by Malinda Seneviratne
Those who worship free markets would say, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ Nothing comes free. Everything has a price which, they claim, is determined by the play of demand and supply in a market where everyone is endowed with the capacity to obtain all relevant information.
Nice on paper. But let’s go along with the story. So, if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, what do these pundits have to say about the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s purported gift (withdrawn recently after intense lobbying by the US Ambassador and MCC officials, backed by certain members of the previous regime, in particular Mangala Samaraweera)? They say, ‘There will be dire consequences!’
Strange. Someone offers a free lunch, the would be ‘beneficiary’ says ‘thank you, but no’ or at least shows sufficient reluctance to exasperate the gifting party, the offer is withdrawn and the intended beneficiary is told ‘damn you, you will pay for this!’ So, pay if ‘gift’ is accepted (as per the theory of ‘no free lunches’) and pay if it is declined!
Not too long ago, the US Ambassador was rebuffed by the then Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran, when he was told to go easy on the government, i.e. regarding the alleged human rights issue which, interestingly, the US had held like a massive rock over the head of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. We had resolutions moved against Sri Lanka in Geneva during that period. Come the Yahapalanists and the USA eases off. Obviously human rights were not the issue but whether or not the particular government was willing to play ball. Clearly the Yahapalanists were.
Wigneswaran upset the Ambassador. He is no baby in this game, but he stuck to his guns. Today, if the US Ambassador were to pow-wow with Wigneswaran, she wouldn’t say ‘back off, big guy,’ but is more likely to spur him on.
The US Ambassador is doing just that, with the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance. Strategizing for Geneva in a few months time. Of course the USA, under Donald Trump, quit the UNHRC calling it ‘a cess pool of bias’ but that hasn’t stopped US representatives from deploying proxies to get its dirty work done. The noises we hear from London regarding Geneva 2021 clearly indicate that Sri Lanka can expect to come under fire.
Having opted out of Resolution 30/1 which was happily co-sponsored by a naive, nay pernicious, set of decision-makers, Sri Lanka would no doubt have raised the ire of her detractors, led of course by the USA and the UK. The US Ambassador, whose stint in Colombo seems to have been almost exclusively about pushing through the MCC, needs to wash off the egg from her face. Her not so behind-the-scenes maneuvers is just that.
The NGO lobby currently languishing in reduced circumstances are doing their bit. This time around they are in the business of disposing dead bodies. Yes, the ‘controversial’ issue of whether or not to bury those who have died of Covid-19. It’s the Muslims who are upset and that works well with their whine about majoritarianism.
The Government has played into their hands by its indecision. To be fair, the entire Covid-19 story is about incomplete knowledge. London is now hit by a new strain of the virus. London will revisit policies. The lack of complete knowledge forces decision-makers to err on the side of caution. The government decided that burial was risky. The World Health Orgainzation says ‘it’s not unsafe.’ However, they’ve added that factors particular to the country need to be taken into account.
So far, the authorities advising the Government on the safety or otherwise of burials have ruled ‘unsafe.’ In deference to a need to be sensitive to religious sentiments, the Government explored the possibility of burying Muslim victims in the Maldives, following discussions with that Government. Muslim leaders who have played the religion card in this issue seem to have suddenly found a patriotic card up their sleeve: ‘we want to be buried in our motherland,’ they cry. So far, representatives from exclusively Muslim populated areas haven’t offered to accept the bodies of their brethren who succumbed to Covid; those in Kattankudy, for instance, haven’t said ‘come, bury them here.’
The government is paying the price for trying to please everyone. They want to allay the fears of the general public and also want to sort out the anxieties of a particular community. It is best to let Science chair the decision-making process. What’s safest? Cremation, obviously. Is burial really risky? If the answer is, ‘there’s zero risk in buying the Covid-19 dead in certain parts of the country’ and this assertion is accompanied by a list of ‘safe spots,’ then the Government should go with it.
The decision should not be shaped by the interests of any particular community but instead framed by the interests of the safety of all citizens. If there’s no risk in burial, then the government could say ‘dispose as you will, of course subject to following protection protocols.’
So far, we’ve been getting mixed signals. Deciding that ‘burying’ will not win any friends in Geneva. If it’s not one thing, it will be another — that’s how the human rights game is played. The government cannot afford to ignore ‘Geneva’ but shouldn’t let the antics of that political theater frame decision-making here in Sri Lanka. Clarity is what is required and opaque is what the government has given us so far.
We mentioned Mangala Samaraweera. He sided with Sajith Premadasa when the UNP fell apart, but decided he wouldn’t campaign. He went into what could be called semi-retirement. However, he continues to be political, taking potshots at his favorite enemies, the Rajapaksas. More recently, he has targeted Patali Champika Ranawaka. Managala probably sees Ranawaka as a possible presidential candidate after the latter quit the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), clearing that obstacle to a bid to wrest leadership of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) at some point in the future.
Mangala has attacked Ranawaka using the hackneyed epithets of chauvinism and racism. Ranawaka’s backers have responded to Mangala, pointing out that this ‘great liberal’ was not averse to playing the caste card when contesting elections in Matara. To be fair, ‘caste’ hasn’t factored in Mangala’s decisions when in power. Race and religion have, though, in reverse: he’s shown a rabid aversion to the Sinhalese and Buddhists.
Someone might say, ’But he’s a Sinhalese and a Buddhist!’ True. Consider this, however. In a colonial theatre, the victims are relentlessly suppressed and ridiculed to the point that they begin to hate themselves. They source humiliation to the truth of their reality, their history and heritage. The weak, by way of ‘escape,’ parrot and mimic the words and actions of their subjugator in a conscious or unconscious belief that this would qualify them for membership in the victor’s club. They seek in suddatvaya what they are denied on account of their sinhalatvaya, so to speak. The sudda attacked the Sinhalese and Tamils. The sudda attacked the Buddhists and Hindus. The sudda didn’t worry about caste. Does that tell Mangala’s story? He would know but even if he did, he probably won’t say it.
The Mangala-Ranawaka spat, however, is just a side show at the intra-party circus. Sajith Premadasa and other SJB stalwarts took to the streets over the Covid-19 burial issue. Ranawaka was a conspicuous absentee. Silences and absences also tell stories. This one is just starting.
However, a week ago, the SJB’s working committee met to ratify a party constitution. Sajith Premadasa was named leader. No deputy leader was named. Kabir Hashim was elected Chairman along with six others who were named ‘Senior Vice Chairman’ — Kumara Welgama, Rajitha Senaratne, Ranwaka, Thalatha Athukorala, Imitiaz Bakeer Markar and Sarath Fonseka. Ranjith Madduma Bandara is now the General Secretary and Tissa Attanayake the National Organizer. Officially, at least, Ranawaka is at the second-tier and he’s not alone. How his political fortunes unfold is left to be seen.
Another story that’s just moved out of the foreword or rather is being written in fits and starts is that of the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya (AJBP). The AJBP started its political life inauspiciously. Several lists were rejected. The party didn’t win a single seat from any of the districts it contested. However, they were accorded one slot when the numbers for each party from the national list was determined.
That was the second inauspicious eventuality. As is often the case with parties who secure just one slot in the national seat (e.g. the United Socialist Alliance in 1994, the Sihala Urumaya in 2000), there was a scramble (to put it mildly). The then Secretary nominated himself. Ven. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero of Bodu Bala Sena fame and Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero (formerly of the JHU, credited with precipitation the JHU parting ways with the Rajapaksa and making way for Maithripala Sirisena’s ascension to the presidency) objected.
It took four months for the protagonists to resolve the matter. Ven Gnanasara was ineligible since the list on which his name was had been rejected (he could make a come-back if the person who does get in resigns). The Secretary was removed. An election pact had given Ven Rathana the authority to endorse a nominee, i.e. he had veto power.
We do not know what kind of agreement was made between the interested parties, but as of now, Ven Rathana has the floor. What he does there is anyone’s guess, but it would not be wise to count him out. Ven Rathana has a long history of identifying key moments and weaknesses, he can mobilize forces almost like a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat. He should not be underestimated.
So now we have 223 Members of Parliament and the Speaker. That’s 224. How about the 225th? That’s reserved for the United National Party (UNP) and that too courtesy the national list. The party, having suffered the most humiliating electoral defeat in its history, has not shown the kind of bickering we saw with the AJBP, but neither have we seen any urgency regarding this matter.
Of course as things stand it is of little consequence. The party is in crisis and has to worry about survival. Ranil Wickremesinghe is still the leader and will remain so until 2023, unless he steps down. This was the decision reached when the party decided to nominate Sajith Premadasa as its candidate for president in 2019. All top posts will fall vacant at the end of the year. Wickremesinghe, not surprisingly, still holds the reins but of a party that’s in very real danger of following other ‘old parties’ such as the LSSP and CP into oblivion.
What will 2021 have in hold, politically? We are not soothsayers, but it is safe to say that the way of the virus and of course how it is responded to will shape things like few other factors can.
May the year 2021 bring peace of mind. Good health to all! Stay safe and don’t forget to abide by protection protocols. Be kind to others. Now, unlike any other time, this might make a different to self, family, community, nation and the world.
The politics of opposing imperialism and neoliberalism
By Uditha Devapriya
One of the most important debates to emerge from the history of the Left movement in Sri Lanka – by which I include the Old and the New Left – is whether they were correct to ally with formations that were anything but socialist. Be it the LSSP’s decision to join forces with the SLFP, or the JVP’s decision to support candidates fronted by Sri Lanka’s definitive right-wing party, the UNP, these choices have divided socialist activists. History is yet to deliver a verdict on them. Until it does, I am afraid that we can only speculate.
Of course, it’s not just the Sri Lankan Left. Socialist parties everywhere and anywhere – from the US to India, and beyond – have joined forces with non-socialist formations. In Sri Lanka it is the Old Left, the LSSP and the Communist Party, that are called out for having betrayed socialist causes and allied with such formations. But other Left outfits have done the same thing: from the NSSP to the JVP. While these parties are yet to receive the same degree of criticism the Old Left has, it must be admitted that, at least from the perspective of practical politics, they all considered it necessary to enter into various alliances.
I am not sufficiently versed in Marxist literature to justify or criticise this. I am aware that Marxist figureheads of the 20th century, including Stalin, were not above forming tactical alliances with other formations. And it wasn’t just Stalin. The LSSP’s decision to support the SLFP, in 1964, can partly be traced to the shifts of opinion within the Trotskyite movement regarding alliances with non-socialist parties. It is on the basis of such shifts that parties like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have become part of mainstream outfits like the Democratic Party, which can hardly be described as left-wing.
At the local and the global level, then, the socialist Left’s main dilemma, essentially, is whether it should join forces with other formations to fight a greater evil, the greater evil usually defined as imperialism or neoliberalism.
Marxists call out on sections of the Left which support Russia against Ukraine, or China against the United States, on the grounds that states like Russia and China are no more or no less imperialist than the West. These activists argue that no one country holds exclusive rights to the concept of imperialism. As such, the task of the Left should be, not to take sides with one camp or the other, but to oppose all forms of imperialism.
There is nothing inherently objectionable with such a strategy. The task of socialist politics, after all, is supposed to be the emancipation or liberation of the masses from all forms of oppression. Viewed this way, a viable, progressive socialist movement must be prepared to oppose not just US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Russian intervention in Syria and Eastern Europe. The objective or telos of such a stance, comments Dan La Botz in New Politics, would be to secure “a world free from oppression and exploitation, one in which all human beings can have a voice and a vote about their future.”
While being generally supportive of these objectives and tactics, however, we need to be mindful whether such an outlook will create equivalences where there simply aren’t any. After all, for socialists of the Third Camp, it doesn’t matter which imperialism you oppose: no one holds a monopoly over its meaning or its deployment.
The core question as far as the global Left is concerned, then, is what imperialism entails. Third Camp socialists would contend that imperialism involves the conquest of other territories. This would include not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also China’s designs in Hong Kong. Their opponents, by contrast, would argue that imperialism, not unlike fascism, is dependent on certain criteria, such as the possession of economic and military strength – on which basis there would only be one imperialist power, the US.
These debates have shaped socialist politics in countries like Sri Lanka as well. This is especially so where critiques of right-wing nationalism, including Sinhala nationalism, are concerned. Certain Marxists, especially in the Global South, tend to erase any distinction between nationalist and neoliberal outfits, arguing that there is no distinction to be made, and that as far as the Left is concerned, it should not take sides with either.
To be sure, nationalist formations can invoke the rhetoric of anti-imperialism. This is palpably so in Sri Lanka, as witness parties like the National Freedom Front. Yet their critics on the Left point out that not only are such displays of anti-imperialism mere eyewash, but that if encouraged, these outfits can even appropriate discussions over issues which the socialist camp should be taking up. On those grounds, the New Left contends, dogmatically, that nationalist and neoliberal outfits must be equally opposed.
I understand this attitude, and to understand it is, at one level, to empathise with it. The nationalist and in particular Sinhala nationalist right – often construed as the alt-right – has done itself very few favours over the last few decades. It has attempted to raise the banner of anti-imperialism, but has failed to acknowledge a more cohesive, inclusive framing of country so necessary for anti-imperialist politics. As I have mentioned many times, in this paper and elsewhere, we must oppose chauvinism from this standpoint.
I do not necessarily agree with those who take issue with the nationalist right’s gripe with Westernisation and globalisation, simply because such agitation is a symptom of a deeper malaise: it is a variant on the same agitation to be found among blue-collar workers in the US against China. But I do agree with those Marxist commentators who chastise nationalists for framing their politics within what Devaka Gunawardena calls “an exclusivist definition of community.” For Sinhala nationalists, or a majority of them, anti-imperialism appears less directed at neoliberal politics than at other racial groups, an easier target. In targeting the latter, it even ends up borrowing the language of the imperialist: hence Jathika Chintanaya’s obsession with Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilisations agitprop.
At the same time, sections of the Left, demonstrating that purist strain which has for so long besmirched academic Marxism, appear to refuse not just to join forces with nationalist formations – in itself not execrable – but also to acknowledge the economic and material factors that led to their growth. Instead, such parties and outfits are automatically termed as suspect, and viewed with the same suspicion with which neoliberal outfits are. This is what explains the Left’s horrendous failure to address, much less deal with or resolve, the tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which accompanied the neoliberal reforms of the J. R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga governments.
Their assumptions regarding these developments follow the same logic which Third Camp socialists deploy when equating Western imperialism with Russian and Chinese imperialism. Such logic seems to me as misplaced as the tactic of supporting whatever formation, simply because it claims to be opposed to imperialism or neoliberalism.
Let me be clear here, then. I believe that the task of socialist activists, in the Global North, is not to feign moral neutrality, but rather to recognise certain distinctions between the forms of imperialism they oppose. NATO, to put it bluntly, possesses the sort of firepower which Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China does not, as every Defence Strategy Paper authored by the Pentagon should make us realise. This is the basis on which the global Marxist Left must begin to address and confront the politics of hegemony.
I believe, also, that the task of socialist activists in the Global South is to recognise distinctions between the neoliberal politics against which they are pitted, and nationalist formations which hold up anti-imperialist slogans. This does not mean the Left should join with the latter. Far from it. But the Left must certainly acknowledge that, as powerful as the latter may be, such formations are powerless compared to the former.
In other words, the fight against hegemony must begin from the recognition of the fact that there are no competing imperial or authoritarian forces out there. It is possible to oppose Putin from a socialist standpoint, just as it is possible to oppose right-wing nationalism in countries like ours. Yet such critiques should be constructive. Third Camp socialists who feign neutrality risk not just preaching to the choir, but, more dangerously, ceding moral space to more powerful antagonistic forces. It is against these forces, at home and abroad, that socialists must bare their sabres. This should be their first priority.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A damning indictment of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Armies in the midst of combat learn incredibly fast. This isn’t the case with peacetime militaries, as has been evident in Sri Lanka.During the 25-year-long war that it waged against the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan military came up with a strategy and a series of tactics in the last phase of the war that enabled it to inflict a comprehensive defeat on the terror outfit. The Sri Lankan intelligence services efficiently identified targets and eliminated them, stymieing LTTE operations, and making rear areas safe.
However, ten years after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan defense establishment, pampered by a decade of peace and hampered by political squabbling between President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, proved incompetent. It was unable to prevent suicide bombers of the Islamic State group-affiliated National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) from carrying out a string of deadly attacks across the island on Easter Sunday of 2019.
On that day (April 21), bombs ripped through three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing around 279 people and injuring over 500 others.
The island is no stranger to terror attacks; its 25-year-long civil war was often punctuated by suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas. Yet the Easter Sunday attacks as they are known were unprecedented. Not only did they lay bare the vast jihadist network on the island but they also underscored the abject failure of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment to secure the Sri Lankan people.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka was roiled in intense debate and discussion over why a country with an oversized security apparatus and enormous experience in fighting terrorism failed to prevent the attacks.
A recent Supreme Court verdict provides some insights. Last week, a seven-judge bench ruled that President Sirisena and other senior officials failed to prevent the deadly attacks although they were in possession of credible and actionable intelligence. The Supreme Court noted that “the want of attention on the part of the important players heading the security apparatus of this country is unpardonable. The apex court has said that those in charge of the country’s national security worked in silos and acted with lethargy, without vision, and were mainly interested in protecting their fiefdoms.”
This is remarkably similar to the observations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday Attacks.
Issuing a verdict on 12 fundamental rights petitions alleging that leaders of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government (2015-2019) and those in charge of national security failed to take action to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite receiving sufficient intelligence, the apex court pointed out that “reasonable men” would have behaved differently.
Casting aside arguments of presidential immunity that most Sri Lankan leaders use to evade responsibility for what transpired during their tenure, the Supreme Court ordered Sirisena to pay 100 million Sri Lankan rupees (around $270,000) to the victims of the attacks. Several other top officials including former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, former State Intelligence Service (SIS) director Nilantha Jayawardena, former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, and former Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis have been ordered to pay monetary compensation to victims as well.
Sirisena has said that he did not know about the attacks. “I was abroad when the attacks happened. I have told many times that I was not informed of the intelligence any officer received. Even the court found no evidence of this,” he said.
The former president has asked why he needs to pay the victims compensation. “The Supreme Court says that if an official appointed by the President makes a mistake, the President is also to be blamed. I have no money to pay. I will have to collect money from my friends,” he said.
The verdict dampens Sirisena’s political aspirations. He is the head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was expecting to make a comeback in the upcoming local council elections.The Supreme Court has drawn attention to the “pinpointed allegation” leveled by petitioners against Sirisena’s “executive inertia” and his failure to take “steps to avert the mayhem and destruction,” when “it was within his powers to have ensured the personal liberty and security of the people and prevented the precarious slide into anarchy.”
The Court also pointed out that as early as 2015, the security establishment was aware of a growing threat from Islamic extremism and NTJ chief Zahran Hashim. However, nothing was done to neutralize these threats.
During an earlier appearance at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks, SIS director Jayawardena had said he received intelligence on April 4, 2019 from a foreign counterpart about a possible terrorist attack by April 20 by Hashim and his associates. By April 9, Jayawardena had informed the IGP and the CNI about the information he had received. The CNI, too, had written to the IGP on SIS intelligence. The IGP then sent both these letters to the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) (Western Province and Traffic), the SDIG (Crimes and STF), the DIG (Special Protection Range), and the director of the Counter Terrorism and Terrorism Investigation Department with a note for demanding necessary action.
Not only did the IGP not provide pointed instructions to his subordinates, but he also didn’t share the information with the DIG of the Eastern Province, the hotbed of Islamic extremist activities. In fact, the NTJ carried out a dry run on April 16 at Palamunai, Kattankudy, which baffled the policemen there as they were not privy to information that the NTJ was readying for a terror attack.
SDIG Jayawardena said that the SIS had been informed in 2017 of the danger Hashim posed and that he had urged the relevant agencies to arrest him. However, Jayawardena said that he did not inform the political authorities about the possible attacks. He reiterated this in his statement before the Supreme Court as well.
Importantly, Jayawardena did not bring up the intelligence input he had received during his weekly intelligence meetings, where all senior military and law enforcement officers as well as representatives of the political authority are present. The Court noted that if the former SIS director has spoken about the imminent attack at this meeting or presented the information he had on the suspects to the tri-forces, the disaster could have been averted with a series of quick arrests.
Although several key officers in charge of national security were aware of an impending terror attack, no NSC meeting was summoned between April 4 and 21. The officers did not inform the president of the threat posed by the NTJ although Sirisena visited Batticaloa, a town which is near Kattankudy, Hashim’s hometown.
Jayawardena received further intelligence from his foreign counterpart on April 20 at 1642 hours, information he classified as “most vital, specific and reliable intelligence.” The court observed that he used WhatsApp and SMS to notify the secretary of defense (at 1653 hours), SDIG in charge of the CID (1654), CNI (1702) and IGP (1707) He proceeded to call the secretary of defense (1802), IGP (1703), SDIG in charge of the Western Province (1755), SDIG in charge of the CID (1657), SDIG in charge of the Special Task Force (1927 and 2009), and the DIG Colombo (1909 and 2124). However, it seems that no one took the initiative to beef up security near the main churches and hotels or to reach out to the Catholic Church to explore the possibility of canceling Easter Sunday religious activities.
In its verdict, the apex court says, “the intelligence received proved true but the mobilization of counter terrorism measures or its facilitation through an effective dissemination of forebodings to stem the impending disaster was totally absent and this clearly shows how security mechanisms in the country remained fragile and in shambles.”
President Sirisena was in Singapore for a medical check-up on April 20. Jayawardena told both the court and the Presidential Commission that he could not contact the President.
Throughout the court proceedings Jayawardena insisted that he did not inform the president of the imminent threat because his reporting officers were the IGP and the defense secretary. This is a position that the Supreme Court did not accept. The court said that senior officials in charge of national security are obliged to consult the defense minister on matters of extreme importance and that they cannot evade responsibility by stating that they do not have direct access to him.
It must be noted that in late 2018, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe from the prime minister’s post. While Wickremesinghe regained his position through judicial means, the relationship between the two men was strained and Wickremesinghe was not invited to NSC meetings again.
Sirisena’s failure to act was also partly an outcome of his suspicions of any intelligence coming from India. He was convinced that India wanted to assassinate him.
Given that the court focused only on the fundamental rights violations of the victims, it did not make recommendations on streamlining the intelligence apparatus. However, the Presidential Commission on the attacks had made several recommendations on preventing the recurrence of such incidents. The final report of the Commission was handed over to then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on February 2021 and to Parliament a year later. So far, nothing has been done to address the gaps in intelligence gathering, dissemination, and coordination.
The Easter Sunday bombings underscored Sri Lanka’s extreme and continuing vulnerability to religious extremism and terrorist violence. Importantly, it underscored shortcomings in the way individuals in positions of authority and key institutions allow personal bias and politics to prevent action to secure the country.
What Sri Lanka needs is a mechanism whereby various stakeholders involved in national security are compelled to share information in a way that vital information flows to concerned agencies and institutions unimpeded.
Will the government address the problem laid bare by investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings and underscored by the Supreme Court verdict? It is unlikely as the government is preoccupied with the economic crisis. Importantly, with elections around the corner, the Supreme Court verdict has become an issue for parties to draw political mileage and score political points. Consequently, security will suffer.
The Left, the Nationalist Right, and industrialisation as policy
By Uditha Devapriya
By now we know that the government’s prescription for the economic crisis is greater austerity. The regime has outright rejected welfare measures or state intervention, and is heavily promoting the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, deregulation, and tax hikes. While economic think-tanks in Colombo have effectively welcomed these proposals, trade unions and Left activists bitterly oppose them. Yet the situation is not comparable to what it was a year ago: the middle-classes that cheered Left outfits at the Gotagogama protests have now chosen to ignore them, even as the State rounds them up and arrests them.
It is against these tensions that the Dullas Alahapperuma faction of the SLPP, which includes nationalist stalwarts previously associated with the Rajapaksas, like Wimal Weerawansa and Gevindu Cumaratunga, has teamed up with the SLFP and sections of the Old Left, including the LSSP, the Democratic Left Front, and the Communist Party. Ostensibly opposed to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime, these formations have, while not expressing support for Left groups agitating against the present government, distanced themselves from the SLPP-UNP combination and by extension its economic agenda.
There is little doubt that the latter agenda will provoke a backlash or a response, of some form and magnitude. Yet, as Devaka Gunawardena points out in a thoughtful piece in Polity Magazine, “[d]etermining the progressive or reactionary character of that response… is key.” Gunawardena, a research scholar based in the US, argues that the situation today is comparable to the John Kotelawala UNP regime of 1953-1956, which itself came to power in the aftermath of the Hartal and was defeated by an array of Sinhala nationalist forces led by the SLFP. The analogy is clear: the regime felled by the Left in 1953 is similar to the deposed Rajapaksa government and the regime that followed it is similar to the present government. The question here is, who or what will lead the opposition to the latter.
Gunawardena argues against letting the oppositional space be dominated by the ex-SLPP, SLFP, and Old Left. This would obviously include the Uttara Lanka Sabhawa. His rationale is, simply, that these groups, particularly the right-wing elements in them, once associated and hobnobbed with the Rajapaksa regime, and hence cannot be trusted to come up with a truly radical alternative to the present regime’s neoliberal agenda. Their programme, he points out, is anchored in an “expanded role” for Statist elements, including the military, as well as virulent opposition to the privatisation of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). It is, in essence, dirigiste in outlook and conception.
It should be noted here that Gunawardena is right in his observation that dirigisme is not necessarily a socialist imperative. In an article published in New Politics (“Remembering Dependency Theory: A Marxist-Humanist Review”), Edward Tapa lays down a convincing critique of Marxists and socialists who idealised industrialisation, and state intervention, and on that basis formed alliances with petty bourgeois (small capitalist) parties in the hopes of fermenting a revolution in their countries. While not necessarily agreeing with Tapas’s view or implication that a preoccupation with such strategies led the Left in the Global South – in countries like ours, that is – to neglect the all-important issue of class struggle, I agree with his argument that industrialisation as pursued in such countries immediately prior to the era of neoliberal globalisation did not achieve the desired outcomes.
I certainly concede that ULS (Uttara Lanka Sabha) and dissenting SLPP faction, as well as the Old Left, have framed their economic policy in terms of a more interventionist State, though this is not the end-all and be-all of their programme. Such a State would, in some respects, be an improvement over the UNP-SLPP’s proposal for its retrenchment and divestment. In others, it would be grossly inadequate. The likes of Gunawardena object particularly to the inclusion of Sinhala nationalist parties, outfits which, in their view, are in favour of the same policies and share the same ideology as the parties they now claim to oppose. In this respect, he contends that the Nationalist Right’s framing of the need for industrialisation, which the Old Left has taken up as well, must be scrutinised, critiqued, and if necessary, rejected.
All this dovetails with the question of whether industrialisation in itself constitutes a viable departure from and alternative to the present government’s neoliberal agenda. Marxist academics attach importance to what Gunawardena calls “proposals for economic recovery that hinge on mass mobilisation.” By contrast, the parties he associates with the Nationalist Right, including the Freedom People’s Alliance (FPA), favour an interventionist State moored in “appeals to nationalism and an exclusivist definition of community.”
My response to this is that industrialisation per se, as a Left or Nationalist Right construct, requires the kind of dirigiste State being promoted by these and other formations, including formations on the right and the centre-right. In that sense, the real question, for me, is not whether the Nationalist Right’s proposals for nationalisation and industrialisation constitute a radical alternative to the SLPP-UNP’s agenda, but whether, from a socialist and Marxist perspective, the Nationalist Right’s articulation of such proposals automatically disqualifies the latter as an alternative to that agenda. I would contend it does not.
I posit two reasons for this. The first reason is that the mainstream Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, includes a not insignificant segment which is basically in agreement with the government’s neoliberal policies. This segment includes a number of MPs who owe their political career to Ranil Wickremesinghe, even though Wickremesinghe’s arch nemesis is their leader. Against this backdrop, the New Left, led by the JVP-NPP and FSP, is sending mixed signals about their stance on the government’s neoliberal programme. On the one hand, the JVP-NPP has made contradictory statements over issues like private education and the IMF, some of which I mentioned last week. On the other hand, the more consistent FSP is experimenting with coalitions with other parties, including the SJB.
What does this mean, in terms of political strategy? It means that the centre-right and the centre-left is facing an existential crisis, perhaps the biggest such crisis in decades. Both these formations lack, as I mentioned last week, the proverbial fire in the belly. The SJB, specifically its anti-Ranilist and pro-Premadasa wing, has the potential to move to the Left if not centre-left, while the New Left, especially the JVP-NPP has the potential to dominate discussions over the issues that the National Right has taken over. Viewing industrialisation and state intervention as right-wing policies without incorporating them into a left-wing policy platform helps no one, least of all the JVP-NPP dominated New Left that now accuses the Nationalist Right of playing a duplicitous game vis-à-vis the SLPP and UNP.
The second reason is that the radical politics espoused by the New Left and certain Marxist academics and activists requires a total and continuous campaign of mass resistance. This would obviously call for trade union mobilisation. Now, Sri Lanka does not lack strong and activist trade unions. However, unions have seen a decline in membership since the 1980s, so much so that union density in the country is barely 10% today.
Moreover, barring sectors like textiles, private sector workers lack union representation. The public sector does not lack representation, but any union agitation involving public sector workers would pit the latter, not against the capitalist framework opposed by the Left, but against middle-class taxpayers who claim they are contributing to government coffers and, even when battered by neoliberal reforms, are virulently opposed to strikes and walkouts. There is clearly no room here for a repeat of the 1953 Hartal.
What I am suggesting here is that the Left simply lacks the base on which it can oppose, let alone overthrow, the regime’s neoliberal agenda through mass resistance and mobilisation alone. Such strategies can and will lead to the overthrow of individual regimes, but as last year’s protests showed, it can only end with the replacement of one authoritarian regime by another. I would certainly concede that the Nationalist Right needs to be opposed from an anti-imperialist standpoint. But any rejection of the policies they propose – policies such as the nationalisation of strategic sectors – would lead to the Nationalist Right dominating if not monopolising discussions over those proposals. That should be avoided.
To prevent this from happening, the New Left needs to focus on industrialisation as much as it is focusing, at present, on social welfarist or mass resistance programmes. This is not just because Sri Lanka’s crisis is heavily rooted in a lack of manufacturing and a dependence on imports: a point noted by economists and scholars like Jayati Ghosh and Prabat Patnaik. It is also because the Left in Sri Lanka can gain more firepower and moral strength from focusing on such policies. By doing so, it will be able to take back discussions on them from the same Nationalist Right it now opposes, thereby winning the debate.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com.
Showers above 50mm are likely at some places in Western, Sabaragamuwa, North-Western and Uva provinces.
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