By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Mark Salter attempts to rehabilitate a narrative, a perspective and an ideology that have not merely been disproved by history but also conclusively rejected by the electorate. It is not merely the regime but the main opposition and therefore the overwhelming majority of citizens whose attitude is “been there, done that, got the t-shirt, and won’t go back there again” (as Blair once said, in his pre-poodle days).
Salter’s dogmatic myopia is completely unhelpful in finding the reasons for the electoral landslide for the ultranationalist Alt-Right in Sri Lanka or anywhere in the world, as well as for finding an alternative strategy for progressive democrats.
While a negotiated settlement with armed insurgents is a desirable option, it cannot be so in situations in which those insurgents have repeatedly turned their backs on negotiations, and murdered the negotiators including their own. Such movements leave only a military option open, and this should have been obvious to successive Sri Lankan administrations, especially that of Chandrika Kumaratunga after the assassination attempt on her.
It certainly should have been obvious to Norway after the murder of Neelan Tiruchelvam.
As for the Norwegian facilitation attempt, it was doomed because of bad design. John Hume said at a media conference in Colombo – as well as at a smaller closed-door discussion at which I was present—that “it may as well be shut down”.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are continuing to reap the well-earned political capital of having recognized the nature of the Tigers and resolutely defeating them. Mahinda’s political will was clearly signaled in his speech at the funeral of Lakshman Kadirgamar who was assassinated by the Tigers.
By contrast, their main opponent until recently, Ranil Wickremesinghe had actually called off an LRRP hit on Prabhakaran in December 2001, against the pleas of the Army commander (all this is revealed in a book by a former lecturer at Sandhurst, Prof Paul Moorcraft)—thereby prolonging the country’s agony by almost a decade.
As for the PTOMS, the Supreme Court froze it in its tracks on the valid grounds that it was to be headquartered in Kilinochchi, which was off limits for the Sri Lankan state.
It is an absolute waste of time to debate anyone who does not recognize that the issue of the war, the defeat of the Tigers, nationalism and patriotism have played a central part in the de-legitimation of the liberal as well as the neoliberal democrats and provided an enormous advantage to the Sinhala nationalists.
This is because the (neo)liberal-democrats have, by abdicating the struggle against separatist-terrorism and for national defense, security, sovereignty, territorial integrity, have left the field clear for the majoritarian nationalist camp.
Sajith Premadasa and the SJB, with Sarath Fonseka in its ranks, will not make the same mistake. It knows, as do any realist democrats anywhere in the world, that the issues of national security and patriotism are used by the neoconservatives to beat up on the democrats, and will not vacate that terrain leaving it to be monopolized by the Far Right.
This does not mean pandering to Sinhala chauvinism. Indeed the failure to stand up resolutely for national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national security is by far the best way to empower majoritarian chauvinism, while the best and indeed the only way to defend pluralism and a degree of autonomy for the national minorities/minority nationalities, is precisely to be rock solid on the spectrum of issues I have just listed.
That is illustrated by the stand of Sajith Premadasa in support for the 13th amendment—neither Plus nor minus—while taking a strong patriotic stand against terrorism. Contrary to Salter, this is a real sign of moderation. Neither the JVP nor FLSP have defended the 13th amendment which is now under threat.
Let us move onto issues of theory. Again, it is a waste of time to debate someone on the issue of Populism, if they are ignorant of the writings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (with Stuart Hall a distinguished precursor), in critical support of it as an alternative to both neoliberalism and Far Right ultra-nationalism. Mouffe has clearly advocated Left Populism as the most appropriate project for the progressive movement today.
I am not saying in the least that Sajith or the SJB is left populist, but I am making the point that populism cannot be dismissed and is a vital resource, if reworked, against ultra-nationalism and neoliberalism. In Sri Lanka today, where there is no left populist alternative (the JVP crashed and burned, and in any case, is no longer radical-populist), the Realist strategy would be for left elements to form a bloc with the centrist-progressive populist SJB, and push it leftwards.
For a more theoretical perspective may I recommend a book that came out earlier this year entitled ‘On Public Imagination’ and subtitled ‘A Political and Ethical Imperative’. It is edited by Victor Faessel, Richard Falk and Michael Curtin. It is a Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group publication out of New York and London. Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia and visiting Prof at the LSE says of the volume: “this is a much-needed angle into the larger debate about the decay of liberal democracy”.
Richard Falk (Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University) and Victor Faessel (managing editor of The Oxford Handbook of Global Studies) lets us straight into the problem that is sought to be tackled. “Public Imagination: The Challenge of 21st Century Populist and Authoritarian Politics”. I was privileged to be invited to contribute and my contribution, which speaks to the issues Salter raises, is summarized by the publisher as follows:
“Jayatilleka calls for the construction of a new public imagination from Antonio Gramsci’s thinking. As with every serious revolutionary from Mao and Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro and Amilcar Cabral, Gramsci combined class, mass, and nation into a “majoritarian” bloc. The left learned from what he wrote on hegemony and culture but missed important themes of the nation, nation building, and state building. On the left, there is an absence of global public imagination, leaving competing blocs of opinion containing legitimate and justifiable elements. All round the compass, nationalist populism, even when it doesn’t enjoy an arithmetical majority, seems to embody the Rousseauvian general will. A neo-progressive project needs to grapple with the crisis of neoliberalism, learning from the Latin American left to reject hegemonic liberal-“humanitarian” interventionism. It must acknowledge that whenever violence is wittingly used against the innocent, against unarmed civilians, be it by states or movements, it is terrorism and is therefore wrong and must be opposed. It must eschew rightwing nationalism and refuse to concede the nation and patriotism to the right. Thus, it is time for neo-progressives to occupy the moral high ground, while always grasping the order and realities of politics and power.”
Unlike certain other ex-Foreign Ministers I can think of, Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former Foreign Minister and Defense Minister under President Lula, counterposes the conceptual-cum-value cluster of “national sovereignty”, “human rights”, “democratic governance” and above all “solidarity”, against the “conservative nationalist ideologies of the kind represented by Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, listing ‘national sovereignty” as first among the ingredients of a new public imagination. His list of attributes is something I concur with entirely and advocate for the Sri Lankan democratic movement, the main axis of which is indubitably the SJB.
To conclude, a word on the issue of social democracy. In their Introduction, the Editors identify their intention to rectify the present lack of “any sense of a feasible alternative that extends the social democratic ethos…into the future”—thereby clearly indicating that “a feasible alternative” to both neoliberals and nativism would involve precisely “extending the social democratic ethos”.
PS. “Lipstick on a pig” is a colloquialism which even Presidential candidate Barack Obama once used in a debate.