9 August, 2020

Blog

Shan Centennial II & The Election Countdown

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Finally, it is only ten days to go before the polls. It is countdown time. As I recalled a few weeks ago writing on a different subject, it was Shan who called the recurrence of parliamentary elections as the musical chair game of Sri Lankan politics. I added at that time that the music and the game permanently stopped in 1977. I was promptly corrected online by a very astute observer that the game did not stop, only the music got longer and a lot jarring. Now there is more than one game – presidential, parliamentary, provincial, and local. Each one of them is apparently an opportunity for the people to exercise a fraction of their franchise – that is if you believe our constitutional blowhards. The games are already less musical and more obstacle. In future, they might be played not to some light music, or even the baila, but to the blaring of the military band. 

The manifestos of the opposition parties are finally out. The government’s manifesto has been out for some time – the same one on which Gotabaya Rajapaksa rode to his first election victory in November. As manifestos go, it was grand and glossy. But how relevant it is after what the coronavirus has done to the country and to the world. How relevant are any of the other manifestos to the Covid-19 health risks that cannot be wished away, and the economic crisis that the country is in? Even without the virus, the economy was tanking. Now we are in the pits with the rest of the world. The government can justifiably acknowledge this in its defence provided it is said with due humility – and humility is the only sign that someone is understanding the gravity of the situation that one is in. 

Instead, we hear Basil Rajapaksa actually saying that Sri Lanka is capable of a V-shaped economic recovery because the export earnings went up to $950m in June after sinking to $250m in April. And then we hear of presidential directives to boost Sri Lanka’s pepper exports. The unemployed juki girls and returning maids may have to start swarming Lanka’s pepper gardens. The sober concern among professional economists is about how long and flat a U-shaped recovery going to be. Again, Sri Lanka is not alone on this long, flat U-track. Wouldn’t that make you humble if you are a responsible decision maker? And perhaps thoughtful if you are also functionally intelligent? 

The SLPP’s magical solution to any and all of this is getting a two-thirds majority in parliament. Inasmuch as the SLPP has had its first elected president in office for over six months, the August 5 parliamentary election should really be a term test on the President. Obviously, no one is going to fail him, but does he deserve a double promotion (read 2/3 majority) in parliament after six months as President? The opposition has plenty of political ammunition to fire away at the government and hold its feet to the fire. But the opposition is firing in all directions except at the government, thanks to Ranil Wickremesinghe and his infinite capacity for being the dog-in-the-manger spoiler.                 

No matter how the August 5 vote shakes out and what the eventual party tallies are, there is little that we can expect from the new parliament which might end up with a good majority of the 188 of the old 196 (elected) MPs who are running again to return as MPs. The perpetual midweek complainers about the alleged foreign intervention in the 2015 elections, without a shred of credible evidence, will be able to celebrate Sri Lankan sovereignty in the re-election of all the old bandicoots. Those who say that 19A was cooked up overseas, never quite explain why Mahinda Rajapaksa and his merry band of the current SLPPers, all but one, voted for that now seemingly wretched amendment. Whatever happens in ten days, Sri Lanka’s ethno-existential problems will continue, piled on for now by the still inscrutable coronavirus and the helplessly obvious economic burden. 

New Birth Certificate

The question of ethnic identity has suddenly become topical with the announcement by the Registrar of Persons that future birth certificates, which will be soon digitised, will not include information on the marital status of parents, their ethnicity, and religion. There is interesting discussion about adopting a consistent naming practice instead of the current practice of using multiple naming conventions. As these changes are apparently meant to be consistent with international standards, it is worth noting that western countries allow multiple naming conventions to accommodate the practices of non-western immigrants. 

The politically significant changes are the exclusion of the ethnic and the religious details of the parents in the child’s certificate. Shenali Waduge is already calling the new birth certificate “a betrayal of the Sinhala Buddhists.” The Daily Financial Times has editorially commented that excluding these details may create unintended negative consequences for the minorities. Taken as stand alone changes, they are positive developments and in the right direction. Objectively, they will end the old practice of essentializing one’s ethnicity in the birth certificate. The worry is that the changes will be reduced to being ostensible only if there are no accompanying changes in the overall position of the minorities in the Sri Lankan political society.    

Gayathri Spivak the well-known Bengali-American cultural-literary critic, and feminist, explains well the dilemma of eschewing ethnic essentialism in general, on the one hand, and asserting ethnic identity when it becomes essential, on the other. She calls it ‘strategic essentialism’ when it is necessary for members of the minority or marginalized groups to assert their identity to challenge the dominance (hegemony) of the majority or the powerful. Spivak argues that strategic essentialism is what enables women and Asians to speak ‘as women’ and ‘as Asians’ to challenge the dominance of colonial discourse. It is equally applicable to the situation in Sri Lanka and Shan’s life and politics are quite illustrative of the nuances involved. 

As I recalled last week, Shan rejected Tamil ethnic essentialism by asserting the obvious that he was a Tamil by accident of birth. Twenty years later, in the wake of the massive 1983 riots against the Tamils, Shan spoke out as a Tamil in defence of Tamil rights and against the state sponsored attacks on them. He did so without compromising any of his universal principles as a Sri Lankan and as a Marxist. Shan went further after 1983. He defended the right of self determination, not necessarily separation. He condemned individual terrorism, but defended violent retaliations against state terrorism. He was critical of the degeneration of Tamil politics to the point where the gun took control of the political process, instead of politics taking control of the gun. 

And when Satchi Ponnambalam irresponsibly and intellectually dishonestly produced a vitriolic polemic of a book against the entire Sinhala people and their history, Shan contemptuously dismissed the book as “Tamil nationalism gone mad.” In all of this, Shan, and all leaders of Sri Lanka’s old and new Left parties stood their ground on their principles. They did not, unlike their right wing political counterparts and liberal academics, commit what Julien Benda, the French essayist and cultural critic, in an earlier time (1927) had called the “treason of the intellectuals,” who abandon their universal principles to prove their ethno-national loyalties. 

“Men make their own history, wrote Marx (18th Brumaire), “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” The roles that that individuals play, are not of their own making. They only occupy sites or slots which emerge in the interplay of socioeconomic forces – be it for mere existence, achievements, or transformation. In every situation, there is room for individual freedom, responsibility, and agency. N. Sanmugathasan belonged to a generation of Left leaders who took upon themselves to be agents for change and for emancipation. In the site he occupied, Shan played a unique role as a Tamil, Sri Lankan, and Marxist.   

Related posts

On Being A Tamil, Sri Lankan & Marxist Internationalist: The Relevance Of N. Sanmugathasan To Our Times & All Times

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    Rajan Phillips,

    Shan was a Tamil, Sri Lankan and Marxist.

    Agreed,

    Above all, he was an internationalist,

    That will bestow the context in the correct perspective!

  • 5
    3

    Sinhala only rule in SL for another 5 years at least if Rajapaksas win. All minorities will reject them totally but Rajapaksas will be on top of Tamils and Muslims ruling them over as they please. Friction will only make Rajapaksas more aggressive and pleasurable.

    Welcome to SL. A cursed island.

    • 1
      3

      Sinhala only rule for SL will not be for just 5 years, it will be for atleast 10 years, if not longer. The first act of the new parliament , whether SLPP gets 2/3 rd majority or not, will be to amend the constitution to make the term of office for the current president to 10 years. UNP will support the move so MR does not worry of not getting 2/3rd majority in the August election as he will have the support of his friend ranil . MR and RW thick as thieves. The second act will be to alter the terms of presidency to 3 from current 2, so the current president will be ruling for 30 yers, then his son can take over as in his beloved nation China.
      The third act will be to remove Tamil language from the official status, and all srilankans will be compelled to study sinhala and work in sinhala. That is the reality. Wait for it , you will see this after August election.

    • 0
      0

      G
      Do you think that SB chauvinists care for Sinhala or Buddhism?
      The desire to do as much as possible in Sinhala is a thing of the past. Look at the amount of Sinhala used in business activities. Look at name boards of private companies.
      Show me a serious Buddhist among them. All are worshippers of Hindu gods.
      Sinhala and Buddhism are used only to hurt the minorities.

  • 1
    0

    Sinhala only rule for SL will not be for just 5 years, it will be for atleast 10 years, if not longer. The first act of the new parliament , whether SLPP gets 2/3 rd majority or not, will be to amend the constitution to make the term of office for the current president to 10 years. UNP will support the move so MR does not worry of not getting 2/3rd majority in the August election as he will have the support of his friend ranil . MR and RW thick as thieves. The second act will be to alter the terms of presidency to 3 from current 2, so the current president will be ruling for 30 yers, then his son can take over as in his beloved nation China.
    The third act will be to remove Tamil language from the official status, and all srilankans will be compelled to study sinhala and work in sinhala. That is the reality. Wait for it , you will see this after August election.

    • 0
      0

      U
      If you are into gambling, do not bet on your forecasts unless you have money to burn.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Shan

    Thank you. I really think ethnic identity would be good for people who knows how to use that to better effect. We have as a Nation proved to ourselves that we are not capable of carrying such identity with humility. I do not have to travel to South to know that it happened in Jaffna itself……we had several sub identities too. Since the world does not know what did people do in Jaffna with the proud identity only to use/further suppress human rights and dignity in our own backyards in a scale yet to be discussed internationally. We do not have many books on them yet but millions of publications by the TNA why they choose to kill their fellow men and women to make their identity needs heard locally/nationally and internationally and robbing of others need to hold on to the same identity for the same reasons.

    Lessons learned – dispose of them as it is not serving the humanity only to form parties in its name and abuse all and loose all we had to date in the process a collective sodemy we are all recovering?. This identity used in vacuum that disguises and use ‘democracy’ as a cover has done the opposite to all that you have sited benefits of the identity??

    • 0
      0

      Sorry Mr Rajan I mistyped the name.

  • 0
    0

    continued
    Just read even in the CT …..Racist Sinhala Buddhist’s this and that correct…to call a spade a spade (we have not done the same to Tamil crimes yet in Jaffna 1970-1977-1981) and not bring bad names to the Language/Religion/Ethnicity (this belongs to all and not limited by the party politics) when crimes takes place it is best we do not have these identities attached to the people?? Law abiding vs the criminals….the one and only label needed for people to live in their Land??

    Voters list will not show who is a Tamil/Muslim/Christian/Buddhist..the job applications will not show who is who?? you can be any ethnicity and speak different language and religion??? even the Marxism is opposed to the same for all the right reasons too?? I say this is a very progressive thin king and we should support such thoughts by our administration??

  • 0
    0

    Dear Rajan

    The next logical step to come will be to remove all the language/religious/race parties from the Country. Then anyone qualified to be elected will have to generate a manifesto that will serve all lawfully over and beyond the capability/qualifications/technocrat etc is required for the job scope that will be attached/as part of the job scope the surgeries where the elected meet the constituents to discuss there needs will be cctv monitored (this is my personal wish list), parties selection of the running candidates need to be vetted by a panel of independent people to ensure the minimum criteria are met from Presidential candidates all the way to Municipality. The parties need to field candidates throughout the land is the most important element of this journey—-that inherently solves all the problems and net work the country in one go from North to South and East to West. A collective discussion in the parliament as to the needs of the people not based on demographic and ethnicity??

    As you have raised concerns over the elected if we all work to this over time constructively we can achieve this……however to do that journey/achieve end desired result we need to start somewhere and the time is now and see the real possibilities too.

  • 0
    0

    I also read somewhere optimism extend human life by several years. This is opposite to the “non factual fear mongering” FP/ITAK/TULF did systematically for 70 years in Jaffna and this would not have been allowed to happen if it was not for a democratic country like SL is something we forget…they can kill their opponents and still be allowed to attend the parliament?…so we continue with National Question now we brought the “International Justice for Humanity”/UN into our affairs too……..un necessarily taking their time on other issues they have been working on for the past 70 yers such as Palestinian, Iraq now Syrian issues and landed them right in the door of China/Indian issue by accident??. With them come the ISIS too I hope you see what I mean….wondering have been barking at the wrong tree all along???

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 7 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.