Sinharaja – The island’s priceless treasure
THE WORLD HERITAGE SITES OF SRI LANKA
For both foreign and local tourists Sinharaja Forest is certainly not a hot spot like Yala or Wilpattu. It elicits neither excitement nor thrills. Traveling inside requires no jeeps nor four wheel drive SUVs – just your two legs! Yet adventure is there. In plenty. To be experienced, by seeing, listening and feeling as Nature embraces you in its sound of silence. Sinharaja may it be emphasized, is the most valuable and unique environmental treasure in Sri Lanka. Located in the South- Western part of Sri Lanka it is the island’s last viable area of primary rainforest.
So, what is a rain forest? It is a forest which consists of tall, mostly evergreen trees, on which there is a very high amount of rainfall. These forests are earth’s oldest living ecosystems, with some surviving in their present form for at least 70 million years. According to experts it is likely that Sinharaja was formed during the Jurassic era. This means that Sinharaja is between 145 million to 200 million years old. Hence its uniqueness. Hence its value. To put this incredible fact in its proper perspective geologists have claimed that most of Sri Lanka’s surface lies in the Precambrian strata some of it dating back to 2 billion years. It belongs to the earliest part of Earth’s history.
According to folklore ‘Sinharaja’ derived its name from the lion king that dwelt in and protected this rain forest. It will interest readers to know that the three largest rainforests in the world are the Amazon in South America (also called ‘Amazonia’) which is 2,482,636 sq. miles in extent; next is the Congo rainforest . in Africa which is 1,108,113 sq miles. (Those who are literary minded may recollect that Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ was centered on this forest through which runs the Congo river; then there is the Valdivan rain forest on the West coast of South America bordering Chile and Argentina. It is 95,753 sq miles.
Just for comparison of their vastness and extent, Sri Lanka is 25,332 sq. miles in extent. So the Amazonia is 98 times the size of Sri Lanka! Sinharaja is 3,422 sq. miles in extent. But its smaller size compared to the largest rain forests just mentioned in no way detracts from its unique endemic fauna and flora. It makes Sinharaja truly incomparable. Sinharaja borders on three districts – Galle, Matara and Ratnapura. Its elevation ranges from 300 to 1,170 meters. The average annual rainfall over the past 60 years has ranged between 3,614 mm to 5,005 mm which is attributed to the South West Monsoon ( May to July ) and the North East Monsoon ( November to January ).
There are three points from which one could enter Sinharaja. One is from Kudawa which is the most frequently used. It is from Colombo to Kalawana to Kudawa. Next is the Pitadeniya entrance. From Colombo to Galle/Matara to Deniyaya to Pitadeniya. The third and least used, is from Colombo to Galle/Matara to Morning Side Estate in Suriyakanda. Whichever way one desires to go it is always advisable to get a licensed tracker. Otherwise there is a danger of getting lost and more importantly a tracker who can unfold the wonders within. Hiking is the only way to go..
And now let’s get inside this marvelous, mystical, mysterious, forest.
Inside Sinharaja, because of the green canopy of trees, through which only about 5 % to 15 % of sunshine falls through, it is dark, eerie and foreboding. And yet it is fascinating. You will be, as Thomas Gray said ‘ far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,’ hearing only the orchestra of the forest – the chirping of birds, the chirruping of insects, the occasional ‘coot, coot’ of monkeys and the soft tread of your own feet, as you walk through this cathedral like sanctuary of trees.
Many of the trees reach a height of around 40 meters ( 131 feet ). More than 60 % of these trees are endemic and what is more, many are rare species. Some of the trees, the timber of which is used in house building, are ‘Hora,’ ‘ Bu Hora’ and ‘ Balau’ which is a type of Mahogany. The vegetation density is around 240,00 plants per hectare ( 11,960 sq. yards ) which makes Sinharaja the most dense rainforest in Asia.
The wild life is exotic and enchanting. However unlike in Yala the wild life is not easily seen. The thick dense vegetation hides many of Sinharaja’s mysteries. It has been claimed that there may be a few elephants and leopards but the most common large mammal is the purple faced langur which is endemic. Langurs are long tailed monkeys which have a characteristic loud call. Some have described this species as ‘old world’ monkeys found mainly in India. There can also be found the Brown Mongoose, the Golden Palm Civet, the Small Flying Squirrel and with plenty of luck one may sight the Red Slender Loris, which sleeps by day and ever so stealthily is active at night.
The bird life is varied and colorful. There have been 147 species of birds recorded, whose habitat is within Sinharaja. Of the 26 endemic birds 20 can be found in Sinharaja. Amongst the birds are, the Red Faced Malkoka; the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie’; the Ashy Headed Babbler whose head is grey while its body is ochre/brown, its leg are pinkish while the beak is grey above and pink below; the White Headed Starling with its white head and breast and yellow legs and beak; the Sri Lanka Spotwing Thrush which is light brown in colour with white spots on its body and has a black beak; the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon which is similar to a dove since both species belong to the same family, (columbidae); the Dusky Blue Fly Catcher which is blue grey in colour with a bright blue forehead. It darts from branch to branch catching tiny insects while in flight. And the Green Billed Coucal which is a type of cuckoo with black plumage and a greenish beak. It is supposed to be the rarest of Sri Lanka birds.
Butterflies of kaleidoscopic colors and sizes flit and flutter amongst the greenery. Here can be found the Sri Lanka Tree Nymph, with a wing span of 15.5 centimeters or 6. 1 inches it is the largest butterfly in the country. Perhaps the most beautiful is the Blue Banded Peacock whose iridescence is unmatched by any other butterfly. The rarest of butterflies is the Sri Lanka Five Bar Swordtail which makes its timid appearance from January to end March.
Reptiles are ever present. The very venomous cobra. The equally venomous Russel’s viper and its cousins, the green pit viper and hump nosed viper. There is also the equally poisonous, krait. Living in peaceful co-existence is the quite docile but frightful to see, the rat snake ( ‘Garendiya’), not to be confused with the poisonous rattle snake, which is not found in Sri Lanka. Finally the very largest and longest of all snakes in
Sri Lanka. It is around 23 feet long weighs about 200 pounds and has a girth as large as a telephone pole. It’s the python. It is non-poisonous. But with its sharp backward forming teeth it grasps a prey – anything from rodents to monkeys to deer, wraps several coils around it and constricts it to death prior to swallowing it.
Hence the reason why this species is also called boa-constrictors After a very delicious meal (from the python’s point of view) it coils itself and lies in deep slumber. There are also the scary, but harmless tree frogs which will spring on to you as you move through the heavy undergrowth. Within the damp surface leeches abound. Hence it’s best to wear slacks with the bottom tucked into knee high socks and the shoes liberally doused in salt water. Leeches can bleed you until you faint from blood loss.
There are eight waterfalls cascading down the rocky slopes near the Pitadeniya entrance. One in particular called the Duwili Falls because its three step downward cascade is like a dusty spray, has two large bathing spots at the bottom of the falls. The water is chillingly cold. But if you are brave enough to take a dip you will after the initial shiver find it most invigorating. There are three sparkling, gurgling, streams of cool, clear water which criss-cross through this forest. These streams wind their way and lead on to the North to the Napola Dola and Koskulana Ganga. In the South and South West to the Maha Dola and Gin Ganga. To the West the Kalukandawe Ela and Kudawa Ganga.
In 1978 Sinharaja was declared by the UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve and in 1988 was declared as a World Heritage Site.
We now need to turn to a threat – deforestation. It is one of the most serious issues facing our motherland. In the 1920s the forest coverage was 49%. By 2021 it had dropped to just 17%! and alas! Sinharaja, this million year old ecosystem of a treasure gifted by Nature to Sri Lanka did become a victim of partial deforestation. It happened during the 1970 – 1977 tenure of Srimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. Whether it was her own decision, a Cabinet decision or a Minister’s decision, only history can reveal. But yes, by the early 1970s selective logging had commenced. Canadian contractors had with the full authority of the Government entered the forest reserve and begun felling. A 12 meter roadway was cut and trucks, bulldozers and back hoes moved freely carrying the felled trees. The purpose was to feed a massive plywood factory in Salawa, Kosgoda.
There is a saying ‘ Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man’. That man was Thilo Hoffman. During the time of this near calamity to Sinharaja he was Managing Director of A. Baur & Company. He was also President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS ). He did not wear the mantle of the latter position lightly. He was an active, dedicated and professionally qualified (holding a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Science) protector and conservator of wildlife.
On being informed about the deforestation of Sinharaja, the WNPS headed by Hoffman initiated a fact finding mission. Hoffmann the indefatigable worker, traversed the length and breadth of Sinharaja and published a report explaining in detail the magnitude of the destruction of fauna and flora in Sinharaja. The WNPS published a booklet written by Hoffmann and freely circulated the English and Sinhala translations. This created a major public outcry against the further damage to Sinharaja. The Government could not ignore the issue, and was compelled to take notice.
A Ministerial Sub- Committee headed by George Rajapakse was appointed. Apparently the plywood was for the manufacture of tea chests. In 1977 Srimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front Government was defeated getting a mere six seats in Parliament. It was at that election that J.R.Jayewardene’s UNP won a landslide victory. Thilo Hoffmann met the new Prime Minister who, it may be recalled, became President one year later, and explained the gravity of the situation in Sinharaja. Jayewardene immediately banned any further logging. Perhaps at this point it is most relevant to request the Governmental Authorities to have some sort of memorial built out of stone at the entrance to Sinharaja, mentioning the name of Thilo Hoffmann – The Saviour of Sinharaja. May he be remembered for generations to come.
There is presently a controversy that a hotel is about to be built within Sinharaja. However in a statement reported in the press on April 8, 2021 the Dept. of Forest Conservation has completely refuted this allegation. The hotel is being built five km away from UNESCO’s World Heritage Site demarcation of the boundary of Sinharaja. It is on a private land adjacent to the Pothupitiya – Rakwana road.
But Sinharaja is too tempting to be allowed to continue its millions of years old existence. Either through colossal ignorance or supreme indifference there will threats to ravish Sinharaja. We know. We are confident. President Gotabaya Rajapakse would never permit this. After all was it not he, who as the one time Secretary Ministry of Defence and Urban Development Authority, pursue the Colombo Beautification Project? Remember how the old Grand Stand at the Race Course was transformed? How the International Rugger Grounds opposite it was created? How the Walking/ Running/ Cycling tracks near Independence Hall were made? His love for our motherland is deep seated and genuine. He saved Sri Lanka once from the cruel clutches of the LTTE. Yes, Sinharaja – this incredible treasure trove of biodiversity will be safe in his care.
The need for an alternative
By Uditha Devapriya
“Their much-awaited economic policy statement turned out to be nothing. The main problem with the NPP is there is no real analysis of the problem nor a cohesive plan of action. Anura Kumara Dissanayake is a Putin-by-day and Biden-by-night. What he says to the business community is not what he tells the public on the platform. If people are going to fall for [his] likes once again, we will never come out of this mess.” –Kabir Hashim, SJB Press Conference, 27 January 2023
With the Local Government elections in full sway, Sri Lanka’s main political parties are once again formulating and debating policies. The main Opposition, the SJB, has come out against parties seeking alternatives to engagement with the IMF. it has been particularly critical of its main opponent in the Opposition, the JVP-NPP, which organised an Economic Forum at the Galadari Hotel last week. As the SJB’s Harsha de Silva implied at a press conference, whatever the party in power may be, we need to implement IMF reforms.
The National Economic Forum was a masterclass in presentation and propaganda. Aimed at Colombo’s business establishment, it ended up proposing policies that are, to say the least, anathema to this crowd. The JVP-NPP’s critics have often faulted the party for being vague and abstruse about its stances. The Economic Forum revived these criticisms: MPs came out in support of a radical alternative to the current system, but failed to offer a clear, nuanced statement on what constitutes that alternative.
To be sure, such criticisms should not detract us from the need for an alternative. Yet the JVP-NPP’s lack of focus on who, or what, should drive the country’s development remains intriguing to say the least. While the Forum ended up reinforcing belief in the private sector as the engine of growth, MPs and party activists elsewhere were busy refuting such claims, arguing for State intervention. Such contradictions cannot help a party that has come under attack, from the neoliberal right, for its lack of consistency.
For their part, the neoliberal right continues to frame what Devaka Gunawardena calls the market consensus as the only solution worth seeing through. Thus, the right-wing flank of the SJB, which accomodates MPs who owe their political careers to the UNP, as well as the newly neoliberalised flank of the SLPP, which is in government, invoke the rhetoric of sacrifice and better times ahead, predicating growth tomorrow on austerity today. It doesn’t help that the country’s ever protean middle-classes, based mainly in Colombo, are divided on these policies: on the one hand they are against utility tariff and tax hikes, and on the other they are supportive of privatisation and the divestment of State assets.
Despite my criticism of the JVP-NPP, I believe the party’s framing of the need for a radical alternative to neoliberal economics should be encouraged. The JVP-NPP, to be sure, is not the only outfit highlighting or emphasising these alternatives. The Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya (ULS), sections of the Old Left, as well as the centrist and centre-left flanks of the SJB, have argued for and advocated them. No less than Sajith Premadasa has implied that IMF negotiations should not compromise on the country’s economic sovereignty.
Yet with the ULS’s past association with the Rajapaksa regime and the SJB’s rightward tilts – epitomised more than anything else by Harsha de Silva’s and Kabir Hashim’s recent criticisms of the JVP-NPP – it is the JVP-NPP that has gained credence, with critics of the status quo, as an authentic and a radical political option.
I am not in agreement with everything the JVP-NPP stands for. Its stance on the Executive Presidency, as Dayan Jayatilleka has correctly pointed out, is at odds with the tactics and strategies deployed by Left parties elsewhere, prominently in Latin and South America. Its stand on devolution is somewhat ambiguous. It continues to be progressive on every other social issue, including minority rights and LGBTQ rights, but recent statements concerning women have been roundly criticised, if not condemned. As my friend Shiran Illanperuma puts it, the party has been in a permanent state of opposition ever since it lost its hardcore nationalist and student Left flanks, between 2008 and 2012. Its statements on the economy and what it plans to do with it have hence become vague and confused.
However, despite these limitations, I believe that the party’s radical thrusts need to be taken forward. That is because the SJB’s right-wing has been incapable of transcending its fixation with neoliberal economics. It has become a captive to the mantra of the market consensus. Nothing illustrates this more, in my opinion, than Harsha de Silva’s take on the recent tax hikes: he says he opposes a 36 percent rate, but then adds that he and the party favours a 30 percent rate. As a Left critic of the party pointed out to me, between the one and the other, there isn’t much of a difference. For its part, the JVP-NPP has recommended that the minimum threshold for income tax be moved up from Rs 100,000 to Rs 200,000, and that the tax rate be capped at 24 percent.
Kabir Hashim’s advocacy of the UNP’s economic reforms is another case in point. Hashim’s remarks on the UNP’s proposals for the 2005 election at the recent press conference are instructive here. “In 2004, Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the UNP was going to trim State sector jobs and said they wouldn’t allow it. Now in 2022, on NPP platforms he says the State sector is a huge burden to the country and that it cannot give jobs. He took 20 years to understand this… State institutions grew from 107 to 245 since then, with losses of over Rs. 1.2 trillion.” Such statements tell us that while the SJB’s neoliberal flank is unwilling to team up with Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is perfectly willing to continue his policies.
To their credit, the ULS and the Old Left have advocated policies antithetical to the market consensus as well. They are against the current regime’s economic and foreign policy. This does not automatically qualify them as a worthy Opposition, however; the truth is that the Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya, as well as the SLFP along with the Dullas Alahapperuma faction of the SLPP, were in my opinion not vocal or articulate enough against the SLPP when it held power from 2019 to 2022. These outfits fell prey to the intrigues of the Rajapaksas, and though they did not go along the SLPP all the way through, they were unfortunately unable to stop the latter from taking the country down with them last year.
The ULS, the Old Left, the SLFP, and the SLPP dissident faction have hence lost credibility. However, that should not belittle the policies they advocate. The JVP-NPP will, to be sure, not join forces with the ULS: it is too opposed to coalitions to enter such an arrangement. Yet the party has been associated in the past with progressive, if socialist, policies: when it decided to support Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, for instance, it made its support conditional on discontinuing privatisation of state assets. Rajapaksa agreed.
In that recent press conference, Kabir Hashim singled out the JVP for its former support for Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP, claiming that that it too is responsible for the current economic mess. What Hashim and his peers in the SJB, who incidentally are at variance with the economic paradigm of no less than the father of their leader, have still not realised is that the policies they advocate, as the alternative to the status quo, are no different to the policies pursued by the current regime. There is at present a bankruptcy of ideas as far as alternatives are concerned in Sri Lanka. The JVP-NPP may not have the best possible policy package. But it needs to be encouraged, if at all because, as far as the Sri Lankan Left goes, it can win big at the upcoming elections. Who doesn’t like a winner?
At the same time, the SJB’s centre and centre-left flanks must be concretely encouraged to prevent the party, as a whole, from becoming a right-wing neoliberal outfit. In that sense, Sajith Premadasa’s recent intervention, his cogent critique of going all out for austerity, was a success: it essentially got the neoliberal flank of the party to reverse its pro-IMF rhetoric. Such manoeuvres may not be to the liking of MPs whose ideas for economic reform do not differ or depart substantially from the UNP’s programme. But it is essential that there be a counter to the latter policies, if at all because we cannot continue with all out austerity. To quote that old Gramscian quip, the old world lies dying and the new struggles to be born. In such a context, it would be utter madness to continue living in the old world.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rally the People, One Nation, One Call Free Sri Lanka:Independence Day 2023
Today we Sri Lankans are a people ransomed by successive national governments to foreign creditors and super powers who hold us Lilliputians in their Gulliver palms! Therefore come Independence Day February 4, 2023, we must ask the question, what are Independence Days that countries celebrate? The qualified answer is: they are to commemorate Nationhood free from foreign domination and the beginning of a country’s freedom from foreign powers and achievement of national independence. This in essence is the basis laid down for celebration of Independence Day by all accounts and definitions.
Sri Lanka’s indebtedness and continued process of falling into further debt to pay the immediate debts is now a spiraling Sword of Damocles on the unborn heads of generations to come. Even though an expected tranche of US$2.9 Bn bailout package from the IMF is supposed to give a short respite, today we live in a nation asphyxiated with foreign creditors awaiting payment with interest that the country is unable to deliver. It is the 17th time since Independence that we go through the rigors of borrowing from the IMF and not instituting policy measures to be sustainable and self-sufficient Nation. However the crunch time now is irreparable insolvency, finding yet no solution in sight to be free from servicing debt repayments or even finding the means to effect the same.
Decades of beggary, being beholden to foreign powers to the extent of appeasing them politically, economically and culturally are evident in the many ways this island nation has had to concede to India and China on numerous occasions. The bottom line and pressing reality for the Nationhood of Sri Lanka is any key decision on our ports, energy, security, minority interests, even the selection of Free Trade Agreements with partner countries, divestiture of national assets etc all fall prey to the interests of those money lending institutions and nations to whom Sri Lanka is beholden during the 75 years of its so called independence.
Let us take a reality check. We the people of this country are now locked into hitherto unprecedented all time record of unsustainable debt, bankruptcy, economic contraction, galloping inflation, penury, malnourishment, failing health care, rising mortality rates, school drop outs, erosion of democracy and democratic institutions to name a few. Professionals, technicians, blue collar works, housemaids leave the country in droves for earning in foreign climes.
The massive brain drain of expertise and technical capacity moving out of the country remains the highest on record. The Government Budget shows no heed of expenditure curbs. It has no credible implementation mechanism to increase revenue through pragmatic taxation of high income earners. Instead, the middle and poorer professional classes are caught in its tentacles of direct and indirect taxation policies. In essence, the Government of the day has no sustainable way forward to take the Nation out of the dark tunnel of hopelessness to which it has sunk.
Amidst this carnage of nationhood, says the President of Sri Lanka glibly, “we must celebrate the 75th Independence Anniversary, otherwise, the world will say that we are not capable of celebrating even our independence” That is the puerile and even petty justification given by an Executive President for holding the Independence Day Ceremonies with an estimated total cost of Rs.200 million at a time when it is internationally known that we are a bankrupt debtor nation beholden to the charity of our creditors, private lenders, and bilateral lenders like India, China, Japan and international lending organizations.
However, according to the President what must be advertised to the world at large is that on February 4, 1948, Ceylon was granted independence as the Dominion of Ceylon. The fact such Dominion status within the British Commonwealth was retained for another 24 years until May 22, 1972 until Ceylon became a Republic of Sri Lanka remains a factual aside to this remembrance of things past. What really is the relevance of old historical tales of the Kandyan Rebellions of 1818, 1848, the Muslim Uprising of 1915, the saga of past heroes culminating in Independence given on a platter to Sri Lanka in 1948 unlike in India where it was the culmination of the struggles of the Mahathma Gandhi and his followers.
In this context it is an insult to injury for the Government to spend the tax payers money on a mere show of strength and military grandeur by the armed forces parading in front of a President who is not elected by the people but instead supported by the now debased SLPP Party of deposed former President Gotabaya and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is a fact that the combined assault of the major political parties as the UNP headed by Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe of the infamous and defunct Yahapalanaya , now signed up to uphold the notorious corrupt degenerate governments of the Rajapaksas have over several decades run the country to debt and more unpayable debt until the nation is today groveling before the big powers with a begging bowl.
The utter mis-management of the economy since the ” glory days” of independence, the successive reliance for short term financial rolling on the International Monetary Fund and other lending organizations, Institutions, bilateral partners for funding which have led to a cumulative monetary disaster, the Machiavellian politicization of the social and economic policies, institutions, public service, judiciary, manipulation of minority and racial riots and schisms have combined to sound the death knell of our independence and sovereignty.
The call of the Lion with a brandished sword on Independence Day is therefore a strident one: Let us all as One People rise up for the free, fair and just nationhood of our beloved mother Lanka! Raise the Flag for a clean, anti-corrupt, sound governance and legitimate leadership representing the People! Victory comes not by regurgitating old victories, but in facing the battle of today: To Fight the Good Fight one and all must be the Independence of nationhood that we celebrate and prize beyond all measure.
The politics of opposing imperialism and neoliberalism
By Uditha Devapriya
One of the most important debates to emerge from the history of the Left movement in Sri Lanka – by which I include the Old and the New Left – is whether they were correct to ally with formations that were anything but socialist. Be it the LSSP’s decision to join forces with the SLFP, or the JVP’s decision to support candidates fronted by Sri Lanka’s definitive right-wing party, the UNP, these choices have divided socialist activists. History is yet to deliver a verdict on them. Until it does, I am afraid that we can only speculate.
Of course, it’s not just the Sri Lankan Left. Socialist parties everywhere and anywhere – from the US to India, and beyond – have joined forces with non-socialist formations. In Sri Lanka it is the Old Left, the LSSP and the Communist Party, that are called out for having betrayed socialist causes and allied with such formations. But other Left outfits have done the same thing: from the NSSP to the JVP. While these parties are yet to receive the same degree of criticism the Old Left has, it must be admitted that, at least from the perspective of practical politics, they all considered it necessary to enter into various alliances.
I am not sufficiently versed in Marxist literature to justify or criticise this. I am aware that Marxist figureheads of the 20th century, including Stalin, were not above forming tactical alliances with other formations. And it wasn’t just Stalin. The LSSP’s decision to support the SLFP, in 1964, can partly be traced to the shifts of opinion within the Trotskyite movement regarding alliances with non-socialist parties. It is on the basis of such shifts that parties like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have become part of mainstream outfits like the Democratic Party, which can hardly be described as left-wing.
At the local and the global level, then, the socialist Left’s main dilemma, essentially, is whether it should join forces with other formations to fight a greater evil, the greater evil usually defined as imperialism or neoliberalism.
Marxists call out on sections of the Left which support Russia against Ukraine, or China against the United States, on the grounds that states like Russia and China are no more or no less imperialist than the West. These activists argue that no one country holds exclusive rights to the concept of imperialism. As such, the task of the Left should be, not to take sides with one camp or the other, but to oppose all forms of imperialism.
There is nothing inherently objectionable with such a strategy. The task of socialist politics, after all, is supposed to be the emancipation or liberation of the masses from all forms of oppression. Viewed this way, a viable, progressive socialist movement must be prepared to oppose not just US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Russian intervention in Syria and Eastern Europe. The objective or telos of such a stance, comments Dan La Botz in New Politics, would be to secure “a world free from oppression and exploitation, one in which all human beings can have a voice and a vote about their future.”
While being generally supportive of these objectives and tactics, however, we need to be mindful whether such an outlook will create equivalences where there simply aren’t any. After all, for socialists of the Third Camp, it doesn’t matter which imperialism you oppose: no one holds a monopoly over its meaning or its deployment.
The core question as far as the global Left is concerned, then, is what imperialism entails. Third Camp socialists would contend that imperialism involves the conquest of other territories. This would include not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also China’s designs in Hong Kong. Their opponents, by contrast, would argue that imperialism, not unlike fascism, is dependent on certain criteria, such as the possession of economic and military strength – on which basis there would only be one imperialist power, the US.
These debates have shaped socialist politics in countries like Sri Lanka as well. This is especially so where critiques of right-wing nationalism, including Sinhala nationalism, are concerned. Certain Marxists, especially in the Global South, tend to erase any distinction between nationalist and neoliberal outfits, arguing that there is no distinction to be made, and that as far as the Left is concerned, it should not take sides with either.
To be sure, nationalist formations can invoke the rhetoric of anti-imperialism. This is palpably so in Sri Lanka, as witness parties like the National Freedom Front. Yet their critics on the Left point out that not only are such displays of anti-imperialism mere eyewash, but that if encouraged, these outfits can even appropriate discussions over issues which the socialist camp should be taking up. On those grounds, the New Left contends, dogmatically, that nationalist and neoliberal outfits must be equally opposed.
I understand this attitude, and to understand it is, at one level, to empathise with it. The nationalist and in particular Sinhala nationalist right – often construed as the alt-right – has done itself very few favours over the last few decades. It has attempted to raise the banner of anti-imperialism, but has failed to acknowledge a more cohesive, inclusive framing of country so necessary for anti-imperialist politics. As I have mentioned many times, in this paper and elsewhere, we must oppose chauvinism from this standpoint.
I do not necessarily agree with those who take issue with the nationalist right’s gripe with Westernisation and globalisation, simply because such agitation is a symptom of a deeper malaise: it is a variant on the same agitation to be found among blue-collar workers in the US against China. But I do agree with those Marxist commentators who chastise nationalists for framing their politics within what Devaka Gunawardena calls “an exclusivist definition of community.” For Sinhala nationalists, or a majority of them, anti-imperialism appears less directed at neoliberal politics than at other racial groups, an easier target. In targeting the latter, it even ends up borrowing the language of the imperialist: hence Jathika Chintanaya’s obsession with Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilisations agitprop.
At the same time, sections of the Left, demonstrating that purist strain which has for so long besmirched academic Marxism, appear to refuse not just to join forces with nationalist formations – in itself not execrable – but also to acknowledge the economic and material factors that led to their growth. Instead, such parties and outfits are automatically termed as suspect, and viewed with the same suspicion with which neoliberal outfits are. This is what explains the Left’s horrendous failure to address, much less deal with or resolve, the tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which accompanied the neoliberal reforms of the J. R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga governments.
Their assumptions regarding these developments follow the same logic which Third Camp socialists deploy when equating Western imperialism with Russian and Chinese imperialism. Such logic seems to me as misplaced as the tactic of supporting whatever formation, simply because it claims to be opposed to imperialism or neoliberalism.
Let me be clear here, then. I believe that the task of socialist activists, in the Global North, is not to feign moral neutrality, but rather to recognise certain distinctions between the forms of imperialism they oppose. NATO, to put it bluntly, possesses the sort of firepower which Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China does not, as every Defence Strategy Paper authored by the Pentagon should make us realise. This is the basis on which the global Marxist Left must begin to address and confront the politics of hegemony.
I believe, also, that the task of socialist activists in the Global South is to recognise distinctions between the neoliberal politics against which they are pitted, and nationalist formations which hold up anti-imperialist slogans. This does not mean the Left should join with the latter. Far from it. But the Left must certainly acknowledge that, as powerful as the latter may be, such formations are powerless compared to the former.
In other words, the fight against hegemony must begin from the recognition of the fact that there are no competing imperial or authoritarian forces out there. It is possible to oppose Putin from a socialist standpoint, just as it is possible to oppose right-wing nationalism in countries like ours. Yet such critiques should be constructive. Third Camp socialists who feign neutrality risk not just preaching to the choir, but, more dangerously, ceding moral space to more powerful antagonistic forces. It is against these forces, at home and abroad, that socialists must bare their sabres. This should be their first priority.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
Veteran singer and musician Professor Sanath Nandasiri passed away at the age of 81
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