25 September, 2020

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One Year After The January 8th Victory: Winners & Losers

By Dayapala Thiranagama

Dayapala Thiranagama

Dayapala Thiranagama

“That was both the opportunity and the problem. Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new thing, this Nation of Citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could not only be expected but required” – (Simon Schama, Citizens, A Chronicles of the French Revolution, 1989).

A year ago, a great electoral victory was set in motion with the coming together of the joint opposition and the common candidate, President Maithripala Sirisena. This was not the first time a common candidacy had been attempted in order to challenge the Rajapaksa regime. In the previous Presidential election in 2010, the common candidate Sarath Fonseka was defeated electorally and jailed. This was the indelible image that served as a warning to any future challengers. The idea of running a common candidate again was therefore fraught with great personal and political risks. The resounding electoral defeat handed to Rajapaksa last January seemed a very remote possibility even a few months prior to the election. Despite this danger, there were still brave groups of citizens and individuals who refused to be intimidated. The remarkable political judgement of the joint opposition, the personal bravery of President Sirisena and the millions of voters who were ready to call time on the Rajapaksa regime set the stage for a historic election victory.

The Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project

Before exploring the nature of its defeat, it is important to briefly reflect on the main elements of what I like to call the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project (RHP). The Rajapaksa victory in 2005 over the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe marked a watershed in Sri Lankan politics. The core of support for the Rajapaksa regime consisted of a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist constituency – politically and ideologically anti-Tamil and nurtured by a virulent kind of Sinhalese nationalism. Any political negotiation with the Liberation of Tamil Tigers (LTTE) to offer a package of devolution of power was strongly opposed by the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist forces. The Tamil Tiger’s terrorist campaign, their indiscriminate killing of innocent people as well as the assassinations of Sinhalese political leaders served to harden the opinion amongst Sinhalese people. Thus, the Rajapaksa regime was able to exploit political tensions in Sri Lanka to consolidate its power and destabilise any opposition. The regime was able to use Sinhala Buddhist anxieties to justify the political onslaught on its Sinhalese political opponents in the South and intimidate them.

Mahinda Sirisena RanilThe Rajapaksa regime also maintained neo-liberal economic policies throughout this period. That had opened the possibility of other capitalist politicians to join the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project if they were sufficiently convinced that Rajapaksa would be able to defeat the Tamil Tigers. The main opposition, the United National Party (UNP) became a real victim of this situation, losing most of its top leaders to the government at this period. Those who were deeply rooted in Sinhala nationalism were attracted to the Rajapaksa Project. Even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was split right in the middle. A significant number of JVP parliamentarians also joined the government.

Finally, in 2009 the Rajapaksa brothers annihilated Tiger leadership to claim the military victory of a civil war that had torn Sri Lanka apart for decades. As a result Mahinda Rajapaksa won a handsome victory in 2010, sealing their hegemonic control of Sri Lankan politics. It was built upon the exclusion of Tamil and Muslim communities from political and social power. The regime’s intoxication with power after their election victory initiated a new wave of suppression and intimidation of political dissent. The infamous white van culture with the abduction of political opponents, killing of journalists who dared write the truth, interference with the judiciary, killing of innocent civilians who demanded clean drinking water in Rathupaswala, and the inaction against the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in Aluthgama who attacked the Muslim people and their properties were all elements of an authoritarian regime that had come into power by the people’s vote. The existing two-term bar on presidential power was lifted by parliament. The regime was prepared to use the popularity of the war’s end to consolidate and extend its time in power. In addition, corruption and the theft of national wealth had become endemic.

Moreover, the final days of the war had killed thousands of innocent civilians and the issues of accountability had become a major issue for the Rajapaksa regime. Internationally, charges of war crimes were not easily dispelled. Images of live pictures of Issapriya’s tortured, raped and half naked body and Prabaharan’s’s 12-year-old son pictured eating a snack followed shortly by the images of his dead body with gunshot injuries epitomized the culture of impunity that had come to dominate. The government consistently ignored local and international calls for accountability and refused to engage in any meaningful reconciliation with the Tamil community.

In September 2014, I argued that one needed a counter hegemonic project to reverse the political process initiated and consolidated by the Rajapaksa hegemonic project. Such a counter hegemonic project, it argued would not be successful unless the devolution of power to the Tamil community was not included. Therefore the inclusion of democratic rights of the Tamil community needed to be one of the main elements of any counter hegemonic project.

A New Historical Bloc

It was not established political parties, but human rights defenders, journalists and NGOs who undertook crucial initiatives in opening up and maintaining Sri Lanka’s democratic political space. They defied the Rajapaksa regime’s attempts to shut down political dissent and dominate all avenues for action, campaigning for liberty and democracy. In so doing they took considerable personal risks and laid the crucial foundation for President Sirisena’s victory. They were able to muster an important array of parties and organizations with diverse ideologies and political philosophies from the UNP to the radical left. They broke the ice that was hindering the possibility of constructing an anti-Rajapaksa coalition. This was called ‘Platform For Freedom’. In ideological and political terms this new mustering of forces represented a watershed in the political discourse of the regime change: they could not have pioneered that role without dissociating themselves from ‘classism’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985,Hegemony and Socialist Strategy p, 177), of the Left political discourse. The Sri Lankan Left in pursuing their dream of the working class war against capitalism had underestimated the crucial nature of the new social movements. The Left parties had abandoned the struggle against the violations of personal freedoms, including the right to life, the oppression of minority communities, the subjugation of women and the community actions against the destruction of their living environments. The ‘Platform for Freedom’ took up some of these issues in their campaign. Actually the January 8th victory has underpinned the correct reading of this ground reality.

They were not alone in this. The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) led by the late Rev. Maduluwave Sobitha’s intervention to campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency as well as to field a common candidate made a crucial contribution to the formation of this movement. Rev. Sobitha’s untiring and selfless dedication in persuading and negotiating with the opposition political parties to field a common candidate for the Presidential election against Mahinda Rajapaksa transformed the oppositional forces by contributing hope, passion and a fighting spirit. This process then contributed to gaining in Gramscian terms ‘moral, intellectual and political leadership’. It was due to the result of such work that the opposition started gaining credibility. When Maithripala Sirisena and others defected from the government ranks and Sirisena claimed to be the common candidate from the opposition, it was a game changer. From this point onwards, political space was opened in a spectacular fashion. Hitherto excluded people started coming out and openly expressing their feelings and how they had suffered under the Rajapaksa family plc. The demand for the abolition of the executive presidency condensed the democratic demands of the opposition and the cracks started appearing in a Rajapaksa regime that seemed a few months ago electorally unassailable.

President Sirisena’s common candidacy was supported by a huge number of civil society organizations, trade unions and the Left Centre, which compromised of two break away left parties from the government, the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) after President Sirisena’s common candidacy was announced. Some of their members were remained in the Rajapaksa camp. The Nava Lanka Samasamaja Party (NSSP) who campaigned vigorously for many years for the democratic aspirations of the Tamil people also supported the common candidacy of President Sirisena. The UNP that had the largest voter base of all the parties in the Sirisena camp actually had made an electoral sacrifice when they agreed to back the common candidacy of President Sirisena. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also gave the tactical support to President Sirisena’s common candidacy committing the Tamil voter base for a political settlement. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) also supported President Sirisena’s candidacy resigning from the Rajapaksa government. Thus, President Sirisena was able to garner the support from the right wing to the Left parties and from the Sinhalese to Tamil and Muslims to form a new historical bloc called the United National Front For Good Governance (UNFGG). In its organizational form and political philosophy, this was an extension of the ‘Platform for Freedom’. This kind of alliance is bound to have ideological and political differences but they were united behind the common slogan of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa.

At the Presidential election Maithripala Sirisena did the unexpected. His victory over Rajapaksa was a great electoral triumph given the fact that Rajapaksa used state power, government resources and state media at will and believed that his victory was securely assured. But those who often silently suffered under his rule finally had their chance to speak and vote him out of power. President Maithripala Sirisena was given the Presidency of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and it made a significant moment in legitimizing his authority in the Party. The party that was supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa during the campaign came under his leadership that offered him the chance of dismantling Rajapaksa ideological and political influence in the SLFP. This was a turning point in consolidating the new historical bloc. President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory ushered in a new air of freedom and extended much needed political space as never before. The intimidation and impunity disappeared and the rule of law was gradually restored. However, apprehending wrong doers from the previous regime has not happened as quickly as people had wanted. The previous regime left their criminal apparatus and bureaucracy intact and it was not so easy to make the law to take its course. Such a situation has helped the wrong doers of the previous regime.

Despite certain frustrations, the electoral victory of the January 8th was a truly historic one, which also paved the way for the winning of the parliamentary elections, held in September making it a double victory for the popular forces. These popular forces none other than ordinary men and women who belong to all three communities. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s electoral history people whose democratic rights had been dangerously trampled and their ethnic existence had been fatally engendered by a powerful political and military might was overthrown unexpectedly. Those who created such an organizational framework to unite diverse communities and people who had multiple and different democratic grievances and issues should be credited for their novel, historic accomplishment. That also gave a rational political model for working and wining the democratic demands outside the class based politics. It is a democratic political discourse that had been incompatible the broader political practice of the Sri Lankan Left.

Challenges

The current historical bloc faces four challenges at this current juncture. Firstly, it faces a stiff resistance from the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist forces in devolving power to the Tamil community. This involves a considerable political risk. Even though Rajapaksa lost the Presidency, the Sinhala Buddhist forces to which he had given hegemonic expression in the South were reluctant to acknowledge their defeat. They lost the election but ideological and politically their electoral base has not shrunk in certain Sinhala Buddhist strong holds. President Sirisena needs to convince the Sinhala Buddhist constituency that his approach is safer for the territorial integrity of the country than Rajapaksa’s pseudo patriotism, which suppresses the democratic aspirations of the Tamil community. Unless President Sirisena is proactive in pursuing this line it will be harder for him to consolidate his victory and build on the coalition, which brought him to power.

Secondly, implementation of neo-liberal economic policies would be politically unpopular. Any move to take measures that would reduce the existing welfare structures will be deeply unpopular. This is particularly important in relation to health and education that directly affect the life chances of the Sri Lankan poor. The protests from the trade unions and civil society organizations who brought the new regime to power after the recent presentation of budget proposals demonstrates the breadth of the protest movements that the government will have to grapple with.

Thirdly, broad ideological and political differences could destroy its unity. If ideological and political contradictions are not resolved in an amicable way within the government, the current bloc will disintegrate. Diverse and different opinions can be positive if resolved in a spirit of democracy and tolerance. However, some ministers’ behavior in public around accusations and counter accusations are disappointing and show political immaturity.

Fourthly, the government needs to acknowledge that people have a right to protest. That is how democracy works. It is criminal to attack or use force against any group of people because they exercise their democratic right.

Unless these challenges are overcome it would be harder to fully realize the January 8th victory. And this new historical bloc would not be transformed into a hegemonic project.

Conclusions

The victory of the Presidential election in January 2015 was clearly a democratic victory of the people in this country and the general election victory in September by the UNFGG made the democratic aspirations of the people a realizable prospect. That is if the Maithripala-Ranil leadership can carry out their election promises. If they transform the historical bloc into a hegemonic project with the inclusion of ethnic minorities with a devolved power structure, the current coalition would be able to build ‘national popular’ regime in Gramscian sense. Maithri-Ranil leadership needs to persuade the Sinhala Buddhist constituency to become a political ally in their effort to build a united democratic country where all communities live with dignity and respect. If the election promises made by the UNFGG are achieved, that would make the January 8th victory epochal. Then only can it be called a democratic revolution. Otherwise it would result in the elite political classes triumphing and the popular forces would become losers. Then we will have to start the struggle again.

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    Dammit, this picture drives me mad.

    Did they run short of chairs?

    Who are these turkeys strutting about around the three wise men?

    The guy standing to the left of RW seems as if he has partaken of something that played I become aware of at a music festival avery long time ago.

    • 2
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      Spring Koha – My view: MR looks like he is stoned out of his mind, MS looks like he is bored to death and Ranil sure looks like he has spotted something (or someone) ‘interesting’.

      Meanwhile take a look at the hardened gang of protectors!

      What a flaky looking bunch!!

      • 2
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        MR is the most virulent minded person all times though not showing his real face yet to the nation. His unreal smile manipulate the masses. His evasive unintended silly answers keep Journos away from serious questioning. With no brave journos have got the chance to interview him yet after his political nemesis, what do we talk further ?
        If one went through the archives in 70ties – journos could bring it about -how his course of political life went through – his was even worst than that of Duminda Silva at that time. Even today, his speeches are not focusing every aspects the way, incumbent president Mr. Sirisena would do – alone the manner MR attacks his opponents personally are similar to that of Weerawanse or any other low class politicians – I am not Ranil Supporter – but his manner is never attacks the others personally. He just smiles and leaves it focusing the topic properly – Boston researchers commended Ranil last year for his knowledge about global politics. Does anyone can think MR would ever be blessed by any experts even coming from China ? Never – if China welcomed MR, China should have donated srilanka BMICH like huge buildings. All what MR did with China were profits to China though people of the country also profit them to a higher price. Anyways, his term to have eliminated the LTTE terror by the collective forces and his self proclaimed propaganda machines worked for them (using idiotic artists and journos – with the blood vessels flowing those SINHALE) painted pictures in the hearts of easy targets (the majority of the folks – over 60% of the island nations are easy targets for abusive politicians – they dont care about tomororw, so long they are fed with rice for the moment).

    • 1
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      Is that not common to many other pictures – coming from srilnaka ? Always that is their nature to surround the key men – the kind of pictures would never go out of Europe. I have seen Dr Merkel signing her agreements with many, but she stands or sit their alone or with one single person to support her with. But in a developing poor country such srilanka, people being mostly idel – not working hard for their bread – they seem to have ample time to waste this way. That is it.

    • 3
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      Once, I got over the distraction of the photograph, the article by Mr Thiranagama proved to be a good read.

      However, I cannot get out of my mind what President Yahapalanaya might really want to say:

      “Thank You for electing me on what was, with hindsight, some pretty ropey promises to clean up the ordure left behind by the last incumbent, and bring to book the bunch of parasitic crooks who fleeced our coffers dry. Of course you couldn’t have believed I would do it in 100 days! Did you? Really? No? more fool you.

      Another thing. Sorry for having over-ruled your democratic rejection of a whole slew of half-past-six buggers at the General Election. I just couldn’t leave them on the outside pissing in, I had to have them in, with old friends, pissing on the inside. What to do?

      By the way, all that hulla-balloo about nepotism and cronyism. Well, you see, it’s part of our 2500 year old culture, right? When the spoon is my hand, I have to serve my friends and relations well. Also, the Mrs will be very very mad at me if I do not do something to help our immensely talented children up the ladder.

      Good People, you will note the speed at which I acted to condemn the recent bra-gate incident and defend our ancient 2500 year-old culture. Actually, I need to confirm that I was defending our culture of take, take and share with friends. The organisers charged such fancy prices but they committed the cardinal sin of not sharing the moolah with the right people. How cheeky!

      By the way, this economic thing is necessary in order to generate ‘opportunities’ for some of my erstwhile colleagues to line their pockets. One smart-arse who is a big shot in ‘feel-good tablets’ business has suggested that we could nationalise the Tourism industry in order to control a very lucrative outward flow of dosh. Now there’s an idea.

      Enough of my boasting, if this economic lark doesn’t work, our talented politicians will dream up something else. There is always something cropping up in our land like no other.”

    • 2
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      Dayapala Thiranagama

      RE: One Year After The January 8th Victory: Winners & Losers

      The Tamils are Still The losers- Courtesy of Mavveran Velupillai Prabakaran.

      The killers are still at Large. The Tamils need to form assassin squads, like the “Black Tigers”, to give justice to Killers, because the Sri Lankan stare will not give Justice.

      Sri Lanka: The Persecution of Tamils Continues Under Sirisena’s Watch
      One year into President Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure, the abduction, torture and rape of ethnic Tamils continues.

      The International Truth and Justice Project-Sri Lanka (ITJP) officially releases a new report on January 7. ITJP has documented cases of abduction, torture and sexual violence against ethnic Tamils. Short enough to be read in one sitting, the report encompasses 20 cases which occurred in 2015.

      With its latest report, ITJP has reaffirmed how deep-rooted some of Sri Lanka’s problems are. The abduction and torture of Tamils is a systematic issue and one where state security personnel commit crimes with impunity. On many occasions, the families of victims are compelled to pay ransoms to ensure the release of a loved one. Families may also pay human smugglers so that victims are able to leave the country. So, in addition to the obvious physical, emotional, and psychological damage being done, these acts of violence consistently result in increased debt and more poverty. State security personnel also harass the families of torture victims. This oppressive system is ingrained into the culture of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus.

      Broadly speaking, President Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure thus far has been less authoritarian than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s final years in power. Nevertheless, let’s not take too much comfort in people proclaiming that things are more democratic 12 months into Sirisena’s reign. As Sri Lanka watchers assess the new government’s progress one year after Rajapaksa’s unexpected ouster, it’s important to be candid about ongoing torture and sexual violence. The disturbing incidents documented in this report call into question the depth and breadth of purported democratic gains since Sirisena’s ascension in January 2015.

      Here’s an illuminating paragraph from the report:

      The cases reveal not only that torture and repression continue in Sri Lanka but that they remain widespread and systematic. They are the work of a well-organised machine which continues to thrive within the Sri Lankan police and military fuelled by extortion. It is responsible for terrorising and oppressing Tamils. This is therefore not a question of a few rotten apples in the system, as the new government so often suggests, but rather the result of structures that have long been corrupted.

      This appalling abasement of human dignity greatly undermines any transitional justice plans and reiterates the need for significant international involvement in the country’s transitional justice process. Such coordinated repression also violates the most fundamental tenets of a fully functioning democracy. If the Sirisena administration is truly committed to building a more inclusive state and healing the wounds of war, then the work must begin now.

  • 8
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    Dayapala – your concluding lines say it all in a nutshell:

    ” If the election promises made by the UNFGG are achieved, that would make the January 8th victory epochal. Then only can it be called a democratic revolution. Otherwise it would result in the elite political classes triumphing and the popular forces would become losers.

    Sure looks like some of those “losers” are “winners” in the end, thanks to Sirisena’s abominable choices in all areas of governance. Each day that passes brings news of more horrendous choices by him, not to mention the stalled criminal proceedings against obvious criminals and reports of his interference in judicial matters.

    The way things are going it looks like a lot of us who voted against the previous bunch of thugs and who looked like “winners’, are now “losers” – and then “..we will have to start the struggle again.”

    • 1
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      Do.

  • 2
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    “The way things are going it looks a lot of us who voted against the previous bunch of thugs are now losers- ……”

    That is exactly why we the electors have got to avoid and be be extremely vigilant about.
    . If Srisena’s horrendous choices are abominable, it is height time we make it known, instead of running around like headless chickens.
    Unless Srisena/ Ranil are willing to listen it is high time we do something to make them heed us or tell them to get lost and send them packing if they do not do our bidding.

    It is no mean feat that it was the UNFGG had strived to achieve on 8th Jan. 2015 it was a risky leap in the dark for the people of the country. We cannot afford to squander the repeat performance in September later the same year.

    The author of the article has stressed on the risks that can result by following neo- liberal policies or attempts to dismantle and weaken existing financially depleted welfare structures in the field of health, education and transport by muzzling the media and eroding the capacity of trade unions to bargain.

  • 3
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    Your “Challenges” say it all too.

    The government has not taken State Restructuring process seriously.

    President is not keen on national civilisation process. Especially Sinhalese are a very uncivil lot. The root cause for this is our education system.

    The government has also not studied the mistakes done by previous regime. If you look at budget you can see that.

    Government does not have articulate politicians to educate people what they are doing. There are positive developments but public is not aware of those.

    The UNP cannot govern without the likes of Paskaralingam, Bradman Weerakone et al. Aren’t their any good public servants who are young and experienced to do these duties? What is this Prime Minister is going to when Paskaralingam and Weerakone die in next 2 – 3 years? This is ridiculous.

    Any government should take action to restructure economy, phase out inflated public sector, revise public pension scheme, revise free health policy, free education system etc. But these should be done gradually as DT very correctly puts it. These are old welfare measures which have helped this country in innumerable ways. But these things cannot be done overnight like what that foolish Finance Minister tried to do.

    President slammed Enrique concert and his family members were there. His key Ministers are begging for foreign investment, promotion of tourism etc. Look at Thailand, a Buddhist country with thriving tourism economy.

    UNP has an ego problem and President’s faction of the SLFP has an inferiority complex.

  • 0
    2

    Will we ever have international super markets and shopping malls along with world class public transport like other Asian countries? Singapore Thailand etc?

  • 0
    2

    Will we ever get top class super markets and shopping malls along with world class public transport like Singapore Thailand etc etc?

  • 0
    4

    Dayapala has chosen to omit a lot of facts and talks only of one’s that can be interpreted to justify his claims. Basically today every one,even those who voted for the swan, admit that they were taken for right royal ride and duped like never before.
    Even Maduluwawe Sobhitha was an agent of America was well known and never denied and he openly met with his handler none other than Michele Sisson and have never disclosed what they met for.
    The main reasons for MR’s defeat are the damning lies propogated by the likes of Pa ch Ranawaka and Rathana(nang the paneethang).Rathana and Both Sobhithas lied to the country knowingly while being in their robe. That is how great the Sirisena victory was.
    The Tamil votes in the north east as well as in the estate sector was subverted by the Indian intelligence,even though Dayapala pretends not know about it,
    John Kerry and Naredra modi openly crowed about it. I personally know that most of those who voted in the estates didn’t even know what the swan looked like or who Sirisena was, they were simply told to vote for the duck.
    Dayapala seem to have woken up from a deep slumber all of sudden and don’t seem to know anything about the Great bank robbery at the central bank and the money being borrowed and printed left and right without any thing real being done.
    The conclusion of the majority of the people is that there is no democracy in the country now and elections are being postponed time and again and there is no law and order as kidnappers are left to roam the streets while thugs who assaulted the police simply ignore court orders with impunity. The Police seem to be driven mad and behave like hunting dogs on hunters orders.
    Finally the great lies continue flow from the highest places of authority and will continue to do so untill the like of Dayapala decides shut their trap and stop singing hossanas to pretenders.

  • 2
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    A very rational and objective presentation. One has to hope that the Sirisena-Ranil team will will rise above their personal considerations to meet these expectations. Bensen

  • 0
    1

    Let us all wait for the new constitution which this bunch think, will usher in a ‘utopia’.
    After that happens, people like Thiranagama will be writing again on the “shortcomings of the new constitution”.
    This cycle will go on forever.

    Meanwhile, those of us who managed to survive, must look after our kith & kin and prepare for the next bunch of politicians.

    No one thinks that the present constitution should be 100% implemented, before is labelled a failure.

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