balance containment with the need to keep the economy moving? Can Sri Lanka afford an extended or comprehensive lockdown? What would you/I say if for instance such measures were put in place? Would we then whine about the economy grinding to a halt? Would you/I keep our mouths shut if businesses large and small were forced to shut down or lay off employees? Would you/I not lament the plight of the poor(er) employees?

Have we studied adequately the political economy of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines (procurement of raw materials, production and distribution)? If someone told me/you that the USA used its Defense Production Act to ban exports of the materials needed to make vaccines to India, resulting in a 50% drop in production, would I/you believe it and conclude that vaccination is not free of politics, free of the profit-motive?It’s all about how easy we want to make it for ourselves, isn’t it? It has something to do with political preference hasn’t it? In the early days of the pandemic there was fear and foreboding. Even paranoia. Things got better and people were less paranoid. The recent surge in infections has produced a hike in worry. People are frustrated. They need someone to target. Anyone. Anyone but themselves. They want everyone (else) to do their bit and the government to do much more than it can hope to, but many are reluctant to do their bit. It’s easy to vent and ‘someone else’ is always a better target. We are not rich in self-reflection. We are poor when it comes to responsibility. In the early days there was a sense of siege. Fear made people think of coping mechanisms at all levels. Maybe we will return to all that. Maybe the government will figure out a way to allocate resources prudently and design better balancing systems (of pandemic response and an acceptable/reasonable level of basic economic and social activity).Speculation, however, can only help so much. It is clear that a concerted effort by one and all would help. Criticism has a role to play in all this. If it is constructive. If it is motivated by decent intention. For example, a year ago, an opposition in disarray ranted and raved about ‘risks’ when elections were to be held. When the second wave hit us a couple of months later, some people got into we-told-you-so gloating mode. Obviously they knew very little about the behavior of the virus and cared even less. What does tomorrow hold? Can anyone answer? What should be done? What should not be done? Talk to 10 people. Make that eight persons who have an axe to grind about this government. They won’t speak ‘in one voice’. Talk to ten ‘experts’. Same effect, I would wager. Everyone is a self-appointed epidemiologist these days. Everyone is an expert on balancing pandemic-mitigation and managing the economy. Everyone is more or less in the dark and if you doubt this, check out the various measures put in place by various governments and how these strategies have been amended over the past 18 months or so. There’s a lot that a lot of people can do. There are some basic things that an individual can do. Perhaps it might be useful to go back to one of the rules-of-thumb that did the rounds in the early days of the pandemic: assume that you are infected (rather than assuming someone else is infected). Assume also, if you like, that the virus is in your face, so to speak. That might bring those who prefer to loaf in ethereal regions back to earth.

It’s about doing what we can. It’s about doing no harm. Dialing down anger. Being kind. Restrictions of any kind provide one thing: the space for sober reflection. Not a bad thing. It could even be seen as a blessing, an opportunity to re-calibrate a lot of things, not just the response to the virus.

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views]



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Politics

What the opposition should not do

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by Uditha Devapriya

Can one question the government without wondering what, or where, the opposition is? It’s been over a year since the Samagi Jana Balavegaya walked out on the United National Party, half a year since it reduced that party to one (still unclaimed) seat in parliament. Has the party aspired to the ideal of a broad-based movement? Or has it weakened with the passing months, offering a paltry resistance to the government? Do its actions speak well to its constituencies? Or is it pursuing greener pastures, uncharted real estate, elsewhere?

To be sure, these are tough questions. But they must be brought up. The problem isn’t that no one’s answering them, but that no one’s asking them.

From its inception, the SJB was hit by a series of unfortunate travails. These do not make a pretty picture, and far from receding, they in fact continue to bedevil it.

For starters, there was the issue of the party’s legal status. Had it conformed the country’s electoral laws, or in its haste, had it flouted them? It took a UNP candidate (Oshala Herath) to raise the question at the Supreme Court; though the case did not go his way, conversations between him and the Chairman of the Election Commission, plus an associate of Mangala Samaraweera, made headlines when that candidate leaked them online.

The resulting controversy may or may not have tarnished the SJB’s prospects at the general election, but its convulsions haven’t died down. Ironically enough, one of its National List parliamentarians, the most colourful and controversial from that party, teeters today between government and opposition, having voted for the 20th Amendment; what’s ironic there is this MP’s legal ownership, through her husband, of the ostensibly anti-regime party.

Owing to such convulsions, the passage of the 20th Amendment deepened divisions in the SJB. For the first time here, a section of the opposition connived with the government over legislation that boosted the incumbent’s powers. This in turn reflected the contradictions of the regime: the ruling party had to resort to support from minority parties, in the opposition, to pass the Amendment. The resulting backlash against the SJB over this has done very little to address the rift between the ruling party and its critics. Forgotten in that paroxysm of anger, though, was one stark fact: most of the SJB still stood against the 20th Amendment. In 2010, by contrast, the UNP chose to abstain in toto from the vote on the 18th Amendment.

That’s hardly a consolation, however. If in the debate over 20A the opposition dithered (apart from a display of amateur theatrics, including waving anti-20A banners and donning “blood-spattered” cloths), over the imprisonment of its most outspoken candidate, it downright caved in and buckled down. Here popular opinion remains sharply divided: should the SJB have left Ranjan Ramanayake’s seat vacant, or should it have replaced him with another?

The opposition faced a classic Catch-22: the first option seemed comradely, the second more pragmatic, yet by opting for the latter, it reinforced allegations among undecided voters, even supporters, of it being unable to hold the line. Ramanayake himself did not take kindly to the capitulation, as his apoplectic response on Facebook shows.

On the level of ideology the SJB has done all it can to distance itself from the regime and the UNP. Yet the result seems to be less a distancing from than a midway compromise with these outfits. Consider its relationship with the UNP. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out only too clearly, a party associated with the politics of appeasement and capitulation for over a quarter century isn’t the ideal partner for any rational-minded opposition. But Jayatilleka appears to be in a minority of one among his contemporaries: other commentators, including those on the Left, advocate rapprochement instead of rupture.

Hence Harindra Dassanayake quips that “the SJB alone cannot defend democracy or form a government”, Krishantha Cooray questions whether it shares “its mother party’s economic vision”, Kumar David invokes Trotsky’s precept of marching separately but striking together to justify it getting together with that mother party, and someone calling himself “Prince of Kandy” fails to see it propounding any “real political ideology.” These polemics lead to two conclusions: the SJB cannot stand alone, and it must return to the UNP.

Since Jayatilleka has replied to these commentators, I will not restate what he has written on them. What’s curious isn’t so much their insistence on these two parties getting together (or for the rebellious son to yield place to the mother), as their belief that the one cannot, in the long run, do without the other. Does this necessarily mean they have no faith in the SJB’s potential to grow independently, free of the UNP? Debatable. If it does, then it indicates that such commentators, including those on the Left, associate the opposition with a party which still hasn’t filled in the one seat it got at last year’s general election.

This, of course, is nothing to be astonished about: Ranil Wickremesinghe led the opposition for 20 years. Sajith Premadasa’s rebellions against the Dear Leader (as Indi Samarajiva calls Ranil) did not begin in 2019, but they peaked in the post-Easter conjuncture. As such the SJB is more recent, too recent for dissenting voices and voters to consider it a viable successor to the UNP. Moreover, the middle-class, which since 1956 has determined the prospects and the trajectories of new parties and disgraced oppositions, still has not carved a place within its consciousness for Premadasa. For these voters, the most protean electorate in the country, the SLPP and SJB represent two wings of the much derided 225. Detached and disengaged from the 225, Wickremesinghe seems to have become a Lazarus for them: every other middle-class voter I meet today wants him back. Again, nothing to be astonished about.

Such paradoxical responses to the old opposition and the new should come as a concern, but not a surprise, to the SJB and those who support it. Sri Lanka’s middle-class is protean, yet it is also inherently compradorist. If it prefers a strongman like Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Sajith Premadasa and gives him unexpected majorities through the Kelani Valley – electorates like Homagama, Maharagama, Kesbewa, right until Avissawella – concurrently cutting into the southern heartland all the way through to suburbs closer to Colombo, including Moratuwa, it also, in the same vein, prefers Ranil Wickremesinghe to Sajith Premadasa.

Sajith Premadasa doesn’t yet command a presence among this peculiarly compradore middle-class. That, in its own way, is worrying. Not because I hold a candle to Sajith Premadasa, nor because I think he is the last great hope of the opposition, but because the absence of middle-class support can compel the SJB to neglect new ground – electorates the UNP neglected, like the Sinhala peasantry – and hang on to the Kelani Valley petty bourgeoisie, which has tended to shift, wildly, between compradorist neoliberals and authoritarian nationalists.

If the SJB gets more petty bourgeoisified than it is, it can only cave into a line no different to what the UNP was following: not the most advisable of strategies. Yet this is the line analysts want the SJB to follow, a line Dayan Jayatilleka explicitly warns against.

I believe the analysts have got it wrong. The SJB’s response to a democracy deficit should not be adherence to a failed ideology. The Kelani Valley petty bourgeoisie – not limited to the Kelani Valley alone – champions a Ranil Wickremesinghe or a Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the same reason why neoliberal globalisation and retrogressive nationalism cohabit the same space: both appeal to a middle bourgeoisie desperate for any figure which can provide it with security and stability. This explains how, at the height of Sinhala nationalist backlash against mainstream political parties, the middle-class voted for the UNP in 2000, returned the PA in 2004, and gave a wafer-thin margin of defeat for Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005.

In its idealisation of compradore neoliberalism or compradore nationalism, the middle-class continues to shape the trajectory of mainstream parties, indeed of fringe parties also (even if its support for the latter outside parliament hasn’t translated into support for their aspirations for parliament). Given its ideological predilections, falling in line with this crowd seems for me the height of folly. Far from following such a strategy, the government and the opposition should instead engage with marginalised groups: not just the peasantry and working class, but every ethnic, social, and economic minority, across the racial and class divide.

The compradorist pretensions of the middle-class have not got this country anywhere. Both government and opposition must oversee a shift in focus to other electorates. I do not see this happening here, on either side. Between the crevice of neoliberal globalisation and the abyss of neoconservative nationalism, there thus seems to be no centre. That is worrying.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.co

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Recognition of Mihintale as a World Heritage Site is long overdue

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Sigiriya to which Everyman referred to in the Sunday Island of April 25 is one of the 11 sites here UNESCO had declared as World Heritage Sites.

The others are the ancient city of Polonnaruwa , the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the old town of Galle and its fortifications, the sacred city of Anuradhapura and the sacred city of Kandy . Two others are recognized as nature sites – the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

‘World Heritage’ is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such have been inscribed on the World Heritage List ‘to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.’

Being named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO brings worldwide recognition, tourist attraction and hence revenue and even external assistance in the form of finances and expertise when necessary.

With a civilization going back to more than three millennia, one would expect more heritage sites to be included from Sri Lanka. My mind immediately goes to Mihintale which has been described as the fountain/cradle of SrI Lankan civilization. This is where Mahinda Thera, the son of the Emperor Asoka met King Devanampiyatissa. Their historic meeting led to the creation of a tremendous political, religious ,cultural ,and a social movement, signs of which are still seen scattered over thousands of acres in Mihintale. Pride of place is, of course, taken by the spot where the historic meeting took place. For centuries thousands of pilgrims climbed the near 2,000 granite steps to pay homage to someone they considered the Anubudu .

Below are the ruins of a huge monastery complex which included a refectory and a hospital described as one of the oldest in the world. The two slab inscriptions belonging to the period of King Mihindu (956 – 976 AD) contains records of payments made to the service staff. Nearby is a meeting hall of the monks where they discussed the Dhamma and the Vinaya.

Added to all these is the significance of the message Mahinda Thera conveyed to King Devanampiyatissa when they met on Mihintale rock. Mahinda’s memorable words, “O great King, the birds of the air and the beasts of the forest have equal right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou. The land belongs to the people and all living beings; thou art only its guardian.” The king being on a hunt, this was the ideal time for the Thera to deliver the immemorial message applicable to the King then and even more applicable to the world today.

It is said that ‘In order to qualify for the World Heritage List, the properties need to be of universal value, which means they have to be extraordinary and signify value beyond the national boundaries. In other words, they need to evoke a sense of awe and meaning to people all over the world, irrespective of where the site is located.’

On this criterion Mihintale qualifies to be a World Heritage Site for more than one reason. But to win such approval, the site must be the waiting list. Unfortunately Mihintale is not even on Sri Lanka’s waiting list!.

Recognition of Mihintale as a World Heritage site is long overdue and the initiative to achieve this must be taken by the Sri Lankan state.

. P.G.Punchihewa Colombo.

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Politics

A critique of Jathika Chintanaya (Part II)

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“The middle-class of this country, a majority of them, appear to follow Jathika Chintanaya. But it’s very clear that they don’t know what Jathika Chintanaya means. Nor do they seem interested in knowing what it is. Gunadasa Amarasekara talks about Jathika Chintanaya. I talk about Chintanaye Jathikathwaya. Those not hailing from the middle-class know what Chintanaye Jathikathwaya is. But they don’t yet know how to articulate it.”

— Nalin de Silva, “Jathika Chintanaya and Chintanaye Jathikathwaya”

Despite what supporters and critics may say, from its inception Jathika Chintanaya was, as it still is, moulded by a Protestant ethic. Nalin de Silva’s famous critique of contemporary Buddhism – what he contemptuously derided as “Olcott Buddhism” – should not mislead one into thinking that followers of Chintanism questioned seriously the bourgeois Protestant ethic on which that variant of Buddhism was based. As scholars have clearly shown, despite its millenarian vision, post-19th century Sinhala nationalism ended up caving into the same merchant-rentier-comprador interests from which it sought to escape.

The experience of the last two decades bears out this latter point well: despite its intentions, Jathika Chintanaya failed to propound a version of Buddhism which was at once populist and emancipatory, which incorporated the Left while discarding its comprador elements.

A brief thaw did emerge in the early 1990s – a period I consider to have marked the peak of the movement – when Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara evolved a critique of the Left, as well as of processes which the Left had traditionally critiqued.

The thaw was largely epitomised by Nalin de Silva’s campaigns against Coca-Cola and the Kandalama Hotel. I consider these campaigns to have been justified, even if they did not go far enough in preventing Coca-Cola or Kandalama. I do so because in calling for the boycott of the one and the closure of the other, de Silva more or less put into question the credentials of “Left” outfits and activists who, far from critiquing the forces of globalisation and multinational capital which underlay the beverage and the hotel, welcomed them on the grounds that these forces would transcend the traditional “feudal” relations within Sinhala-Buddhist communities. This was what the “Left” magazine Pravada propounded in its editorial on the Kandalama Hotel as a response to activists organising protests against it: that while giving leeway to large companies was not kosher, the breakup of such “traditional relations” resulting from the project was deemed eminently desirable.

In welcoming the intrusion of metropolitan capital into the country, the editors of Pravada, and other like-minded publications projected the impression that they preferred even neoliberalism to the conservation of a traditional way of life: a somewhat peculiar conclusion for a paper identifying itself with the Left! The error stemmed from a fundamental misconception of “traditional relations,” and of capitalist enterprise in general. In any case, whatever it was, such postures from the New Left only served to vindicate the opposing stances of Jathika Chintanaya.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that the latter faced its moment of reckoning at this point. Accordingly, these tactics should have been what informed its strategy. The JVP, decimated by the second insurrection, had adopted a similar line (of deploying Leftist rhetoric on nationalist issues) years earlier, so it was hardly unprecedented.

Yet for some reason, it was that strategy the Chintanawadeen chose not to take. I believe this failure reveals, at one level, the class limitations of Chintanism, an ideology rooted today in a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie. At a time when the founding ideologues of the Jathika Chintanaya seem to have split – Gunadasa Amarasekara in an overwhelmingly middle-class camp, Nalin de Silva in a non-middle class one (what he calls “Chintanaye Jathikathwaya”, which I shall explore later) – these limitations deserve further explication and analysis.

It goes without saying that both Amarasekara and Champika Ranawaka, foes in the battle of nationalist ideology today, continue to aim at, and appeal to, the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie: Amarasekara from what remains of Jathika Chintanaya, and Champika Ranawaka from his newly constituted “43 Senankaya”, which targets a disgruntled class of suburban Sinhala Buddhist professionals. What is pertinent here, of course, is not whether such a strategy can help win votes, but what it has done to, and how it has modified, the relationship between the Sinhala nationalists and the (economic) forces they opposed decades ago.

The Sihala Urumaya in the run up to the 2000 election gave a series of interviews in which its representatives expressed their ideas on globalisation and socialism. Their arguments revealed the transition the party was undergoing then: cautioning against the “ruinous” policies of the 1970-1977 regime which the “destroyed” Sinhala businessman, they made the point that globalisation, of a radically different sort, should be welcomed.

This did not mean the reinstatement of the “open economy,” which they critiqued, but neither did it mean a withdrawal from such an economy; it merely meant the recasting of neoliberal globalisation along lines more favourable to “indigenous” traders and merchants. The inadequacies of this approach are apparent enough, for it does not differ fundamentally from the neoliberal prescription of growth driven by – who else? – traders and merchants.

What we’re seeing here is a radical departure from how proponents of Sinhala nationalism once thought about political-economic matters in the wake of the 1987 Accord. Of particular interest is their currently Janus-faced attitude to the open and the closed economy: their critique of both is framed in terms of what these economic systems did, and did not do, for the local businessman. Very much in line with their petty bourgeois inclinations, they oppose globalisation from a cultural standpoint, while welcoming it from an economic standpoint. As for socialist alternatives, they view them as undesirable and in fact opposed to nationalism.

Tilak Karunaratne, General Secretary of the Sihala Urumaya, summed up these sentiments better than most, in an interview with The Island: “The things the SLFP did after they came into power starting with the bus nationalisation [were] done to hit the Sinhalese businessmen who were all UNPers. This was not at all done with a socialist intent. He thought by doing this he could destroy the UNP but he actually destroyed the Sinhalese. . . . The same happened with Insurance nationalisation, Port nationalisation and worst to hit the Sinhalese was the Plantation nationalisation. The economic clout was destroyed of the Sinhalese.”

Now, the point to note about these ideologues is that they tend to change. From critiquing the open economy and attacking nationalisation then, the Chintanavadeen seem to have come round to opposing the one and supporting the other on all fronts, and not just from a cultural perspective. Thus Gunadasa Amarasekara, in an article published around a year ago in this paper, reflects on the flaws of an economic model dependent on extraction, workers’ remittances, and tourism. The critique is cerebral, and the turnaround to be welcomed, even if inadequate. Yet these are a far cry from the positions the proponents of Sinhala nationalism adopted just two decades ago.

In offering a critique of globalisation, Jathika Chintanaya appears again to be subscribing to the stances it took in the immediate post-Cold War conjuncture, when it opposed multinational beverage brands and large-scale hotel development projects with an eloquence hardly matched by “Left” activists. This does not tone down my criticism of the movement or its ideologues, however: its failure to come up a more pluralist ideology that at once incorporated the more genuine sections of the Left, while discarding left-liberal and foreign donor-driven elements, when only a commitment to such a strategy could have transformed it from a purely communalist perspective to a radically non-comprador one.

Had it followed such a line, Jathika Chintanaya could no doubt have accomplished a transition which neither the Old Left at its nadir, nor the JVP after its entry into the democratic mainstream managed. Instead, the Chintanawadeen opted to chart the worst political-economic course: a regressive petty-bourgeois ideology impotent before neoliberalism and globalisation.

It’s easy to understand where the adherents of Jathika Chintanaya (as distinct from Nalin de Silva’s Chintanaye Jathikathwaya) went wrong: in battling petty enemies, they lost sight of the larger adversaries of systemic proportions. The consequences of these errors are to be seen in the debates over the leasing of the East Container Terminal: while the Left (along with Wimal Weerawansa and Gevindu Cumaratunga) spearheaded trade union action, several prominent nationalists chose to underscore the importance of foreign investment.

The irony became most apparent when it transpired that these were the same nationalists who berated India over other issues, like devolution. Now to harbour fears of Indian intervention, yet welcome the leasing of a strategic asset to non-nationals, seems to me an intellectual leap unworthy of such ideologues. But that is a leap they have been only too willing to make.

The writing is on the wall: as long as Jathika Chintanaya engages in pettifogging instead of serious debate, the world will move on, and civilisations will crumble down, under the weight of forces misapprehended if not altogether missed by their nationalist adherents. In the face of these forces of fragmentation, indeed of modernity itself, all that is solid melts into air – even the beloved nation.

 

Note 1: In Part I of this piece, I wrote that Nalin de Silva’s Old Left associations began in the NSSP. In actual fact they began in the LSSP, and only later shifted to the NSSP.

Note 2: Professor Kanishka Goonewardena of the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto has authored an interesting essay that dwells on Jathika Chintanaya. Titled “Populism, nationalism and Marxism in Sri Lanka”, it is, I daresay, a must-read, for the simple reason that it deviates from the generalisations one usually encounters with liberal scholars on the subject.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdevl@gmail.com

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