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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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Features

Rise of Dual Power amidst Covid 

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We had so many kings in our Sinhala Balaya of many centuries. There were many questionable deals on succession by members of this royalty, and others who came to those realms. But we have yet to hear of any brother of a ruling monarch rushing abroad in the midst of what may have been a national crisis, moving to a disaster.This is the stuff of Sinhala Power in the 21st Century. It is a show of the Raja Keliya – the power game, where dual citizenship is the dominant factor. The Sri Lanka, Mawbima home, is of lesser importance than the Videsha mawbima, especially if one’s health has to be handled by foreign medical sources; even if the Videsha Mawbima is the biggest affected by the Covid pandemic.

The appointment of Task Forces to deal with important issues facing the country and the people is the substance of the current Saubhagyaye Dekma – Vision of Prosperity and Splendour. Appointing a brother to head task forces of key importance is the show of dominant family power that prevails in this country today. But brotherly feelings are certainly not important when a dual citizen thinks of the greater importance of the Videsha Mawbima. The tasks of Economic Growth, Eradicating Poverty and Assuring Food Supply, as well as the more recent Green Socio-Economy must all be pushed aside, when the call of the Videsha Mawbima for healthcare is the stuff that matters.

This is the brotherly Vision of Prosperity and Splendour, or the Sahodara Saubhabyaye Dekma.

The Covid pandemic has certainly brought much contradictory thinking, especially in the government, on how the health of the people in this country, non-dual citizens, could be assured. Minister Udaya Gammanpila, a Cabinet spokesman too, is certain that mixed vaccinations of different brands and qualities, is the means to protect the people. 

Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister on the subject, thinks differently, on the lines of the WHO specialists, who have stressed there is no evidence so far to authorize mixed vaccinations. The other minister of health and vaccination issues is somewhat silent on this confusion in official thinking. Is a new pandemic syrup to be promoted by the power handlers?

Thank heavens that the Cabinet Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, is so far silent on this matter. She could come up with a new Sri Lankan Deshamanya scientific solution, such as throwing some of the Sinopharm and Sputnik (Chinese and Russian) into the nearby river, and using the mixed and river blended vaccine for people of the related province. She is sure to obtain the support of Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga for such a crafty thinking of science, just as they shared her belief in the Charmed Pot Game or Mantara Kala Keliya to fight the Covid-19.

  We are now in the midst of what is known as a Lockdown. It is not a “Vasaa thabeema” in Sinhala, but a limit on travel – a ‘Sancharana Seemava’. The Police are very clear that anyone who breaks the lockdown rules will be arrested and brought to justice. We have seen the great joy that policemen showed in carrying non-mask wearers and other violaters of Covid safety guidelines, to be shoved into buses. How much more of such delights would follow when Covid increases its hold on Sri Lanka? What was the related Task Force, and its ceremonial uniformed head doing, when Indians were brought to Sri Lankan hotels for quarantine before travel to some Middle Easter countries? What foreigner from the Covid battered India was carried or courteously conducted to a place where lawbreakers are detained?

As we keep wearing our masks and distancing ourselves from others, there is much cause for concern, even beyond the Covid pandemic, on how persons arrested and detained by the police are killed by or in the presence of the  police. Two suspected and arrested persons have been killed while in police custody this week.  They are Melon Mabula or ‘Uru Juva’ and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera or ‘Kosgoda Tharaka’ These are persons with records of major crimes, possibly with much strong evidence, but not presented in court and any punishment order through the judicial process.

The police spokesperson, a person with a legal background, too, tells the people the details of all the terrible crimes these persons are supposed to be guilty of. It is a contemptible move to get public support for the killings. The Bar Association has raised concerns about these departures from justice. There must be much more protests, even with the Covid dangers.

One gets the impression that the prevailing dangerous situation due to Covid, is being used to carry out increasing violations of the law and the judicial process. This is certainly a major step back to the earlier years of Rajapaksa Power, when many such suspects were killed in Colombo and elsewhere, showing off police escape power. It also brings back memories of the killing and attacks on journalists by similar police and official forces of crooked power.

Are we moving to a new sense of Dual Power — where the judiciary is ignored and official power is the Rule of the Day? Is the power of Dual Citizenry to be the dominant force once Covid puts down the people’s power?

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Should ASEAN Free Trade Area be considered model for SAFTA?

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By Dr. Srimal Fernando

Economic integration is more important today than it has ever been for South Asia’s development. When comparing the impact of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)s South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) Free Trade Area (AFTA) in promoting trade amongst its member states, AFTA has been more effective in integrating the economies of its member states. SAFTA , on the other hand, has yet to make significant contributions to the integration of the economies of SAARC member states. The Success of ASEAN’s economic integration can be attributed to the willingness of Southeast Asian countries to embrace the tenets of regional integration. In contrast, SAARC’s model has failed to create a secure regional environment that is conducive for economic growth since its formation.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) member states signed the AFTA agreement on 28 January 1992. After the establishment of AFTA, the member states of ASEAN succeeded in signing trading protocols within the organization. The ASEAN model succeeded in creating one of the most successful free trade areas in Asia as well as globally. The establishment of AFTA has been an important milestone in Southeast Asia as a factor that facilitated the economic integration of ASEAN member states.

In the case of the SAARC, the signing of free trade protocols under the SAFTA agreement has been faced with several tariff and non-tariff barriers. Although both SASRC and ASEAN member states face unique challenges that affect trading within these organizations, it can be said that, unlike the SAARC, the ASEAN economic integration model has been far successful in promoting trade amongst its member states. For the SAARC, the liberalization of the economies of SAFTA signatories has been a crucial challenge. On the other hand, ASEAN has made notable progress with regards to trade liberalization, policy alignments, and intra-regional trade among Southeast Asian nations.

The specific trade liberalization challenges faced by the SAARC member states include concerns over SAFTA revenue allocation from member states, restrictive rules of origin, and negative sensitive lists. The sensitive lists adopted by SAARC member states have proven to be a significant hurdle to exportation amongst SAARC member states. This has particularly made it difficult for exports from small member states of the SAARC to enter into large markets such as India and Pakistan. Having failed to grant the application of  most favored nation (MFN) status that would have seen a significant reduction in the sensitive lists maintained by both countries, trade between these two regional powers has been problematic over the years. Notably, the trading commodities that are in the sensitive lists of a majority of the SAFTA member states have high export potential. Despite the various commitments made by SAFTA member states, countries continue to maintain long sensitive lists hence the dismal performance of SAFTA. 

In the case of ASEAN, the establishment of the AFTA agreement has provided ASEAN member states with a platform to exploit their export potential. The AFTA agreement has boosted the economies of ASEAN countries through its trade liberalization policies. AFTA has also entered into several free trade agreements with regional powers such as Australia, China, South Korea, India, and Japan. The ASEAN countries are now focused on creating an Economic Community for their member states. Notably, several countries have shown interest in being a part of the proposed ASEAN Economic Community.

It should however be noted that the massive success achieved by ASEAN’S AFTA as opposed to SAARC’s SAFTA is not flawless. For example, although ASEAN has made significant steps in eliminating tariff barriers amongst AFTA member states, Non-tariff barriers are still a key challenge to the AFTA agreement. However, when analyzing the progress made by ASEAN’s AFTA since its formation, the achievements and evolution are undeniable. ASEAN was formed in an era when interstate relations amongst Southeast Asian countries were characterized by political mistrust and strained interstate relations. Years later, the organization has succeeded in unifying its member states for a common course, an aspect that the SAARC still struggles with. 

Way Forward

If SAFTA is to become more effective and emulate AFTA’s success, the myriad of issues mentioned above needs to be addressed. First, downsizing the sensitive lists of countries in a time-bound manner will be necessary. Secondly, the issue of para tariffs needs to be squarely addressed. A starting point could be to reduce and accelerate the elimination of para tariffs on items not on sensitive lists and include para tariffs in SAFTA negotiations. Also, the non-tariff barriers to trade facing SAFTA member states need to be equally addressed like the tariff barriers. Finally, strengthening economic relations can be used to reinforce improving political relations in the region, particularly between India and Pakistan. To an extent, the success of ASEAN in achieving effective economic integration and its experience can be used as an external driver of SAARC and its SAFTA agreement.

About the author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’

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Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic

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This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.

Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.

Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.

During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.

It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.

Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.

Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.

After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.

This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.

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