25 September, 2023


Politics Of Memory 

By Sarath de Alwis –

Sarath de Alwis

‘Brobdingnagian’ is the term Jonathan Swift invented to denote unbelievably enormous phenomena, Gulliver encountered in his travels. 

It was a ‘Brobdingnagian’ display of popular solidarity behind candidate Sajith Premadasa. What took place on Thursday at the Galle face Maidan was a masterly managed exercise of crowd psychology. 

For someone to be a member of such a motivated crowd, he, she had to renounce the solitude of the meek and the cunning of the coward.  

Their presence in the mad melee was to be a party to freedom. Freedom of one’s own and for anyone else who wished to lay claim to freedom. Because, they stood against the ogre of evil and tyranny. 

It was an amazing orchestration of crowd symphony performed in that historic venue of our political spectacles.  

One awaits with baited breadth for the other party to attempt to better it. 

That said, such euphoria of solidarity should not deflect us from an accurate reading of the ground situation or what Lenin called the ‘balance of forces. 

What is our categorical imperative now? 

Every citizen is possessed with an equal worth that deserves equal respect. Our categorical imperative in this presidential election is to uphold that simple tenant. 

Securing the gains of democratic progression after 2015 and arresting a regression towards the kakistocracy that we dismantled is the categorical imperative of our time. 

That calls for an equally ‘Brobdingnagian’ consensus among the wide, varied, profusion of parties and players now navigating towards the identical ideal of democratic accountability.

They are sailing in different vessels, using different charts. Yet, they all face the threat of obliteration by the one merciless storm that is quietly gathering its countercurrents!  

They have good reason to be where they are. They are split up on ideological grounds as in the case of the JVP led National People’s Power(NPP). In the case of the highly articulate and fastidiously proper Mahesh Senanayake, the civil society candidate of the National Peoples Movement (NPM), it is nothing but the plain revulsion for the UNP’s duplicitous politics coupled with the charlatanry of its leadership since 2015. 

The modernizing autocrat has an extreme rightwing agenda. It is an action plan to further the ends of predatory capitalism propped up with xenophobic tribal loyalty.   

It is a policy that ignores the common good. It mocks the social contract that we nurtured from the days of colonial rule introducing social safety nets. It is a toxic mixture of ethnic superiority, ultra-nationalism, militarism, and plain politics of disposing dissent and opposition. 

Its pivotal strategy is obedience to a powerful strong man. Hatred is regarded as an act of patriotism. Economic barbarism would rule the stock exchange. Ethical apathy would be its guiding spirit. 

There is a video clip ‘Voice of youth’ in circulation with the polite entreaty “please share this clip among the social media accounts of Youths. This clip has several interviews with young girls and boys who introduce themselves as university students. The need of the hour they claim is for a single-minded, fearless and tough leader capable of disciplining a system in disarray. A kind of leader under whose rule you will cross the road only on the yellow line and drop your dross only in the designated bin. The clip is a clever piece of a primer in fascism courtesy Maria Montessori!  

When the autocrat speaks of the virtues of meritocracy, it is a brazen attempt to accommodate sycophants on the power structure. Unjust advantages for singing the leader’s praise is the accepted norm.  

Vested interests commanding mass media outlets will operate in a captive market. As Yale Social theorist Jason Stanley argues, known ideals will be turned on their heads and against themselves. 

Propagandists are not outright liars. They are only insincere when they announce the news. They have mastered habits of thought that justify their elite privileges.  Their sole purpose is to present their leader – the super predator as the single answer to the demand of the people for a tough guy. 

For four and half years, we have meandered in the cozy comfort of democratic disorder. We have arrived at a critical point. 

Politics should focus on what works and what is best in the larger interest of society. That requires compromise. Political parties and formations will champion differing ideologies and will disagree with each other. Yet on the issue of democratic freedom, human rights and the rule of law, they must not hesitate to seek middle ground.  If, instead, they seek temporary refuge in their respective fringes, the dictator will have a quiet walk to occupy centerstage.  

I have never been a devotee or enthusiast of president Ranasinghe Premadasa. On the contrary I subscribed to the view that his presidency was far more personalistic and predatory than that of his predecessor and architect of the aberration we know as the Executive presidency. 

As a reporter on the staff of the ‘Ceylon Observer’ I knew Ranasinghe Premadasa the parliamentarian. During his presidency, I did not live in Sri Lanka. I had one disastrous encounter with his presidency that I have no desire to revisit. 

Watching the fascinating spectacle at Galle face on Thursday, I couldn’t resist the thought that there was some magic to the politics of memory associated with Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

I realized that Mangala Samaraweera – the political beast had a sharper sense than mine. I was harshly critical of his choice just a few weeks earlier. 

Politics of memory is the subjective experience of a substantial social group that has a sustained and sustainable relationship with power. That relationship can be personal and private. It was the case with me. I had a taste of the nepotistic facet of his presidency.  

On the other hand, the multitude who greeted his son and political heir were motivated by politics of memory that was collective and public. Ranasinghe Premadasa carved his niche in the politics of the poor people. Ranasinghe Premadasa understood the core essence of poverty. Poverty was not a failure of character. Poverty was due to lack of motivation. Poverty was simply a shortage of money.   

The French historian Pierre Nora has resolved the issue of memory politics with elegant lucidity. Memory in political terms is a ‘perpetually actual phenomenon’ – a sort of a knot that tied us to the eternal present. 

While I watched the spectacle in Galle face, it occurred to me that Ranasinghe Premadasa introduced the ‘Janasaviya’ and launched the 200 garment factories project. 

So, I asked a recognized repository of all that is wisdom in the apparel industry – what happened to the two hundred garment factories. 

The dear fellow went into delirious orbit. 

When it was launched the learned and the wise scoffed at it. It was ridiculed as fantasy and laughed off as impractical. Logistics did not allow it. Infrastructure was not only inadequate but was nonexistent.

Today, in retrospect that determined effort has helped Sri Lanka to become an upper middle-income country.   

Today, the apparel industry’s revenue exceeds USD 5.5bilion. If we did not lose GSP+ for five years from 2010 we could have reached USD 8 Billion by now. The industry employs a million people ubiquitously spread around the country.

The 200 garment factories project transformed a vast network of rural villages into thriving economic eco systems having many multiplier effects to the rural regions of Sri Lanka.

An illustrative example of this transformation is Dehiattakandiya.

These factories operating in all parts of the country, now including the north and east, are thriving economic players pumping billions in consumer spending into the rural economy through jobs and in the form of ancillary services. 

The original contours of the 200 Garment Factories Project have changed today. Majority of the original operators were operating on orders under the multi-fiber agreement on the European quota system. 

When the Multi Fiber European Quota System ended in 2005, the smaller players could not take the heat of competition in the global market. The larger Sri Lankan exporters took over and expanded these rural factories. They created higher volumes and generated more jobs. 

By taking the garment industry beyond the restricted zones earmarked as export processing zones, he enabled entrepreneurs to   access human resources with higher productivity. Rural employment opportunities nearer home provided social stability when the larger economy reeled under the burden of the war. 

The rural reservoir of manpower was productively harnessed when the other alternative available was seeking employment abroad under trying conditions. 

The 200 Garment Factory project altered the rural landscape. If Sri Lanka is among the top 10 apparel sourcing countries, its genesis is to be found in the 200 garment factories project – a simple straight forward maneuver by a man who dared, despite the odds. 

In the collective conscience of Sri Lankas’s rustic hinterland Ranasinghe Premadasa is remembered for wining another kind of a war. 

The Galle face multitude cut across class, creed, and culture. Our democracy though flawed has the capacity to grapple with and disarm the emerging fascist pseudo patriotic thuggery.  

Time is now, to draw a lesson from Sun Tzu.

 “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Bravo! One of the best and most valuable you’ve ever written…and that’s saying a lot.

    • 12

      Dr Jayatilleka,

      You can’t hold a candle to author, even if it was his worst ever!!!

      • 13


        This is one of Dayan’s 64 positions.

        He is preparing himself to jump ships depending on who has the best chance of winning the elections.

        I am still waiting for Dayan to conclude the purchase of the Russian rusted floating metal frame for $150 million. He has to conclude it before Hooper leaves office.

        • 7

          This is one guy who doesn’t have to jump ship, whoever wins. He used to work for Preme senior.
          For the foreseeable future, he can enjoy the mod cons in Moscow, his second favourite place on earth. ( His favourite is Havana, which is not so comfortable unless you like cigars)

        • 2

          Sarath, Thanks ! On the politics of memory and Forgetting, October 21 , marks 6 months anniversary of the Easter Sunda Carnage and attempt to Weaponize Religion, de-stablize Lanka and set up US military bases – purportedly to protect the isle from ISIS!
          Funded NGOs and civil society who love to MEMORIALIZE violent events have totally FORGOTTEN and buried the Easter Carnage because their USAID and EU funders were implicated by commission or omission in the Easter disaster events and or subsequent COVER UP, and ‘cover up of the cover up’ of the foreign hands – Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Sauid behind the Easter Carnage!

          Hope you will pen a master piece on that subject of memory and forgetting of external parties working with local politicians to destroy Lanka for their perosnal and geo-trategic benefit

          Re. Premadasa , Sajtihwill have to be like Macron, get the best from all sides and limit his cabinet to 20. Impeach Bondscam Ranil for looting Central Bank.

      • 5


        Thank you for being so explicit and so brave to say the truth.

    • 0

      Ha ha. Gee appeared suddenly from the lost planet. Setting urself up for a different suck u scoundrel.

  • 3

    why sinhalese people love Gota with all his bad record in

    • 11


      Not ALL Sinhalese people love Gota.

      • 0

        Only racists love Gotta.

  • 3

    “”During his presidency, I did not live in Sri Lanka. “
    We are thankful to God. If you did we probably would not be reading this.
    If only you were here on the day of his death.
    Even if you managed to save your eardrums, your memory would still be reverberating with the sound of firecrackers. I know of no other occasion when people expressed such collective joy – not even the death of Prabakaran.
    You have no idea of what a mother who had a young boy or a girl at home in 1989 went through. Irrespective of her political affiliation or social status.
    How lucky your eyes are for not having witnessed that spectacle of tyre pyres here and there. . Burning bodies of raw youth on the wayside. 60,000 of them. YES MR. ALWIS 60,000 OF THEM!
    A doctor friend of mine who wouldn’t charge money from the poor was taken in for questioning for doing just that – sympathy for the poor had anything to do with JVP mentality they wanted to find out..( Some high-level intervention saved him – one among the lucky few.)

    What you witnessed on the Galleface green was just another instance of collective memory fading coupled with the power of propaganda – the subject you are excelled in. Then there is a truly mysterious case of memory fading which is even beyond Sigmund Freud: JVP turning the guardian angels of UNP and how Jaffna library and 1983 converted the entire Tamil population to ardent UNP supporters!
    I have a lot more to say about “Premadasa Era” if not for the word limit.

    (Apart from total obliteration of a society which we are today the economy they spawned of Garment factories, Tourism and Foreign Employment turning Sri Lanka into a lowly nation of Tailors, Waiters and Servants in far off lands, none of them bringing in any new technology is another subject of discussion)

    • 9


      I come from a poor background. I was in my early twenties when RP was President. All my friends and my family hated him for the way he ran the country. However on the day he died, I felt a sense of sadness that was indescribable. The poor among us felt that we have lost someone who cared.

      RP was a workaholic and was in different parts of SL on any given day. Such was his concern for the work that was being done or being planned.

      However the greatest legacy of his tenure was that he did not interfere with the proper appointments or dismissals of Judges. This is not my view but the collective view of all leading lawyers who were practising law at the time.

  • 11


    “You have no idea of what a mother who had a young boy or a girl at home in 1989 went through. Irrespective of her political affiliation or social status.”

    You have no idea of what a mother/father who had a young boy or a girl at home, on the street, in detention, at work, in the period between 1971 and 2015 went through. Irrespective of her political affiliation, social status, ethnicity, gender, region, religion, ……

    By the way don’t forget Siri Mao was in control from 1970 to 1977, Mahinda and his National Hangman bro the sadist psychopath Gota was enjoying planning, …… and execution of mass murders from 1989 to 1992 and from 2005 and 2015.

    He is itching for another period of war/terrorism as he has been missing blood letting, bloodbath, bloodshed, butchery, carnage, massacre, pogrom, slaughter, ……………….. for the past 57 months. It is far too long a break between killings.

    By any chance you are dying to get a White Van franchise?

  • 3

    Sadly the writer suffers from the a native’s inability to realize that he lives in a country that has limited strategic importance to the West except as the as the first port of call beyond the Cape of Good Hope. To India it does present a more important strategic value proposition but India is happily in the embrace of the “Gujarat ka Sher” (the Lion of Gujarat- Modi) who has mesmerized Donald Trump. And Trump is bound to rule America till 2024 (never mind impeachment nonsense from Democrats – just watch his rallies and feel the emotions of Americans). So any nonsense from Lanka will be dealt with a firm and heavy Indian hand which also carries by proxy Indian concurrence.
    As for Lanka’s other neighbor, Pakistan, its sad to watch the charismatic Imran Khan doing apologetic tours of America, uninvited by Trump, traveling from airport arrival to his embassy’s car in public transport, trying to beg for a few dollars and concessions for his Jihadi infested hellhole of a country, now being abandoned by Trump. Just watch his recent speech at the UN and you will see his desperation. The only other player of consequence to Lanka is China, now beaten to pulp and put in place by Trump with a paradigm shift in trade relations. If Lanka expects Pakistan or China to do anything meaningful to help them, then they will be sadly mistaken.
    Mr. Premadasa, probably given his humble upbringings, may have meant well by emphasizing garment industry. It may indeed have helped Lankans to get more employment and become a sweat shop for the West, exploiting cheap labor. If his son is also going to follow his father then he may be able to make Lanka an even cheaper labor and tourist destination for the West.

  • 4

    dayans comment highlighted rp,s acievements as he was one of his spokes men
    does he also agree with saraths comments on gota

    • 1

      Pretty much.

  • 1

    Lots of useless heavy words……..

  • 5

    Like father, like son. SP reminds me of of his father, RP in more than one way. There aren’t too many politicians with such admirable qualities. Like all human beings, both have frailties.

  • 1

    Utter load of BS singularly motivated by hatred. In couple of key strokes he made a psychopathic murderer of 60,000 youth (some burnt alive on the roadsides) a saint (According to Kelly McAleer, Psy.D, “The psychopath is callous, yet charming). An officer in the army once told me during those days not to believe the guy you see on TV news every day, offering white flowers, wearing white clothes, at various Buddhist temples. Selective nepotism suddenly has become a virtue.

    Thankfully, this propagandist’s BS was not effective in Elpitiya. Who trounced the prodigal son and brought him down to the earth with a loud thud reducing his vote base to 24%, a record in Elpitya electoral history.

  • 1

    Fellow has become a devotee of “Sri Mukha”………………[edited out]

  • 2

    one great thing old RP did for the country was to bring discipline in the public service and the system broke down and never recovered because
    chandrika ruined it by never coming on time
    people laughed at his clock towers but he wanted to instil the importance of time in ones daly life
    he was the only prez after jr who walked the talk others never followed up
    these were some of his good points though he also had his bad ones

  • 1

    Sinhala Community did not unite to defeat the monsters in 2015. It was Tamil and muslim communities got united and defeated the monsters. But during the coup, little by little, Sinhala Community too rose up and demanded the monsters to leave. What this lesson teaching is, Sinhala Community lack sincere leadership, from every corner, as in Saumya Liyanage article highlighted, including from academical crowd too. When journalist were fighting against Old Royals alone in 2000s, it was a cakewalk for Old Royals to wipe them out. So the Sinhala Community’s unification has to take place in every nook and cranny. Otherwise they will plant as much as bombs they want in Kilinochchi and fool the imbecile crowd to vote for them.

  • 1

    My memory is RP sitting on a throne………..having huge birthday tamashas every year using public money…………no respect for professionals……….burnt bodies of youth on the roadside…………..shaven eye browse………….bathing in milk by seven virgins……….and then………BOOM…………..people lighting fire crackers and eating milk rice………..Why do you think ordinary people felt so much relief?

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