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In pursuit of a multi-ethnic Sri Lankan singularity

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By Kusum Wijetilleke
(kusumw@gmail.com)
Twitter: @kusumw

The mainstream media’s obsession with the re-entry to Parliament of Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) betrays an unsophisticated effort at constructing a narrative of an ineffective Opposition Party. What these contributions are actually alluding to is that RW’s seat signals a weakness in the Opposition. A missing X-factor, if you prefer; something the returning former PM is meant to solve. On the face of it, the proposition seems ridiculous, but is nonetheless still being propagated.

History suggests that RW never seemed to understand the aspirations of the rural masses that his UNP so callously abandoned. Perhaps he never appreciated the electorate’s genuine concern for the future of the country’s unitary structure and what it represents in the collective consciousness of the Sinhala-Buddhist working class and working poor. The gravitational centre of RW’s political capital, amongst the elites of Colombo and minority parties, consistently alienated large swathes of the majority.

Intellectuals of all stripes did their utmost to paint RW’s aspirations for, and interpretations of, the 13th Amendment as guaranteeing the unitary state. Actions speak louder than words and try as he did, RW was never able to convince the masses of his integrity on this critical issue. Every time RW repeated his desire to work within the 13th Amendment, preserving a unitary state whilst further devolving powers; the only thing the electorate heard was a call for a “federal state”, a model that has always been a poisoned chalice. The word ‘Federal’ is simplified for the base by RW’s opponents, pointing correctly to the fact that it weakens the centre. A Centre which must represent the majority and is seen by it as a guard-rail to prevent the national train from terminating at a station in Chennai.

 

From Neo-Liberalism to Social Democracy

As the decades ticked by, while RW remained rooted to his ideals, the electorate was moving past the politics of devolution. Their minds seemingly solidified around the project of a unified centre as opposed to the devolved structure which Nationalists fear would embolden reactionary, separatist elements within minority parties.

Those paying attention noticed the lack of upward social mobility amongst their classes and the dilapidation of their neighbourhoods and villages. They woke up to the reality that political structures aside, their children’s lives and those of their grand-children’s would be indistinguishable from their own. They saw in RW and the UNP, the same playbook from decades past, the same internationalist considerations and pandering to elitist liberal voting blocks of Colombo’s plush suburbs. They continuously chose the alternative, whether it was the top-down neo-liberalism of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the nationalist state-capitalism of Mahinda Rajapaksa or the ethno-majoritarian militarization of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The more vital project to build a multi-ethnic consciousness; a Sri Lankan singularity, was lost in RW’s confused maze of constitutional devolution. RW, struck by the realisation that he could not win this debate at home, went abroad to preach to and from British and European choirs.

The former PM has still not understood that the holy grail of a trans-cultural Sri Lankan consciousness is unviable if the majority remains so deeply insecure.

What does all this say about the current position and future direction of the SJB as the main Opposition Party? To the relief of many, the SJB has steered clear of some aspects of the UNP playbook. Sajith Premadasa (SP) is widely seen as to the left of RW, more in the tradition of D.S. Senanayake’s agrarianism and commitment to welfare.

On economic policy, the SJB seems to have the broad strokes of the Keynesian New Deal and Sajith Premadasa even alluded to this, specifically name-checking FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) at a campaign event in Bataramulla during the Presidential campaign of 2019. Some of the ‘ideologues’ within the SJB, specifically MP Eran Wickramaratne and Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, could be associated with the economic policies of social democracy.

The Sri Lankan economy with its laundry list of structural weaknesses and a history of madness and mismanagement, requires its own list of solutions. Yet, more pressing for the SJB will be to stake its position on the national issue and this, one suspects, is where RW’s attempted intervention is targeted at.

 

Populism of the Progressive Centre

The former PM thrives in a circular firing squad of his own making; part of his modus operandi for decades. Whilst he astutely dodges fire, his colleagues take pot-shots at one another, leading to an inevitable truce carefully negotiated by RW himself. The SJB should refuse this bait. Whatever ideological differences exist within its major factions, they are far removed from the ‘Ranilism’ of the UNP and the confused Right-Wing Authoritarianism of the SLPP.

The challenge for the SJB is to cast aside the ghost of the UNP’s failed project of political devolution and embarrassing capitulations to even the mildest international pressure.

How? Many commentators have opined that the SJB must occupy the ‘progressive centre’ which might sound like an oxymoron at first, but upon further investigation appears apt. Progressive in policy but never stretching itself too far from the true centre of the polity (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/why-sajiths-sjb-ranils-unp-are-quite-distinct-and-sajiths-is-the-already-existing-progressive-center/).

Herein lies an opportunity to move beyond the politics of decades past and re-position the consensus. The Easter Attacks created a seismic shift in the political landscape. The emergence of Islamism and the possibility that it was homegrown came as a shock to many, not least within Sri Lanka’s diverse Muslim community. There was a collective gasp from Sri Lankans of varying backgrounds as news trickled down in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks of an alleged “Sharia” University in Batticaloa (https://www.sundaytimes.lk/190505/news/mystery-shrouds-batticaloas-shariah-campus-348098.html).

This brought even sharper focus on the ‘Arabization’ and ‘balkanization’ of the Eastern Province which has now been etched into the psyche of the majority, feeding their fears of cultural invasion and oppression by foreign interference. It seems the Easter Attacks were the result of too much religious freedom, or at the very least, lax regulation in the teaching of religious doctrine. Zahran and his cohorts were able to freely preach Wahabi/ Salafist Islamism under the guise of religious expression, to corrupt and manipulate a mass of Sri Lankans with theocratic nonsense. Did increased autonomy produce the conditions that led to the Easter attacks? (https://colombogazette.com/2020/07/05/pm-warns-against-becoming-prisoners-of-circumstances).

The psychological impact aside; the aforementioned balkanization led to tangible devastation on that fateful Easter Sunday. Queue the soul searching driven by post-Easter SLPP ethno-nationalist rhetoric which reinvigorated nativist elements within the country providing them with a glimpse of their worst fears. The innate insecurity of the majority is perfectly encapsulated by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s: “…the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines? … I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside” (The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity- Harshana Rambukwella).

A Premadasa New Deal and Marshall Plan

The SJB must ensure it does not honour the UNP’s tradition of demonizing voters of the Government, casting them as racists or nativists. One is reminded of Hillary Clintons “basket of deplorables” or Barack Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion”. The opposition voter is not the villain of the piece; address their anxieties and take seriously the values they hold dear.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has already made the ‘progressive case’ for the SJB and Mr. Sajith Premadasa. Far from being an ideological, utopian framework, progressivism can only thrive within the boundaries of populism. (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/why-sajiths-sjb-ranils-unp-are-quite-distinct-and-sajiths-is-the-already-existing-progressive-center/).

There is also a dependable anti-provincial-council consensus shared by the majoritarian segment of the electorate. Factions within the SLPP openly discuss the abolition of provincial councils. These are political instincts of the right that the emergent new left of Sri Lanka must urgently acquire. (https://island.lk/gevindu-insists-on-abolishing-provincial-councils-under-new-constitution/).

The SJB may not yet be sufficiently self-confident, but should it seek to prove its progressive credentials, it may opt to do so by challenging moderate Tamil politicians to take Federalism off the negotiating table once and for all. Presenting a proposition to either reform or recalibrate the Provincial Council system.

Yes there are contentions surrounding executive powers granted to the Councils, but any meaningful de-politicization of this PC system, bringing it in line with the national objectives of the centre, will reassure the insecure majority that their guard rails are in place. If Provincial Councils do not fall in line with national objectives, Sri Lanka will never find a singular purposeful path to advanced statehood and a modern economy. Thus, without reaching advanced statehood, all attempts at a devolved structure of governance will remain at least several decades in the future.

The emergence of a younger generation of politicians rising up the ranks of the TNA and affiliated parties should provide fresh impetus. Youth that is unburdened with the heavy baggage of the 13th Amendment, unlike their forefathers.

P.K. Balachandran makes this point, referring to results from the General Election; “The polls in the Northern Province showed that Tamil extremism is on the wane, although some pro-LTTE radicals like Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C. V. Wigneswaran won. The bulk of the seats was won by the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) fighting under the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s “House” symbol. The elections in the North also showed that the Tamils now want economic development, besides federalism. This is seen in the success of the pro-government EPDP (2 seats) and the SLFP (1 seat)” (http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/69846).

 

A Grand Bargain

What might the SJB provide in return to the Indo-US axis, the nationalist elements and the Jaffna centric elites of the TNA and beyond? Power (money) and purpose (development).

The SJB could announce a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A program of development planned and implemented by the people of those provinces through their elected representatives and appointed councilors. This would complement the “New Deal” aspirations alluded to by the Opposition Leader.

Such a project will dilute foreign claims of systemic oppression of these provinces. It could counter the Buddhist clergy with the allocation of funds from this Marshall Plan towards restoring the Stupas of these provinces or any other purpose deemed necessary to tame the Asgiriya Chapter.

Perhaps a long over-due ‘National Day of Mourning’ to mark the anti-Tamil pogroms of past decades and an admission of the failures of the State to protect its people. Why not a program of targeted reparations towards those that lost loved ones and livelihoods to those pogroms, failing which, a simple, earnest national apology? Now, would that not be progressive? Part of the funding for this Marshall Plan, however small, must come from the annual defense budget. A symbolic gesture of goodwill.

The SJB must seek to alienate not just the reactionary elements of the SLPP but also the separatist elements within minority parties if it is to truly occupy a progressive centre. The ultimate goal is to neutralize the narrative and blunt the tools of the UNHRC and allied multi-lateral machinations, truly exposing their imperialist double standards.

Any number of possibilities emerge when RW is absent from the negotiating table. The SJB has every opportunity to bury the ghosts of neo-liberalism, ushering in a progressive, populist and above all, patriotic pursuit of multi-ethnic plurality, led by a Premadasa.



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Opinion

We are tired of politicians’ sick jokes

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By Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

The country is in dire straits. The economy is almost bankrupt, the pandemic is still on a deadly rampage, children have been denied schooling for nearly two years, and starvation of the populace is imminent. The politicians appear to be on a mission to enrich themselves, planning to make the best use of the opportunity, making hay while the sun shines. All systems are in place for those who fleeced the country over the years to prosper further.

Many businessmen, mostly cronies of those in power, are exploiting the misery of the people and profiteering from the pandemic. Some in tourism and related-travel industry, hoteliers, importers of pandemic-related material like testing equipment and drugs, others in private healthcare and importers and wholesale dealers of essential food items seem to be making more money than during normal times. This is when large sections of the populace are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. How in a predominantly Buddhist country, mostly Buddhist businessmen, let alone equally errant non-Buddhists, do not appear to believe in Kamma and keep on accumulating wealth, exploiting the misery of the people, with a ‘we shall never die’ attitude, is really depressing. In the apparent absence of legal provisions or lack of willingness of the authorities to apprehend the culprits, the masses are just hoping and praying that the effects of Ditta Dhamma Vedaniya Kamma will catch up to them sooner than later.

In the middle of all this, many politicians of all hues compete among themselves to amuse people with miserable jokes. Several ministers habitually give hilarious evasive answers to questions raised about important matters, thus exposing their gross ignorance of the subject. A suggestion was offered that mass scale deaths of fish, turtles and other marine life along the coastline after the recent fire in a sinking ship was just an expected seasonal phenomenon. Yet another minister talking of the same ship thought that rather than attempting to douse the fire, it would be far more profitable to let it burn out fully so that millions of dollars could be collected as compensation. Another, a medically qualified minister, claimed that the price of drugs was raised to prevent patients from hoarding drugs at home. He also blamed the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA), the authority responsible, for delaying the vaccination programme by wasting too much time examining the documents without summarily approving the vaccines. Yet another parliamentarian, a lawyer by profession, suggested that the disorderly vaccine rollout was probably as instructed by the ‘donor’ country. A politician thought it was a good idea to bring in tourists from a country ravaged by COVID-19 to test how the disease would spread in our country. Another famously questioned why we need atmospheric oxygen at all while defending the wanton denudation of the land of vegetation. A former parliamentarian boasted of the leader of his party being accepted worldwide as a great man soon after he was totally rejected and reduced to a non-entity by the local electorate.

Another classic example is the recent gazette notification of over 600-strong list of items that will be discouraged from being imported. There are many items listed therein, a shortage of which could seriously affect the economy and could bring many industries to a standstill. However, the politicians have given full attention to lingerie. Even the Minister of Trade hurriedly summoned a press conference along with some garment manufacturers to reassure that the country is self-sufficient in underwear. The Opposition too probably fell into the trap laid by the government to divert attention from more important items therein and started making fun out of the lingerie issue totally ignoring the much more serious aspects of import restrictions. There seems to be a bunch of designated official jesters on both sides fully entrusted with entertaining the people with sick jokes. They turn every important discussion into a huge laughing matter, insulting the intelligence of the people. Even social media are full of such meaningless banter with hardly any serious discussion on matters of vital importance.

Thus in many instances being academically qualified does not seem to dampen their penchant for speaking falsehoods with ridiculous humour. The glaring lack of common sense among the representatives of the people is alarming. The general assumption seems to be that people are fools who will believe anything uttered by self-serving politicians. Unfortunately, this notion appears to be true for a significant segment of the electorate. At present, politicians are not accountable for their deeds and words. Ideally, party leaders or party whips should have some control over their utterances.

It is the general impression that the incumbent government elected, with an overwhelming mandate, is falling short in fulfilling many promises given. Hence it is high time that those offering themselves to the people as a viable alternative got their act together to convince the electors that they are a different lot capable of performing better than what has been happening for over 70 years. For those who had been in power earlier with nothing much achieved to boast about, this is going to be an arduous task. The people have lost faith totally in politicians, including the so-called educated ones (viyathun) who have proved to be mere treasure hunters no better than the rest, or even worse as they have no experience in governance. Perhaps the civil society activist groups should come to the forefront, to save us all from impending disaster.

Ideally, all parties or groups aspiring to gain power should have a long-term development plan. There should be designated spokesmen already academically qualified or have developed an in-depth knowledge in individual subjects like economy, finance, trade, healthcare, agriculture, industries and foreign affairs. Being a practising democracy, at least in name, all should be knowledgeable and free to express their views on various issues to some extent. However, those designated as above should take over when a crisis develops in a particular field so that the electorate can take part in a learned discussion and arrive at sensible conclusions. It is worth considering whether the concept of a shadow Cabinet as seen in advanced democracies could be adopted here so that if and when they come to power, they know exactly what their mandate and targets would be.

Politicians trying to surpass each other as jesters entertaining people with meaningless rhetoric will reduce the intensity, urgency and importance of the issues, making a mockery of the discussion. Concerted action is essential for a course correction the nation urgently needs to stall its rapid descent into oblivion.

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Opinion

Keep up with your record of service

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Letter to PM Mahinda Rajapaksa:

Dear Comrade, As I am sure you would recall, it was over 50 years ago that we first met, when you were making your first successful run for Parliament, and I was tallying the vote count for Beliatta.

I have been impressed by your commitment, from early days, to justice in the land of Palestine, a subject to which I, too, have drawn attention from time to time.

Though we have met occasionally in the intervening years, it was only in the mid-1990s that I actually worked with you, when you were the Minister of Labour and Vocational Training. The hostility that the then Prime Minister had towards you, happened to cover her view of me as well, and you decided to have me develop the infrastructure for our technical education system. Among the outcomes of that, credit for which should be shared by you, are the revision for the first time of the course materials (all in English and in a dialect favoured by foreign experts) that the National Institute of Technical Education provided our Technical Colleges, and making them available in Sinhala for the use of lecturers and students alike. It was also during that period that Parliament was offered the opportunity of debating at length and of endorsing the compendium of Labour Laws that were , and still are, applicable here.

I mention such matters as elements of what would be remembered long after your passing.

Needless to say, there are more spectacular achievements during your stewardship, not least among them the protection of our country from terrorists, trained and armed by India and ensuring their ultimate defeat.

The common theme of such development of our resources, as was encouraged by you, had to do with their protection for future use by the generations to come.

You also showed from time to time an instinctive gift for recognising the strength of the public services, and the skills required for putting them to optimal use.

Looking around now, what we see are attempts at destroying our resource base not only in land, water, minerals and the like, but as importantly our human resources – those in regular employment in whatever sector including the self-employed. Critical to that of course is that we continue to control the resources on which our agriculture, manufacturing industries and fisheries rely. General education is seen as the linchpin in all this but, as you were able to perceive some three decades ago, we need to invest more on developing teaching skills and facilities for practical training in the broad area of technical education.

I also write to draw your attention to the spectacle of some Ministers in your administration, erupting from time to time with highly misleading statements that target public institutions, including the personnel in the public services.

Some months ago, it was said that we spend more on our postal services than we earn. (Where in the world is it different? – the postal service is just that, a service provided for the people by the State). Such statements show that what is being targeted is not the postal service but the ‘real estate’ required by it.

Mr. Prime Minister, there are as you would know or suspect, a whole badawela of tendentious statements issued by some of your Ministers that would lead to or themselves constitute acts of treason against our country. To put it in short-hand, one is ‘tourism’. It continues to take away our sea shore from our people. It is given a whole slew of subsidies (paid for by our people) and no guarantees of it bringing in “VFE” – Valuable Foreign Exchange) or any scrutiny of how much. And, after all our contributions to making tourists and their service providers grin from ear to ear, we the State gets much less VFE than our expatriate workers send in each month.

Another is ‘plantations’. But the fact is that company owned plantations in Nuwara-Eliya and adjacent districts produce only a fourth of our tea – the bulk is produced in small holdings in the Galle, Matara, Kalutara and Kegalle districts.

A few days ago, the sale or lease of over 4000 acres in the hill country (that was denuded of much of its topsoil by the plantation industry) for raising cattle was announced. We the people have not been told who the beneficiaries of such largesse are or how they were chosen. The conditions attached to the deals have been kept secret. It does not seem to matter to such decision makers / decision takers, that the farming communities that were hounded out by the British lusting for what was once among the richest lands in the country, remain locked into ravines.

There are moves to bring in large machinery to crush our rock for export.

All such moves could be brought under control through, say, by small groups of MPs who possess the capacity to brief themselves.

Comrade, as you and I understand, the 50 years we have known each other is a tiny sliver of time. How you are remembered may not be in your hands, but it would be good to reflect on the saying that suggests that we should bear in mind the good that people have done, and bury the rest with their bones.

As time passes it would give perspective to recall Gautama’s words on the state of all life: jati-jara-marana.

With warm good wishes.

GAMINI SENEVIRATNE

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Opinion

Yohani – not our Manike?

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It is very heartening to hear that both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader of India have expressed their appreciation of the song Manike mage hithe, sung by the local artiste Yohani de Silva, which had gone viral in this part of the world.

Sadly, neither the government nor the Opposition bigwigs of Sri Lanka have congratulated her in the media, taking into consideration the vast amount of foreign exchange she is bringing into this country.

Indrasena Samaratunga

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