18 June, 2021

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New Century, Old story: War Ends As Social Tragedy, Continues As Political Farce

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Sri Lanka didn’t need a Y2K problem at the dawn of the 21st century, indeed, the third millennium. The island of millenniums had enough baggage from the old century to carry over into the new century, if not from the old millennium to the new. Old problems were carried with new mutations and whole new other ones were added. The war that was muddled through the nineties consumed almost the entire first decade of the new century, before ending in 2009. The end of the war did end much of the social tragedy that it created, but it did not end the farcical continuation of war by political means. Mercifully, the killings ended but the agony of the living has persisted with no certainty about the dead and the missing. Not to mention the endless spat over how many died, with nary a thought or hand for the survivors of war and their livelihood struggles.        

The war added new mutations to the old national question. The emergence of the Tamil diaspora and with it the phenomenon of diasporic nationalism, are developments that no one could have foreseen even as late as 1982. Equally, at both the state and societal levels, Sri Lanka has not fully come to terms with the rise of new strand of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism outside the ambits of mainstream political parties among the Sinhalese. Add to these, the coming of age of Muslim nationalism after having long been in the shadows of Sinhala and Tamil politics. These developments have defined the 21st century course of Sri Lanka’s never ending constitutional odyssey, especially involving the fate or the future of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Provincial Councils, and even the Executive Presidency. A new dimension to the course of politics was provided by the end of the war itself, rather by the debate over how the war ended and whether or not crimes were committed.

The JVP insurrection and the Tamil separatist challenge that arose soon after, have been interpreted as accusations against (or rejections of) the post-colonial establishment (or ‘imaginary’) that had been taking shape in the two decades after independence. The establishment had its own internal contradictions and contestants: Left vs Right, and ethnic conflicts over language, religion, habitats and constitutions. But the JVP and later the LTTE assaults targeted the whole establishment without discrimination. Insofar as both assaults have ended in defeats, if not failure, a practical question would be – what next? It is also a fact that the post-colonial establishment that was evolving after independence now stands more deformed than reformed, though not wholly as a result of the JVP and LTTE assaults. What was once a reasonably working system of parliamentary democracy has degenerated into caricature as a presidential system.   

Twelve years after the war ended, there are no answers in sight to the questions that led to the war and have survived the war. There are no permanently correct answers in politics, but the task of every generation is to keep the balance on the side of more correct than incorrect answers. As things are in 2021, and thanks to an untoward juncture of a global pandemic and government incompetence, there are mostly only incorrect answers and hardly any correct answers to the many questions that Sri Lankans are facing. The current juncture will pass one way or another, but there is hardly a positive sign that the national question involving Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups that have been bestirred in the aftermath of the war might likely be answered satisfactorily any time soon.

A Dysfunctional Family

If Sri Lanka is a family of nationalisms, it has been for the most part a dysfunctional one. This is because Sri Lanka’s nationalisms have grown into being more conflictual and competitive than being complementary. The war and its aftermaths would appear to have exacerbated these tendencies and the unfolding of diasporic and Jathika Chinthanaya phenomena would certainly attest to this. At the same time, their emergence also provide insights into the social and cultural roots of the nationalist stirrings among the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims. Identifying and sharing these insights is needed to get rid of the always simplistic, and very often offensive, stereotypes which for far too long informed each community’s understanding of the other.

As stereotypes go, “Mahavamsa mindset” apparently sums up the Tamil understanding of Sinhala nationalism. For the Sinhalese, Tamil nationalistic claims are nothing more than a new ruse for Vellala domination. And Sri Lankan Muslim nationalism is simply rejected as Sri Lankan manifestation of global Islamic fundamentalism. There is more to each nationalism than these stereotypes, and each involves the lives and mores of people that cannot be summarily dismissed in any approach to accommodating them and making them complementary to one another. There are people in each community who do not subscribe to the narrow nationalistic claims that are made on behalf of their community. And stereotyping smudges them as well out of recognition.

It might not be widely known outside the JC universe that the political roots of the two intellectual prime movers (Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara and Prof. Nalin de Silva) behind JC are traceable more to Marxism and left politics than to any Mahavamsa mindset. In fact, one of them (Prof. de Silva) is known to have been a defender of the right of self-determination of the Tamil people before 1983. The open economy politics that began in 1977 and its social eruption in 1983 have more to do with the emergence of the Tamil diaspora and the Jathika Chinthanaya soul searching among the Sinhalese intelligentsia, than anything that stereotypical explanations can provide.

The violence of 1983 impacted the Tamils indiscriminately and directly led to the emergence of the Tamil diaspora. On the other hand, the backlash to 1983 from outside Sri Lanka, especially the West and human rights organizations, may have been a factor in the energization of the JC school after 1983. The UNP government of the day wholly owned the 1983 disaster and deserved a great deal more than whatever blame it got and wherever it came from. JC was opposed to the UNP government’s open economy swindle and its cultural sellout,  and it resented the government’s cunning approach to the Tamil national question. That was to parley with Tamil politicians in secret, and organize violence against Tamil civilians in the open. When 1983 went out of control, the backlash was not only against the government, but besmirched the entire Sinhalese society, including those who were revolted by the violence and others who were intractably opposed to the government. And there were also backlashes from different fragments in the Sri Lankan social formation.

The fragmentation of the social formation and the creation of multiple political spaces was another outcome of the open economy and the political makeover under the UNP government. Thus, there was a new sociopolitical space for the off springs of the old, westernized Ceylonese middle class. It is not unfair to characterize the NGOs as being among the occupants of this space. And the children of 1956 were not neglected, at least from the economic standpoint. The more mobile among them easily filled up the economic spaces that the open economy created.

And for their social reproduction outside the vernacular, with a western accent, President Jayewardene gave them international schools. If that was JRJ’s belated rejoinder to the SLFP’s schools’ takeover of the 1960s, and it certainly was, he was not particularly looking to provide reparation to the Churches who lost control over many of their schools in the takeover. Rather, and worse, JRJ snobbishly abandoned caring about the entire national school system, which he had the absolute power to retool anyway he wanted – to provide international education with a national accent to the children of 1977.

There was another aspect to the open economy that the UNP, and every government thereafter, neither recognized nor addressed. It was the orphaning of the state sector at the altar of the open economy. The salaries and compensation levels in the state sector were instantly and massively devalued by the opening of the economy and the aligning of market prices and private sector remunerations to global rates. I do not think this anomaly has been satisfactorily addressed to date. If Singapore is the vaunted model, you cannot have a competitive public sector without matching compensation with the private sector. It is no secret that some of the best and the brightest in a whole generation opted not to join the Central Bank, the universities or government institutions.      

Political Limitations

The upshot of these changes was the emergence of two contending formations. One of the two, the NGO-formation (to call it loosely with no disparagement intended), wanted to use 1983 as a platform to recast Sri Lanka’s political society fundamentally different from what had led to the catastrophe of 1983. The new society would be plural and secular, would celebrate its diversity and welcome devolution. Intellectually, ethno-nationalism would be called out for what it is not – not an essential human condition.

The other, the JC-formation (so called, for convenience), has diametrically been opposed to any and all of the above. The JC thinking is also indicative of the unique exceptionalism that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is uniquely constrained to project unlike Tamil nationalism or Muslim nationalism, both of which have external cultural validations to fall back on by virtue of language (in South India) and religion (Islam), respectively. The JC response in effect might be seen as a response to a sense of besiegement of the Sinhalese by forces from within (NGOs) and without (the West).

At the political level, the NGO formation found its spearheads alternatingly in Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their accomplishments fell far below expectations. The JC formation waited patiently for the most authentic Sinhala Buddhist leader in Mahinda Rajapaksa, and had its golden decade from 2005 to 2015. The rest of the Sri Lankan political field, both individuals and organizations and of all ethnic groups, have been scurrying between the two main political polarities at regular intervals. The JVP and the JHU, both beneficiaries of JC affiliations at some point, have been in both political alliances and have also splintered over which side they should be permanently aligned with. The Tamil and the Muslim political parties have had their cracks of affiliations with the two main alliances and have little to show as results for their efforts. 

The new forces of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism suffered a setback when Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in his attempt to extend his presidency to a third term. They revived resoundingly within five years with the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election. The unfolding of the new Rajapaksa presidency, however, has been anything but prosperous or splendid despite the promised vistas of prosperity and splendour. Rather, the country is living through a dismal record of incompetence and inaction. The ‘young’ SLPP was seen by some as a permanent incubator of future presidents, is no longer seen as permanently promising political vehicle.

The alternatives to the regime are less than embryonic. Of the old JC affiliates, the JVP is trying to make a new mark as a sharp opposition party in parliament. And JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, perhaps the only politician with credible presidential ambition but without a political vehicle of his own, is now a member of convenience in Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).  The debate over where the UNP ends and the SJB begins seems to be never ending.

Fifty years ago, the JVP launched its first abortive insurrection ostensibly to liberate the rural poor through the agency of its youth. Within twenty years, the JVP staged its second coming and the Tamil militants launched their violent struggle. They have all run their course which came to an end in 2009. Political violence used to be justified as the last resort after all other avenues have been exhausted. The violent struggles in Sri Lanka from 1971 to the Easter bombings in 2019 were not launched after all other avenues were exhausted. The question to ask fifty years after 1971 is – what happens when the ultimatums of political violence have all been tried and exhausted as well? Should politics be reduced to a farce as the continuation of war and violence by other means?

Related posts:

Part – 1 – The Tragedy Of 1971 & The Farce Of 2021

Part – 2 – The Tumultuous 1980s: Open Economy, Open Violence, And India’s Peace Keeping By Force

Part – 3 – The Transitional 1990s & Beyond

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Latest comments

  • 9
    0

    Exceptionally perceptive piece by Rajan. My only concern is that he does not answer the “So What Next?” question. I want to invite him to join the Party, but I have a similar conundrum – Which One?

    • 7
      2

      Excellent essay by Dr. Rajan, but I think this isn’t quite correct:” The salaries and compensation levels in the state sector were instantly and massively devalued by the opening of the economy and the aligning of market prices and private sector remunerations to global rates. I do not think this anomaly has been satisfactorily addressed to date. “
      But the state sector is still overwhelmingly attractive to many, due to its non-performance-based approach to increments and promotions, lack of taxes, and most of all a pension. A system more like the private sector would attract better quality employees.
      A good example are government websites, which are so sloppily designed that most of them crash frequently or are otherwise unusable. Most are unreadable on mobile phones. This is due to the employment of programmers who wouldn’t get even an interview in the private sector. The private sector pays its IT people ten times what the state pays.
      —-

    • 1
      2

      Rajan Phillips this is an old and tired story that you keep repeating. Your history of what you myopically call endless war in Lanka is very parochial and ISLANDED!
      You get a F failing grade, since you never talk about the external dynamics of POSTCOLONIAL conflicts in Lanka and the COLD WAR in Asia -Old and New – and how US-UK-Franc (P3)e did regime change assassinations, coups and dirty wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America and Weaponized ethnic, racial and religious differences to undermine Leftists all over the post/colonial world and in Sri Lanka/ Ceylon?
      US-UK-France (P3) weaponized ethnic and religious differences and during the Cold War Islam in West Asia and Africa and Buddhism in Southeast Asia against “godless” communists, socialist and leftists. to Divide, rule and loot… They are doing this right now in the Indian Ocean region. France and Japan (US proxies) are looting our living and non-living marine resources – Fisheries and minerals including Rare Earth Elements.

      • 1
        2

        Cold War history and ethnic and class conflict lessons:
        Philips please read up the book: “Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia” by Eugene Ford and Phil Miller’s Keenie Meenie: British Mercenaries War crimes”, and Vincent Bevin’s book: JAKARTA METHOD on the ouster of Sukarnao and then rewrite this article.
        Please re-write with Cold War and Colonialism in focus.
        JRJ was an American puppet as is his nephew Ranil who has ONLY survived in the UNP so long because of US interference. During the the Cold War JRJ was getting ready hand over Trincomalle to Uncle Sam and so the Indians RAW and IB weaponized the so called ethnic conflict in Lanka and set up the LTTE, EPRLF, TELO, PLOTTE, EPDP etc. all the Tamil Militant groups.
        After 2009, Buddhist and Muslim militant groups sprang up like little mushrooms just like during the ethnic conflict days, – BBS, Ravana Balaya, Mahaso and various Thawheed Jammarts, Same game with religion rather than ethnicity being weaponized..
        Now the Cold Hybrid war is against China not Russia in Lanka.
        US and its Saudi Proxy weaponized Islam and Buddhism in Lanka to Divide and Rule and staged the Easter attacks to get a base here, but that plan backfired. Saffron Modi’s India weaponized Hindu outfits too.. RSS, Ravana Senai etc.
        Right now you get a failing grade for this analysis: FFFFF

      • 2
        0

        DRS,
        “France and Japan (US proxies) are looting our living and non-living marine resources – Fisheries”
        Why blame them?
        Why did our leaders use borrowed money to build vanity projects named after themselves instead of using it to build a modern fishing fleet?

        • 3
          0

          OC
          Some thirty years ago when our papers proudly published the stoory of how our navy had intercepted and arrested South Korean fishing boats that were illegally fishing in our waters, a late friend of mine, not a self-proclaimed patriot by any means, wryly commented:
          ” I am keenly waiting for the day when news is that our fishing boats had been arrested for fishing in Korean waters.”

  • 2
    13

    Rajan Philips,
    Can you please elaborate what is the ‘national question involving Sri Lanka’s ethnic GROUPS (my emphasis)’.
    —-
    “… but there is hardly a positive sign that the national question involving Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups that have been bestirred in the aftermath of the war might likely be answered satisfactorily any time soon.”

    • 8
      1

      Eagle,
      “Can you please elaborate what is the ‘national question involving Sri Lanka’s ethnic GROUPS (my emphasis)’.”
      The National Question in short is: why do Para Demalu who came from Hindustan get all the plum jobs while Sinhalayo like you have to work under them? Are Sinhalayo stupid?
      Please note that I am talking about Canada, your domicile.
      —-

  • 2
    14

    Rajan Philips,
    Please tell us:
    • What is it that the Sinhalayo are enjoying that the other communities are not enjoying because they are not Sinhala?
    • What is it that the minorities do not enjoy because they are the minority which the majority enjoys because they are the majority?
    • What is legally, constitutionally and legislatively given to the majority that is not given to the minorities?
    • What is it that the Sinhala Buddhists are enjoying that the other communities are not enjoying because they are not Sinhala Buddhists?

    • 1
      1

      Eagle Blind Eye

      “What is it that the Sinhalayo are enjoying that the other communities are not enjoying because they are not Sinhala?”

      Who are the Sinhalayos?
      Never mind what do you think what is it that Sinhalayos are enjoying?

      “What is it that the minorities do not enjoy because they are the minority which the majority enjoys because they are the majority?”

      Mass hysteria and vastly possessed stupidity.

      “What is legally, constitutionally and legislatively given to the majority that is not given to the minorities?”

      The right to loot, right to abuse power, right to exercise nepotism, ………………………. 6.9 million other reasons.

      …..
      ….
      ….

  • 2
    18

    In 1949, SJVC formed the Federal Party and demanded a Federal System.
    In 1976, SJVC passed Batakotte Resolution to create a separate State for the Tamils in Yapanaya who are the descendants of Dravidians brought by Portuguese and declared war against Sinhala nation. Tamils fought the war with Sinhalayo for three decades and lost.
    Now the Tamils are begging Sinhalayo to give them something.
    After a war, winner dictates the terms and not the loser.

    • 1
      1

      Eagle Blind Eye

      “In 1949, SJVC formed the Federal Party and demanded a Federal System.”

      Do you know in the previous year your masters had decided to relinquish the island to you. The reason is that they wanted to avoid being dragged to the bottom as they knew Anagarika’s grand children were very happy to commit Harakiri self destruction.

  • 7
    2

    A short response to Eagle Eye while Rajan is still brushing his teeth I guess. EE you have a point that on the statute book, regarding your four points (*) the irritants the minorities suffer are not very many. Things like holding Tamil prisoners for 10 or more years without trial, hypocritical excuse about security for letting the military enjoy the use of Tamil owned lands, passing over in promotions, poor service at govt departments, absence of Tamil speaking police officers, etc.

    But is in real life practical things, not regulations that the hegemony of the SB mentality bites. Take the treatment of Muslims – pogroms, false allegations misbehaviour by Muslim doctors and surgeons and their detention, refusal of burial of the dead till Imran Khan intervened (proof that there was no scientific reason), foul treatment at police stations, boycott of shops (how many Sinhalese families I know have told me “We will never patronise a Muslim shop”), impolite treatment of Muslim women etc. There is little doubt that there is a serious discriminatory mind set among some (many?) SBs about Muslims. This is enough comment on this topic and I do not need to make a 67 year enumeration in respect of Tamils as well. Has EE never heard of Black July 1983?

    • 1
      4

      eeakdavi,
      Have you heard of ‘BLACK THREE DECADES’?
      —-
      Has EE never heard of Black July 1983?

      • 1
        1

        Eagle Blind Eye

        “Have you heard of ‘BLACK THREE DECADES’?”

        What BLACK THREE DECADES?
        Actually they were RED FOUR DECADES from 1971.
        However if you include all those targeted riots they were 7 Red Decades.
        Who is your math teacher?

        Siri Mao?

    • 2
      2

      Dr.KD,
      You’ve got a tiger by the tail, giving EE serious attention.
      Frivolous questions need frivolous answers.

  • 1
    5

    old codger,
    ‘Yanne Koheda, Malle Pol’
    Asked about Sri Lanka, talking about Canada. Short circuit in the brain.

    • 3
      1

      Eagle,
      “Yanne Koheda, Malle Pol’
      Asked about Sri Lanka, talking about Canada. “
      Is your disease contagious?

      • 1
        1

        Eagle Blind Eye

        “Asked about Sri Lanka, talking about Canada. Short circuit in the brain.”

        Try and ask Kamal and Shavendra about COVID19, they go on talking about how they won the war against LTTE, incidentally that war came to an end 12 years ago, and VP with the help from Hindia won it for Mahinda.

        Perhaps psychopaths have been reminiscing their crimes by revisiting crime scene …….

        What’s the matter with you lot?

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