6 December, 2019

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Political Activity Stifled; Authoritarian Agenda Swells

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) launched a campaign in Colombo on 11 October to fight harassment and attacks on political activity in the North, especially in Jaffna, by state authorities, namely the military and the police. The launch was supported by a persuasive video of widespread anger about abductions and arbitrary arrests and included sound bites from Mano Ganesan, JC Weliamuna, Nirmal Dewasiri, Vickremebahu, Lal Wickrematunga (Lasantha’s brother) and others. It is a production of a new Centre for Rights Protection which, to the best of my knowledge, is the first explicitly pro-left human rights civil-society entity. Most human rights groups sport liberal, religious or rightist ideological flavours, or are linked to international organisations. I was pleased to see an alternative that leftists can link up with.

The meeting was captioned as a campaign to secure the release of Lalith and Kugan, two FS members who were abducted in Jaffna about 11 months ago, but the purpose was not merely to shed tears about its own cadres. The emphasis was on highlighting the repression of Tamils, on a daily basis in the North where abductions and disappearances continue unabated. Out of sight of Colombo society, folks in Jaffna are facing intimidation, confiscation of lands and humiliation. The reports are first hand from FS cadres working among Tamil youth for over a year despite threats and attacks by the military. The video showed gatherings of Tamil women carrying placards and chanting slogans demanding to know about their abducted sons, husbands and men folk. All this corroborates what the TNA has been saying in parliament and conveying to the international community, and is a wake up call to Colombo on a theme the media prefers to pay little attention to.

These young chaps are not going to be intimidated; Rajapakse and the military have caught a tiger by the tail! The FSP made no bones about explicitly accusing the military of abducting and holding Lalith and Kuhan in an army camp and made mention of eye witness sightings. A fortnight ago burnt oil was thrown on FSP’s Dimithu Attygalle and two others while campaigning in Jaffna and police foot-dragging and indifference told a stark story. The cops know who the attackers are but will not go into camps or make arrests. When Attygalle and Premkumar Gunaratnam were abducted and tortured in March in Colombo, Gothabhaya did not conceal from the Australian High Commissioner that his forces were the perpetrators.

Unlike in the first six years of the Rajapakse Administration when some attempt was made to hide sate involvement in abductions, now it is blasé. A “So what! Who the hell cares?” attitude pervades; state terrorism is on the loose, flagrant arrogance compounded by unconcealed impunity. The hubris of threats to the judiciary and manhandling of the JSC Secretary are symptomatic of siblings drunk on power. Sadly for those who remember the old left, today’s Vasudevas, DEWs and Tissas will drain the last dregs of this goblet of shame before they make their exit rolled in Dead Left shrouds. Alas, such are the joys and perks of ministerial office.

The question that many ask is when or where will this stop? Are we on an inexorable road to dictatorship, or will an explosion involving parliamentary and extra-parliamentary arenas spell the end of the Rajapakses? There is no open and shut answer to these questions; the political analyst must consider options and weigh possibilities. Let me have a jab at gauging what I think the Rajapakse game plan is, and then pronounce why I think their well laid schemes will “gang aft agley”.

Towards a Corporatist State

Sri Lanka is not, and is not on the way to becoming a military dictatorship. The Generals are poodles on a leash and dance to sibling tunes; they have no independent national power base; they never really had even in the brief months overlapping the end of the war. Sri Lanka is not, and is not on the way to becoming a classic fascist state either. Despite the immoral ennui of a clientele public, there is a sufficient reside of resistance in the youth and radical petty-bourgeois, religious leaders, the opposition, the educated and business classes, and in the working class, to render an experiment with naked fascism unsustainable. Above all, the international climate, and democracy in India, however chaotic, makes a military regime or naked fascism impossible in this Island. What we are sliding towards, if the siblings get their way, is totalitarianism of the Corporatist variety. Allow me to elaborate.

Though the word fascism is of Italian origin (fasco, meaning tightly gripped bundle), high fascism in its classic ruthless materialisation is identified with Hitler and the Nazis; the original Mussolini version which came to power in 1922 is a more corporatist, a softer nuanced version. A few key words describing Mussolini’s Corporatist State are: ardent nationalism, totalitarianism in the sense of bringing everything under the umbrella of the state, a perverse kind of socialism, and top-down regulation of trade unions, public administration, police, military, judiciary and the economy. The Mussolini state did not smash every vestige of independence in trade unions, Church, learned and voluntary societies, universities and scientific bodies, as Nazism did. Hence it was called syndicalism, in that it gathered populist organisations, anti-communist unions, business interests, the media and some notable Italian intellectuals under the patron umbrella of Il Duce. There was a patron-client relationship in Mussolini’s Corporatist State and if you sense you are reading about Lanka in 2012 and not Italy in the 1920s, well the similarity is not of my making!

Divinaguma expands Corporatism

The most obnoxious feature of the Divineguma Bill is that it expands the Corporatist Empire of a Rajapakse sibling by about Rs80 billion. The other abominable feature is that is an instrument for the centralisation of power rendering impotent the barebones of devolution now in place. I say barebones because the existing provincial councils are vassal instruments of the regime with backbones moulded of malleable clay. The wimps in Cabinet long ago folded-up their vertebrae; in post-Divineguma Lanka the provincial wimps will be bypassed to the tune of tens of billions of rupees, and all with the genuflecting consent of the menagerie in Cabinet and Provincial Councils; hand-picked assimilatory corporatism!

There are inefficiencies and coordination weaknesses in the provincially distributed system of poor relief but these will pale in comparison with the abuses in a consolidated programme in a monolithic Basil Rajapakse Empire (BRE). BRE will use its control to make political capital out of poor relief and will twist it when necessary into an election weapon. Political stooges will secure sinecure appointments, efficiency will decline, corruption will proliferate. There will be conflict between Empire and Provincial Councils, except supine UPFA Councils with no gumption for asserting their devolved autonomy. The consolidated BRE monolith will be one more tool in the hands of the regime in its relentless bid to foist a Corporatist State; obvious antecedent features of this state are discernible in its Mussolini progenitor.

The attempt will fail because though the Rajapakse regime is strong in its ability to get its way and inflict pain with reckless impunity, it is also weak in that widely mounting anger is relentless. It still wins elections, it still retains the loyalty of a throng of self-seeking toadies who will desert at the first sign of shipwreck, but it cannot afford to suffer one major setback. It came close to shipwreck in the EP-PC elections and suffered a moderate setback when it lost on points to FUTA. A government whose moral authority is diminishing while its popularity is declining is not a winner. Mussolini and Hitler made it to the summit because they grabbed opportunity when riding the crest of a rising wave. The Rajapakses are in ebb tide; Corporatist authoritarianism will suffer defeat.

Last week I argued that the government was running into severe economic head winds as budget deficit and the foreign trade balance have both gone into steep decline. I see no way out unless government abandons its current economic strategy. This it cannot do without running into problems of a different type – with the IMF, with tourism investors to whom it has sold its soul and the nation’s prime lands – and conflict with its corrupt henchmen in financial and stock markets. It will not take this road. Hence I am persuaded that in the medium term there will be a groundswell of opposition to the regime from the petty-bourgeoisie, the working class and city employees. The tea-leaves say that the authoritarian strategy will be resisted; Lanka is entering a period of class and socio-economic conflict.

FS goes astray on the Tamil Question

I admire the Frontline comrades’ valuable work opposing political repression. The FS is the only southern party engaged in grass roots work among Tamils against abduction and harassment; no wonder the military detests it and stalks it. But my contacts in the North say that FS activity is small and makes little visible impact at present, though it is likely to succeed in developing a cadre base of small or moderate size among Tamil Marxists, leftists and activists. The key point however is this; it will not break into the larger spaces of Tamil mass politics until it changes its theoretical stance on the national question.

I am not disturbed that the FSP rejects self-determination; never mind, FS was born out of the JVP. In any case the majority of Tamils are now not interested in Thamil Eelam after the war, so self-determination is currently not a practical issue. However, the FS’s folly is its outright opposition to devolution. It does not want Tamils to have constitutional power to run administrative, legislative and cultural affairs in their own areas. How blinkered! Despite my repeated warnings the unified-JVP cheered the military to mow down Tamils in 2008-09; these guns are now pointed at FS heads. Nevertheless, I still say the FSP is made up of comrades with much potential and visible ability; they need to escape their outdated heritage on the Tamil question. So does the JVP, which too includes many fine young cadres.

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    Prof David

    “In any case the majority of Tamils are now not interested in Thamil Eelam after the war, so self-determination is currently not a practical issue.”
    I think you are wrong. The Tamil community is very interested in Tamil Eelam and the way to achieve it will be through self determination.

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      Leon is truthful about it … But, prof KD hides it … KD knows very well that Eelam could only be achieved by deceiving srilankans specifically Sinhalese …. KD thinks sinhales are foools … Probably they were … . They are not now ..
      They graduated passing ‘Eelam’ course only after eating bombs for three decades … Yes, it was long long time … But, it would never be forgotten …

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    Though the word fascism is of Italian origin (fasci, meaning tightly gripped bundle), high fascism in its most ruthless manifestation is identified with Hitler and the Nazis; the Mussolini original which came to power in 1922 is a more corporatist, say a softer version. Here are a few key words we can link with Mussolini’s Corporatist State; ardent nationalism, totalitarianism in the sense of bringing everything under the umbrella, if not the direct control of the state, a perverse kind of socialism, and top-down state control of trade unions, public administration, police, military, judiciary and the economy. It did not smash every vestige of independent activity, Church, learned societies, universities and scientific bodies as Nazism did. It was called national syndicalism, in that it gathered populist organisations, anti-communist unions, business interests, the media and some notable Italian intellectuals under the patron umbrella of Il Duce. Hence there was a degree of patron-client relationship in Mussolini’s Corporatist State and if you sense you are reading this in Colombo and not Rome, well the similarity is not of my making!

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