It’s a sign of the basic humanism in Lankans that, regardless of whatever ideology or credentials they held, we speak well of the dead. Judging by the many posts, articles, and memes shared across social media, everyone is speaking well of Mangala Samaraweera. This is nothing to be astonished about: Samaraweera, the most unconventional national politician who ever lived, was also the most likeable to a great many in the country. He was also, for many others, the most disliked; but if the torrent of obituaries and tributes is anything to go by, even they have begun praising him. Perhaps the best tribute one can paid to Samaraweera is that he cut through our instinctive tendencies to take sides in the political divide, uniting us through our universal contempt for politicians.
His legacy is mixed, complex, and debatable. Given the many phases he went through, it defies categorisation. His decision to leave Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2007 certainly spelt the end of one era and the beginning of another. He reinvented himself, turning from the insipid recrudescence of his early years. In doing so he ran the risk of tarnishing his electoral prospects, but having being returned time and time again by the people of Matara, he trumped all those who wished the worst for him. There is little to no doubt that, even with the bitter memories of the previous government, he would have been elected by his people at last year’s general election. That he chose to withdraw is a sign that he had rejected acceptance by one’s electorate as the litmus test for the sincerity of a public figure.
At the end of the day, such gestures, dismissed by some, appealed to those who turned the disparagement of public figures and officials into a regular pastime. Samaraweera was of course regarded as a hero by the country’s youth, predominantly but not exclusively middle-class and suburban. Those born after 1995 especially, who came of age between the last few years of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the first few years of this government, saw perhaps only one aspect to his politics. Few saw his other side. It’s not that they did not see that side, merely that by the time of his conversion to liberal democracy, a conversion which took a considerable time, they were so desperate for a representative who dared to differ; they accepted what he told them and believed in. The tributes that continue to flow, in that sense, remind us of Brecht’s dictum about heroes and the lack of them.
It was his beliefs, incidentally, that so polarised opinion about him. Ostensibly, he stood for liberal democratic values that gave pride of place to the individual over the government. One of his most ardent followers has, in a series of Facebook posts, outlined what he considers to be the essential facets of this political philosophy. Yet speaking for many of his followers, I doubt it was their faith in the tenets of liberal democracy which converted them to his camp. Samaraweera’s strength was his ability to interpret those tenets to a people who acted not on philosophies, but on promises. In this, he proved to be the exception to Regi Siriwardena’s view that Sri Lanka’s political right lacked a unifying ideology. One can claim that even this exception lacked such an ideology. But there’s no denying that he tried.
He was universally loved, yet also universally loathed. It goes without saying that he was loved and loathed for the same reasons. His admirers saw in him a crusader for the rights of the people, in particular minorities. They saw him as a bulwark against majoritarian extremism. By contrast, his critics, who fell into two broad camps, saw him as being needlessly engaged with issues that either did not matter to the wider citizenry or compromised on such concerns as sovereignty. The more nationalist-minded among them faulted him for tilting too much to the minorities, for demonising everything they held sacred, including the Buddhist clergy. Samaraweera never apologised for his candour; that more or less brought liberal admirers and nationalist critics closer. It was impossible not to have an opinion about him.
His political career reflected the times he lived in; that was in a way few political careers did. He entered politics through the SLFP. Appointed as that party’s organiser for Matara in 1983, he quickly gained a reputation for his initiative and decisiveness. His actions during the second insurrection proved his mettle: with his then friend and later foe Mahinda Rajapaksa, he campaigned to raise international awareness about the crimes of the UNP government. This continued even after the insurrection abated; on a visit to New York in July 1991, in an interview to the National Public Radio he attempted to correct certain misconceptions about the JVP held by the Western press. He took with him a list of some 40,000 people, including 1,000 schoolchildren, who had disappeared during the conflict; this list was never used, or mentioned, by any international agency.
Unlike most political figures, he did not shift overnight. His conversion to liberal democracy took time. One must, of course, be careful when placing this transformation in context and in perspective. Samaraweera’s political ascent coincided with a change in both national and international politics. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift to the right of many left and socialist parties, he was as entranced by the promise of Third Way neoliberalism as any other politician. With the decimation of the Old Left in the People’s Alliance, brought about by Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tilt to the right, he embraced the new order, forgetting his past and engaging zealously in a restructuring programme which saw the privatisation of SLT. Samaraweera regarded this as his proudest achievement; no less a source of pride were his efforts at beautifying Colombo, at a time when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was studying in the US and Mahinda Rajapaksa was fighting on as a sidelined MP in the PA.
As MP and Minister, he became the loudest voice for a political solution to a military conflict. Few people shared his fervour, but in the interests of expediency, they all took his side. Sudu Neluma had the effect of discouraging recruits to the army, a volte-face that ran counter to the President’s policy of winning the war militarily. Yet, laudably, it also led to the reconstruction of the Jaffna Library, believed burnt to the ground by UNP allied goons 15 years earlier. These did not erode his friendship with those whose ideology he had long since abandoned, which is why he supported Mahinda Rajapaksa when CBK dithered and dallied about making him Prime Minister and, later, presidential candidate. With Samaraweera’s defection from the SLFP in 2007 and to the UNP in 2010, however, he signalled that he put his values before his friendships. He never explained his badmouthing of Ranil Wickremesinghe at the 2004 elections; one of his slogans against him had been “Ranilta Baha.” In a 360 degree turn which was to define the rest of his career and life, he joined his foe’s side.
These turnarounds endeared him to a mostly suburban middle-class milieu, particularly the youth. Certainly, there could not have been a better leader for as amorphous an outfit as the Radical Center; the latter showed clearly that he had not let go of his faith in the Third Way, even after the Bill Clintons and Tony Blairs of the world had long gone and the Emmanuel Macrons and Nick Cleggs were being forced to stick to their centrist credentials at the cost of capitulating to the conservative right. Samaraweera did not entirely succeed in reconciling these strands: a liberal at heart, he was a neoliberal in mind. This explains his aversion, not to Sinhala nationalism, but to almost all forms of political radicalism; for him, as for every Third Way neoliberal, reformist politics was preferable to radical politics. That is why he frequently conflated “socialist mindsets” with “religious majoritarianism.”
What is surprising here is not that he changed at all, but that he changed without attracting accusations of betrayal by the mainstream electorate. The same man who had railed against the “unjust administration” of J. R. Jayewardene and lamented the “holocaust” unfolding in the south could, three decades later, laud that government’s “incredible economic advances” and lament the “Marxist dystopia” the JVP was setting up in the south. No one complained, partly because socialism had, in the eyes of the middle-class, lost its appeal, and it was easy to badmouth the excesses of a radical “leftwing” outfit while sidelining the brutal excesses of a rightwing regime. That the Radical Center was radical only in its commitment to a Third Way neoliberal doctrine, hence, showed well in the remarks of its leader.
Less defensible, by contrast, were Samaraweera’s intervention at the Wayamba elections in 1999, the massive credit card fraud that took place under his watch at SLT, and his siding with Ranil Wickremesinghe against Sajith Premadasa in a leadership struggle that weakened the UNP from 2011 to 2020. Not many will remember that he broke up an anti-Ranil protest in 2013, compelling Premadasa, in justifiable anger, to rail against “migratory birds” trying to chart the UNP’s course. Samaraweera did shift to Mr Premadasa in 2019, but this was a temporary measure; having lent his support to the SJB, he withdrew and left electoral politics. He then revealed his biases: having condemned the SLPP and the SJB as occupying the same political page, he called Wickremesinghe the best president we never had.
That such lapses were ignored, even forgiven, by a young, upward aspiring electorate on the lookout for decent representatives is, of course, a sign of how low standards have fallen in politics today. The truth is that Mangala Samaraweera epitomised the paradoxes of his times in a way none of his colleagues did. I find it difficult to square his concerns for the citizenry with his advocacy of an economic paradigm which rested on the sustained exploitation of the many. But this was a rift he never really saw, nor cared to resolve.
It says a lot about the intellectual obduracy of those engaged in politics, as well as those endeavouring to engage in it, that both liberal admirers and nationalist critics saw his liberal credentials as a genuine article. His more radical critics saw through the mirage better. Yet as the Communist Party’s and the JVP’s tributes to him show, even they considered his values reason enough to ignore his flaws. He was a man of his convictions, even if he refused to see the gap between his social and economic ideals. He was certainly a man of his word.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
How D.B. Wijetunga became Executive President of Sri Lanka
by Nihal Seneviratne
Dingiri Banda Wijeunga (born February 19, 1922), hailing from Pilimatalawe, Udunuwara was one of the most popular politicians at that time. He endeared himself to others by his stark simplicity and his very affable manners. The people were so fond of him that his initials DB were used by people to call him Dearly Beloved and even Dunnoth Baraganan.
In the Nineties, he was chosen to be Prime Minister by President R. Premadasa overlooking two outstanding UNP politicians of that time Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali- a very adroit move. Mr Wijetunga had a Parliamentary service of over 25 years having served as Minister of Power, Highways and Energy; Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and Minister of Agricultural Development in the seventies and eighties.
On Tuesday, May 4, 1993, the Speaker announced the assassination of His Excellency President R. Premadasa. “It has been a brutal and cowardly act not just in the personal sense but also because it is directed at the Head of State, therefore at the Government and the entire nation. The loss of the Head of State of any country affects its citizens, irrespective of caste, creed and religious and political affiliations…. We Sri Lankans cherish democracy and we must all join hands to ensure that the reasons for such insane acts do not recur – the Secretary General of Parliament will now make an announcement,” he said.
I then announced that as a vacancy in the post of President had arisen and that under Section 2 of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions )Act No 2 of 1981 a new President had to be appointed and under Section 5, the Secretary General of Parliament has to keep Parliament notified.
The second notice I was called upon to read to Parliament was that under the Act, I name Friday, May as the date for receiving of nominations under the provisions of Clause 5 of the above Act. On May 7, the Speaker at the commencement of business announced that the Secretary General will make an announcement in regard to the election to the office of President.
I then made the following announcement: Under Section 6 (1) “I wish to inform the House of the provisions relating to the receipt of nominations to the office of President. The relevant Section 10 of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions ) Act No 2 of 1981 reads as follows:
6 (1)On the date fixed for the receipt of nominations, Parliament shall meet and the Secretary General should act as the Returning Officer.
2) A Member who wishes to propose any other Member for election to the office of President shall obtain the written consent of the Member indicating that such Member is willing to serve.
3) A Member addressing himself to the Secretary General shall propose any other Member present to the office of President. The proposal shall be seconded by another Member but no debate will be allowed.
4)If only one Member be so proposed and seconded to the office of the President, he shall be declared by the Secretary General to have been elected to such office. If more than one Member be so proposed and seconded, Parliament shall subsection of Section (3) find a date and time for the holding of the election, such date being a date not earlier than 48 hours from the date of receiving nominations.
In terms of Section 6 of the Presidential Election (Special Provisions) Act 2 of 1981, I shall now receive nominations for the Office of President.”
Election of President – Mr Wijepala Mendis, Minister of Transport and Highways said: “Mr Secretary General of Parliament, under the terms of Section 6 (1) of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act No 2 of 1981, I have much pleasure in proposing the name of Hon. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, a Member of the Honourable House for election to the office of President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I tender to you the written consent of the said Honourable Member agreeing to serve in the said office if elected by the House.”
The Hon. A.C.S. Hameed, Minister of Justice and Higher Education – “The Secretary General of Parliament, I have much pleasure in seconding the name of Hon. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, a Member of this Honourable House for election to the office of President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
The Secretary General: Are there any other names?
I then made this announcement:
“In terms of Section 6 (4) of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act No 2 of 1981, I declare that Dingiri Banda Wijetunga has been elected to the office of President uncontested.
Congratulations to His Excellency the President.”
The Speaker: “Your Excellency, please accept my sincere best wishes on your assuming office today as the Third Executive President of Sri Lanka.
I wish to congratulate you on your election to the high office of President of the Sri Lanka which fell vacant following the tragic assassination of His Excellency Ranasinghe Premadasa. I have known your Excellency for nearly four decades. You are a gentle person with an ability to resolve any problem or issue on your own without causing injustice or harm to anyone. I am confident that you will be able to guide the destiny of the people of Sri Lanka towards peace and prosperity.”
The best speech was by Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Minister of Industries, Science and Technology and Leader of the House who made a long speech in Sinhalaese congratulating the new President.
After the day’s proceedings were over, the new President in his usual simple manner thanked me sincerely for all I had done to help him in his election. I responded: “Sir, I was only performing my tasks under the law and nothing more. But please Sir, please be kind enough to accept my warmest wishes and congratulations.”
I recall with nostalgia, the visit I paid him at his office at the Presidential Secretariat to say that I was leaving the office of Secretary General next week. He responded saying, “Nihal, we can’t afford to lose your services to Parliament after your distinguished service of over 30 years.” adding he would ask the Government to move a resolution to Parliament to extend my services, even after reaching the statutory age of retirement of 60 years. I politely declined his very kind offer and said my successor will be able to function as well I did. He then asked whether he could appoint me as Ambassador to a foreign country which too I very kindly declined and thanked him, saying I would return to my home in Havelock Road, Colombo 5 to spend time with my wife and two children. I thanked him profusely and left his office.
I will end with a note regarding his extreme simplicity and willingness to help. He had been approached by a Member of Parliament asking him to do him a favour – of getting approval of Parliament for him to have an extension from his telephone in his office upcountry to his home which was five miles away. The President himself phoned me and very affectionately addressing me as Nihal said, “I know you will find a way to help this Member and please do so.” I politely reminded him that I cannot do so as extensions to another place, apart from where his official phone is situated is only possible if that extension is within a few yards and that I could not approve it as I would have to face similar requests from other Members. In his own inimitable style he said, “I know this Nihal, but I also know that you will find some way of helping this Member” and rang off. The Member himself called me and said he had spoken to the President. I told him politely that I had already explained to him that I was unable to accede to his request. He left my office, not quite happy.
Some reflections on Sri Lanka’s political “memers”
By Uditha Devapriya
For many of us, the only hope for the country lies in getting out of the country. This is by no means a recent phenomenon: we have been seeing the best among us depart these shores for greener pastures over the last 30 years. The reason used to be the war; now it’s politics. It’s as though peacetime has unleashed all the ugly things about the nation that the war had bottled up. Back then we had bombs in buses and snipers at day to think about; now we have bribes and graft, nepotism and despotism, to rage against.
When the best news you think you can hear is a politician being stricken by the pandemic or booed by his supporters, especially on social media, you know how the rift between rulers and ruled has widened. This is hardly a welcome development.
Of course, there’s really no one to take up the politicians’ cause these days. Nor should there be; especially with regard to their handling of the pandemic, both government and opposition have been, if I may be charitable, ambivalent. Such issues are controversial and debatable and need not detain us here: what needs to be noted is a glaring absence of empathy in the handling of the worst public health crisis since the Spanish Flu.
This problem, of a yawning gap between what is being done and what needs to be done, has engaged ministers, health officials, students and, teachers, and trade unions. It has provided us with a never-ending series of debates between the government and the opposition on the one hand, the government and the state machinery on another, government and citizens on yet another, and supporters and opponents of the government on another. Different as their viewpoints may be, they focus on one question: whether or not to lock down.
These interest groups articulate different concerns. For the government, the most pressing concern is the economy; for health officials, it’s the nation’s health; for students and teachers, the education sector and salary anomalies; and for unions, their members. For many daily wage earners, there’s the struggle to survive. The government’s announcement on August 20 marked a conjuncture between them: with the fourth lockdown we have seen here thus far, everyone has had their way.
The politician has emerged badly from this scheme of things. I don’t mean only the regime here; even the opposition has attracted censure over the last year. This is not to suggest that people side against them unconditionally: some have turned their anger towards health officials, students and teachers, and trade unions. But there is no doubt that politicians have turned into the ultimate object of hate.
Indeed, whatever they manage to do or not do, the public interprets it as more evidence of their incompetence. In the court of public opinion that is social media, moreover, criticism of politicians has become so democratised that even disinformation, as long as it conforms to the popular view of them as inept and corrupt, gets accepted. This is, if not concerning, certainly symptomatic of our disillusionment with politics in general.
The lengths to which such criticism can go make it imperative that we draw a line between genuine critique and hysterical hogwash parading as critique. One does not have to absolve politicians to concede that any assessment of them should meet the litmus test of verifiability and be consistent and valid, and that while the right to criticise must be open, abusing it will not help with any campaign against incompetence, corruption, and apathy.
In other words, criticism of politics, whether of the government or the opposition, requires critical thinking. It’s only through critical thinking that one can evolve a cohesive critique of politics. Yet, for many, such thinking appears pointless and peripheral in their crusades against the evils of those governing us or leading the opposition.
How do we differentiate between critique and hysteria along these lines? Critical thinking requires cohesive engagement with observations and perceptions. It’s about precision, clarity, accuracy, depth, breadth, and fairness, and consistency, application, and analysis. It’s about placing critiques in their context; there’s no point arguing against government action here, for instance, by summoning an analogy from 18th century France. Even if such analogies appear valid, it is vital that we account for the differences.
I am not suggesting that we don’t dig into history; merely that what is true for one period may be true for another period, and not so much to our context. When critiquing politics by summoning parallels from elsewhere, therefore, it is necessary to take stock of the validity of those “parallels” before turning them into social media agitprop. Unfortunately, for a semi-literate electorate that veers between nationalist and neoliberal forms of authoritarianism, the importance of verification before assertion has simply not been made clear.
If the internet has blurred the line between facts and factoids, social media has transformed into a petri dish of misinformation. Facebook memes offer an illuminating case study here. Criticism of government apathy is easy to make on these platforms, since they offer critics a measure of security lacking in other outlets such as street theatre and wall art. It also brings them closer to their audience, which often happens to be their personal circles.
Here, Sri Lanka’s meme culture deserves much more than a brief perusal. From what can be gathered, it’s clear that critics of national politics have found in them a tool through which to vent out their frustrations. They frequently pick on analogies from elsewhere to drive home their point: hence when the All Ceylon Bakery Owners’ Association announces a price hike in response to flour prices, they cite the most popular analogy, Marie Antoinette’s infamous (and largely imagined) expostulation on the virtues of eating cake.
Still another popular analogy: when condemning, not governments, but for those who vote for governments, these pacifist-neutralist “memers”, who disavow any political affiliations, jump on statements by colonial officials who rejected demands to extend the vote on the grounds that locals were not ready to govern themselves.
Sri Lanka’s constitution gives pride of place to popular sovereignty: that is why, while sovereignty is exercised through institutions, it resides in the people. Yet the depths to which politics has deteriorated in recent years have converted Sri Lanka’s Facebook “memers” into critics of this laudable and progressive principle.
Disenchanted by the status quo, they idealise the past and jump on statements that confirm their scepticism of the wisdom of voters. The statement they cite most approvingly, in this regard, seems to be Henry McCallum’s argument, made in 1910 on the eve of the Crewe-McCallum reforms and in response to bourgeois demands for the elective principle, that Sri Lankans were as yet not ready for self-government.
Perhaps what’s most intriguing about these posts and analogies is that no one seems bothered by the fact that more than a couple of centuries divide the present from their parallel. Indeed, it’s hardly registered that the analogy being summoned may or may not fit our situation. What are noted instead are the details which resemble that situation; the differences, crucial as they are to the wider picture, do not seem to bother “memers” at all.
That McCallum made his observations about the wisdom of extending the franchise, not surprisingly then, is not placed in its proper perspective: that his remarks reflected the times he and his contemporaries lived in, that they were framed within conditions of colonialism, is not referred to at all. Instead, we are told to accept what a Governor said more than a century ago about the wisdom of our voters merely because we vote poorly today.
In liberal democracies and soft autocracies, political crises produce a variety of responses from the upper classes and, perhaps more frequently, middle classes. The levels of frustrations are such that those who project their anger against the government or the opposition end up spreading misinformation in their critiques of establishment politics.
It’s no doubt a reflection of the irrational times we are living through that misanalogies have become authentic and legitimate for critics of governments. False as they may be, they are an insight into how these critics jump into whatever historical reference they come across. It’s inevitable, though disconcerting, that such critics end up as guilty of spreading factoids as their opponents. These “memes”, then, are a reflection of the discontent of the many. They are also a measure of the cultural conditioning, perceptions of local and international history, and class background, of Sri Lanka’s irrepressible “political memers.”
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
THE NEW REPRESSIVE RULES & LEFT-DEMOCRATIC RESISTANCE
Dr. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
The newly gazetted Emergency Regulations regarding essential services isn’t a simple replay of the same old script. It cannot be that this regime regards every hyphenated designation with the word ‘General’ in it, as making mandatory, the appointment of an Army General! The new Commissioner of Essential Services is an Army General. In the history of independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka the post has usually been held by a senior civil servant. The new Commissioner-General is empowered to appoint several assistant commissioners. He can ‘download’ the powers of the Secretary/Ministry of Defence.
Not only can any service be declared essential, any activity such as motivating anyone to impede the functioning of a service deemed essential (I would think that includes leafleting, picketing) is criminalized.
The new structure and process are a departure from and a blow to civilian administration, while the new restrictions together with the new structure and chain of command constitute a blow to civilian democracy and labour rights, i.e., the rights of the working people.
The writing is on the wall. The regime’s new move targets the trade union movement. Indeed, it targets the organizations of workers, teachers, school principals and peasants. With these organizations paralyzed or smashed through arrests and sackings, the path will be open for the sell-off of assets and lands, for encroachments and spoliations, for the diversion and deprivation of water, urban real-estate scams and the implementation of the KNDU.
The new gazette seems aimed to remove all obstacles to the regime’s planned new model of accumulation and the tough moves needed to implant it.
The new gazette reinforces the existing semi-militarized Task Forces and implants a model of military dominance is society and the economy. This is the plant, or the egg. One day we shall awake to see a military-civilian junta, with the civilian component being the Rajapaksa dynasty, ruling the country. The model will be a military or militarized oligarchy, such as the Marcos dictatorship was in the Philippines. Or Sri Lanka will simply be Myanmar II.
The repression will be unleashed. Knowing the players on the side of the establishment, with their internationally infamous track record, the repression could be bloody, even lethal.
Repression can be successfully resisted and can even lead to progressive outcomes as the events last year in Chile among other places have proved. There is ongoing popular resistance in Cali, Colombia.
It is not that the JVP and FSP do not know these. They do. They know more: even the history of the anti-globalization and Occupy movements of an earlier decade.
However, they gloss over the difference between those situations and the possibilities in Sri Lanka, namely the existence in those countries of a broad, authentic, semi-spontaneous, organic popular movement made up of diverse currents.
There are internal blockages within the JVP and FSP which weaken their capacity to resist repression. By internal I do not mean problems of personalities. I mean problems of ideology and political strategy. These are by no means abstract problems and could mean the difference between success, survival and extermination.
Though they differ or many issues, the JVP and FSP share at least one blind-spot. They have never questioned Wijeweera’s post 1973 perspective on the history of the world communist movement and his rejection of the united front in all its variations as a Stalinian deviation. Ironically, though he claimed that his policy was broadly in accord with the Left Opposition of the Bolshevik Party and upheld the first five Congresses of the Communist International (Comintern), he conveniently suppressed the fact that the theory of the United Front was first enunciated by Lenin.
Left strategy has four basic models of the United Front which may be regarded not as contradicting one another but as concentric circles.
1. The United Front of the Working Class: This meant the bringing together on a common platform with a minimum program of those parties which had been bitter rivals i.e., the socialists/social democrats and the Communists, so as to reunify the workers movement in the face of a capitalist counter-offensive which was incipiently fascist. Lenin and Trotsky were the main theorists.
2. The Popular Front: the main weapon against the fight against fascism, uniting the parties of the working class and those of the urban and rural petty bourgeoise, chiefly the peasantry, or with a significant petty-bourgeois base. Dmitrov and Togliatti were the main theorists of the Popular Front, with complex theoretical and strategic refinement by Gramsci taking it to the next level of the ‘national-popular’ bloc.
3. The New Democratic Front, which is that of the broad anti-colonial/anti-imperialist national united front, which extended the worker-peasant front to include the middle and ‘national’ capitalists. Mao and Ho Chi Minh were its main theorists.
4. The Frente Amplio model: the unification of the various streams of the vanguard and the broad ‘popular fronts’ including ‘popular blocs’ of various trade unions and grassroots organizations. This included united fronts with progressive currents of mainstream parties (such as left Christian Democrats). Fidel Castro and the Latin American Left were the originators of this contemporary contribution. Uruguay’s Tupamaros and El Salvador’s FMLN were the best practitioners.
Though he claimed to be Leninist and an admirer of Vietnam, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the Latin American revolution, Wijeweera swept all these under the rug and thereby deprived the JVP and himself of their benefits. If he had not undertaken this sectarian deviation, his fate would almost certainly have been different.
Neither the JVP nor the FSP have rectified this massive error. Therefore, they do not have the necessary vaccine against the political Covid-19 of the coming repression.
The historical evidence is clear about the life-and-death nature of the variable of united fronts.
Had Wijeweera’s JVP reached out to the Northern Tamil Maoists in the late 1960s, it would have fared better and recovered faster in the 1970s.
Had Wijeweera’s JVP established a United Front or Bloc with Vijaya Kumaratunga, the SLMP and various radical Left outfits (all of whom had protested against the unfair banning of the JVP by the UNP Government) as well as the North-eastern Tamil left organizations, the balance of forces would have been very different in the 1980s.
History also provides evidence about the JVP and the mainstream parties. The imprisoned Wijeweera secured his freedom and that of the JVP by an understanding with the UNP in 1977.
During the repression of the 1980s, the JVP had to lean on the SLFP for solidarity and support.
In the late 1980s the JVP could have avoided its fate had it arrived at the equation offered by President Premadasa.
In 2004 the JVP had its largest and highest share of political power as part of a coalition and Provisional Government with the SLFP.
Today, the JVP and FSP underestimate the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime because it misunderstands it theoretically as a version of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, i.e., as the same old family oligarchy which is in interminable crisis this time as it has never been before.
Deprived by Wijeweera of the rich storehouse of conceptualization and strategy behind the various formulae for united fronts and blocs ranging from the Comintern, through the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists, to Latin America especially in the recovery and resistance against the military juntas, the JVP and FSP seem to ignore the fact that not every type of bourgeois regime is the same and that the emergence of the entire discussion of United Fronts arose from the appearance of new more vicious types of bourgeois, rightwing reaction, ranging from Fascism to the ‘Civilian-Military Junta’ and the ‘National Security State’ (Latin America, Greece, Turkey).
The JVP and FSP have buried the entire treasure house of the contribution to Marxist Political Theory and Political science by Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas. The latter’s studies of types of dictatorships and their trajectories of crises are indispensable today.
Poulantzas advocated a strategy with three prongs:
(A) Struggles against the state
(B) Struggles at a distance from the state and
(C) Struggles within the state.
He urged a strategy of the combination of these three types of struggles.
For today’s Sri Lankan Left, the most urgently imperative readings are those of Antonio Gramsci, Palomiro Togliatti, Nicos Poulantzas, Santiago Carrillo, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. They point to a strategy of Left Populism.
No resistance to the coming repression is possible without the JVP and the FSP arriving at a minimum program since they have their social bases among the workers, peasants, fisherfolk and students, who must be brought together.
No resistance is possible without an interface with the parliamentary populist-democratic SJB. The JVP’s avoidance of an equation with the older Premadasa destroyed both Wijeweera and Premadasa.
Television coverage is no substitute for a united front-based strategy of resistance.
In the face of coming repression, a Sri Lankan left strategy based on contemporary Popular Frontism or a version of the decades-long, successful Frente Amplio (Broad Front) of Uruguay’s Tupamaros, inescapably involves a triangulation of the JVP, the FSP and the SJB.
[Dayan Jayatilleka, PhD, is former Chairman, ILO, and the author of The Great Gramsci | Taylor & Francis Group (taylorfrancis.com); The Twin Legacies of Lenin and Fidel | global-e journal (globalejournal.org); and Che’s Visage on the Shroud of Time (granma.cu)
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