By Jude Fernando –
“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them in parliament.” –V.I. Lenin
“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to reject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.” –Paulo Freire
Forming a national government as the bedrock of a just political culture is a welcome move indeed. While I appreciate the current government’s many efforts toward good governance, I also see that some of those efforts have compromised President Sirisena’s desire to “formulate and implement rational, evidence-based national policies to address this country’s critical issues.” The way the so-called national government is evolving is sowing the seeds of its own demise and paving the way to re-establishing the same political culture it seeks to transform.
The current national government is in fact a coalition and in many ways resembles the previous one. Labeling the coalition a national government suggests that the administration is committed to justice and fairness. This is somewhat disingenuous. The United National Party (UNP) had no intention to form a government prior to the election. The concept of a national government did not emerge from any shared agreement regarding its meaning, nor is it grounded in consensus in terms of the reforms and road map needed to achieve its goals (i.e., a just and fair political culture).
Through this desperate invention (i.e., the national government), the UNP aims to achieve a parliamentary majority in support of its intended reforms that would ostensibly steer the country toward a new political culture; likewise, it is President Sirisena’s way of consolidating his presidential power and establishing dominance within the SLFP. The inability of the UNP (or any mainstream political party) to form a stable government without collaborating with opposition factions—particularly those accused of corruption, power abuses, and racism— highlights how Sri Lanka’s political culture has degenerated. At this moment, the government lacks the political will and necessary resources to make a clean break from the political culture of the Rajapaksa regime. Meaning of the ‘national’ in the national government will evolve out of many different and contested meanings of Sri Lanka’s ‘national identity’ that define it’s political culture. We could view the national government under the current regime as a process that aspires to create a new political culture. Its direction is unclear and outcomes are unpredictable, but it could be navigated to achieve purposive ends.
A national government would steer the country toward a just and fair political culture only if it evolves out of “rational, evidence-based policies” that give uncompromising priority to equality and justice as opposed to the selfish interests of the politicians and their business and public service allies. The challenge is to delegitimize the existing hegemonic meanings and practices of the national identity and national government and replace them with new ones. Those that need to be discarded and replaced stem from the country’s racialized political culture, neoliberal economic policies, religious establishment, civil society, and current coalition government.
Racialized Political Culture
All post-independence governments are national governments in that they subscribe to a shared meaning of “national” rooted in the country’s hegemonic ethnicity and religion. By deliberately cultivating and institutionalizing a highly racialized meaning of this country’s national identity (i.e., the people’s sense of belonging to the nation), these governments have alienated minority communities from the majority and minority political parties from the mainstream. Despite that, minority parties have established themselves as autonomous and decisive political forces.
Competition among these various political parties for guardianship of racialized nationalism has made identity politics a driving force in the politics of redistribution. Identity politics has deprived the mainstream political parties of a parliamentary majority and the ability to implement reforms, while also impeding our society’s ability to be self-critical. Society has gotten too accustomed to viewing political and basic human rights issues primarily through the lens of narrow and racist identity politics. Such parochialism was implied in Mayadunne’s (JVP) statement that “The election results and preferential votes evidently displayed the thinking of the people that frauds, corruption and waste carried out by the two main parties need not be considered as unpardonable crimes.”
We dismiss minority communities’ yearnings for justice and equality as external conspiracies against the national interest. In the process of uncritically applying the same logic to dismiss the demand for justice for human rights violations, our society has become desensitized to the violence and injustices endured by not only ethnic minorities but also the majority community. We take pride in ending terrorism, and this endeavor continues to provide popular support for politicians. But the majority of the country’s population is less likely to be proud of and support politicians who seek to genuinely address issues pertaining to power sharing between ethnic groups and the allegations of human rights abuses that occurred during and in the aftermath of the war.
The racialized nationalism of the prior regime was hypocritical and misleading. Its hardline proponents collaborated with the very forces (i.e., ‘terrorists’) that they claimed undermined the national interest. In claiming to defend the country against external threats, such nationalistic thinking yielded lucrative benefits for the ruling class and made the country vulnerable to geopolitical forces beyond the government’s control. As we saw during the Rajapaksa regime, the ruling elites used racist nationalism to consolidate power, distracting public attention from corruption, nepotism, and power abuses.
Ethno religious nationalism did not actually entail defending legitimate majority concerns, either, as it did not ultimately benefit mainstream society. The fear this nationalism created insulated us from global democratic forces and made us even more vulnerable to external threats. Institutionalized xenophobia has made society fear justice and tolerant of injustice. This has severely impeded our society’s ability to pursue justice outside the narrow confines of ethnoreligious nationalism. In these circumstances, politicians and law enforcement could be hesitant to pursue justice, as they fear such pursuits will be perceived as unpatriotic.
The UNP-led coalition’s claim that the defeat of the UNFP is indicative of a defeat of racist nationalism by voters is far-fetched and premature at best. Opposition political parties often reject racism to capture state power. However, once in power, they succumb to the same racist nationalism when they attempt to address minorities’ genuine concerns. The real test in opposing racist ideologies will be made clear in the public’s reaction to government attempts to fulfill promises of transitional justice. Those nationalist politicians who received high preferential votes in addition to votes in the South serve as strong indicators of the hold that ethnoreligious nationalism has on our country.
Good governance is at best an abstract set of rules and regulations, many of which are framed within the same racialized identity politics. This concept did not evolve out of an inclusive meaning of national identity or an agenda to create equality among different ethnic groups. Equality before the law does not lead to justice if the laws are equally as racialized and if they are interpreted strictly within the parameters of an ethnonationalist constitution.
Appointing a member of the TNA as the leader of the opposition—the TNA is clearly the opposition party following the UFPA’s becoming a member of the national government—is logical and demonstrates the government’s willingness to treat all communities equally. The government should show the same courage in addressing the issue of power sharing and alleged human rights violations by all parties (the government and LTTE) during and following the war. Some fear that the current debates the government has initiated about the legality of domestic vs. international inquiry of human rights violations serve to appease the ethnonationalist forces that would undermine a credible investigation. Why would people are opposed to international intervention in such an investigation that would be less damaging to the common good of the country, but same people are tolerant of the interventions by the neoliberal institutions, corporations (e.g. Nestle, Coca-Cola, Dole), and countries that do not care for human rights abuses, that have proven to be far more intrusive and have done more harm to the country?
The government should consider forming a commission on multiculturalism and social conditions in support of policies to address issues pertaining to minorities. The commission should strive to create an environment conducive to cultivating a national identity (a sense of belonging to the state)—an identity much different from what the people now hold. It should induce all communities to come to terms with their own racism and recognize that Sri Lanka is inhabited by a plurality of culturally and spatially distinct ethnic groups entitled to equal rights, dignity, and privileges. Recognition that these groups deserve to enjoy their respective distinctiveness is a quintessential requirement for creating a meaningful multiethnic state. Bringing closure to issues minorities face will allow society to focus on the obstacles to achieving good governance arising from neoliberal economic policies and will create inter-ethnic solidarity to address other pressing issues.
Neoliberal Economy: No Turning Back?
Since 1977, Sri Lanka has progressively moved toward a national government in which all political parties—those in power and in opposition—are committed to neoliberal economic policies. These policies created a collective national identity subservient to neoliberal ideology. Many of the political culture issues that the current regime seeks to transform and the challenges it faces in doing so are rooted in the political culture that evolved out these neoliberal policies.
The perception of collective identity in Sri Lankan society is superficial, as neoliberal economic policies continue to transform us into a highly competitive and individualistic one. Membership in a political party has become irrelevant for the majority; it is not required to pursue anyone’s economic interests. Politicians’ allegiances to parties have become so fluid that they could easily switch. Part of the reason for this is the blurring of differences between our political parties in terms of economic policy. One effect of this policy convergence is the challenge for any single party to obtain a clear parliamentary majority.
The economic growth this country experienced following the war was artificial and counter-productive to the economy’s long-term well-being. It resulted in increased economic inequality and long-term vulnerability to market forces and led to drastic cuts in welfare policies that had secured citizens’ basic needs. Development policies showed urban bias, developing cities at the expense of agriculture, and the uncontrolled commercialization of the agricultural sector is now responsible for a food-security crisis and related health hazards. None of these policies considered Sri Lankan society’s vulnerability to adverse climate change.
The current government will follow neoliberal policies more aggressively than did its predecessors. It will not be able to command much autonomy—in terms of economic decision making—from highly globalized transnational forces. Inevitable economic vulnerability will force the government to impose even harsher austerity measures that are likely to undermine stability. The extent to which the current government will resort to ethnoreligious nationalism and militarism to manage these crises remains to be seen. By using ethnoreligious nationalism as a weapon against the government, the many elements within the UPFA will not only help the government divert mass attention away from economic policies but also provide no incentive to for it to do away with ethnoreligious nationalism.
Bad governance and power abuses facilitated economic growth during the previous regime. Eliminating economic corruption means destabilizing the way economic affairs are conducted. Addressing corruption poses a challenge when it involves businesses and their political allies in all mainstream political parties, including the UNP. As the election grows ever more distant, we will see more of those culprits accused of corruption turned loose. They will then assume higher positions in the new government. Then the justice system will face enormous pressure to relax the good governance/social responsibility conditions on transnational corporations.
The extent to which nepotism spread in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime was an anomaly since independence. At the same time, this partiality is how economic affairs are, and have been, conducted in Sri Lanka, perhaps since pre-colonial times. This government may not resort to family control over the economy as the Rajapaksa regime did, but the wealthy class will undoubtedly take control.
Voters, however, naively believe the current regime could make a significant difference in the economy’s direction or address the pressing economic issues society faces. Such belief is based on the myth that prosperity will trickle down. Good governance exists primarily to safeguard highly individualistic and competitive behavior in the market economy rather than to ensure collective equality and justice.
Good governance policies under neoliberal conditions are primarily a means to punish those who do not follow capitalistic principles. By simply reconfiguring economic issues as political issues, and seeking political solutions for those issues, good governance policies distract the public from opposing neoliberal economics. Majority of the people are desensitize to the dark realities of neoliberalism because they too have internalized its ideology, values, and practices, Their horizons of justice is imprisoned within limits set by neoliberalism.
Structural limits of the neoliberal economy set non-negotiable limits on the ability of good governance policies to create a just and fair political culture. These limits are beyond the government’s control, particularly in developing countries. During periods of economic crisis, these governments will have no option but to adopt even harsher austerity measures. They will be forced to violate the principles of good governance by suppressing dissent over policies causing economic hardship. The international community, in general, tolerates bad governance when seemingly necessary to serve the interests of global capital. Likewise, the international community overlooks human rights abuses resulting from racism and ethnoreligious nationalism, when they are not critical for its’ economic and geopolitical interests.
The aforementioned limitations of good governance are not sufficient reason to abandon it. The country has no option but to pursue this at least to minimize the destructive economic, social, and environmental impacts of neoliberalism. More importantly, good governance, if properly implemented, has the potential to create a space for us to imagine viable alternatives to neoliberalism. Creating such a space entails expanding social welfare policies (i.e., the state’s guaranteeing the satisfaction of society’s basic needs) and removing all restrictions on the freedom of expression.
Religion: ‘Opium of the masses and hope of the soulless world.’
While Sri Lankan society is fairly tolerant and accommodating of multiple religions, the ways in which the relationship among religion, ethnicity, politics, and economics has evolved since independence presents serious challenges to its ability to accommodate a just and fair national government. These challenges arise from multiple fronts. On the one hand, the dominant religion has created a national government by excessively controlling the state’s identity and policies. The space available for political parties to challenge this ethnoreligious nationalist identity has become increasingly limited. On the other, the consequences of the state’s ethnonationalist identity and the communal politics within minority communities have fragmented Sri Lankan society along religious lines. At the same time, all religions are generally complicit with the neoliberal policies, which reinforce the national government’s commitment to such policies.
Sri Lanka is a hyper-religious society, and religion has always shaped, and will continue to shape, the meaning and direction of national governments and political culture. The success of current efforts to form a meaningful national government depends on the political will to recognize, come to terms with, and change the ways in which religions have been responsible for the evils of the political culture that the national government seeks to transform. If our religions had functioned as moral forces faithful to their respective teachings, then we would no longer need to discuss good governance, as economic and social justice would have evolved organically from the fundamental tenets of these faiths.
The relationship between religiosity and the individual/collective Sri Lankan political identity has been constant across time and demographic groups. To that extent, this particular association of religion with politics is a fundamental obstacle to forming a national government and its ability to steer the country toward a just political culture. In Sri Lanka today, there exist no public discourse critical of religion’s role in politics and the economy. Instead, the existing hegemonic relation between religion and politics is taken for granted and considered non-negotiable by majority of the population.
The problem religion poses for good governance begins when the state directly identifies itself with the majority’s religion. The sense of coherence that the ‘religionization’ and ‘ethnicization’ of nationalism provides to the state and political parties is primarily responsible for society’s failure to address ethnic conflict. The conflation of loyalty to religion with loyalty to the state ensures that any party seeking to challenge the status quo will be branded anti-state, unpatriotic, and party to external conspiracies against the nation. Even those political parties that do not subscribe to racist ethnic nationalism must bow to the hegemonic association among religion, ethnicity, and state identity, moderating their agendas to capture more votes and to assure their survival.
Religion’s association with identity politics is hypocritical, as this association does not stand up to the scrutiny of the teachings of these doctrines: The relationship between the religious establishment and politicians does not strictly align with these teachings. Religions are more concerned with protecting followers’ ethnonationalist identity than in protecting the teachings of their doctrines. This is why no broad-based nonviolent movements have emerged in Sri Lanka demanding fairness to minority communities. This is also the reason most political parties and even some members of civil society avoid those exceptional human beings who have attempted make a difference.
The second problem religion poses for good governance is its association with neoliberal economic policies. Theologies either directly endorse or are complicit with neoliberal policies, which serve as the economic bases of these establishments. At best, their engagement with the economic issues is limited to charitable redistribution of resources to disadvantaged communities. Just like the mainstream political parties and neoliberal institutions, religious leaders have naïve faith that economic justice will trickle down from well-governed capitalism. Religions in general do not endorse political ideologies that espouse equality and justice. Religions are also active in suppressing and marginalizing those political ideologies that are critical of neoliberal practices, including the clergy.
Sri Lanka is a deeply a religious society, but its religiosity is superficial and highly counterproductive to creating conditions needed for a just society. Religions are racialized or commercialized and subscribe to racist and capitalist economic policies. There is also a lack of consistency among religious leaders who are critical voices for justice. For example, these calls for good governance and constitutional change are silent about the inequities arising from racist ethno-nationalism and neoliberal economic policies.
The hyper-religiosity of Sri Lankan society, especially during and in the aftermath of war, coincided with an increase in economic inequalities and environmental degradation. By contributing to highly racialized xenophobia, religions have hindered society’s ability to engage in unbiased and meaningful critical analysis and to support calls for meaningful governance. Of course, religions do invest in many efforts to promote peace and justice: the moral teachings of religion could have contributed to changing the Rajapaksa government and to people supporting good governance. However, the religious-minded proponents of these reforms do not necessarily support economic and racial equality beyond what is permitted by neoliberalism and ethonationalism. For example, many of them are silent or evasive about their stand on devolution of power and transitional justice.
That said, I do not advocate the abolishment of religion or call for secularization of society. At this time, tampering with highly racialized religious identity either by separating the state from religion or by repressing religious political parties would be counterproductive. This would lead to further radicalization of ethnonationalist political parties. A meaningful national government simply cannot ignore religion because of the role it plays in legitimizing bad governance: religion sanitizes and make society insensitive to injustice, the abuse of power, and corruption. Nor is secularism capable of providing the basis for moral criticism of bad governance or the coherences necessary for mobilizing society’s collective support for good governance.
My point here is that religion always has and could play a positive role in good governance, but only if religions liberate themselves from racist ethno-religious nationalism and neoliberalism. For this, the religious establishments and their followers must be critical of the theologies of their religions as they are applied to affairs of the economy and society. If the current government is to create a space for religion to play a positive role in society, it should introduce policies to minimize the politicization and commercialization of religion.
Some civil society groups played an important role in creating a social consciousness that helped topple the government. They have been a force behind the demand for good governance. Unfortunately, some decisions of the government have already ignored the important concerns of the civil society and the distance between the government and civil society seems to be widening. At the same time, civil society, as currently constituted, is arguably a hindrance to good governance rather than a facilitator. It seems to be complicit with the hegemonic meanings of national identity and national government, and it is not well positioned to challenge those meanings.
Civil society activism is sporadic and lacks continuity. Much of it is limited to urban areas, while the political consciousness of rural areas is completely controlled by the politicians. It is true that the majority in urban areas voted for the UNP. It would be a mistake to consider this vote a vote for devolution of power. Many ethno-nationalist politicians of the UNP and UPFA in urban areas received a good deal of preferential votes. Many of these politicians will continue to oppose any policy that would undermine their parochial nationalist agendas.
Civil society lacks the ideological and policy coherence that ethno-religious nationalism and neoliberalism provide. The economic and political ideologies of civil society are no different from those of the parties composing our national government. While they support a negotiated political settlement, they are unlikely to challenge the conflict’s root causes. Because their scope of justice is imprisoned within the parameters of neoliberalism and ethnoreligious nationalism, they failed to create popular support for policies that could meaningfully address the issues faced by the country.
Most civil society organizations are sympathetic to neoliberal policies, and they do not directly engage with the neoliberal policies as their economic basis. Civil society that is not liberated from ethno-religious nationalism and neoliberalism can only have a limited effect on good governance. This could occur if good governance creates a free and safe space for civil society to function. In this regard, the prime minister’s proposal to establish Citizens’ Committees to ensure government accountability and performance-based ministerial portfolios is a policy that makes good sense.
One Step Back
Our evolving national government seems to have become prisoner to the tensions between forces that seek to gain a stable parliamentary majority and corrupt politicians rejected by the voters seeking to reestablish their authority in the government. What is the evidence-based rationale behind the decisions made regarding the current composition and distribution of ministerial portfolios, and what good will these do for the country? Will these decisions reinforce the hegemonic meanings of national identity and national government? Do such national concepts need to be transformed for the country to move toward a meaningful national government?
Our national government’s current composition includes those who were rejected by the voters—those who have no record of good performance when they held power previously and those accused of corruption and abuse of power. With these portfolios, they will reassert their power and undermine the regime from within. This is a complete betrayal of the basic principles of good governance. These appointments make a mockery of democratic elections.
One reason many of these appointments were made could be that corruption charges cannot point to particular individuals. Corruption involves network of people who are members of all mainstream political parties in the national government as well as their respective allies in the business and the administrative services. Furthermore, a deep-seated sense of gratitude for ending war might have been used by corrupt politicians to avoid justice and accountability. Compromising justice for the sake of political stability in the long run will undermine good governance efforts, and it will cost public trust in country’s justice system.
The national government will create a large cabinet simply for the sake of political stability. To make such decision without at least informing people tantamount to robbing them of their sovereignty. This will only reinforce the political culture in which members of the parliament do not support a national government unless they receive ministerial posts or other perks. There is no legitimate reason to create new ministries when our country is unable to financially support them. These new ministries will lead to further fragmentation of policies/policy implementation and a lack of policy coherence and will waste resources. More importantly, new ministries controlled by the members of the Rajapaksa regime could easily undermine the policy coherence and politicize economic and social policies, and purposefully implement the wrong policies to destabilize the government.
Appointing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the Chief Opposition whip was a good move. However, the current governments on going accommodation of those accused of corruption and abuse of power, raises doubts about its willingness to support efforts of the JVP to address the issues of corruption. Time will tell us whether the JVP would be willing to extend its will to pursue justice to support the devolution of power (e.g. Samantha’s proposal for dividing Sri Lanka into three to five regions and transitional justice issues (e.g. genuine war crimes investigations) of the Tamil community Time will tell us whether the JVP would extend its will to pursue justice to support the devolution of power (e.g. Samantha’s proposal for dividing Sri Lanka into three to five regions and impartial inquiry into human rights abuses.
If the government hopes to prevent being destabilized from within, it needs to reduce the size of the cabinet and remove politicians who were rejected by the people. It should introduce a code of conduct and performance-based evaluations for all MPs and civil servants. The code of conduct should contain strict rules that will prevent political interference in the justice system. Creating a system of public hearing (e.g. as in the United States) to scrutinize the character and capabilities of public sector appointees is another important policy that will complement President’s proposal to appoint a committee to scrutinize the public sector appointments.
The events since January 8th show that Sri Lankans are capable of sorting out their own issues of governance, and doing things that at one time was considered as unimaginable i.e. defeating the previous regime. Sri Lankans are also notorious for scuttling the opportunities for good governance that are offered to them. Sri Lanka is, at present, also in a better position to steer itself toward just governance despite the aforementioned limitations. Both the president and the prime minister are well positioned to understand the limitations facing good governance and to make sound decisions, as they were both members of governments responsible for establishing the very political culture they now hope to transform. Unlike the Rajapaksa regime, the present government also commands local and international goodwill in support of its reform efforts. It is a collective responsibility of all citizens to ensure that the national government will become a project for the common good of the country as oppose to a project for the politicians.