The defining feature of present-day Sri Lankan politics is a sense of sheer inaction. The UFPA, the coalition technically headed by President Sirisena, ‘appointed’ politicos who lost the 2015 general election to parliament via the national list. This was the only way in which it could concoct a joint government with the UNP. The concoction, as such, has been farcical. It has resulted in policy incoherencies at all levels, an absolutely diabolic and inconsistent repartition of portfolios and a situation in which conflicting ideologies collide. The power [non]transfer within the same political class has resulted in the continuity of the ‘vices’ of the Rajapaksa administration, in terms of mismanaging public funds and the continuing condemnation of marginalised groups (e.g. the underprivileged, local university students, the entire state-run system of education, and the national health [non]system). Politics of austerity have been reinforced, the joint government, if not its key stakeholder – the UNP under Ranil Wickeremesinghe, Ravi Karunanayake et al. – being extremely cooperative with the World Bank and the IMF. In the rest of the joint government’s tenure, harsher austerity measures that will adversely affect the most vulnerable are to be expected.
Sri Lanka’s political economy: capitalist and repressive?
The general, if not very basic reading is that neoliberal politics in Sri Lanka ‘began’ in full swing since the open market economic reform policies of the Jayewardene administration. This, however, does not tell the full story. The state structure of present-day Sri Lanka (as in the ‘unitary’ state, a direct inheritance of the structure of a crown colony that covers the entire island, governed separately from the rest of the Imperial possessions in the Indian Subcontinent) and the island’s socioeconomic landscape are deeply interconnected to, and represent an unscathed continuity of Western (especially British) colonial rule. The Crown Colony was exploited as a commercial venture, where cheap labour and a servile local elite (the ‘cream’ of which the British ‘created’, the Bandaranaike family being the prime example) and locally-recruited (and British controlled) law enforcement ensured that the business ventures were run uninterrupted. Where disruptions occurred in the form of communal collisions (e.g. 1915 marakkala kolahalaya) they were brutally suppressed.
In other words, the plantation economy was the epitome of capitalism, with very cheap, if not near-free labour enabling the British and their senior local officials to make tremendous and disproportionate profits. This was how the Ceylonese economy was built. The exploitative practices of capitalism thus formed an integral element of the political economy of Ceylon, the legacy of which has persisted right throughout the dominion state to the Republic of Sri Lanka. This legacy received an unprecedented ‘kick’ from Jayewardene’s open market reform project, which continues in full swing. The point made here is that the present-day class demarcations, problems of wealth distribution, concentration of wealth among a handful are all elements of Sri Lanka’s political economy with very strong historical antecedents. They are so deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan society that anyone, or any movement that seeks to challenge them face opposition not only from the wealthy beneficiaries of the system, but also, and very especially, from those at the receiving end. This [partly] explains, for instance, the mediocre performance of the JVP, especially at the 2015 general election, despite speculations that the party would perform well. Those who are most oppressed by this rampant neoliberal capitalism are often the first to oppose the slightest move to challenge the system and its functional dynamics.
This historical legacy of the political economy of capitalism under foreign occupation is also at the heart of servile and clientelist practices that pervade the polity. The first English language newspapers, to give but one example, used to refer to the Governor of Ceylon as ‘His Excellency’ at all times. In the ‘independent’ Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, the President, who still resides in the residencies built for the British governor, began to be systematically referred to as ‘His/her Excellency’ or HE. From symbolism to the practice of day-to-day politics, the sense of servility in the polity – that of bending before political power and political dynasties – is, by and large, a direct inheritance of a system that was imposed upon Sri Lankans with the express purpose of keeping us subjugated, and inferior to those wielding ‘real’ power and control.
Viyath maga: new path or petty ploy?
It goes without saying that this colonial hangover, and sheer servility is evident in all aspects of the present-day Sri Lankan polity. One of the developments that left this writer, like many other Sri Lankans, completely baffled as of late was an initiative euphemistically entitled ‘වියත් මඟ’, which roughly translates as ‘the path of scholars’. This initiative, marketed as an effort to incorporate specialists and scholars into governance at the highest levels, is in reality a sham effort to bring forth a contender to national leadership, to challenge the existing Sirisena-Wickremesinghe joint government.
A problematic protagonist?
The ‘contender’ that the architects of this initiative have found is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former army officer-turned-immigrant in the USA, who reportedly worked as a computer operator during his years of expatriation. A citizen of the USA, he returned to Sri Lanka to be appointed to the highest civil service office in the state defence structure, the post of Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. In the past, this post had been held by very senior civil servants with many years of distinguished service. Rajapaksa, on the contrary, was handpicked for the role not for any specific qualification or skill, but simply for being a presidential sibling. Retiring from the military as a lieutenant colonel, there is no record that Rajapaksa had previously worked in public policy, or defence policy formulation, in the Sri Lankan or the US governments, or in an international organisation. Rajapaksa also has no formal academic qualification in public administration, public policy, international politics, defence studies or in a related field.
Under Rajapaksa’s command, and his elder brother as President, ruthlessness became the order of the day. A match made in hell was the addition of Sarath Fonseka, a senior army officer known for his abject excesses of violence, abusive and macho behaviour, misogyny and bouts of anger, as the army commander. Despite these flaws, Fonseka did happen to be a military strategist, a factor that did play out during the last military offensive against the LTTE, Eelam War IV.
However, the legacy of that war, which has shrouded Sri Lanka in a heap of allegations including sexual violence, excessive use of force, rape and murder of surrendered individuals, acts amounting to war crimes and the shelling of hospitals, was also the result of having two absolutely ruthless individuals, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, at the helm of the defence structure.
Sri Lanka’s ‘Geneva problem’, or the tendency among Western powers to hammer Sri Lanka at the UN human rights bodies over human rights issues, is nothing new, and dates way back to the 1980s. Towards the latter stages of the war, the government of Sri Lanka had good reason to be conscious of these diplomatic and strategic challenges and steer the military offensive in such a way that the collateral ‘diplomatic’ damage could be minimised. However, what happened with the military victory was the opening of a can of worms, a scenario in which acts of impunity (including thieving gold and other wealth reserves of the LTTE) continued unhindered, from the very top onwards [the sudden deaths of the Airforce officers who transported LTTE gold to Colombo months after the war comes to mind].
Giving Western [pseudo]moral police a field day?
In sum, the tactlessness, arrogance and lack of strategic foresight in the high command of the defence establishment (namely Fonseka and especially Gotabaya Rajapaksa) was the primary factor that made some NGO folk in Colombo, Western journalists desperately waiting to find fault with the government of Sri Lanka, and the ‘moral police’ of Western government bodies and NGOs have an absolute field day in the post-war years. The share of Rajapaksa’s fault in this diplomatic quagmire is higher than that of Fonseka. The latter, being a serving officer, was known to be who he was, and he did not wield ‘political’ authority over the defence establishment. The former, however, was the centre of political authority within the military, and the mere mention of his name would send shivers down the spines of military personnel, from top to bottom. The subsequent feud between these two men that was played out in public requires no reiteration here. In all of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s media interactions (especially with international media) his anger and arrogance would repeatedly come to the surface. Under his elder brother’s second presidential mandate, Rajapaksa took over the Urban Development Authority, and projects were developed, where straightforward commissions and politics of gentrification were in order. These efforts were ‘marketed’ locally as the President and his sibling making Colombo a beautiful city, concealing a reality of nepotistic profiteering.
Rotten politicking: crucial to understanding Meethotamulla?
The Meethotamulla tragedy on New Year’s Day 2017, a result of reckless politicians profiting from garbage dumping (and therefore blocking the development of proper recycling strategies and recycling plants) is best understood in this backdrop. An individual close to Gotabaya Rajapaksa published a lengthy social media post describing the extent to which Gotabaya tried to address the Meethotamulla issue [link not included deliberately, with the intention of not supporting further traffic to such fictional fabrications]. To the reader of that post, some of the points raised may sound convincing, but the reality is clear for the world to see. The most prominent politician of the Meethotamulla area, a notorious drug dealer presently under death sentence, happened to be a close associate of Gotabaya. That Meethotamulla, if not managing waste in the capital city and suburbs, would have been the foremost priority if a sustainability-oriented plan for eco-friendly urban development was in the cards requires no reiteration. That the Rajapaksa administration took its time with this absolute priority suggests that it either did not consider it a priority (which poses major questions on the ‘expertise’ they – especially Gotabaya Rajapaksa – used with regards to urban development), or that they simply did not wish to take action, as the garbage dump was a lucrative venture for many politicians at multiple levels.
Meethotamulla is a case in point that shows that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had no clue whatsoever about urban development, other than running behind commissions.
This is the man that a number of ‘intellectuals’ have decided to bring forward as a contender to national leadership. Every Sri Lankan has a responsibility to campaign against the entry of someone like Gotabaya Rajapaksa to electoral politics. The primary reason for this is his lack of expertise and experience for national leadership. Secondly, it is the lack of sustainable vision, and most importantly, arrogance and ruthlessness. Under his command, the army was deployed at the slightest popular protest, the use of violence was unprecedented and terribly excessive. The murder of a fisherman who campaigned for subsidised kerosene oil and the murders of several underage children who campaigned for clean water in Ratupaswela are revealing examples.
Those intellectuals supporting the arrival of Gotabaya to national leadership are living examples of a dangerous syndrome – lack of self-respect. If they really purported to put in place a ‘වියත් මඟ’ why not promote a true scholar-activist-turned politician for national leadership, thereby challenging dynasties and social conservatisms? What is ‘වියත්’ about Gotabaya? Are these intellectuals conscious of the fact that their lobbying could only lead them to work for a lieutenant colonel of yesteryear? The concept in itself is commendable, if only it really contained a consistently ‘viyath’ component within. It is also a necessary concept for Sri Lanka as the non-acknowledgement of qualifications and skills is the primary reason behind policy inconsistencies and problems of governance. However, to be truly ‘වියත්’ it should be a movement that challenges clientelist practices, nepotism, sexism, misogyny, and majoritarian and patriarchal ills (which would include a strong intersectional emphasis on violence against women and strongly challenging discrimination against non-cis-hetero-normativities).
In the absence of these core components for progressive governance, the ‘මඟ’, or path forward is most definitely far from ‘වියත්’. Instead, in its present form it is all but a petty effort of a cabal of disgruntled individuals to get back to power and carry on business as usual.
*The writer (@fremancourt) is the LGBTQI Officer of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, and a board member of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network.