The United States and social democracy
by Kumar David
The Scandinavian countries are held up as models of social democracy. The distribution of wealth and after-tax income is more egalitarian than elsewhere, freedom of expression, the press and religious rights are not restricted, the people choose their governments at free and fair elections and there is uninhibited licence in sex related frolics. Conversely, purist-leftists point out that the “economic system” throughout Scandinavia is capitalist; big enterprises and the commanding heights of industry and commerce are the property of a shy bourgeoisie. Production, reproduction and appropriation of surplus value conform to textbook definitions of capitalism. Both sides of have their point, but Scandinavia is not my topic today, it is the United States not so much for its intrinsic interest but because change there will inevitably spark global trends.
My friends Marjorie and Geoffrey in Orange County, California, are to all appearances fit, able and charming people. They down their beers, puff on their cigarettes, go for walks, drive two nice big SUVs and run a small business. But they collect social disability cheques of $600 a month each for some invisible frailty and their case is typical of maybe millions of others. Likewise the current labour shortage in the US is in part a constructed malaise. Small businesses cannot attract employees. People find it better to stay at home and collect unemployment benefits while others will only accept part-time jobs. You can get more by filing for part-time unemployment benefits and getting paid for half-day’s work. Small businesses say the problem is acute.
The shopping carts at Walmart, Cusco, Vons and such supermarkets are full to the brim and queues at checkout counters are long and slow. Some of this is thanks to huge Covid-relief monies pumped into personal bank accounts in recent months and therefore atypical. But obesity has been bursting at the seams for three decades. The point is that there is trickle down of material wealth to low-income classes in the US. This of course is not socialism but it keeps the wolf of revolution at bay. Still it’s an odd version of capitalism if you go by the classics. Sure, brash billionaires, coarse captains of giant technology companies and cigar chomping industrialists garner big profits and avoid tax using Pandora’s Box havens. America being what it is, matters soft and genteel in Scandinavia are loud and brash. It would be absurd to say that the same degree of income equity prevails in the US as in Scandinavia. Still the material lives of the four lowest (lower 80%) of the American income quintiles is not pitiable and not too far from Scandinavian averages.
Data for three countries a few years ago (comparative ratios have hardly changed):
In the Pie-chart of US GNP one might for simplicity imagine that federal and state government expenditure (16.6%) is spent mostly on the people (Medicare, social services, education and unemployment benefits) while conversely the 17.7% private domestic investment belongs to the rich (stock-market, new enterprises, grand houses). The big slice (68.5%) is consumption. One can conjecture (a bit risky but let me take the risk) that half of this is spent by the lower two-thirds of society and the other half by the top one-third. How much grand-crux wines can the rich consume and how many first-class air-tickets relish? Unless my guesswork is way out of order this means that 51% (16.6 + half of 68.5) is consumed by the lower two-thirds of society. What I am saying is that despite income inequality, the redistributive outcome of taxation and government support (above all health care) defuses pressure. [To pre-empt nit-pickers I need to admit that sales tax is carried mainly by the yako-classes and income tax is part paid by middle and lower-middle classes. Furthermore, government expenditure includes the likes of defence which hardly benefits the daily life of ordinary people].
Bar-chart 1 shows household income spread. This is not Scandinavian social democracy but neither is it grotesque inequality which will incite the masses to pour out on the streets pitchfork in hand. American capitalism keeps yakos in line by dishing out a share of the pie while ours do it by intoning hela jathika abimane.
This is not to deny that the filthy rich are getting richer at everyone else’s expense – I have no quarrel with Thomas Piketty. Bar chart 2 shows that the top-5% of income “earners” have hogged the largest part of the gains in the last three decades. Nevertheless this has to be taken in the context of a general upward swing of median US household income in the last half-century, see Graph. This is partly because the global hegemony of the US dollar, abominations like the Vietnam War and stooge Latin American dictators for much of the Twentieth Century. All this allowed imperialist and neo-liberal transfer of value created elsewhere in the world to the US. Nevertheless being rich does contribute to social complacency and cools the ardour of the poorer classes.
I have inflicted quite enough statistical injury and economic boredom on you for one Sunday. I move on by asserting that American democracy, battered though it has been in recent years by the far-right and by Trump’s antics, is durable. The power of the anti-vaccination lobby, though cerebrally retarded in the eyes of outsiders is grassroots, albeit cretin, populism in the terrain of America’s anything-goes democracy. Another example is that Black Rights Matter mobilisation in response to racist police brutality, actually consists of a majority of white marchers. The jealous independence of the judiciary is legendary. Determination to exert constitutional rights, despite grotesque displays like the freedom to run amok with guns, the right to infect others with Covid and such manifestations thought crazy elsewhere, are muscular exertions of spirited populism which would have had regimes reach for the machine gun in third world countries. For better for worse American populism is loud, brash and vibrant; it is not staid Scandinavia.
Lest you imagine I am composing a panegyric I must recount the grotesque underside of America, the hundreds of thousands of homeless street sleepers. Los Angeles has over 25,000 and New York even more; every big city has hundreds, some thousands. It is something you will not see in any European city or China, Korea or Hong Kong – perhaps a few psychologically disturbed people but not on a mass scale. Those who know Bombay or Calcutta are familiar with what I am saying on a much larger scale. But America is super rich so why you will ask aren’t a few thousand housing blocks being constructed, why is the state not funding a social welfare department? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. And the huge prison population – that’s a sign of social sickness.
I also have a grouse which is personal. The spread of political correctness in priggish sections of society and in main-stream media is tiresome. I suggest that red-blooded persons ignore it and speak and act like normal humans. Some persons we are reminded are lesbian, homo, bi, auto or omnisexual, but what’s the need to insert sympathetic references to this at every turn of dialogue? Don’t retch but the latest 007 has become a pansy. And if you want to give the American accent a slip, welcome to the club.
But come on, this is all trivial stuff.
The unschooled and the intellectually handicapped imagine that socialism is only about rescuing the poor from material hardship, to hell with political and democratic rights. This twist gained currency because the great revolutions of the Twentieth Century were in dirt poor countries and the revolutionary state was compelled to prioritise “bread, land and peace” and to repel foreign aggressors. Fair enough, but states so conceived unavoidably turned out to be caricatures of socialism – say the USSR, China and Cuba. True they fed the masses but that’s only half the game, and indeed some capitalist ones have done well too – Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Chinese province of Taiwan. You don’t need to consult the classics to be familiar with the axiom that socialism asserts it is a higher form of civilisation. Readers I am sure are familiar with “The freedom of each ensures the freedom of all”; “Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious”; “The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal”, and such aphorisms. Socialism sans democracy is an oxymoron.
You will appreciate where I am going. Socialism is not about bread alone but also about cognizance and liberty. But first I have more to say about bread in the United States. The Biden Administration, driven by the left-wing of the Democratic Party, is pushing the$3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act spending plan. Add to this the $1 trillion infrastructure bill already approved and it becomes a humongous $4.5 trillion programme. To give you an idea, of scale, the US spent $13 billion (about $ 160 billion in today’s money) on the Marshal Plan, an economic recovery programmes for Western Europe after World War II. The proposals American progressives are pushing is an order of magnitude larger in substance and in trickle down money. Republicans, big business and about 1,500 paid Congressional lobbyists are fighting it tooth and nail.
My conclusion is straightforward. It is easier for the United Sates to move towards socialism than for any other country including China. Regimes with a bogus ‘Democratic Socialist’ tag on their brand name are a hoax. America and China are the only countries which can serve as global prototypes. But since it is a truism that Socialism can only flourish on a world scale that means, right now, it’s Hobson’s choice. I am no starry-eyed dreamer unaware of the pernicious extension of the by no means forever bygone Cold War, nor the menace of another conceivable Hot War. The world is replete with dangerous neo-fascists; Trump has plenty of company. My purpose in this essay, nevertheless, is to remind readers of dimensions of this story other than the trite. I am confident that democracy will not die in the US short of civil war. It’s impossible to reverse history against mighty odds and proto-fascism will be destroyed in such a civil war. Hence, I have no option but to differ from my carousing buddy Vijaya Chandrasoma – “How Democracies Die”, Sunday Island 17 October – about the impending death of democracy in America. VC is familiar with Mark Twain’s quip re exaggerated announcements of his demise.
President’s efforts require parliamentary support
By Jehan Perera
With less than a year and half to the presidential elections, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has a tight deadline to meet if he is to attain his aspirations for the country. His visit last week to Japan where he sought to renew ties which had made it Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor for decades, was reported to be highly successful. During his visit, the President had apologized to the Japanese government leaders regarding the cancellation of the Light Rail Transit project which was subsequently delivered by Japan to Bangladesh. The completion of the elevated railroad would have significantly reduced Colombo’s traffic jams. The disastrous mistake the previous government made in crudely cancelling the project unilaterally and without rational reason lost Sri Lanka the goodwill of Japan which will not be easy to get back. Getting Japan back as a donor partner would be a great boon. Overcoming the serious economic crisis that besets the country and its people would require a massive infusion of foreign assistance if the period of recovery is to be kept short and not prolonged indefinitely.
President Wickremesinghe’s leadership is also being credited with the structural economic reforms that the country is undertaking with regard to revenue generation and cost cutting. Undertaking economic reforms that would streamline the economy has been a long term desire on the part of the President and seen during his past stints as Prime Minister. During the period 2001 to 2004, when he effectively led the government as Prime Minister and entered into the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, he tried to implement the same set of economic reforms. Both of these radical measures proved to be too much for the population to bear and he suffered defeat at the elections that followed. Typically, the reform measures he presents is based on the “trickle down” theory, which, in highly corrupt polities, like Sri Lanka, means that the poor have to be content with the crumbs falling off the table. Once again, and unfazed, he is taking up the challenge of taking up unpopular economic measures, such as cutting subsidies, increasing taxes and privatizing state owned enterprises.
As part of the IMF recovery plan for the country, the government, under his leadership, is putting in place anti-corruption legislation that is required by the IMF. It appears that this legislation, which is still in its draft form, is being pushed more by the President than by the government. This was evident when a civil society group, led by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, held a meeting for parliamentarians of all parties within the parliamentary complex. The attendance from the government side was limited, though the Opposition participated in strength. The top leadership of most of the Opposition parties, was in attendance, especially the largest Opposition party, the SJB, whose leader Sajith Premadasa also made an appearance. They gave an inkling of the change of faces that needs to accompany any “system change.” The consensus of the discussion was that the draft legislation was a positive addition to the fight against corruption.
The situation on the ground, in terms of implementation of the laws pertaining to good governance and accountability, continue to be highly unsatisfactory. The protest movement that was in evidence a year ago, gave its attention to issues of corruption and economic mismanagement for the reason that it had led to the economic collapse of the country that affected the entirety of its population. Both corruption and economic mismanagement had been facilitated by the concentration of political power in the executive. One of President Wickremesinghe’s first actions was to give astute political leadership to the passage of the 21st Amendment which sought to restore the independence of key state institutions necessary for a check and balance function. The most important aspect of the 21st Amendment is to protect those who are in charge of oversight bodies from interference by the political authority.
A notable feature of the present is that the parliamentary majority has shown itself to be willing to follow President Wickremesinghe’s lead when it comes to putting frameworks of good governance and accountability in place for the future. But when it comes to implementing them in the present, the ruling party, in particular, works in its own self-interest and to protect its own. Unfortunately, there are a growing number of instances in which it can be seen that the parliamentary majority, led by the ruling party, continues to flout the spirit of the law and practices of good governance. This was seen in the manner in which the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission was forced out of his position through a majority vote in Parliament. Regrettably, the protections afforded by the 21st Amendment could not protect the Chairman of the regulatory authority who opposed the electricity price hikes that led to the price hike to the poorest being up to 500 percent, while to the super rich and companies it was only 50 percent.
The second incident, in the same week, has been the apprehension of a parliamentarian at the airport for gold smuggling who was let off with a fine that was much less than the fine provided for by law for such offenses. The parliamentarian himself has shown no remorse whatsoever and on the contrary has argued with considerable gumption that he is a victim of injustice as he did not pack his own bag and it was done by another. The very same day that he paid his fine and was released by the Customs he went to Parliament, as if he had no problems. Opposition parliamentarians have urged that the parliamentarian, caught gold smuggling, should resign, but so far to no avail. The question is whether he will be held accountable for the discredit he has brought upon himself, his political party, Parliament and the country or whether he will be judged to be no worse than many of his peers and the matter put aside.
The third incident, in the same week, is that of a foreign national who entered the country, on a forged passport, and was apprehended, at the airport, by Immigration officers. They were instructed by a government minister to release the foreign person on the grounds that he was a businessman who had come to invest in the country. However, when the incident was reported in the media, the government decided to deport him and said it will take action against the Immigration officers who had followed illegal orders in releasing him. The media reported that no inquiry will be held against the Minister for influencing the Immigration officials to release the arrested foreign national as anybody could make a request like that but that an inquiry should be held against the Immigration officials for obeying the wrong instructions.
President Wickremesinghe has won many plaudits for his willingness to take up the challenge of rescuing the country from the abyss when he accepted former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s offer to become Prime Minister. It has now become clear that the President is determined to set laws and frameworks for the future. Unfortunately, it appears that the implementation of good governance practices and accountability is simply impossible in a context in which the parliamentary majority is not willing to follow them. As a result, the crackdown on corruption and abuse of power that was hoped for when President Wickremesinghe took over has not manifested itself on the ground.
There is still little or no evidence that President Wickremesinghe is able or willing to take action against those within his government who violate the laws and frameworks of good governance that he is setting for the future of the country. Up to now, the President has only been able to use the security forces and the parliamentary majority to crack down on the protest movement which demanded an end to corruption and accountability for abuse of power. If this situation continues, the President will lose both credibility and authority while those who engage in corruption and abuse of power will once again entrench themselves and become impossible to dislodge to the detriment of the national interest. There is a need for all in the polity, both government and opposition, to strengthen the hand of the President to make a break with the past so that the resources of the country will be used for the common good rather than end up in private pockets.
Sri Lanka’s ignorance matches that of US – II
Human Rights and war crimes:
By Daya Gamage
Foreign Service National Political Specialist (ret.)
US Department of State
(Continued from yesterday)
It is essential to note the most fundamental divide in the country is between rural and urban populations. Sri Lanka’s economy has always been essentially agricultural and even today some 77 percent of the population lives in rural districts. The ratio of Sinhalese to Tamils living in rural districts nationally approximates their ratio in the population at large. Rural areas include Tamil-majority parts of Vanni (Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya Districts) and the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province. Similarly, such Sinhalese-majority districts as Monaragala and Badulla in the southern province of Uva, and Hambantota in the south are mostly rural. During the colonial period and until the early 1970s the economic and political elites of Sri Lanka were almost exclusively a subset of the approximately 19 percent of the population living in urban areas.
These areas were privileged in terms of better economic infrastructure, better health and other government services, and better educational and employment opportunities. These advantages were shared by all communities living in the cities: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, who coexisted and cooperated in general harmony. Again, all three ethnic communities in the rural sector face inadequate educational facilities, less economic infrastructure and employment opportunities.
Post-independence leaders faced a prickly dilemma: the economic development and broadened enfranchisement demanded by democratic politics required that more resources and opportunities be shared with the countryside, which would dilute the power and privileges of the 19 percent. All sections of the educated urban class were threatened by this, and none more than urban Tamils. Not surprisingly, political leaders reacted to this broadening competition for national resources by reaching out to their ethnic constituencies for support in defending their privileges.
Let’s turn to war crimes and human rights violations the 18 May 2023 US House of Representative Resolution and the Canadian prime minister were referring to. The data and facts given below could be new to policymakers and lawmakers in Sri Lanka as well as to their counterparts in Washington. I say this because there was no evidence that Sri Lanka ever presented these factual data to the West. If the policymakers and lawmakers in Washington were aware of the following data the Resolution would have taken a different tone.
The question of war crimes—and related charges of crimes against humanity and even of genocide—are a telling example of the frequent gulf between complex facts and simplistic popular beliefs that has distorted perceptions of the Sri Lankan civil war and, one would argue, US policy towards Sri Lanka. In a broader sense, this writer believes that the persistent fictions that have grown up around the separatist conflict are symptomatic of a larger problem in the crafting of policy toward countries that are insufficiently or incorrectly understood.
In the case of Sri Lanka, the tendency of international observers to rush to judgment— and censure—under worst-case assumptions is evidenced by the civilian fatalities figure cited extensively in print and public discourse. This figure of 40,000 is alleged to be the number of unarmed Tamils who were killed during the final stage of the war (January–May 2009). These deaths are blamed largely on the Sri Lankan military, which is accused of using excessive and indiscriminate force, and thereby of committing war crimes. The 40,000 figure became an item of international orthodoxy after it was mentioned in the report, often referred to as the Darusman Report, by an “unofficial” panel of experts appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The figure was arrived at by simply subtracting the number of internally displaced civilians who were administratively processed after the hostilities from the UN’s estimate of the number of civilians caught up in the final offensive.
To be precise, the March 2011 Darusman report conceded that “there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths” but stated that the figure of 40,000 “cannot be ruled out” and needs further investigation. The report did not refer to “credible evidence,” much less adduce any, using instead the vague expression “credible allegations.” This verdict was not voted upon or endorsed by the United Nations as an organisation, and despite its questionable logic and conflicting figures from other sources, the UN Secretary General pronounced the figure of 40,000 to be definitive. In a strange case of groupthink, most western governments and international NGOs have accepted it unquestioningly and wielded it rhetorically.
Disputed death count
The currency and obduracy of the death count, to which the Darusman Report gave birth, is all the more mystifying because it represents a major departure from calculations made not only by other reputable observers but even by UN staff on the ground in Sri Lanka. On March 9 (2009), the country team of the UN mission in Colombo briefed local diplomats for the first and only time on the civilian casualty figures it had collected from its Humanitarian Convoy.
According to this briefing, 2,683 civilians had died between January 20 and March 7, and 7241 had been wounded. The UN country team did not indicate to the diplomats that the majority of these casualties were due to government shelling. According to a cable from the US embassy in April 2009, the UN had estimated that from January 20 to April 6 civilian fatalities numbered 4,164, plus a further 10,002 wounded. The International Crisis Group is quoted as reporting that “U.N. agencies, working closely with officials and aid workers located in the conflict zone, documented nearly 7,000 civilians killed from January to April 2009.
Those who compiled these internal numbers deemed them reliable to the extent they reflected actual conflict deaths but maintain it was a work in progress and incomplete.” Some three weeks before the end of the war, Reuters reported that “A UN working document, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, says 6,432 civilians have been killed and 13,946 wounded in fighting since the end of January.” An unpublished report by the United Nations country team in Sri Lanka stated that from August 2008 to May 13, 2009 (five days before the war ended), the number of civilians killed was 7,721. Even if the UN Secretary General chose to ignore reporting from his own staff in the field, there were reports from other sources that should have tempered the figures adopted by other international organizations and governments with diplomatic representation in Colombo.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside agency present in the war zone during the final phase, used various statistical indicators to conclude that the total number of noncombatants killed was around 7,000. Lord Naseby, a British parliamentarian and longtime advocate for Sri Lanka, announced in the House of Lords in November 2017 that he had managed to pry classified documents out of the Foreign Office through a freedom of information inquiry. These documents, which were dispatched from the British Defense Attaché in Colombo during the final days of the war, reported that about 7000 people had been killed. Amnesty International wrote that . . . “derived independently from eyewitness testimony and information from aid workers [we estimate that] at least 10,000 civilians were killed.” This figure is in line with the estimate of an anthropologist working in Australia who questioned LTTE government servants and others who survived the final battles. This academician estimates that total fatalities from January 1 to May 19 ranged from 15,000 to 16,000, including some 5,000 Tiger dead. He cautions that any final figure must take into account the 600-900 deaths due to non-military causes that would be expected at standard death rates for a population of several hundred thousand over a period of five months, especially under very difficult conditions. He emphasizes that it was very difficult to distinguish civilians from combatants because the latter often did not wear uniforms.
According to some commentators, the prevalence and resilience of the 40,000-fatality figure can be attributed in significant measure to the publicity given to it by Gordon Weiss, an Australian journalist, who served as spokesperson for the UN mission in Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009. In that official capacity Weiss reportedly used the fatality figure of 7,000 for 2009 and noted that, for the Sri Lankan Army, it made no tactical sense to kill civilians. Yet, in interviews to promote his popular book on the final days of the war, he used the unsubstantiated figure of 40,000, presumably for its shock value. When the book was published, the fatality figure had been reduced to 10,000.
On July 9, 2009, the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, John Clint Williamson, met in Geneva with Jacques de Maio, Head of Operations for South Asia for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Williamson requested the meeting in order to collect information required for reporting to the US Congress. This information was invaluable because the ICRC was the only international organisation allowed by the GSL onto the northeastern battlefield for humanitarian work. In his diplomatic cable to Washington on that meeting, Williamson quoted de Maio as saying that “the Sri Lankan military was somewhat responsive to accusations of violations of international humanitarian law and was open to adapting its actions to reduce casualties.” The ambassador added that de Maio . . . “could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the Army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths …. On the LTTE, de Maio said that it had tried to keep civilians in the middle of a permanent state of violence. It saw the civilian population as a ‘protective asset’ and kept its fighters embedded amongst them.
De Maio said that the LTTE commanders’ objective had been to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred.” In April, as the fighting was nearing its climax, both the United Nations and the Group of Eight nations strongly condemned the LTTE for using civilians as human shields.
This writer can assure that the manuscript he is preparing with the retired Senior Foreign Service and Intelligence Officer of the Department of State Dr. Robert K. Boggs will disclose startling evidence of Washington’s foreign policy trajectory toward Sri Lanka, and how successive governments in Sri Lanka since 1980 – to date – displayed their utter ignorance that led to the infantile foreign policy approaches.
(The writer, Daya Gamage, is a retired Foreign Service National Political Specialist of the U.S. Department of State accredited to the Political Section of the American Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka)
Excitement galore for Janaka
Another artiste who is very much in the limelight, these days, is singer Janaka Palapathwala, who specializes in the golden hits of the past, made popular by Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis, Tom Jones, Jim Reeves, and the like.
He has been seen crooning away at some of the prestigious events, in Colombo, and is now ready to entertain those who love the golden oldies…in Canada and the States.
Janaka, who plans to reveal a new identity soon, indicated to us that he is eagerly looking forward to this particular overseas tour as he has already been informed that the opener, on 3rd June, in Washington D.C., is a ‘sold out’ event.
“Summer Mega Blast’, on 3rd June, will have in attendance the band Binara & The Clan and DJ Shawn Groove.
On 16th June, he will be in Toronto, Canada, for ‘Starlight Night’, with the band 7th String.
He has two dates in New York, on 24th June and 28th July (‘Welcome To My World’); Nebraska, 4th July (‘An Evening With Janaka’): Los Angeles, 15th July, and San Francisco, 22nd July.
Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco events are titled ‘Memories Are Made Of This’ and Janaka will perform, backed by the group Dynasty (Apple Green).
On his return home, he says he has to do the St. Peter’s College Welfare Society Dinner Dance, “Wild West’, scheduled for 26th July.
There will be plenty of action at this Peterite event, with the bands Misty, and Genesis, Shawn Groove, Frank David, Mazo, Ricardo Deen, Dinesh Subasinghe and Clifford Richards.
Navy divers retrieve 148 from watery graves within a year
Establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Draft report on the inquiry into the destruction of North-Eastern archaeological sites and interference with conservation activities handed over to the Prime Minister
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