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Dialectics for a fast evolving scenario

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by Kumar David

“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory; it is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a scholastic question”. Second Thesis on Feuerbach

Don’t turn away, this is not going to be a boring treatise in abstract Marxism. I will quickly get to my topic, which is that the political circumstances we are living through are evolving rapidly and we should be alert and adjust to changing situations. First however allow me a few paragraphs about Lenin’s most dynamic years, from February 1917 till he fell seriously ill in late 1921. He died in January 1924 due to complications from bullets lodged in him in Fanny Kaplan’s August 1918 assassination attempt. The February Revolution, (old Julian-style last week of February to early March, new Gregorian-style second week of March) took Lenin and the Bolshevik Party by surprise. When first the women and then the workers of Petrograd fired up leaderless demonstrations which overthrew the monarchy, the Bolsheviks who had prepared the proletariat for revolution for 30 years were stunned! Except Trotsky the general expectation among socialists was a Two Stage Revolution; first Tsarism would be replaced by the rule of the bourgeoisie, then it would be the turn of the subaltern classes – a common at the time static misreading of Marx’s dialectical thinking.

I see developments in Sri Lanka moving fast with unforeseen changes and a regime that most of us last year considered strong and stable, now tottering. Of course it’s going to fall tomorrow but it’s wobbling and the domestic environment is changing unpredictably. Catholics are visibly angry about an alleged “cover up of Easter bombing organisers” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA2Zl1mVrOo); the in the Buddhist clergy have counter-attacked the Cardinal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC0WcSiJiJs0). Farmers in several areas are on the warpath according to News First. Furthermore nobody foresaw in 2019 the havoc covid would wreak, and the ferocity of UNHRC denunciations was unexpected. It is true that red lights were flashing about debt servicing and that the economy was in hopeless straights, but the convergence of bad news has been more rapid than foreseen and the regime has quickly gone belly up. All who join a mission with a single simple objective, to protect democracy, perforce, have to adjust to a fast changing scenario. The ability to think and act on one’s feet is what makes Lenin of 1917-1921 interesting. He remains the star disciple of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a fifth century BC classic on strategy. While shifting and manoeuvring Lenin never lost sight of his final objectives. This is why I call him the dialectic on two feet.

Often in this column I have referred to the dialectic as the scientific method; true but how boring! Yes true enough Darwin, the best example in science was an assiduous and utterly trustworthy accumulator of data but with a mind that was alive to how phenomena change and evolve. Gautama Buddha pointed out that nothing is permanent and that all things are evolving but it took Darwin to work out the precise mechanisms by which this was happening in biology. Still, the dialectics of science and nature are slow moving. It is not exciting, it won’t keep you awake at night. Conversely, jumping from Two-Stage theory to instant proletarian revolution on April 1, 1917, capturing state power in October in defiance of scholastic Marxism, pushing back against attempts to militarise the trade unions and the refusal to give the Germans whole swathes of land so as to commit to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (on both Trotsky erred), and in 1921 forcing through the New Economic Policy, a key market oriented concession to capitalist farming, these were momentous strategic transitions, quite breathtaking.

Bearded boring Bolshies 100 years ago, what’s it got to do with us you ask? I’ll tell you. The commonality is that quite unexpectedly we find ourselves in a very fast changing scenario. Lenin in 1917-1922, was an embodiment of the dialectic because he was able to think on his feet and keep his side united using his singular ability to deal with a swift change while the other side (sides to be more accurate) were confused and splintered. This is a useful example for those who seek a democratic, plural and united Sri Lanka because to date this side (I call it ‘we’) have managed to keep our message consistent and united while the ‘other’ side is splintering. President Gota bemoans his unpopularity and his inability to address challenges because “there is no unity” or some such words. I don’t have a clue what skulduggery is going on within the Royal Rajapaksa dynasty, though now is just the right time to make visible adjustments. The public is persuaded that Gota failed because he is inexperienced and his inner circle is dumb; Mahinda and Basil deftly keep out of the limelight. Less and less do you hear from those you marvelled 18 months ago that Gota as the incarnation of a strong leader who would lead Lanka to harmony and splendour? Lee Kuan Yew was a frequently quoted prototype. Where have all those people gone? On the other hand the opposition to an authoritarian new constitution, to excessive deployment of retired military brass and those worried that democracy is under threat (harassment of rights workers, fear in the mind of critics, damaging the judiciary) have succeeded in retaining a degree of commonality.

The shot in the arm for ‘our’ side was the UNHRC Commissioner’s Report and the Geneva Resolution which has de facto created a united front of Sri Lankan domestic forces and international opinion. The uprising in Burma and the opposition to authoritarianism in Sri Lanka must not allow themselves to be intimidated by reactionary nationalists who shriek about foreign support and anti-national traitors. International assistance should be accepted on our terms and in any case democracy is a universal clause. Remember that when the Germans offered to transport Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in a sealed train (“Like a bacillus” in Churchill’s words) he did not hesitate for a moment to accept the offer. The rest is history. In Burma as in Sri Lanka the defeat of the Junta or the containment of an assault on democracy are transnational tasks. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” when it is used to conceal the machinations of dictators.

You may recall Marx’s quip about standing Hegel on his head which in today’s language we would say has gone viral. It is about the relationship between real life on one hand and theories and philosophies on the other. Tamil agitation and at an extreme the LTTE was not an ideology of a separate state and Tamil cultural-civilisation finding expression in an uprising. Quite the converse, it was the practical conditions of a community creating such angst that it gave rise to extreme nationalism among a large number. That Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist extremism which is holding this country hostage is about ancient civilisation, about hela jathika abimane is humbug. There were class, economic, employment in the late colonial capitalist and state economies, and education sectors which turned Sinhala blood blue with national pride. The nationalists who pontificate the opposite need to be stood on their heads. This critique of what is called the idealism (Ideas and philosophy is what determines the principal features of the real, material world) is very well known now and I think modern bourgeois sociology goes a long way towards recognising it.

What is perhaps not quite so well appreciated is that Marx was more a pupil than a critique of Hegel (not the post-Hegel epigenomes of course) in respect of the dialectic. He speaks of Hegel as a “mighty thinker” in the 1873 post-face to capital I. Certainly spurned the “the ill-humoured, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel like “dead dog”. What Marx took away from Hegel was how to understand change, the dynamics of how change progresses. The conflicts and compromises in real social and human relations which at times mediate and at times determine how the history of societies evolves. The sociological companion to Darwinian evolution.

We are now live in a fruit salad world of international relations where three powers will decide our fate – over which we have little control – India, China and the US. They are each no doubt pondering what to do about our fruitcake regime. Competition among them to one side, it is in the interests of all three to unscramble this tabbouleh and avert this country’s descent into a failed-state abyss, which thankfully we have still not reached. It is not possible that they each do not have calculations up their sleeves about how to sort out this mess but an initiative from the regime itself proposing a via media to the UNHRC and to the aforementioned powers as proof that Lanka will accept its reconciliation-accountability responsibilities and will maintain a foreign policy balance which will not discomfit any great power will ease a compromise.

The Double-Paksa (two Rajapaksa) regime must forget about enacting a divisive new constitution to claw power into the grasp of the Executive; if firing military sorts already hired for top slots is infeasible at least it must give an undertaking that there will be no more sounding brass speaking in garbled tongues; it must put scientists in charge of pandemic control and win, as Biden seems to be doing; dump this squalid and reckless foreign policy team; it must stop manipulating the judiciary and halt asinine Presidential Commission circuses; it must stop pandering to extremists since this impedes a deal with the minorities. All this is doable if the executive is restructured and a plural orientation is adopted. If the government wishes to pull itself up by its bootstraps it must undertake the policy changes outlined in this para, restructure its personnel, pray much harder and offer trays of mangoes to the deities superintending Sri Lanka. The $64K question is whether Gota has the appetite for this healthy and fruitful menu. Those with no confidence that Gota’s Executive, Mahinda’s government or Basil-in-waiting can extricate themselves from their predicaments, must plan and act on their own outside this purview. The sole self-imposed condition is that change must be constitutional; what’s the point of a fight for democracy if one begins by abrogating it?



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HIRED & FIRED!

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

Part 5

By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

chandij@sympatico.ca

Settling down

The Government of Ceylon had decided to institutionalise organised tourism a few years before I joined the Ceylon Hotel School (CHS). Accepting the recommendations of the international experts who prepared the Tourism Development Master Plan, the government invested on developing the future leaders of the hospitality industry. We were the key beneficiaries of this vision. All CHS facilities, tuition and full-board accommodation, laundry etc. were provided to each student at a highly subsided monthly fee of Rs. 100 (around US$ 25 at that time).

My second month at CHS was better as I gradually learnt to avoid getting into trouble too frequently. Having recovered from the initial culture shock, I started to enjoy everything at the hostel and the school, with the exception of studying. The only major change we had was when our Hostel Warden’s son, who was in our batch, left CHS after a month, much to the disappointment of his father. Apart from that tension, the hostel life was mostly enjoyable.

There were two resident male helpers at the hostel who made tea and breakfast for the students, cleaned the hostel, and distributed our dinner packets and weekend meals which came from Samudra Hotel. When we realized that one of these helpers, Cooray, was good at book-keeping, he became very popular among the students as this was the hardest subject for most of us. Some students arranged for Cooray to give them free lessons on book-keeping throughout our three years at CHS.

 

Eggs or cigarettes?

At the hostel, we were entitled to only one egg per student every morning. Cooray and his assistant prepared the egg to order for each student in the hostel kitchen. As some of the students attempted to get breakfast eggs twice, the Warden had introduced a control system by getting the eggs distributed to each room in the hostel early morning by one of the helpers. This meant that there were twelve eggs placed on the dining table in the dormitory where I lived with eleven other students. Some students woke up early simply to pick an extra egg when a roommate was absent.

We came to a mutually beneficial agreement with the owner of a small tea house that we passed every morning walking from the hostel to CHS. In exchange for an egg, he gave us a cigarette, which was usually shared by a few students. The more eggs we managed to collect or steal, the more cigarettes we received. One of my batchmates and roommates, Hiran, occasionally stayed at his girlfriend’s nearby house in the night and sneaked back to the hostel in the morning. He was always annoyed that his egg was missing by the time he returned to the hostel. Hiran used to shout every morning, “Cooray, who stole my bloody egg?”. I never told him that it was me.

 

Hostel and fun

We played all types of outdoor and indoor sports at the hostel – basketball, cricket, football, pingpong, carom, cards, chess, etc. Rugby football and a

thletic teams practiced on the outside fields or on the famous Galle Face green in the early morning. Some afternoons, we went for a sea bath just behind the hostel. I continued to practice Judo three evenings a week at my club in the Colombo Central YMCA. Some evenings, when we were dead broke and bored, we went for

 long walks around Colombo or just sat on the front half wall of the hostel in our sarongs and looked at girls walking from a nearby girl’s hostel.

 

Hotel Developments

As the government had identified tourism as a sector with major economic growth potential, many concessions including lengthy tax holidays had been offered for new hotel projects. As a result, many new hotels were being constructed in the early 1970s. The first two international hotel brands ever to operate in Ceylon were already on the island – a prominent US hotel chain, Hyatt, who managed the historic Mount Lavinia Hotel, and the largest British hotel chain, Trust House Forte, who managed the brand-new four-star level Pegasus Reef Hotel. Among locally managed new hotels already opened, most prestigious were Bentota Beach Hotel and Browns Beach Hotel.

In development stage, was a four-star level hotel in Colombo which was negotiating a franchise agreement with the largest hotel chain in the world at time – Holiday Inn. There were no five-star hotels in Ceylon at that time, but two five-star hotels were being developed with financial support and 25-year management contracts offered by the government – a 252-roomed InterContinental getting closer to the opening date and a 266-roomed Oberoi, which was due to open in three years’ time. The site for the latter was right in front of our hostel. Seated at the front half wall, at times, we looked at this site and wondered if we would find middle management jobs there when the hotel opened. Some of us actually did so years later.

 

Streaking

Owing to peer pressure, we also did stupid things. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the free-love movement spread around college campuses in Europe and North America, running around naked or ‘streaking’ became a popular prank. Given the deep-rooted culture in Ceylon, streaking in public was certainly not common or ac

cepted. One evening, a few of us were seated on the front half wall. Out of the blue, one of my batch mates said, “I bet none of you have the guts to streak to Hotel Lanka Oberoi site and back!”. I got up, put my sarong on the ground, ran naked across Galle Road to the Oberoi site, and ran back.

Unfortunately, a couple of cars happened to pass by at the exact same time, with the occupants, including a few ladies in full view of this indecent exposure. We watched them drive straight to the nearby police station to lodge complaints. In fear, we rushed back to the hostel, turned off the lights, and went to sleep. Within a few minutes time, we heard the police visit the Warden to find out what was going on. He was furious, but never discovered the truth. All in all, the hostel life was full of fun, even on days when we were bored, financially broke or broke the law.

 

The first job

One day, when walking in the back of the house of Samudra Hotel adjoining the CHS, I saw a small notice that said that the Samudra was seeking part-time busboys (table clearers at restaurants/cafes) to work in their restaurant for a few evenings a week. I immediately went to see the Catering Manager of the hotel and expressed my interest. As I had less than two months experience at CHS, he was keen to find a more senior student, but none of them were interested in being a busboy. Some of them were under the unrealistic impression that they would be able to get part-time work in white collar or supervisory positions.

Owing to the lack of interest by other students, I was chosen. My job was to clear tables and assist waiters who served the customers. I particularly liked to work in the evenings when the hotel had well-advertised ‘Sundown Dances’ with live bands. My salary for the evening was Rs 4.00, or around US$1.00 at that time. I liked the free entertainment, experience, and the pocket money.

 

Getting fired

Hotel Samudra had only ten rooms, which were occupied most of the time. A family of four from the UK were occupying two rooms for a long period, as they were in Ceylon to settle some family matters. The parents were Ceylon-born, but their two daughters, ages 16 and 19, were both born in the UK and were unfamiliar with Ceylonese culture. They both became quite friendly with me. I found their trendy attire and their accents interesting. Similarly, they found my afro hair, big chain with a peace sign, broad belt with a large brass buckle and huge bell bottom jeans, cool and groovy. The 16-year-old was interested in dating me, but it was the 19-year-old who invited me to accompany her to a ‘Sundown Dance’ at my workplace. As I had saved some money from my salary the previous week, and had a night off, I happily accepted her invitation and had a good time. It was my first dance and later that evening, in the dark dance floor I experienced my first-ever kiss.

The Catering Manager of the hotel was a strict disciplinarian. During his evening round to the restaurant and the bar, he was shocked to see me dancing away with a hotel guest. The next day, I was summoned to his office. I was told very clearly that no employee was permitted to enjoy the hotel facilities, and that employees were certainly not permitted to have any personal relationships with hotel guests. I apologised and mentioned that it was my off day. This angered him more, and he yelled, “You are fired!”. He ordered me to return my uniforms immediately and not to show up for work again. My first job in the hospitality industry ended almost as quickly as it began.

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Giuliani’s Legal Trouble Is Trump’s Too

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To save himself, the President’s former lawyer might have to spill damning secrets.

POLITICO magazine

by Selvam Canagaratna

“You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that when federal agents knock on your door with a search warrant and seize your electronic devices, you’re in big trouble.” wrote Renato Mariotti, Legal Affairs Columnist for Politico magazine. “Ever since that happened to former Donald Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday, he has tried to downplay the peril he is in, saying whatever evidence is on his phones proves that “the President and I…are innocent.”

But it sure looks like Rud y has a long legal battle ahead of him, and his best defense will likely put him at odds with his former boss. If Trump doesn’t voluntarily protect his one-time counsel, Giuliani may have no choice but to point the finger at his former client. (Their relationship was tested in January when Trump reportedly refused to pay Giuliani for his unsuccessful work trying to overturn the November election results.)

The saga of one-time Trump legal fixer Michael Cohen, who turned on his boss after he pleaded guilty for election finance violations and fraud, is instructive here. Despite Cohen’s assertion that Trump knew of the violations, the President was protected from prosecution while he was in office under Department of Justice guidelines. Now that Trump is a civilian, those guidelines do not protect him, and he has to be concerned about his own liability going forward.

There can be no question that the execution of a search warrant at Giuliani’s residence is a serious step that indicates the criminal investigation against him is far along. Federal prosecutors can’t obtain a search warrant based on a hunch or mere suspicion. They had to present substantial evidence to a federal judge that there is good reason to believe that a federal crime was committed and that evidence of that federal crime was located in Giuliani’s apartment and his electronic devices. It’s significant a judge was persuaded they met that standard.

For that reason, prosecutors likely have a lot of the evidence they need already. During my time as a federal prosecutor, when I sought a search warrant for a subject’s electronic devices, typically I had already obtained some of the subject’s communications or electronic documents from other sources such as co-operators, subpoenas or prior search warrants. I used that evidence to persuade a judge that those communications would also be found on the devices. Even though prosecutors have some communications prior to obtaining electronic devices, the devices can contain more data, including deleted messages, metadata and location information.

In this particular case, one can trust the evidence was solid and substantial given the significant internal scrutiny that this case would receive within the Justice Department. The criminal investigation of any lawyer is a sensitive matter due to the complexities caused by attorney-client privilege, and the DOJ takes special care when investigating a criminal defense attorney, to ensure that the department does not appear to be targeting opponents. Obviously, obtaining a search warrant for the residence and devices of the personal lawyer of the former President would receive even more scrutiny from senior department leadership.

Curiously, the crime for which Giuliani is under investigation — violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires agents of foreign governments who lobby US officials to disclose their relationship with the foreign government — has been prosecuted only rarely over the decades. But FARA prosecutions spiked during the Trump administration, including the high-profile conviction of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and former Republican finance chair Elliott Broidy. (An associate of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn was also indicted for a FARA violation, but the conviction was later overturned.) That group of FARA prosecutions led President Joe Biden to vow on the campaign trail to increase the use of FARA if he were elected, saying there should be no lobbying on behalf of foreign governments outside regular diplomatic channels.

The investigation reportedly centers around Giuliani’s efforts to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of Ukrainian officials and oligarchs who were also helping him dig up dirt on then-candidate Biden and his family during the campaign. At issue, as well, are Giuliani’s efforts to persuade Trump to oust the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whose anti-corruption work was viewed hostilely by those same Ukrainian officials. If Giuliani’s efforts to push Trump to fire Yovanovitch were done on behalf of Ukrainian officials, that could be the sort of foreign lobbying activity that he should have disclosed.

Thus far, Giuliani has tried to hide behind mere technicalities, arguing that he didn’t have a written contract with a foreign official or oligarch. He won’t get away with that in court. What matters is whether he was an agent of a foreign government, not whether his relationship with that foreign government was memorialized in writing. You can’t avoid FARA requirements by failing to write down the details of your arrangement with a foreign government.

Giuliani’s work in Ukraine has been the subject of controversy for two years and was central to the first impeachment probe of Trump’s pressure on the new Ukrainian president. But, according to The New York Times, senior DOJ political appointees in the Justice Department repeatedly tried to block the search warrants, which suggests that the department has had the evidence it needs against Giuliani for some time.

Those prior efforts to slow down the investigation won’t help Giuliani now. If anything, they may eventually work against Giuliani if it is shown that they were done at his urging. Giuliani’s foolish public statements (he claimed erroneously that search warrants can only be issued if there is a fear the evidence will be destroyed) won’t help him either if he is ultimately indicted. At that point, he will need to adopt a defense strategy that may put him at odds with his former client.

Giuliani’s defense will likely be that he was acting completely at Trump’s direction and that his efforts on behalf of the officials and oligarchs was done to curry favour with them on Trump’s behalf, and was done at Trump’s behest and knowledge. Purely from a perspective of trial strategy, Giuliani’s best defense would include testimony from the former President that he knew everything Giuliani was doing and approved of every action he took. That would permit Giuliani’s defense team to argue that since he was ultimately advancing Trump’s interests, he was actually working on behalf of the United States, not Ukrainian oligarchs.

 

Unfortunately for Giuliani, Trump is not known for sticking his neck out for disgraced former aides, particularly if doing so would involve personal embarrassment or potential liability. Given how Trump distanced himself from former lawyer Michael Cohen when he faced similar peril, it is hard to imagine the former President taking an oath to tell the truth and subjecting himself to withering cross-examination that could embarrass him at best or expose him to potential liability at worst. (Trump’s record of lying under oath in civil suit depositions is well documented.)

The only surefire way for Trump to avoid testimony in the trial of Giuliani would be to take the Fifth, but Trump has repeatedly noted that taking the Fifth makes you look guilty. The only way for him to get out of testifying is for him to suggest that he didn’t really know what Giuliani was doing and didn’t approve of his activities. That would make him worthless for Giuliani as a witness and force Giuliani to point the finger at Trump to save himself. The five-year sentence Manafort received for conspiring to violate FARA gives Giuliani ample incentive to do so, especially since he knows Trump cannot pardon him any longer.

When a lawyer, particularly a famous former federal prosecutor like Giuliani, faces time in prison, the incentive to reduce that sentence is significant. Just like Michael Cohen, Giuliani will have every incentive to help federal prosecutors if it could potentially reduce his prison sentence. That could make the Giuliani prosecution far more consequential than it appears at first glance, given his role in everything from the defense of Trump’s impeachment to the January 6 insurrection.

Without Trump’s protection or financial support, Giuliani’s loyalty would seem to have a limited shelf life.

 

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The transitional 1990s and beyond (JVP-III)

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by Rajan Philips

If the 1980s were tumultuous, the 1990s were more transitional, even if not less tumultuous. In this ‘potted’ history, it is not necessary to recount all the details of the 1990s and the first decade of the new 21st century. Suffice it to focus on developments that have had a continuing influence on current events and the farce of 2021. The UNP and the JVP, which more or less came together in 1977, were gone by 1994, after seventeen years of assorted achievements. The UNP would never return to the same pinnacle of power that it seized in 1977. The JVP with a new generation of leaders transformed itself into a democratic political party with mixed results. The first half the decade saw the disintegration of the UNP under the weight of the presidential ambitions of three rival contenders – President Premadasa and his two younger challengers, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. The LTTE took out every one of them in 1993 and 1994.

LTTE violence took off in the 1990s after the JVP had been finished off in the late 1980s. In a telling commentary on that period, Wikipedia lists the names of political leaders, parliamentarians, professionals and political activists who were killed by the JVP, the LTTE, other Tamil groups and the armed forces over three decades of violence. The 1990s began with the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and ended with the killing of TULF MP and Legal Academic Neelan Tiruchelvam in 1999. The old leadership of the TULF, with the exception of M. Sivasithamparam, had been wiped out in the late 1980s. That included TULF leader A. Amirthalingam, a consummate politician and parliamentarian, who started off as a fiery federalist and turned himself into a mellowed separatist.

As the 90s wore on, the LTTE asserted itself as the sole representative of the Tamils. It waged war against the state and its forces but not to capture the state of Sri Lanka but to establish a new state of Tamil Eelam. The JVP’s mission was different, but its ultimate objectives were never clear. Lacking the LTTE’s military prowess, it never seemed plausible that the JVP was serious about capturing state power through violent means. Politically, the JVP swung from its ultra-left attacks on a manifestly leftist government in 1971, to undertaking ultra-right attacks against the most rightwing government in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The left-right cleavage was not part of the LTTE vocabulary.

On the other hand, although it railed against the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the presence of Indian armed forces in Sri Lanka, the JVP scrupulously avoided taking potshots at the Indian Army. The LTTE, in contrast, cut its military teeth fighting the Indian army and found common cause with the Sri Lankan government under President Premadasa to fight a common enemy. There was even grudging admiration among sections of the Sinhalese for the LTTE’s choosing to take on the Indian Army. For the record, the Indian Army came to Sri Lanka on the invitation of one Sri Lankan President and left Sri Lanka at the request of the succeeding Sri Lankan President. Hardly the modality for an occupying force. War or peace, Sri Lanka was again left to its own devices.

 

Illusions of Peace

The second half of the 1990s and the first half of the next belonged to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her presidency began with a bang of charismatic inspiration but petered through for want of a clear focus and purposeful efforts. Perhaps her singular failure was not single-mindedly moving to abolish the executive presidency as she was universally expected to do. She was also the first and, until Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived on the scene 25 years later out of nowhere, the only person to become President without previously being a Member of Parliament. Her parliamentary inexperience, untrammeled access to presidential power, not to mention her political ego, all combined to vitiate the promise with which she had led the People’s Alliance to power.

With the benefit of hindsight, we might say that parliament started becoming inexorably poorer from thereon. It is far worse now, in 2021, and for many new reasons. And it has taken a JVP MP, in Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, to take a spirited stand in defense of parliament and parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka – against presidential authority and media hypocrisy. The ironies of history, you might say, but more on it later.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) deserves full marks for starting the peace process during her presidency, but she showed inexplicable naivete in choosing to rely on people from her social circles to take the lead in serious peace mediation. The LTTE was going to be a difficult peace-dance partner anyway, and it required much more than social brokering to make any headway. In the end, the LTTE almost succeeded in assassinating her during her election campaign for a second term in office in 1999.

The main irony of that period was the nasty competition between Chandrika Kumaratunga (leading the SLFP) and Ranil Wickremesinghe (leading the UNP) for leadership in the peace process. It was a total about-turn from previous decades when the two main Sinhalese parties fought one another over who was giving more concessions to the Tamil Federal Party, even though what was on offer was way less than what would be included much later in the 13th Amendment. In any event, the CBK-RW competition over peace turned out to be counter productive both to the peace process and to their respective political calculations.

It may not be wholly accurate to say that presidential politics was the main driver of the peace rivalry, but it is impossible to view the rivalry in isolation from presidential ambitions. All the constitutional changes proposed by the CBK government included provisions to protect her powers, which made it even easier for RW and the UNP to reject the proposals out of hand and even, in one instance, make a bonfire of them right in the well of parliament. As for Ranil Wickremesinghe, his obsession with becoming a President, or at least a presidential candidate one more time (after two attempts in 1999 and 2005), became quite obvious when he deliberately subordinated every initiative of the yahapalanaya government (2015-2019) to that single obsession.

Back during his rivalry with CBK over peace initiatives, Ranil Wickremesinghe stunningly turned to the LTTE to strike a counter peace partnership to CBK’s peace partnership with the TULF. I am not aware of any public recounting of the mediation that brought RW and the LTTE together in a peace initiative. But objectively, it fair to surmise that Ranil Wickremesinghe reached out to the LTTE as a counter to CBK’s peace alliance with the TULF. What was fairly well known throughout the JRJ presidency was that President Jayewardene cunningly kept not only the TULF but also the JVP from joining forces with the SLFP/Left opposition at that time. In the end, there was no ultimate benefit to anyone from JRJ’s Machiavellian politics. The presidential house he built so adroitly would be eventually lost to the UNP. Now it seems it is lost forever. And it will be for other more upstart aspirants as well.

As JRJ’s successor, President Premadasa took a different tack, reaching out to the LTTE to get the Indians out. We know how that tack or track ended. The TULF that was left hanging, or what was left of its depleted leadership, broke with the UNP and turned to Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance for a new kick at what had become the proverbial viable solution, while Ranil Wickremesinghe modified the Premadasa approach to re-engage the LTTE with Norwegian insurance. To their credit, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe ‘fought’ over how to make better peace with Tamils, rather than about waging a more brutal war with the LTTE. They both admitted that the Sri Lankan state had failed in the building of its nation and were committed to creating a plural and inclusive polity. While their political spirits were willing their presidential flesh led them astray.

And their peace-fight was nasty. They could not work together even when they were forced to cohabit as President and Prime Minister between 2001 and 2004. Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister, dashed everyone’s expectations of peace dividends by giving, not for the last time, free rein to corruption in government. For her part, and in what she would later admit to being among her more grievous mistakes, President Kumaratunga dismissed the Wickremesinghe government in 2004 (which she had the power to do under the pre-19A Constitution, unlike Maithripala Sirisena who flouted his own 19th Amendment in October 2018), dissolved parliament and won the parliamentary election in April 2004 with provisional support from the JVP.

The results of the April 2004 parliamentary election gave false hopes to President Kumaratunga and the JVP (that won 39 out of 105 UPFA seats in parliament, its highest on record), relegated Ranil Wickremesinghe to the opposition backwaters for the next ten years, and signaled the emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the next presidential candidate from the true south. The country went through the tsunami devastation in December 2004, but that did not help the political leaders getting any wiser about working together. The Supreme Court abandoned President Kumaratunga when it rejected her bid to extend her second term by one year. Ranil Wickremesinghe even thought that Chief Justice Sarath Silva was helping him for not impeaching him earlier!

Those who had serenaded CBK during her rise lost no time in leaving as she declined. Mahinda Rajapaksa became the SLFP-UPFA candidate by acclamation. He reached a new agreement with the JVP. The unkindest cut of all was delivered by the LTTE to Ranil Wickremesinghe who thought that it would be a no contest. Mahinda Rajapaksa won the November 2005 presidential election by the squeakiest of margins, while Tamil voters in the north were ordered to stay home. Basil Rajapaksa’s familial prophesy that there will be a President from the south was finally fulfilled. But there were other dynamics at play.

 

Illusions of Restoration

In my last installment published two weeks ago (April 25), I alluded to Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming the presidential beneficiary of a new strand of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism fueled by the Jathika Chinthanaya school of thought. The school of thinking that JC advocated has not universally been accepted in Sinhalese political society. At one level, the electoral victories of Chandrika Kumaratunga (PA) and the partial successes of Ranil Wickremesinghe were moments of political pushbacks to the creeping influence of JC thinking. At another level, both the SLFP and the UNP were forced to come to terms with ‘JC forces’ and include them in their political alliances often on their (JC’s) terms.

The presidential system and proportional representation in parliamentary elections facilitated the emergence of alliance politics. The era of programmatic united fronts of political parties was gone. Serious political programs gave way to lawyerly Memorandums of Understanding. Multiple parties with bilateral/multilateral MOUs could come together under an umbrella alliance for contesting elections. The April 2004 parliamentary elections were the breakthrough election for the new Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organizations.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the most electorally successful offshoot from the JC school, won nine seats in the election, all won by Buddhist Monks. The JVP which had been courting JC ideologues and followers from the 1980s, was part of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s alliance (UPFA) and won 39 seats. It was the JHU that successfully challenged President Kumaratunga’s attempt to extend her second term limit in the Supreme Court in August 2005. JC’s political consummation came within months, with the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the November presidential election. That it came with support from the not so hidden hand of the LTTE did not dampen the significance of the moment. Mahinda Rajapaksa was recognized as the most authentic Sinhala Buddhist political leader since independence.

In terms of political analysis, the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been described as the restoration of the linkage between the Sri Lankan state establishment and the political hegemony of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The linkage had apparently been ruptured since July 1987 when JR Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Looked at in another way, the state of Sri Lanka which has traditionally been accused of alienating the Tamil and Muslim minorities, would seemed to have found a way to alienate even the Sinhalese majority.

And the restoration that was apparently achieved with the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, has not turned out to be as consequential as anticipated. To wit, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the Thirteenth Amendment that it created have survived two terms of Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and may yet survive the first term of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. At the same time, a full restoration of the linkages between the state of Sri Lanka and all its ‘peoples’ will require a more sensitive and nuanced understanding as well as appreciation of the nationalist compulsions of the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims. Anything less can be nothing more than a farce. (Next week: The farce of 2021).

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