* Covid-19 continues to dominate headlines
* 20A now legally effective but inadequate
* Focus shifts from CC to Article 35(1)
As in March/April this year, Covid-19 has once again eclipsed everything else with a fresh outbreak more virulent than the previous one. As this issue hits the news stands, a curfew prevails over the Western Province. On a daily basis, anything between 250 to 500 or more new patients are being discovered. The quarantine centers are full and new systems are being introduced by requiring suspected cases to quarantine at home. The health authorities are keeping the public informed about what is happening. As fresh cases are confirmed, news alerts are going out even late at night obviously in the hope that the more awareness there is of the spread of the disease, the more precautions the people will take.
The encouraging signs that have emerged is that the Brandix cluster which started off the present wave of infections, now appears to be receding and hardly finds mention anymore. Now the center stage has been taken by the Peliyagoda fish market cluster. The high hundreds that were reported initially seem to have come down to mid-hundreds and as the days go by will obviously come down further as in the case of the Brandix cluster. Even though the entire Western Province is under curfew, even while the curfew was in force, the lock downs imposed on several villages in the Kalutara district were lifted because no more fresh cases were reported from those areas. Lock downs are being imposed on limited areas as and when necessary. The signs are that it may take the month of November to bring the latest outbreak under control. In the middle of all this, one feather in the cap for the government was the holding of the 2020 A/L examination.
Everybody was full of praise for the Elections Commission for the manner in which the parliamentary election of 2020 was conducted despite the Covid-19 situation. Similar praise is due to the Education Ministry and the health authorities for the manner in which the A/L examination was carried out without a hitch. As this is being written the examinations is now nearing the end with subjects taken only by a few students now being held. The very fact that nobody hears anything about the still ongoing A/L examination in the news is the measure of its success. Most people in this country have decided by now that life has to go on despite Covid-19 and things like elections and examinations and even marriages which cannot be postponed beyond a point have to be held in whatever way possible. That the A/L examination was held even in the midst of the most virulent Covid-19 outbreak, is undoubtedly a feather in the cap for the new Minister of Education Prof. G.L.Peiris and the education ministry.
There was an element of risk in deciding to hold the A/L examination despite unprecedentedly high daily infection rates. The government took the call, and has delivered. If the government manages to wrestle the present outbreak down as they did the previous ones, that’s going to put this country in the international spotlight. No country can remain Covid-19 free unless it’s a hermit kingdom like North Korea or Bhutan which has very little contact with the outside world. Sri Lanka in contrast is well connected to the outside world. When the number of patients in this country goes down, the repatriation of expatriate workers begins and every planeload brings dozens of Covid-19 patients into the country. So it’s not the presence of patients in the country that’s at issue but how well the pandemic is kept in check. This country has so far been able to overcome all outbreaks since March and the signs are that they will succeed once again. Compared to what has been going on in other countries, even the highest daily rate of over 900 patients counts for nothing. If this number looks large to us, that’s because we were so successful in containing the spread of the disease. Despite the virulence of the present outbreak, GMOA President Dr Anuruddha Padeniya has gone on record as stating that patients have been reported only from 28 of the 350 Health Officer’s Divisions in the country, and from 68 of the 490 Police Divisions. This also explains why curfew has been imposed only on one out of nine provinces. So the picture is not as gloomy as one would imagine.
Constitutional Damoclean sword
With the speaker appending his signature to the 20A ensuring that the country keeps running without paralysis of the system is not just the responsibility of the executive branch of the government. Even after the 20A, absolutely ANYTHING done or omitted by the President can be the subject of litigation before the Supreme Court – the sole exception being the declaration of war and peace which cannot be the subject of litigation before the SC. Under Clause 5 of the 20A, if the President appoints a judge of the Supreme Court or even the Chief Justice in this manner, under Article 35(1) it could be called in question in the Supreme Court itself. Some readers may recall that in 1997, when then President Chandrika Kumaratunga who had the full panoply of presidential powers including immunity from suit, appointed Ms. Shirani Bandaranayake to the Supreme Court, there was a generalized revolt within the legal fraternity and several fundamental rights suits were filed against that appointment in the Supreme Court. The list of lawyers who appeared in this case against Shirani Bandaranayake read like a who’s who of the Sri Lankan legal fraternity of that time.
The case was heard by a seven member bench headed by Justice Mark Fernando. Two separate judgments were delivered by the seven judges both refusing leave to proceed with the case, with Justice Fernando holding that the President in exercising the power conferred by Article 107 (appointment of Supreme Court and Appeal Court judges) had a “sole discretion” which means that the eventual act of appointment is performed by the President and concludes the process of selection. The other group of judges held that the appointment in question is a matter which falls within the purview of the President and that Article 35(1) provides that while any person holds office as President, no proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in any Court or Tribunal in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him either in his official capacity, or private capacity and this provides blanket immunity to him from having proceedings instituted or continued against him in any Court in
respect of any act or omission on his part.
Thus it was the then Article 35(1) which enabled President Chandrika Kumaratunga to appoint Ms. Shirani Bandaranayake to the Supreme Court. Today however, the old Article 35(1) lies defanged and any and every appointment made by the President can technically be challenged in courts, the only thing standing between the President and a flood of vexatious litigation being the power conferred on the Supreme Court to grant or withhold leave to proceed.
The SC’s 19A burden
However the Supreme Court itself is not insulated against a flood of politically motivated litigation which will overwhelm the court. No court can tell the public not to bring cases to it and whether the cases are frivolous or vexatious can be decided only by examining them. Arguments can always be found to make a case look important. The only thing that will act as a restraint on vexatious litigation against acts of the President will be the concern that if the SC refuses leave to proceed, the petitioners will end up with egg on their faces. One has to acknowledge that this will act as a powerful curb on vexatious litigation, and the SC may also start looking askance at litigants who appear once too often in courts with obviously frivolous and insubstantial arguments against everything that the President does. Such litigants may even lay themselves open to contempt of court charges. The danger however is that interested parties could always find third parties to put forward for such purposes.
Trying to illustrate this point by the use of Ms. Shirani Bandaranayake’s appointment in 1997 is perhaps a bad example to take because there would be so many people who would feel that it would have been better for everyone concerned if the Supreme Court had been able to shoot down Shirani Bandaranayake’s appointment when it was first made! Indeed given the way things finally turned out, it would have been better for her as well. However, it must be noted that it’s the duty of the President to make suitable appointments. If the President makes the wrong choices, he or she will have to face the consequences at the hustings. It’s a moot point whether good decisions by a President can be guaranteed by allowing presidential decisions to be challenged in courts and expecting the courts to keep the President on the straight and narrow.
Today the protection provided to the executive by old Article 35(1) as it stood before the 19A when 122 MPs in Parliament filed a parallel action in the Court of Appeal seeking a Writ of Quo Warranto Against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and 48 others functioning as Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers, the Court of Appeal issued an interim order restraining Prime Minister Rajapaksa from functioning in that position and all Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers from functioning in their positions until the final hearing and determination of the suit. This would give us an idea of what may happen when the Executive does not have immunity from suit. When a matter comes up before courts, the courts naturally have to order that things be put on hold until they decide on the matter. It’s easy to see why the Ceylon Constitution Order in Council of 1946, the First Republican Constitution of 1972, the Second Republican Constitution of 1978 and the Indian Constitution all had provisions conferring immunity from suit on the Executive. When immunity from suit is conferred on a nominal Head of the Executive it provides cover for the actual wielders of executive power as well as we see in India.
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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