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Liberal dogmatism and Sri Lanka’s future

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by Uditha Devapriya

At the height of the first wave last year, the JVP and the FSP requested the government to look to Kerala. Led by the Communist Party, the Kerala administration responded well to the virus, deploying State resources and ensuring no one was left behind. It was a litmus test of what governments ought to do during a public health crisis. Although Colombo opted for a different strategy that combined army officials with medical professionals, the second, third, and fourth waves have made us realise the flaws of sticking to it dogmatically.

Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia, as well as the MPs they are attached to, predictably focused more on the West. In Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the tensions it generated, they saw a confirmation of their worst fears. Yet while prognosticating about the dangers of populist politics at a time of a pandemic, very few of them acknowledged that left-of-centre and leftist administrations, Kerala included, had handled it better than most. Indeed, they even failed to note that Jacinda Arden, heroine of countless liberal narratives here and elsewhere, hailed from a centre-left administration.

Supporters of the present government have of course been disdainful of socialist and liberal concerns and recommendations. Thus, they have been as contemptuous of Kerala’s record as they have of Arden’s. Although the government’s handling of the pandemic has obviously seen better days, they stick adamantly to their belief that, as the president himself put it, he and his men are doing it the best. Even if they admit to the flaws of the government’s plans, they would point out that the virus does not always respond to the measures that countries like Kerala have enforced, and that, in many ways, we have performed better.

While the regime has downplayed liberal concerns and socialist recommendations, its liberal critics have been no less apathetic about the latter. This is to be expected. Liberalism in Sri Lanka has almost always been in the economic domain, not the social. Calling for reductions in government intervention, Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia has, for the most, been blind or myopic to the contradiction between their economic paradigms and the social discontent those paradigms have generated elsewhere. That is why you hardly come across free market ideologues mentioning Kerala much less commending it, and why they praise New Zealand’s pandemic response only on the grounds of its leader’s gender.

These ideologues continue to spin their narratives about the need for lesser governments and greater globalisation, failing to note that it is in countries where states have taken less proactive measures that have yielded higher cases and fatalities. It is also in regions worst affected by vaccine inequalities, a result of untrammelled globalisation, that have produced and continue to produce viral variants, perpetuating the pandemic and thereby reinforcing those inequalities even more. Anyone who thinks that globalisation and integration can save us from the pandemic, accordingly, is only seeing half the picture. Clearly, for the virus as for the economy in general, a different paradigm is the call of the hour.

Western governments have already realised this. For all its flaws, Joe Biden’s economic programme is taking the US back to the New Deal days. In the run up to the elections last year, Jake Sullivan rang the alarm on neoliberalism, calling it a failed policy. Even though I am sceptical about whether Washington can pull off a New New Deal, it is true, as a recent interview in Jacobin puts it, that Biden is emphasising a bigger role for the State. In foreign policy his administration remains as predictable as ever. But during a pandemic of this scale, domestic policies are what count more. Hence, while clearly not socialist, the president and his men have committed themselves to a new, different programme.

Yet Sri Lanka’s political liberals, who are in reality economic liberals, remain blind to these developments. Then again, they remain blind to the link between the sort of policies they advocate and the discontent those policies have provoked. They also choose to ignore how the countries they look up to have gone back on those policies.

Despite its Third Way Giddensian roots, the Democratic Party understood the rightwing surge which decades of neoliberal globalisation had unleashed in the American heartland. Though stopping short of conceiving a radical programme, the younger, more progressive part rank-and-filers realised that continuing with such policies, and placing their advocates at the helm, would damage their prospects for an electoral comeback. Revisiting, revising, and revamping old strategies, they adopted new tactics which could win them working and middle class constituencies, without caving into the rightwing fringe.

I don’t know why Sri Lanka’s liberals don’t get this, but I can guess. Among the themes that Rajiva Wijesinha explores in his fascinating book Representing Sri Lanka is what he calls “the death of liberal Sri Lanka.” The title is tongue-in-cheek: he’s not talking about what liberals in the country dread, namely the rise of authoritarian regimes and specifically those led by the Rajapaksas, but what they ought to be dreading, namely the death of liberalism among liberal ranks. Wijesinha is characteristically candid about how liberals operate in the country now. In particular, he points to three developments within Colombo’s liberal and intellectual circles: the tribalism entrenched in their organisations, their affiliations with individuals one just cannot associate with, and their obeisance to foreign interests.

Wijesinha reveals how the very same liberal institutions set up to counter authoritarianism ended up going back on their foundational tenets. This has largely been on account of the presumption, ridiculous to me and I believe to Wijesinha himself, that to be a liberal in Sri Lanka is to be a card-carrying member of the United National Party.

Of course, the UNP remains the only national party allied with the International Democratic Union, that very distinguished organisation which has, to the best of my knowledge, failed to see or note the contradiction between the UNP’s commitment to the tenets of liberal democracy and its strangling of them within the party hierarchy. Yet, even more ironic have been the hosannas lavished on it by self-defined liberal cosmopolitans, a point Dr Wijesinha notes in his devastating unravelling of their paymasters, associates, and acolytes. Underlying his critique from the perspective of a saner liberalism, he strikes a deeply regretful note. His reading of these developments does not make for happy reading, though I think it should be read, for the simple reason that no one else has written on those developments.

Perhaps the biggest mistake any political commentator in Sri Lanka can make is to define himself or herself negatively in relation to the rightwing fringe. Yet self-defined liberals, who would probably not be classed as liberals elsewhere, insist on describing themselves as such on account of their opposition to (predominantly Sinhala) nationalist politics. Here, as I have mentioned several times in this column, they fail to distinguish between their championing of economic freedom on the one hand and their tacit acceptance of a government that can “bring about” such freedom, even at the cost of civil liberties, on the other. This is hardly the ideology espoused by the likes of Chanaka Amaratunga and Rajiva Wijesinha, but it is in line with the sort supported by their less than brilliant successors.

The bottom line to all this is that nationalists of the most tribalist sort are no different to liberals of the most tribalist sort. Unfortunately for the country, nationalists and liberals alike tend to be more tribalist than most, a point that might come as a surprise for those who associate nationalism with its worst excesses, yet compare it favourably with liberal politics of whatever persuasion. It does not take one much, however, to realise that both have been caving into the same kind of insularity, which lends credence to the point I have made frequently in this column about neoliberals and neoconservatives occupying the same space. Indeed, to rethink Benjamin Barber’s very flawed essay, McWordlists have become the provocateurs and, inadvertently, fellow travellers of the Jihadists.

I don’t see why we have to continue with such a state of affairs. As recent developments in Chile, Peru, and Mexico show, dissatisfaction with rightwing neoliberalism and centre-left reformism has fed into radical formations offering alternatives to both. While many of these formations express an antipathy to politics of all shades, as René Rojas in a recent piece to Jacobin Magazine puts it, it is when the Left has banded together, without letting itself be splintered on personal and factional lines, it has been able to organise the broadest possible resistance against authoritarian regimes and their purported oppositions.

Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitans just don’t possess this kind of moral firepower, partly because they have become toothless against more powerful political movements and ideologies, but also because they themselves have, while opposing the prospect of a Rajapaksa presidency, contributed to a state of affairs which made such a prospect possible. Of course, Sri Lanka’s liberal and left-liberal circles continue to regurgitate old ideas, proving themselves to be no better than their nationalist-populist counterparts. Yet rising social discontent, and dissent, threatens to render their best laid plans insignificant, if not irrelevant. Far from bemoaning such a development, I think we should pay close attention to it.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Politics

President’s Dinner for his Old Comrades

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The President and Commander in Chief HE Gotabaya Rajapakse invited 186 of his old military comrades and their ladies for dinner at President’s House on Dec. 22, 2021. For a media that lives on gossip, this was manna.

A Sunday paper (not the Island) on 26 Dec reported the invitees numbered 1,050.The figure was specific. Many readers were, as expected, duped to believe it. Added on was that ‘drinks’ too were served as though that was news. No detailed description of the menu was given as has happened before for reasons that will be a revelation. Was it to show profligacy which was news? The Sunday Island of Dec. 2, 2021 had a news item by Dayan Jayatilleka that went one better. He increased the figure to a smarter 1,090. Those made a lie look like the truth. It was meant to be so. No questions were asked as to sources.

The Dec. 26 Sunday paper also had a dig at the organizers. Apparently a few had turned down the invitation. That was curious as the invitations were sent only to those who confirmed verbal enquiries as to their attendance. It may have been that after accepting the invitation a few old sweats, officers and gentlemen it is said they had been, were churlish enough to avoid attendance at the C in C’s dinner. Were they the same fellows, who being absent from the scene, did the counting of heads too?

Jayatilleka went further. He thought there was something odd if not sinister in the exercise. He believed 1,090 ‘senior military men, serving and retired’ attended. He asked readers not to continue reading if they did not believe that the invitations had been sent with some ulterior motive. The suggestion was that the dinner was not a ‘sociable, benign gesture of a year-end party’. It obviously worried him that good and normal men in SL would have thought differently and questioned the assumption.

To begin with his facts were absolutely cock eyed. The cooked figures he had been served (1,090) by someone who was possibly not at the dinner, clearly supported his fertile imagination. He probably thought a mere 186 officers at dinner would not be enough to invent a rollicking fairy tale.

The only serving officers present were the tri services commanders. With their spouses a round figure of 400 invitees could have been closer to the truth. All the others were veterans aged 70 years and above, some disabled. A few were 90 years old and were in wheel chairs.

Now what did Jayatilleka a former minister in the EPRLF that was a IPKF stooge that made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the late1990s, think the doddering old and but still bold 186 could have been up to? It certainly helped to propel his latest onslaughts on the fanciful ‘militarization’ of the nation. Was it also to mark up points with the West, just in case?

So how did the ‘gala’ dinner go? First of all male guests in smart casual (tie), and their ladies in sarees, arrived well in time as is the norm among servicemen. They were given antigen tests by a team of medics before gathering in the manicured garden where the military bands played some lively music.

Old comrades reminisced with their friends, many after decades and two years of Covid. Everyone was refreshingly relaxed. Many recalled long forgotten incidents, hilarious mishaps mostly, and extraordinary characters they served with. Many heroes were present but stories of daring and battle were not recounted here. The missing was not forgotten.

As at any military social function, not a word of politics was heard. No one pulled rank. When the C in C came and graciously mixed with his guests, all older than him, no one in the best of service traditions and etiquette forgot who he, the C in C, was. He knew and called all of them by their first names. He seemed as happy as his guests were, to meet simply as old comrades, exchange greetings and enjoy themselves. There were no speeches.

A splendid buffet dinner followed.

Here was the first old soldier who had become the elected President and C in C of SL. He was now among old friends. They all thanked and wished him and his lady the very best in the challenging year to come.

People who will never know what military comradeship is should not waste their time trying to question the motives of a C in C in inviting his old comrades to dinner. It was the first ever in SL history. There was nothing ‘gala’ either, as anyone who was inveigled by his ‘informant’ may have believed. Such people should try not to judge others by their standards, be mean and gullible and should not to circulate worn out tales or have recurring nightmares about ‘militarization’.

Old soldiers never die; they only fade away, even from the President’s House. God only knows what happens to mercenaries and tale carriers.

Dinner guest

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Politics

DE-CODING THE AKD-JVP-NPP RELATIONSHIP

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

The JVP-NPP is prominent in the struggle against the presidential system–while permitting speculation that Anura Kumara Dissanayake will be the presidential candidate—and in the vanguard in the struggle against corruption.

Whether it realizes it or not, it is being hypocritical—not because of that duality–and so too are those who support them on those grounds.

The reason is simple and self-evident. Whether one is against the presidential system as such, or whether one is against the 20th amendment while being for the Presidential system, the reason is the same: the critique of over-centralization. To spell it out, the objection is too much power and too many functions in the hands of a single person and the remedy is seen as the separation of powers, which makes for check and balances.

In its practice, the JVP-NPP runs completely against that principle.

The next ‘signature issue’ is corruption. There too, the principle is the same: if one person holds more than one post and there is a possible conflict of interest, that is the potential source of corruption. Here too, the crux of the matter is that one person should not head several institutional or organization spaces. Interlocking directorates are the conduit of corruption. I am not accusing the JVP-NPP of corruption, but of violating the principle of safeguards or guardrails against overlapping and over-concentration.

The NPP was not founded by non-party activists or those of many political parties. Still less was it formed by academics. It was founded by Anura Kumara Dissanayake in 2015.

The NPP is not led by a non-party personality. It is led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake who founded it.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the leader of the JVP. He was the leader of the JVP when he established the NPP, and remains the leader of the JVP.

It is reasonable to assume that as the JVP’s leader, rather than merely a JVP member or second-level leader, Mr. Dissanayake would have founded the NPP as part of the JVP’s strategic vision.

Insofar as the NPP is the creation of the JVP’s leader, the NPP is the child of the JVP.

Latin American Left

The JVP has almost always had phases in which it had personalities and mass organization to which it gave a long leash. Indika Gunawardena and Sunila Abeysekara are two examples but not the only ones. Perhaps a more important one is HN Fernando the politically highly literate leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union which he had built up into a 30,000 strong organization. All of them were purged from the party when views that dissented from the changing party line, were voiced. (HN Fernando, who was Wijeweera’s brother-in-law was physically assaulted).

These seem to me the earlier prototypes of what is now manifested as the NPP. The NPP seems to me to be a new model of the same old template: a front organization of fellow-travelers.

If the NPP were to be an autonomous civic or mass organization or more ambitiously the formation which should be recognized as a contender to lead the country, the Latin American Left provides the architecture.

Uruguay’s Tupamaros and its Communist Party founded the Frente Amplio, the Broad Front, which lasted from the early 1970s through the decades of military dictatorship, to this day. The first leader of the Frente Amplio who remained so for many years, was General Liber Seregni, not the MLN-Tupamaro leader Raul Sendic nor the Uruguayan CP’s leader Rodney Arismendi.

In El Salvador, the revolutionary vanguard unified as the FMLN, with its politico-diplomatic partner being the Frente Democratico Revolutionario, the FDR. None of the FMLN’s leaders headed the FDR.

That is the model by which the autonomy of the civic front is ensured. In the case of the NPP, it is headed, not even by a JVP personality like Nalinda Jayatissa or Bimal Ratnayake, still less a respected progressive activist, intellectual or cultural-artistic figure but precisely by the top leader of the JVP.

As a disciplined leader who is committed to the strategy and decisions of the JVP, there is hardly a structural possibility of genuine autonomy for and on the part of the NPP.

Political Culture: Falsification & Opacity

A great many of us watched as Anura Kumara Dissanayake repeatedly emphasized on national TV that Kumara Gunaratnam was never a member of the JVP. Quiet apart from the insult to the memory of Ranjithan Gunaratnam, a real hero and martyr of the JVP leadership, it was a plain lie because it was widely known that Kumara Gunaratnam played the major role in rebuilding the JVP clandestinely after the repression was over.

The post 1994 JVP was built upon the foundation laid by Kumara Gunaratnam whom Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the nation was never a member of the party.

A few years ago, after Kumara Gunaratnam had been ‘disappeared’ and tortured in 2011, and was released only due to external lobbying and the intervention of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a throw-away public remark in response to Anura Kumara’s criticism of him on an entirely different matter, that the crackdown on Gunaratnam and his emerging new outfit (it wasn’t called Peratugamee at the time) was made on an alert from the same quarter that was now criticizing him. There was no answer from AKD.

If anything, a left alternative must occupy the moral high ground, and not only in its own eyes. The historical truth is the only path to the moral high ground.

None of this is meant as an indictment of or attack on Anura Kumara as a person. It speaks to the discourse, the political culture of the JVP and its opacity. The denial of Kumara Gunaratnam, his removal from the annals of the JVP, the sheer falsification of history, tells us what the JVP still is. This travesty is not something that has occurred, would occur or could occur in any other political party in Sri Lanka. The JVP was and is a party which is the most opaque in Sri Lanka.

It is the same Anura Kumara who leads the same JVP who also founded and leads the NPP.

Therefore, any influence that the NPP has on the JVP will be secondary, episodic and tactical, while the JVP’s influence over the NPP will be strategic and structural. The tail won’t be wagging the dog.

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Politics

Foreign exchange, foreign policy, and economic roundtables

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by Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lanka’s Central Bank will be settling a USD 500 million bond the day after tomorrow. Earlier this month, Ajith Nivard Cabraal tweeted that the Bank had set aside the required amount from its foreign reserves, reiterating the country’s commitment to honouring its debt obligations. Perhaps in response to this development, bondholders appear to have regained confidence about our prospects: latest figures show that bond market prices are converging with face value, though this may well be a temporary gain.

The January 18 settlement is the first of two that will have to be made to our International Sovereign Bond (ISB) holders this year. The second, amounting to USD one billion, is due on July 25. The Central Bank’s strategy is one of doubling down on these debt obligations while renegotiating loans from other governments. This strategy isn’t as muddled up as it is made to be by its critics: unlike governments, ISB holders don’t negotiate, and if they are asked to, it’s usually on the eve of a default or severe economic crisis.

In strategising a way out, then, the Central Bank has identified its priorities: it will pay up on its ISB commitments and devote foreign exchange to little else.

It’s difficult to predict how that will affect our foreign relations in the longer term. The country is presently governed by a party that promised never to sell or lease out its assets. Yet, today, officials are travelling everywhere, negotiating with this government and that, hoping for more lifelines. We have clearly exhausted other options: we can’t raise anything from bond auctions, and we are rejecting the IMF line. Since governments are easier to talk with, we are hence talking with as many of them as possible. It’s doubtful whether this is the only option available, but it’s probably the best shot we can give.

In giving that shot, however, are we exposing ourselves to the pressures of regional and extra-regional power pressures? Consider the countries we have gone to so far: Oman, China, and India. Negotiations with India have been successful, with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar stating that Delhi is ready to stand with Sri Lanka. Though his government has remained quiet over requests for credit lines, these may well come our way.

On the other hand, Beijing has responded to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s call to Foreign Minister Wang Yi to restructure its debts, with Cabraal declaring that a new loan is on the blocks. As for Oman, though negotiations have stalled over requests to explore the Mannar Oil Basin in return for interest-free credit, this too is a window that remains open.

These developments are, all things considered, intriguing. In the face of the worst global health crisis in over a century, our foreign policy has taken a massive beating. The fertiliser imbroglio with China and the withdrawal of Chinese projects from the North over alleged Indian pressure, as well as the visit of the Chinese Ambassador to the North, are cases in point here. All these point to an increasingly complicated foreign policy front. The question is, will the country’s foreign exchange problems complicate it even more?

Perhaps more so than the 1970s, when it faced a severe balance of payments crisis, Sri Lanka is gradually giving way to a foreign policy dictated by depleting foreign reserves. The administration’s dismissal of W. D. Lakshman and appointment of Cabraal, in that regard, accompanied a shift of focus, during the fourth quarter of last year, to the country’s foreign exchange situation. This has spilled over to our external relations.

Here the Central Bank has had to reckon with a contradiction: between its insistence on not going to the IMF and its assurances about meeting ISB obligations. Though it’s debatable whether the Bank has addressed, let alone resolved, that contradiction, it’s clearly making use of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to pay bondholders their due.

For their part, economic experts have shifted in their response to what the government is doing. While earlier they warned about impending defaults, now many of them have turned to questioning the current policy of repaying bondholders no matter what.

Nishan de Mel of Verité Research, for instance, points out correctly that defaulting is not the same thing as declaring bankruptcy. Suggesting that the former is preferable, he contends that the government should do what it can to renegotiate its debts. On the other hand, as Dushni Weerakoon of the IPS rightly observes, restructuring debt may be easy for a country with a reputation for defaults, like Ecuador, but it is unviable, lengthy, and costly, at least in the short and medium term, for a country like Sri Lanka.

What of the IMF line? It’s obvious that Sri Lanka can no longer negotiate for more breathing space from the IMF without conditionalities being imposed on it. The only way it can obtain such space, in other words, is by succumbing to those conditionalities.

Now, defenders of the IMF line may argue, justifiably, that there’s no give without take, and that if we go to that body we will have to eat humble pie, gratefully. But the question to ask here is, who are we asking to take on these burdens? Who are we asking to endure more of the same? Have IMF advocates considered these problems?

The IMF is not a charity: it has provided financial assistance to almost 90 countries on condition that fiscal discipline be enforced in the long term. If we go down that road, we will need to give back something, like public sector retrenchment and fuel price formulas. These have generated enough backlashes elsewhere. Are we ready to risk them here?

So long as the government fears an uprising from the people, it will not choose the IMF line. To say this is not to defend the powers that be. They have contributed to the mess we are in. But to admit to that is not to deny that, whatever that mess may be, to opt for structural adjustment, when social pressures are peaking, would be politically inadvisable.

That is why Basil Rajapaksa’s billion rupee economic relief package, tabled earlier this month despite much criticism, is intriguing: among other things, it promises a LKR 5,000 allowance to 1.5 million government workers, pensioners, and disabled soldiers. Its underlying thrust is not less money, but more: not spending cuts, but spending hikes.

The urban and suburban middle-classes have responded to the package with characteristic ambivalence. While demanding for relief from the government, they are also questioning the efficacy of printing money. What they have failed to realise is that that printing money is the only resort the government has to grant the kind of relief being demanded. It’s a classic either/or scenario: you get the relief with printed money, or you don’t.

Though economists don’t spell it out exactly in these terms, they do observe that printing money can only lead to greater inflation, implying that the only alternative is to stop doing so. But what are the socio-political costs of such measures? What are the knock-on effects they will have on economic relief for the masses? To ask these questions is not to split hairs, but to raise valid concerns that have not been addressed by the other side.

That is not to say that the government’s measures have been farsighted. They have not. Though Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) policies, which the regime is advocating, may get us space in the short term, it is not the type of reform we should be enacting in the longer term. The policies we need require radical reform and radical action. However viable it may be, printing money should not be considered a substitute for such reform.

To suggest one option, one of Sri Lanka’s most brilliant economists, Howard Nicholas, has advised that we industrialise, noting that the historical record has been better for countries which opted to do so. The example of Vietnam shows how even a sector like textiles can be used to propel industrialisation. That is an example Sri Lanka under Ranasinghe Premadasa followed, at least according to Dr Nicholas, but it is one we have since abandoned, in favour of orthodox prescriptions of fiscal consolidation and untrammelled privatisation.

Sri Lanka needs to consider these options without caving into stopgap measures and orthodox alternatives. How do we do that? As Dayan Jayatilleka suggested some time ago, we should convene an economic roundtable. Such a roundtable will likely prevent economic discussions from becoming a monopoly of elites, thereby helping the government, and the opposition, to align the interests of the economy with the interests of the masses.

This has been a long time coming. Both the government and the opposition have tended to view economic priorities as distinct from other socio-political concerns. Yet the two remain very much interlinked. In that sense, caving into economic orthodoxy while ignoring social reality would be detrimental to the future of the country and the plight of its people. To this end, we need to think of alternatives, and fast. But have we, and are we?

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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