by Uditha Devapriya
As far as presidential discretion goes, pardoning Duminda Silva was hardly an unprecedented act. This is nothing to be surprised at; it has happened before, it will happen again. The issue, therefore, is less about why it happened than why now.
The timing was wrong. The optics were wrong. The man being pardoned may or may not have deserved a pardon – let history be the judge of that – but letting off someone convicted by the country’s Supreme Court of one of the highest crimes outlawed in the land on a Poya Day, let alone a Poson Poya Day, should raise more than just eyebrows. The precepts of the Buddha are as much about forgiveness as the gospel of Christ, but forgiveness is, and should be, placed in its proper context. The president let out 94 prisoners, 16 of them former LTTE cadres. They had good reason to be forgiven. Duminda Silva may have had good reason too; who can tell? In his case, however, absolution could have come later.
The government cannot fault the people for turning what followed into a series of irreverent memes. First the president announced his address to the nation. Then people tuned in at night, only to find out it had been recorded before. (The president’s media division did make note of this, but hardly anyone noticed.) Coming in the wake of a pandemic situation that’s spiralling out of control, it seemed too little, and not a little too late.
Many of those tuning in didn’t listen to the speech. They overlooked it. And in overlooking it, they overlooked the man making it. The responses to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s social media posts are a 180 degree turn from what they used to be. This is a huge volte-face, and it tells us how the president of the country is perceived by many of his people.
Even if one didn’t expect such a reversal, the reactions to the speech showed just how badly things have changed. It is not that the president did not make valid points. He did. He is right about the vaccine situation; as a study by Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health notes quite correctly, Sri Lanka “presents an example of what a well-organized, centrally-designed, publicly-financed health system can achieve”, especially during a pandemic.
He is also right about his efforts at allocating “over 400 billion rupees to provide loan deferral facilities to small and medium enterprises.” As someone who experienced how loan deferral schemes could thwart the possibility of financial bankruptcy in the first wave, I agree with the need for such measures. These were, to be sure, not the only points that he made, but many of his other points seemed well made and well taken as well.
Yet people have begun to view the government in a different light now. Some of its biggest defenders have turned, or are turning. They haven’t taken kindly to some of the government’s choices, particularly those relating to vaccine procurement and delivery. It is true the country is being inoculated in practically every corner. But as specialists and experts have pointed out correctly, vaccine procurement should have picked up in January. It did not.
Worse, having dithered on procuring vaccines, a decision that backfired when India’s Serum Institute suspended exports of AstraZeneca (a decision for which the regime alone can’t take the blame), officials bungled on the PCR front, letting cases come down by way of reduced test numbers. As anyone would know, reducing cases by reducing tests is like painting spots on a cat to prove it’s a leopard: it’s deceptive, dangerous, and damaging.
Valid as these concerns are, though, they are nothing compared to perceptions of the regime’s disconnect from ground realities. Critics of the government should be forgiven for comparing its failings to the failings of its predecessor, yet anachronistic though such a comparison may be, for those making them, it remains relevant. And why? Because for such critics, there’s no line dividing a government which compromised on national security from one which erred in the face of biggest pandemic we’ve seen since the Spanish Flu.
If there’s no point bringing up the Easter Attacks here, it’s not only because it’s hard to score points with such tragedies today, nor because people have forgotten the mistakes of the last government, but because that was then and this is now. One could have applied this principle to the previous regime; when an MP grumbled about people honking horns at security escorts holding up traffic a few months after the Easter attacks, even Rajapaksa critics asked that MP why his likes were using the “Rajapaksa bogey” to cover up their failures.
It’s interesting, how roles can be reversed. About three weeks ago, social media was ablaze with vehicle owners protesting the fuel price hike by travelling on wheelbarrows; such posts, pertinent as the anger buttressing them may have been, and other posts showing vehicle owners defying travel restrictions during the subsequent “lockdown”, revealed a rift between middle-class critics of the regime and the bulk of the country stuck at home without as much as a motorcycle. Yet, ironically, it only reflected perceptions of the regime’s own disconnect: from not just its middle-class critics, but also the many others suffering in silence.
It’s a knife that cut both ways: while the suburban bourgeoisie complain about such issues as import restrictions and Chinese letters on butter packages, the regime, through its policies, is concurrently distancing itself from the peasantry and working class. What we’re seeing there is Bonapartism in reverse: populists unable to balance social classes.
In his speech, the president spoke about how the previous regime let the country down, and how it lost track of what had been a booming economy until then. He quoted the figures, gave the statistics, and drew a convincing picture of how things would have turned out if Mahinda Rajapaksa did not lose in 2015. For the sake of argument – and there are many arguments that support the president’s view here – let us assume that had a turnaround not happened in 2015, had Maithripala Sirisena not defected, had Ranil Wickremesinghe not become Prime Minister through Sirisena, and had the Mahinda Rajapaksa branch of the SLFP been recognised as the opposition, things may have improved. By that same logic, let us forget that personalities and individuals, by themselves, cannot decide on the direction of the wind.
The problem isn’t that these statements are flawed, though flawed they are. The problem is that they would have been more convincing had they been made, say, a decade ago. That they don’t seem convincing now tells us much about how circumstances and contexts change, and how what was true then does not necessarily remain true forever.
It also shows us how protean the local electorate is, and how voter sympathies, particularly Sinhala middle-class sympathies, can shift from party to party. Put simply, it shows how an electorate that voted against the Rajapaksas, yet still gave them a thin margin of defeat at the August 2015 election, then gave the SLPP a majority in January 2018 and a bigger landslide to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019, with a gargantuan two-thirds mandate in August 2020, can turn the other way. The social media factor, hyped as it may be, is not a point to be discounted there. It worked against the status quo twice, in 2015 and 2019. Often it can work in favour of the government. Yet the tide can easily, and quickly, turn.
We are living in strange times. The government and opposition don’t see eye to eye on most matters, but unlike what went for politics before 2015, both sides are zeroing in on one aim: winning 2024. It comes to no surprise that none other than Champika Ranawaka, the foremost anti-Rajapaksa figure with nationalist credentials, has replied through supporters and proxies to Victor Ivan on abolishing the Executive Presidency, cautioning against rushing it. Similar sentiments have been expressed on the issue of human rights probes by the SJB.
What these show is that the opposition, barring perhaps the JVP and the UNP, has prioritised winning elections in the long run over propping up liberal utopias in the short.
In such circumstances, the government will find it unwise to play the war card, the security card, and the nationalist card, with voters who have a far bigger assortment to choose from. It is true that as far as nationalist credentials go, none can beat the Rajapaksas. But given recent incidents, and how Sri Lanka’s online middle class is reacting to them, the government would do well to note the anger rising up among even its most fervent supporters.
The president’s speech is a sign of things to come. If his men do not heed the wind, the tide can turn against them. Sooner or later, it may well turn against us too.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Whither or wither NGOs?
Not too long ago, a friend of mine observed that many if not most NGOs, in their quest for values such as transparency and reconciliation, embark on lavishly funded projects that target a broad audience, yet appeal to a narrow base.
Exhibitions at galleries in and around Colombo, discussions with foreign experts in Colombo hotels, and art, essay, and photography competitions: these, she pointed out to me, tend to leave out people who matter to those who want to achieve reconciliation and accountability. By doing so, NGOs not only alienate people, but also discredit themselves.
She then showed me an expensive, glossily laminated book that an agency had brought out to commemorate a particular event. Around 30 photographs, each revolving around a specific theme, incident, or person, stood out on the pages, and the accompanying text, simple, brief, and poetic, pointed out the significance of the event as perceived by a person: a hawker on one page, a distinguished filmmaker on another, and so on.
The publication obviously seemed worthy of the care and commitment its authors had put into it. Yet my friend questioned, rightly I think, whether such a project would mean anything to the country. While she did not come out with it vocally, what she wanted to say was that much money had been spent on a book which would reach very few.
The problem with NGOs – and I mean most of them, barring the occasional agency that serves its community – is their inability to go beyond their quarters. Many of them seem to believe that forums, discussions, and exhibitions can somehow compensate for their lack of presence in the world outside Colombo or other major cities.
If this had the effect of merely discrediting them in the eyes of the people who should matter to these agencies, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it has also had the effect of turning the people who matter away from the very values that the agencies advocate. One can’t blame them, because when you intellectualise reconciliation and projects which supposedly promote reconciliation, you distance yourself from a majority whose unfamiliarity with the language employed in those projects puts them off.
If you want to market these values, you have to market them to the people. While I’ve always believed that liberalism, the ideological prism through which these values are promoted if not marketed today, is largely a construct of 18th and 19th century European, bourgeois, white civilisation, this does not and should not discount the universality and timelessness of values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. That these have been hijacked today and put in the service of a neoliberal agenda is another question altogether; that is a legacy of the Cold War, the end of history, and the clash of civilisations.
In other words, we should not fall under the illusion that because these are being touted in the interests of certain ideological interests, they should be discarded completely. To do so would be to assume that such values are alien to our civilisation. They are not.
Human rights, transparency, accountability, and reproductive rights are not, nor have they ever been, Eurocentric. Historical narratives and accounts tell us that long before cities emerged in Europe, long before Luther pinned those 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church, scholars and rulers from this side of the world were making important moral distinctions, going beyond the dual logic system that the West would later pioneer.
It would be more correct to think of freedom, individuality, responsibility, and fundamental rights as universal values refracted through particular ideological systems. For instance, Rupa Saparamadu in Sinhala Gehaniya argues that, prior to European colonialism, Sinhala women were treated quite well and certain inalienable rights were accorded to them.
I myself take issue with such a claim – Praveen Tilakaratne, responding to a piece by Senel Wanniarachchi on the image of the goddess Tara at the British Museum in which he makes a similar observation, also takes issue with that claim – but the point that such an argument could be made, and historical evidence be marshalled for it, obviously points to a narrative of rights, duties, and justice falling outside the matrix of Western civilisation.
The vexing question, then, is whether we must accept these values for what they intrinsically are or whether, given how they have been modified to suit Western ideological interests and preferred political outcomes, we should try to relate them to a worldview that differs from a Eurocentric perspective. Indeed, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has suggested that we view rights through cultural prisms.
The struggle to “universalise” these values and tenets must be taken from another angle also. For far too long, the human rights agenda, as it’s called, has been criticised, not unjustifiably, for being not only Eurocentric and white but also middle class and elitist. In other words, they are seen as the preserve of English speaking upper or upper middle class society, a point that has more often than not been borne out by the reality; a glance at some of the big names in NGO society will make it clear that agencies tend to operate through cocktail circuits rather than tangible, live encounters with people. Naturally this should not be the case, though it is: from the choice of officials for agencies to the language they employ in their press releases, they project distance from rather than proximity to the people.
I realise the dilemma that these NGOs are caught in. Agencies rely on donors and donors can only give once certain criteria are met. Forgetting for the moment the vexing, debatable issue of whether donors set certain agendas that are detrimental to national interests – a moot point which I think deserves further analysis and assessment – the truth is that agencies are, not a little ironically, as bureaucratised as government departments, if in a less discernible way.
As such policies tend to be ironed out by top officials, then reinterpreted by the rank and file of the organisation, policy is filtered through many layers, making consistency impossible. As the scholar Anna Ohanyan (2009) has noted, donors tend to “capture” NGOs and deny them both organisational autonomy, an issue exacerbated by the entrenchment of the NGO sector in the developing world in the face of weak, authoritarian regimes.
In fact, it is when the public sector is on the verge of collapse and the State veers towards authoritarianism that donors focus their attention on NGOs. This trend is hardly specific to Sri Lanka, yet it is a phenomenon prevalent in countries like ours that fluctuate between long periods of authoritarianism and brief periods of neoliberal reform. That, moreover, is not the case all the time: NGOs may flourish at times of authoritarianism and censorship since it can “market” the need for large funds, but it can also erode in such periods.
On the other hand, while donors may be willing to fund agencies during a transitioning from right wing authoritarianism to neoliberal reform, once the transition is made, or is assumed to have been made, they may exit the industry since, frankly, there’s no further need for them. A random visit to one or two offices of the most prominent agencies here will make clear how lack of funds has left the sector impoverished, especially in the wake of the post-2015 wave of neoliberal reforms that swept through the country and penetrated the State.
The fluctuating fortunes of NGOs deserve scrutiny. It’s certainly a paradoxical world out there, one which a seasoned academic, devoid of a bias for or against such agencies, must undertake to study. On the other hand, the universality of values that these agencies espouse must not and cannot be denied. To fit them in the larger cultural mould we come out of, to relate them to people whose conception of individuality is different from how the West’s, is to embark on an endeavour far removed from the cocktail circuits of local NGOs.
My critique of NGO led civil society thus is that we have allowed a certain group to dominate the conversation, letting them decide which issues are “larger causes” and which are not. By giving this clique carte blanche, we have let them do what they want, and what they please, on behalf of “us” or “the rest of us.” The need here, then, is to reform civil society. Unless we do this, all we will get out of reconciliation will be laminated coffee table books that mean nothing to people who matter. Reform within NGOs, by NGOs and not the state, is therefore an imperative need of the hour. It cannot wait, and it should not be delayed.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A CASE OF MISTAKEN INDENTITY ON AN OFFICIAL VISIT TO YUGOSLAVIA IN 1959
by L.C. Arulpragasam
I was a sick man when I reported for work relating to the implementation of the Paddy Lands Act of 1958. I had pleurisy of the lungs due to my work with fever during the Batticaloa floods of 1957. The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Philip Gunawardena) hearing of my plight, sent me on an official study visit to Israel and Yugoslavia. I had to be cleared by a Medical Board before I could go abroad. Fortunately, I personally knew all three doctors on the Board. One of them laughingly said: “If we don’t send this fellow abroad, he will die on our hands: it is better if he dies abroad!” Dr. John Wilson gave me a course of antibiotics, warning me that I should see a doctor as soon as I reached my destination.
President Tito had visited Ceylon in early 1959, where he was lionized as a pillar of the Non-Alligned Movement. He was shown in photos at Pasyala with the cadju girls, on his way to Kandy. This was probably his first visit to a tropical country – and it received overwhelming publicity among the people in Yugoslavia. My official visit to Yugoslavia happened soon after.
When I arrived in Beograd (Yugoslavia), there was no official to meet me at the airport. Since this was my first official trip abroad, I did not know what to do. My suitcase had been off-loaded, sitting lonely on the tarmac. So I sat on my suitcase, just as I had done as schoolboy, waiting for the Royal College Boarding ‘bus! In the mean time, I had noticed a black African being met by important officials together with a gaggle of reporters, taking him to the VIP Lounge. There they discovered that they had the ‘wrong number’ (they had been interviewing the wrong man) and ran across the empty tarmac to me, sitting lonely on my suitcase.
They then escorted me with pomp and ceremony to the VIP Room for a photo op and interview. I said that I had come to study their agriculture, agrarian structure and cooperative farms. The next morning, my picture was splashed on the front page of the main newspapers: it read, “The Minister of Agriculture of Ceylon has come to Yugoslavia to buy sheep and goats!” I was 31 years old at that time, in the CCS, but only a Deputy Commissioner of Agrarian Services! I definitely was not the Minister of Agriculture! I laughed the whole thing off, thinking that it was only a genuine mistake. I had not come there to buy sheep and goats!
That was the beginning of an improbable but impressive journey! My first meeting was with the Minister or Commissar of Agriculture and his cohorts. It was conducted in Serbo-Croat: so when I asked a question, it had to be translated into Serbo-Croat and back again into English. While this was going on, every time that I caught an official’s eye (which was often), he would stand up and offer me a toast with slivovitz (plum brandy). They would then all stand up, look smilingly at me and quaff the brandy in one gulp. I got used to doing the same! This would continue with many toasts till I was whisked off to the next meeting – and the next meeting, and another, interspersed with shots of slivovitz until both the hosts and I were quite tipsy.
This was followed by a sumptuous lunch of five courses accompanied by different wines for different courses, all laid out with an impressive array of wine glasses, cutlery and napery to match. This routine was followed the next day and the next. Although this was my first official trip overseas, it did not take me long to realize that these grand receptions were the only occasions where my hosts (all officials) could get free booze and lavish meals – using me as an excuse!
On some evenings, I was taken to a ballet or an opera – of which I had read of only in books. I was escorted by students, hired cheaply, who could speak only French or German – but not English. I could understand very little: for even the programmes were in Serbo-Croat.
One evening, while walking to a park round the corner, I saw large posters of Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) who was going to give a concert in Belgrade. I also noticed a bunch of urchins about 7-11 years of age, who were disputing in whispers whether I could be Satchmo, as my skin colour confirmed their suspicions! Looking straight ahead, proudly pointing to my chest, I proclaimed loudly “Me, Satchmo”. That excited the band of urchins, who followed me in awe to my hotel, crowding at the large display glass windows – I still remember their hot breaths frosting the glass – till the security guards chased them away.
The next day when I ventured out, the urchins having learned the truth, lined up to hoot me. When I laughed to signify that it was all a joke to fool them, they jumped all over me, one at my waist, one on my arm and one on my back till I arrived at the park, laden with small children. They were excitedly pulling me in all directions, wanting me to come to their homes. I guessed that they had never seen a dark man before.
The young girl who quieted them managed to speak some English. Some days later, she wanted to come to my hotel room! Whereas no girl would look at me in Ceylon, I found that the girls, attracted no doubt by my dark skin, were making physical advances to me. In Central Europe after the War, a dark man was a rarity; besides, the country had lost many of their men in WWII against the Nazis.
After my meetings in Belgrade, I was flown to the capitals of each of the six constituent states/ republics. I was met at the airport by the Ministers of Agriculture of those republics/states – which should have aroused my suspicions. Here was I, a lowly state functionary of Ceylon, being entertained by the Minister of Agriculture of Yugoslavia and met at the airport by the Ministers of Agriculture of each of the republics/states. Since this was the first time that I was on an official visit, it never occurred to me that this was quite disproportionate, diplomatically speaking. At the state/republic level too, I was entertained in the same way: meetings specifically to brief me, enlivened by shots of slivovitz, followed by lavish lunches with more wine and more inebriation.
I was also taken to the countryside by my guide and mentor. He was a polished guy with a PhD from France, who spoke English, French and German. He smoked through a gold-tipped cigarette-holder and drove in a Mercedez-Benz with a driver. He was a theoretical Marxist and a confirmed state socialist. Having read Marx and Hegel myself, I was able to dispute his Communist beliefs; he was surprised that I could match his knowledge of Marxism and of world history! One day, in one of the states, he took me to a collective farm. The land had belonged to a Prince and had been taken over by the state of Yugoslavia to be run as a collective farm. I spent time talking to the farmers. I learned that they were still farming with oxen, cultivating about 1 hectare each. In the evening, my mentor waxed eloquent about the economies of scale in their collective farms. “What economies of scale”, I snorted, “when each farmer is actually managing and operating only 1 hectare!” True, Yugoslavia at that time could not afford mechanization, but to distort the facts in order to satisfy Marxist theory was too much!
Another interesting event happened to me. At the collective farm, an old white haired woman approached me: she stroked my face lovingly, saying repeatedly, “My son, my son”. Someone explained to me that she had lost her son, who had never returned from the war. I was amazed at her lack of colour-consciousness: was it due to the lack of colour consciousness in Yugoslavia at that time? Was it due to the socialist ethos, or was it due to the lack of coloured people in Central Europe in those days?
That night, my guide/minder excused himself saying that he would like to meet some friends. He wondered whether I would mind eating alone in the collective cafeteria. When I went down to the dining area, I found that it was filled with women and girls. There were hardly any men left due to their deaths in World War II. The lone coloured man (he was from Egypt) invited me to his table. Sitting at his table were about five or six girls. After the introductions, his opening words were: “Brother, I cannot manage any more, can you please take over from me?” – meaning the girls!
I replied lamely that I was there only for that night. Shortly after that, two of the girls took me by the hand insisting that I should come to their home, which was only a short distance away. They were mother and daughter – and extremely beautiful, with the high cheekbones of the Slavic race. I could hardly make out who was the mother and who the daughter: they both looked so young! The daughter was a medical student, who spoke good English. They insisted on taking me to their home, clinging on to me physically, while walking down a dark lane. At one point, fearing the worst, I dug in my heels, so that they had to drag my dead weight. I refused to go any farther, since their intentions had become clearer! Making lame apologies, I disentangled myself and ignominiously fled to the well-lit cafeteria!
I was flown to the capitals of most republics of Yugoslavia – to Zagreb, Ljubljana, Skopje, etc. When going to the field in one of the republics, I chatted with a high official in the car. He wished to ask me a personal question and when I agreed, he asked me: “How did you become Minister of Agriculture of your country when you are so young?” I exploded: “I am not the Minister of Agriculture” – which must have taken him by surprise. It is only then that I realized the charade that the Yugoslav Government was playing. It all fell into place now! There had been no high-level reciprocation of President Tito’s visit. So they had concocted a story that I was the Minister of Agriculture of Ceylon, being sent there to reciprocate President Tito’s widely advertised journey to our country! I had been blissfully unaware of this charade – which was being carried out at my expense.
For some years, I had thought that it was due to a genuine mistake: their head of the Agriculture Ministry was probably called a “Commissar” – which could easily be mistaken for “Commissioner”: but I was only a Deputy Commissioner. After some time, I became convinced that the deceit was deliberate. To put the best face on it, I reasoned that the Yugoslav state was entitled to deceive its own officials and people – although I had been used as an unwitting pawn!
In retrospect, I had not really paid any price at all for this extravaganza – which had not really been “at my expense”. In fact, I had lapped it all up: the perks, the ballet, the flights to different parts of the country, the visits to the different types of farms, the lavish lunches – and the slivovitz! I had in fact enjoyed being the “Minister of Agriculture” – if only for three weeks!
(The writer was a member of the former Ceylon Civil Service who took early retirement and had a long career with FAO in Rome)
The JVP congratulates China’s communists
The JVP’s congratulatory message to the Chinese Communist Party over the latter’s centenary seems a tad disconcerting. This is the same party that rails against “Chinese colonisation” in this country, the same party that worries about the country’s ruling elite modelling itself on the Chinese state. Reading the message, one rubs one’s eyes: in around 430 words, it praises the CPC for its efforts to bring “modernity and prosperity” to the Chinese people, for saving them from the clutches of “feudal overlords” a hundred years ago, and for taking the lead in the fight against Western imperialism. As befits such hopeful messages, it concludes on a hopeful note, with its belief that the Communist Party will strengthen “coordinated work among the Left parties to lead the world towards Socialism.”
Clearly, more than a mere rift between rhetoric and practice marks the JVP’s attitude to China. Yet its message to the CPC should not be viewed in isolation: it’s a reflection of other parties and their Janus-faced responses to the China question.
All the same, it’s intriguing how oppositional outfits, despite their anti-China rhetoric, keep going back to China in one sense or the other. The JVP is a case in point: this is not the first time it has despatched a congratulatory message to the much maligned monolith that is the CPC. In 2017, for instance, it sent a message to the CPC’s 19th National Congress, in which it not only referred to Xi Jinping as “Comrade”, but lauded the party’s efforts at establishing a “moderately prosperous society in an all-round way.”
These sentiments are, no doubt, in keeping with the JVP’s Maoist roots. But they remain a far cry from the JVP’s present conjuncture; it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that while the party badmouths China’s leaders in the vernacular, mostly in Sinhala, it despatches, and publishes, its congratulatory messages to those same leaders in English.
Perhaps it assumes that the Chinese aren’t familiar with Sinhala, or that they are tolerant of opposition parties badmouthing them in public within the country. Whatever the reason, it must be acknowledged that ambivalent though its response to China may be, such ambivalence is hardly the JVP’s preserve. Champika Ranawaka’s 43 Senankaya, for instance, borrows many of its political ideas from China’s example, in particular the achievements of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms; Mr Ranawaka correctly, and lucidly, contrasts the latter reforms with the oligarchy and family bandyism that have come to pass for development here today.
As for the SJB, the anger at Sajith Premadasa’s refusal to give a direct answer to an Indian (WION) journalist over her questions about Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka is an indication of where certain critics of this regime want his party to go: down a petty, pro-West path, in line with the UNP’s policies during the yahapalana years. Mr Premadasa’s measured reply shows that the SJB, far from embracing those policies, is firmly rejecting them.
In fact, the only parties which seem consistent in their opposition to China’s presence in Sri Lanka are the TNA and the UNP; thus a TNA MP summons fears of “Cheelamism” against the Port City Bill, while sharing an image of what he alleges to be a Chinese worker in the north on Twitter (which he later takes down when it’s shown to be a Sri Lankan). Surprising as it may seem, the UNP, by contrast, is not too intense over China; thus none less than Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe praises Beijing for its “role in preserving peace”, adding that Sri Lanka “has also benefited in a very big way.” This represents a turnaround for the UNP, even though it does not detract from the China-bashing it indulged in not too long ago.
What distinguish the almost hysterical responses of these parties to China from the more rational, reasoned responses of every other party, including the SJB, are the lines of critique they take with regard to the regime’s dalliance with Beijing. There are, at present, two such lines the opposition can opt for: it can critique the politico-military-security risks the regime is opening itself to through its ever growing proximity to China, or it can critique China itself from a human rights, liberal democratic, Western lens.
The second line should be dropped and abandoned, and the first preferred to all other lines. This is not because we are, or should be, beholden to Beijing, but because Beijing’s political power and economic clout cannot, and must not, be ignored.
The logic of Sri Lanka’s critics of China is that we should look to the West for better values, such as human rights, the rule of law, and a free press. But to stake a country’s hopes on the fulfilment of these objectives, while foregoing on the more urgent imperatives of economic and national security, indeed of state and popular sovereignty, would be as short-sighted as thinking a country can plug itself to China’s meteoric rise forever.
There is much to learn from China, and not (just) in matters of security. Dayan Jayatilleka puts it best: “China is the role model of the Gotabaya regime only in the security realm, not the socio-economic.” Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, mistakenly assumed to have been on par with Western neoliberalism, provide us an ideal case study of how to liberalise an economy while liberating it from dependence on the West. Xi Jinping is demonised and vilified today, by the Western press, for the same reason Deng was viewed cynically, with much disfavour, by that press decades ago: because his reforms are bolstering Beijing’s prospects as the West’s, particularly the US’s, most formidable peer competitor.
It goes without saying that one must take such briefings with a pinch of salt. Only then can we come up with a critique of Sri Lanka’s tilt to China which pinpoints this regime’s failures without demonising the only all-weather friend we have.
That is why Dr Dayan J’s critique of Mangala Samaraweera’s barely disguised diatribe against China stands out. What is interesting about Mr Samaraweera’s piece, published in this paper last week, is that it inverts China’s political history against its present situation.
Samaraweera dwells at considerable length on the Opium War, the Nanjing Treaty, and the Century of Humiliation, and depicts all these as the backdrop against which Beijing seeks to dominate the world today. He cautions the present government against taking isolationist stances on the world stage and advises it against getting closer to China. There is a cosmetic critique of Western colonialism – which, he says, civilised savages (in what way, he does not say), but at a cost to the natives of the colonies – yet what he does with this important point isn’t so much as to critique Western colonialism’s successor, neocolonialism – as logic would dictate – as it is to raise the alarm about Bejiing’s imperial ambitions.
The question of whether China is dominating the world on Western colonial lines has been answered by several Western academics, writers, and journalists. Jacobin Magazine puts it in perspective in a recent piece: “China Is Not the Enemy — Neoliberalism Is.” The Socialist Equality Party, no friend of the Gotabaya regime, has noted the bankruptcy of propagating Western myths about Beijing’s ambitions when critiquing matters concerning symbols of Sri Lanka’s proximity to China, such as Port City. Much closer to home, Dr Dayan J distinguishes between China’s largely assumed colonial ambitions and its inescapable political influence, deconstructing Samaraweera’s interpretation of Cold War history.
These interventions show that it is possible to criticise the government without depicting a dependable ally (whose views on sovereignty, as Dr Dayan noted in an interview with Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe in Policy Magazine, makes for much value congruency with Sri Lanka) as a fire-breathing dragon hell-bent on dominating the country’s political life; to put it pithily, a critique of the government’s proximity to China which places emphasis on the government’s agency rather than on Beijing’s supposed “sinister designs.”
The SJB, hopefully, is evolving on these fronts, throwing out what didn’t work for the UNP and embracing a new set of policies. The JVP should evolve on similar lines as well, but as I noted in my piece on that party a few weeks back, its confused response to China masks an almost schizoid attitude to politics. Perhaps the best summing up of this attitude would be that while the JVP, which sent those congratulatory missives to the CPC, is officially tied to a socialist worldview “under the guidance of Marxist-Leninist theory and practice” against the forces of “capitalism and imperialism led by the USA and its allies”, the JVP’s parliamentary outfit, the NPP, stands on a Kautskyist (an authoritative promulgators of orthodox Marxism after the death of Engels) social democratic base which does not shy away from attacking the very communist parties and allies it wishes well elsewhere.
The JVP’s problem is that it does not seem able to define itself. As things stand, it does not know where to stand. On China as on politics in general, it has lost the thread. Other parties have shown the way for the opposition, at least when it comes to China. If the JVP does not follow this course, it will lose itself. It should course-correct now.
The writer can be contacted at email@example.com
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