By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Ven Vendaruwe Upali Thero, the Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter delivering an anusasana on the occasion of an almsgiving marking the 69th birthday of Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he should opt for military rule if this is what is necessary to build the country. Ven Upali, noting that Gotabaya is referred to as a Hitler, suggested that if that is the case he should be one and build the nation…”
‘“If They Call You A Hitler, Then Be A Hitler and Build This Country,” Asgiriya Anunayaka Thero Tells Gotabaya’, Colombo Telegraph, June 20th 2018
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
— WB Yeats, The Second Coming
The statement quoted above is the very worst, most dangerous and shameful statement I have ever heard in the public domain in this country, and it would have been so in any country.
The very last thing this island needs is to slide into another cycle of conflict. But that’s where we are headed unless we stop, think and make choices and changes of the correct kind.
This is the first time that mainstream society and politics both in the North and the South, have seen a simultaneous rise of extremisms.
This is the first time that mainstream society and politics both in the North and the South, has seen a simultaneous rise of extremisms. Back in the 1950s, competing nationalisms did infect the North and South, but the cultural and class congruencies provided such a commonality that SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayakam were able to arrive at an agreement, though that was swept aside by oppositional currents.
At the 1970 election the rise of Sinhala nationalism which was to result in the policies of media-wise and district wise standardization at the entry point to the universities, was met by extreme nationalism from the burgeoning Tamil youth movement, but at the general election of 1970, Tamil mainstream politics remained relatively moderate. The clash of nationalisms came late that decade.
In 1977, the Tamil mainstream opted for separatism but the South remained relatively moderate, electing the Jayewardene led UNP. Again the clash of nationalisms came later, because the rise of those nationalisms was fairly uneven.
What we face today is the dangerous phenomena of (negative) symmetry and simultaneity. Despite a neoliberal cosmopolitan government which has been rightly criticized for appeasement of Northern bellicosity and has been crippled electorally as a result, the slogans and symbolisms from the North, the political discourse and behavior of the Northern Provincial Council and civil society movements, have escalated in their militancy.
The scene is being set for a return to the Satyagraha movements of the 1960s and the Tamil youth activism of the 1970s. What we shall see is a cross between Kashmir and Gaza, without a similar causative context.
What the North should have done is to use the space afforded by a neoliberal cosmopolitan government to secure a durable provincial devolution, based upon and building on the existing 13th amendment. Instead what we have seen has been the adventurist misuse of the Northern Provincial Council as platform, resulting in “genocide” resolutions and para-LTTE mobilizations. Thus, time and space have been thrown away or traduced by Northern Tamil nationalism, propelled by the proto-separatist, para-Tiger Tamil Diaspora.
This rise in Northern political militancy has discredited the very term “Sanhindiyaava”, meaning détente, mistranslated as “reconciliation”, in the South.
The combination of a spike in Northern stridency and the economics of neoliberal globalization on the part of the dominant drivers of Government policy, has generated entirely predictable results: a displacement of mainstream social opinion towards populist neo-nationalism.
As in many other parts of the world, in Sri Lanka, it is neoliberal economics that is threatening liberal democracy by implementing policies which have generated an inevitable mainstream backlash. Cosmopolitan neoliberalism has bred nationalist neo-conservatism.
The subterranean struggle within the ranks of the electorally ascendant opposition is that between a centrist or center-left populism, which is relatively moderate on the ethnic and ethno-religious issues, and a trending Trump-Modi-Netanyahu-ism. This must not be reduced to the issue of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The enthusiasm for him is only a symptom, not a cause, of search for strong man who will restore rather than relinquish the results of a hard fought military victory, and revive the economy by ending strikes and “making the trains run on time”.
By converting to neoliberal globalist evangelism, the traditional center-right UNP has lost its center, its national credentials and mass base, thereby creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a radical neo-nationalist New Right. There is an emerging bloc of tendencies and strata making up the backbone of a rising New Right neo-conservatism. The foot-soldiers are a vast current of the petty bourgeoisie. The ideology or rather the social psychology is one of resentment (Nietzsche famously used the French term “Ressentiment” while relentlessly combatting it). The animating spirit and style are of rancor and intolerance.
Reason and Realism tell us that Sri Lanka must eschew the two rival rightwing projects, a neoliberal globalist Right (in decline) and a neo-nationalist Right (in ascendancy). The neoliberal globalist Establishment, in its cosmopolitan elitism, does not understand the country’s heartland and will not transfer leadership to the one in their political formation who can. The neo-nationalist Right, in its nativist parochialism, does not understand the texture of the terrain beyond the heartland, be it on the island or outside; be it the Tamils, India, the West or the world-system. Soon, the ideological center will no longer be the political center of gravity.
The real political and ideological struggle is to recreate a Middle path; to regrow a progressive center space opening to a centrist outcome. There are 15 months at best, in which this can be done.
If it is not done, if there is no political de-escalation in the North and the South, this small island will face for the first time, an election which could be the last free national election we have, because it will result in the victory of extremist, politically and ideologically fundamentalist forces in the North and the South.
We are heading for a frontal political and ideological clash. In the North it is propelled by the university student body, Gajan Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran, and in the South by hardline ultranationalists in civil society caucuses and networks. One can imagine just how chronically weakened our pluralist democracy would be, just how intolerant a society this would be if these two stratums wielded power, authority and influence.
A country in which such forces face each other, wielding power at the center in Colombo and at the periphery in the Northern Provincial Council and the parliamentary seats representing that area, will be a more sharply polarized country than at any time in our memory. It will no longer be extremist minorities, mostly plebian, on both sides; it will be extremist majorities including elites, elected to office and supported by their respective Diasporas. The polarization between the communities will not be merely island-wide but global. It will be a global zero-sum game.
The only way in which this nightmarish scenario can be avoided is by identifying and strengthening the populist’s centrists, the moderates, the progressives in all political camps. There are three sources of moderation in this country’s politics:
- In the growing anti-government space it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who stands head and shoulders above the others, supported by the mature oppositional personalities like Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. They head the largest centrist progressive or pluralist-populist ensemble in the country’s politics, namely the Joint Opposition-Pohottuwa bloc.
- President Sirisena and the SLFP, especially the Rebel Sixteen, are pluralist-centrists.
- Populists in the UNP like Sajith Premadasa, and liberal-democratic UNP semi-dissenters such as Vasantha Senanayaka, Navin Dissanayake and Ruwan Wijewardena are the UNP’s moderate center.
It is pointless speaking of the UNP’s globalist neoliberal elite as “moderates”, because it is precisely this Establishment that has by its very nature and policies, constituted the most effective growth medium for the neo-nationalist Alt-Right. If things remain as they are and go the way they are going, the electoral swing may be as in 1977.
Never have I witnessed mainstream society in the South react against moderation, liberalism and even social democracy, embracing a New Right ‘common sense’ that “democracy is dispensable/we need a tough leader”, as I have seen in the past few years and months. The hierarchy of the Buddhist clergy and the more hawkish-ex-military brass are the secretors and purveyors of this ideology. They are trying to pull off a political putsch for the candidacy.
The problem is not the candidate. It is the constituency and the ideology; the project. The project entails a retrogressive remodeling of the State, in which the clergy is above the law and dictates (“vidhaanaya” as Ven. Elle Gunawansa, the orator of Kanatte July ‘83 recently pronounced) to the State. It is the shift from the civilizational and cultural reality of our Sinhala Buddhist heritage to a notion of 21st century Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist state ( or simply, a Buddhist state).
To be sustainably successful in a complex and challenging external environment, the Opposition’s candidate has to pivot away from this fringe and relocate and root himself firmly within the pluralist democratic political mainstream, avoiding a regime project that is a junta installed by electoral means.
If the hawkish Alt-Right project wins, Sri Lanka, which was once the most advanced democracy in South Asia, may have a remodeled state in Sri Lanka along the lines of (Zia’s) Pakistan or Myanmar, which this time would surely seek a unilateral solution, as the perennial North-South problems surface in a cycle of revolt-rebellion-repression. Now that we’ve heard applause for a Hitler or military rule, perhaps we shall hear from the same quarters, advocacy of a Final Solution? A regional, if not global, response will be triggered.
It is only a fusion of the moderates in the Opposition that can shape a different and safer outcome.
It is not enough to manage the South. Somebody must imperatively manage the North. The North is far more ‘out of control’ than the South and has always been so, because the politics of fanaticism has been the norm rather than the exception there. The North has to makes it mind up on two issues:
A. Is the North actively working towards an alliance with Southern moderates and will it limit its demands to that which Southern progressives/centrists/moderates can take to the ballot box and win or at least stay viable? Or will the North pitch its politics according to the wishes of the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu? These are totally incompatible choices and the North has to make up its mind in the month that are left to do so.
B. Is the North willing to accept that the only political solution that any Colombo administration can be held to, and which it can sell its constituency, is “to proceed with the implementation of the 13th amendment” as per the bilateral accord with India? Or does the North prefer to hold out for more, only to miss out what it can really secure and wind up in exactly the same place or below it, decades later?
Will 2019 be the last democratic election we have before the State and System are tightened, and society straitjacketed preventing a free swing of the pendulum and democratic alternation in office? Will it be a soft landing, or a catalytic and combustible change, triggering a chain reaction leading to a catastrophe which turns us into a former Yugoslavia?
Any permutation and combination of categories (I), (II) and (III) listed by me above is sufficient to reconstitute a centrist shock absorber-cum-safety net which can save Sri Lanka from the coming North-South, Sinhala community vs. Tamils plus India plus the West collision. The late theoretician of the Trotskyist “Samasamaja” movement, Hector Abhayavardana sometimes said that “the Sinhalese are the Serbs of South Asia”. He must not be proved prophetic. It is only this shortlist of shifts and fusions that can save the country from a cataclysm.