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Reconstructing the SLFP

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By Uditha Devapriya

In my very brief essay on the history of the SLFP, I pointed out that several events preceded and laid the groundwork for the 1956 election. I noted that many of these events involved the UNP, even under John Kotelawala’s stewardship. I also observed that, unlikely as it may seem now, it was Dudley Senanayake, not Bandaranaike, who the Buddhist clergy wanted to lead the revival, and it was to him that they went. Yet, in the final analysis, it was the SLFP and not the UNP that headed the movement. And incongruous as he seems to us today, it was Bandaranaike who became its voice, through the SLFP.

Sinhala nationalists and propagandists link the SLFP’s win to the anti-colonial struggle, and depict the party as the successor to the martyrs of the Uva Wellassa Rebellion, Weera Puran Appu, and Anagarika Dharmapala. The nationalists’ explanation of what went wrong after 1956 is that Bandaranaike imbibed too many liberal ideas to take the struggle to its logical conclusion. In the same vein, his widow cohabited with Marxists, who apparently destroyed local entrepreneurship and proceeded to enforce measures that, in the words of Gunadasa Amarasekara, “made life impossible for the middle class, and the poor.”

The conventional reading of the SLFP, accordingly, is that it used to be a nationalist party, but has since become a captive of foreign interests. What this assumes that the rank and file of the party were progressive in their views and it was with the advent of the Marxists, and later the NGO-cracy, that they went downhill. In the words of Gunadasa Amarasekara, “[t]he UNP was founded on the liberal ideology of the West, the Socialist parties were founded on Marxism, which once again was a product of the West.” The implication there, of course, is that the SLFP could become a party “of the soil” only by steering clear of both.

Amarasekara traces the SLFP’s origins to the Buddhist revival, and in doing so he links it to the two institutions set up at the turn of the 19th century by the stalwarts of the revival, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara. Profoundly influenced by the work done at these institutions, Anagarika Dharmapala sought to take their message “to the masses.” It was that message which became a catalyst for the formation of the Party.

Amarasekara considers Dharmapala as embodying a progressive ideology, one which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became heir to when he set up the Sinhala Maha Sabha and the SLFP. A wide array of social forces rallied around these outfits, resulting in a conjunction of sangha, vedha, guru, govi, and kamkaru. Amarasekara notes that, to Bandaranaike’s credit, he was the only member of the colonial elite who took stock of these developments.

Fairly accurate as this account of the SLFP’s is, it omits certain points. First and foremost, anti-nationalist as the Marxists may be in Amarasekara’s book, they nevertheless found common cause with the clergy. This is not an omission made by nationalists only: I have with me a collection of 19 essays on Buddhism in Sri Lanka published by an avowedly secular civil society institution in the country, and none of them as much as mentions monks who joined the Old Marxist Left, among them Udakendawala Sri Saranankara.

Such an omission is not hard to explain, striking though it is. In most liberal and non-Marxist accounts, Buddhist monks overreached themselves and went beyond their call of duty by involving themselves in politics, whatever their ideology may have been. Indeed, very few scholars, including Regi Siriwardena and Kumari Jayawardena, noted that their forays into the Left helped them to break away from their conservative roots. Such a rupture held the promise of a radical role for the Buddhist clergy, a prospect denied by the more parochial among them as well as by the elite’s opposition to their involvement in politics.

Unfortunate as it is, then, liberal opprobrium against nationalism and nationalist hostility to Marxism have compelled both sides to neglect the potential the clergy possessed at the turn of the century, when they joined hands with the only anti-imperialist political formation in the country. Accordingly, in liberal narratives as in nationalist ones, Sinhala nationalists have been insulated from progressive politics and viewed in isolation. When one accounts for this omission, one realises that a very different account of the country’s political parties is called for. That is where we need to revisit the SLFP’s history.

The SLFP was the logical heir and successor to the Sinhala Maha Sabha, which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike chose to make a part of the UNP. Gunadasa Amarasekara is correct when he criticises the view of the Sabha as a chauvinistic outfit as unjust and unfair. Both the Sabha and the SLFP gave vent to the cultural aspirations of a community that had been tied to 400 years of colonial rule. Insofar as it spoke to this group, the SLFP possessed an emancipatory potential, which could well have made it a fellow traveller of the Old Left.

However, subsequent events proved that this was not to be. Yes, the SLFP did possess a progressive potential, but then this was not the same as being a progressive party. At its inception it was composed of a myriad interests, some progressive in their outlook, others not so, and still others conservative and no different to the comprador elites in the UNP that they considered to be their foes. Not surprisingly, the party’s victory in 1956 did not usher in a triumph for all these class elements; only a certain bloc therein.

Various writers describe this bloc as a national or even nationalist bourgeoisie, forgetting that, as Andre Gunder Frank would say of the Latin American middle-class, they were more bourgeois than nationalist. Their conservative inclinations came out quite palpably in their opposition to the more radical policies of the Bandaranaike government, particularly Philip Gunawardena’s land-to-the-tiller programme: a point that James Manor underscores in his account of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s political career.

The lack of any difference between the Westernised elite’s and the Sinhala middle-class’s attitude to radical reform led stalwarts of the Old Left, particularly Hector Abhayavardhana, to class the SLFP as the alternative party of the bourgeoisie and later the party of the petty bourgeoisie. Judging by the political choices and interventions of this milieu over the last 50 years, one can hardly call their ideology progressive. That is why the Marxists’ view of them as being no different to the comprador elite holds much ground.

In any case, the political trajectory of the Sinhala middle-class does not bear out revisionist accounts of them. None less than some of the ideologues of the 1956 revolution turned the other way after the election win, shifting to the UNP. More than a decade later, in 1977, an overwhelming majority of the Sinhala middle-class voted for the United National Party, on the grounds that the SLFP’s policies were strangling their economic prospects.

Sixteen years of UNP rule de-industrialised the country and facilitated the sell-out of crucial sectors to private interests. Yet despite contributing to such a state of affairs, what these bred among nationalist ranks was not so much a political critique as a cultural critique of the UNP regime, a critique which evolved into a political movement when, as per Amarasekara, the SLFP abandoned its cultural moorings and embraced an amorphous “multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multireligious, multi-cultural” identity under Chandrika Kumaratunga.

However intriguing as it might be, this cultural critique misses certain points: in particular, the SLFP’s turnaround from a left-of-centre to a more neoliberal agenda in the Kumaratunga regime. For nationalists, the SLFP’s turnaround remains reducible to the de-culturalisation of its leader. In my opinion, such a view neglects certain other considerations.

To Amarasekara’s credit he does not ignore these other points: he admits that “the greatest harm inflicted on the SLFP” was its volte-face from “anti-imperialist, pro nationalist and pro socialist” policies. But this was a turnaround that was not necessarily opposed by nationalist elements, as I have contended in my two-part essay on Jathika Chintanaya: by now the most fervent Sinhala ideologues had accepted the rationale for such a shift, i.e. that globalisation could not be held back and socialist politics were no longer tenable.

Many of these ideologues consider the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government as a disaster because it destroyed Sinhalese capitalists. But the question can validly be asked as to what Sinhalese capitalists, especially under this administration, have done to further the aims of anti-imperialist nationalism. The truth is that most of them remain as beholden to foreign capital as their “Westernised” counterparts. Unlike certain commentators, hence, I see no real difference between the SLFP leaning “national-minded” petty bourgeoisie and the UNP leaning “liberal-minded” bourgeoisie. Each is as compradorist as the other.

Where does the SLFP figure in all this? Strange as it seems, I find Gunadasa Amarasekara’s metaphor to be an apt summing up of its dilemma: it has become a kavandaya, a headless corpse, trying to find its way out and abysmally failing to do so. That is perhaps its biggest legacy from the Kumaratunga regime, which single-handedly axed the Left and turned the party into a Third Way outfit, a front for comprador interests.

I agree with Amarasekara’s point that the blame for that lies, not so much with those who denied the children of 1956 an opportunity to realise their aspirations, as those children themselves. In turning away from the more radical ideals of 1956, they paved the way for the denial of their own aspirations. And yet, stunted though they are, they remain a force to reckon with, even today. It is this, more than anything else, that keeps the SLFP relevant – as much to the country’s political consciousness as to its cultural inheritance.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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