21 October, 2021

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‘Sinhala First’ Supremacism & Sovereignty: Gotabayaism In The Global Arena 

By Dayan Jayatilleka 

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Supremacism or Sovereignty? Though ethnoreligious supremacists think the two are intertwined if not twinned, the two cannot go together. It is a choice.

It would puzzle and perturb President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sinhala supremacists that the incoming Biden administration rejects the thematic slogan and policy paradigm of “America First” while asserting that “America is back!” and aspiring to lead the world once again. The explicit critique and rejection of ‘America First’ was commenced by Jake Sullivan, the incoming National Security Advisor and Anthony Blinken, the incoming US Secretary of State. On New Year’s Day 2019 Blinken wrote a piece in in the Washington Post unambiguously entitled ‘America First is only making the world worse. Here’s a better approach’.

Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism would see this as a contradiction in terms and fail to understand why ‘America First’ would not be the ideal basis for strong leadership of the world. Supremacists wouldn’t see that even the most powerful nation on earth, the USA, cannot safeguard, still less advance, its national interest on that narcissistic basis. 

What is true of the world’s sole superpower is most certainly true of a small island. You cannot have a successful foreign policy based on the externally repulsive projection of your supremacist domestic identity politics of “race, religion and culture”. 

The Gotabaya presidency seems to think that with the exception of China, and because of that exception, Sri Lanka’s relations with others can be (a) on our own terms and (b) on the premise of ‘Sri Lanka First’ i.e., that Sri Lanka’s interests as refracted through the prism of the Sinhala majoritarian self-perception, can be the dominant or determinant factor in all relationships. 

It would be wise for the Gotabaya presidency to understand how the brilliant young Jake Sullivan perceives the triple threat posed by China, and therefore for the GR regime to weigh the risks of identifying itself with that threat:

“There is China’s long-term strategy to dominate the fastest-growing part of the world, to make the global economy adjust to its brand of authoritarian capitalism, and above all to put pressure on free and open economic and political models…” (Sullivan, American Exceptionalism, Reclaimed – The Atlantic)

As Wikileaks revealed, Sullivan, a top staffer of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2009, participated in her discussions on the end-phase of the Sri Lankan war, and the unresolved Tamil issue.

Sovereignty

Sri Lanka’s situation and status in the world came up for argument in the Budget debate during the exchanges on the votes of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. The keyword was ‘Sovereignty’. Today, on the last day of the budget debate, Minister Keheliya Rambukwelle returned to the theme in order to respond to the Tamil Oppositionists. 

Early in the Budget debate, on the vote of the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and former Foreign Minister, currently the Minister of Education, GL Peiris argued strongly for the sovereign equality of states and non-interference, while Sumanthiran, Wigneswaran and Ponnambalam took the sovereignty of peoples—including, in Sumanthiran’s argument, the pre-existing, pre-colonial sovereignty of the Tamil statelet– as their ground. 

That latter point is untenable because when the kingdoms were brought together non-federally, and at the founding of independent Ceylon, the state form opted for was a unitary one as distinct from the separate referenda that the British insisted upon in India, yielding a quasi-federal compact.

Of the speakers in the debate on foreign affairs, Gajan Ponnambalam was something of an outlier, as he almost always is, but this time, he enunciated a most challenging, dialectically reasoned proposition which made his the most interesting single contribution to the discussion. Little wonder then that his speech was totally ignored.

The problem with both sides in the sovereignty debate was that they were standing on principles rather than practice, matters ‘de jure’ rather than ‘de facto’, the ‘ought’ of things rather than the ‘is’.  

The Dinesh Gunawardena-GL Peiris argument of absolute national/state sovereignty and non-interference, is unsustainable. If sovereignty were the reality of world affairs, Sri Lanka would not have experienced the shock of July 1987 and our global isolation. 

Dinesh Gunawardena and GL Peiris, undoubtedly able, are constrained by the Gotabaya framework which has forgotten the lessons of 1987 or learned the wrong ones and is trying to put the clock back to pre-1987, if not worse: imagining that the rise of China has actually put the clock back to pre-1987 for Sri Lanka. 

If the world always functioned according to the admirable principle of the sovereign equality of states and consequent non-intervention in internal affairs, the country formerly known as Yugoslavia would still exist, while the provocative adventurism of Georgia and the Ukraine would not have cost them part of their territories.

The same goes for the ‘sovereignty of peoples’ as evocatively championed by Messrs. Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran, and the vanishing of ‘state sovereignty’ as proclaimed by them. 

Tell that to Tigray. And to the decisive, relentless (Nobel-prize winning) leader of the Ethiopian state. 

Ponnambalam’s perspective

As for Hon. Sumanthiran’s entirely justifiable and accurate reiteration of the repeated promises made on the record to India by the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the question remains as to why the TNA did not take those promises as their premise and press for the implementation of the 13th amendment rather than trying to push the boundaries of the 13th amendment (2011-2012), and subsequently vaulting over the 13th amendment and pushing for a new Constitution which deleted Sri Lanka’s unitary status –which was one of the factors that killed off the UNP. 

The MR government found it far easier to renege on the promise made to India because the TNA itself let the government off that hook, which was the only hook it was and is on. Having absurdly sought after the massive wartime defeat and despite it, to push beyond the provisions on land policy in the 13th amendment and demanded in 2011-2012 that even state land could be utilized only with the permission of the provincial Chief Minister—a demand that incensed Mahinda Rajapaksa—the Tamils now experience daily, a creeping contestation over their traditional lands and the creation of ‘facts on the ground’ (Netanyahu-style) under a decidedly more hawkish President and his like-minded Eastern Governor.   

Gajan Ponnambalam’s argument was conceptually more complex and subtle than that made by Sumanthiran. It was also closer the bull’s-eye and therefore did not elicit a response from the government benches. Ponnambalam’s point was that the Sinhala-Buddhist political elite sought to balance against India because of a perception of Indian support for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The ruling elite first tilted towards the USA in the 1980s and paid the price, and it is now doing the same by tilting strategically towards China and will similarly pay a price. 

The root cause, the Original Sin, says Ponnambalam is the Sinhala ruling elite’s unwillingness to share power fairly with this country’s Tamil citizenry. Ponnambalam predicts that this time, if the deprivation of Tamil rights and land goes too far, and is coupled with a continuing, deepening strategic Sri Lankan alignment with China in the current context of great power competition, the Sinhalese,  though they may succeed in destroying Tamil sovereignty for a generation, would have only engaged, ironically, in what amounts to Mutually Assured Destruction because they will find their own political and state sovereignty shattered by external factors and forces. 

Prabhakaran posthumously 

Evidence for Gajan Ponnambalam’s thesis was the verbal virulence and viciousness the Minister of Public Security Rear-Admiral (Retd.) Sarath Weerasekara aimed at MA Sumanthiran MP over his presence at the home of a client, the mother of a slain LTTE cadre of some considerable notoriety, where the woman had lit a lamp in commemoration. Minister Weerasekara’s unfamiliarity with Sophocles’ Antigone was the least worrisome of his lapses. 

What Weerasekara said to Sumanthiran reeked of Minister Cyril Mathew’s attacks on TULF leader Amirthalingam in 1977-’83. Mathew’s sustained hate speech and neofascist networking triggered a chain-reaction: a pogrom and eventual external intervention. However, President JR, unlike President GR, didn’t compound his myopic folly by appointing Mathew the Minister of Public Security, including the Police and the Civil Defense Forces, with plans for “Civil Defense Committees [which] will be formed in each village in the country to keep a watchful eye…like during the war times.” (Daily Mirror)

When he boycotted the 2005 presidential election, Velupillai Prabhakaran bet on a hardline racist Rajapaksa regime alienating world opinion and thereby isolating itself internationally, rendering Tamil Eelam more easily attainable. Picking the wrong method (warfare) and the wrong Rajapaksa (Mahinda), Prabhakaran was utterly vanquished. 

Distressingly, Prabhakaran’s polarization hypothesis may have a chance of posthumous validation in the present, due to the following:

(1) Denoting a tectonic shift, the regime is the most hawkish, absolutist, militarist, ethno-hegemonistic, ideologically rigid and extremist, unilateralist, and the remotest from the liberal-democratic ‘open society’ model and global political community, ever in the island’s post-Independence history. 

(2) It will formalize its ethno-religious supremacist ethos in a new Constitution, which will widen the gap with India which has an unprecedented interface with the USA not only strategically but also socially (many Biden nominees and staffers are Indian-American). 

(3) It is dependent upon, influenced by, and integrated with China to an unprecedented degree at a time of heightened Great Power competition. 

(4) It is going counter to the emerging Biden-Harris led, post-Trump global zeitgeist of democratic, anti-racist/anti-supremacist internationalism. 

(5) The Tamils, especially Tamil women, are more high profile and influential than ever before in the global political and social mainstream from the USA to New Zealand.  

The Tamil external advantage is hampered by the political cyanide-capsule of the delegitimizing Tiger suicide-terrorist cult, manifested in the grotesque Mahaveer commemoration in Britain, replete with the inverted rifle symbol, which no US administration (however liberal) or India can afford to be seen to countenance or ignore. 

Proper Paradigm

So, Gajan Ponnambalam may prove prophetic– but only partially. As examples from Afghanistan to the Middle East show, even with an externally shattered state, the majority ethno-religious community, civilization and culture reassert themselves, often in a more virulent, fanatical and fundamentalist form such as the Taliban and ISIS. The repressed returns, zombielike. 

An externally-imposed, as distinct from externally-propelled and supported, solution is unsustainable and counterproductive. A viable, sustainable strategic policy must locate the intersection of the majority and the minority, the external and the internal.

Jake Sullivan sketches an excellent conceptual synthesis for a foreign policy and more—an ideological and policy paradigm as a whole: 

“An…ultimately successful foreign policy must cut through Trump’s false, dog-whistling choice between globalism and nationalism. It must combine the best kind of patriotism (a shared civic spirit and a clear sense of the national interest) and the best kind of internationalism (a recognition that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you need to grab a bucket). And it should reject the worst kind of nationalism (damn-the-consequences aggression and identity-based hate-mongering) and the worst kind of internationalism (the self-congratulatory insulation of the Davos elite) …Exceptionalism is how you reconcile patriotism with internationalism.” (Sullivan, American Exceptionalism, Reclaimed – The Atlantic)

All Sri Lankan political parties, across the ethnic and parliamentary divides, should take this as an inspiration and formulate a third space, a new center, eschewing both ultranationalism and insensitive globalism, opting instead for a fusion of patriotism and internationalism.  

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    Dear DJ
    An interesting if not an amusing food for thought write up.
    The parallels of “America First “and Sinhala Buddhists first seems farfetched given that SL is mere dot in the scheme of things.
    With the new President elect Jo Biden, things are shaping up to be an inclusive Presidency. The Democrats have a Herculean task ahead of them, to undo the damages done by the Trump administration.
    The Corona virus, Covid 19 pandemic has made us realise that our existence and health are more significant than our narrow and convoluted comforts and selfish desires. “The greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness” Arthur Schopenhauer
    As for Sri Lanka, the elected party with two thirds majority is empowered to carry out changes necessary to divert economical rot the country is in at present. But if the sole aim and purpose of the government of the day is to wield more power and shut up the opposition, for what’s it is worth, then people will be faced with more draconian situations. Which will not be conducive democracy as we know generally
    DJ, your talk of a third space is an interesting proposition. Will they take the bullet and bite it and do the right thing is a debate for another day and time? The environment is a big issue in Sri Lanka.

    • 1
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      Dear RN,
      .
      Before long, the name “GOTA” will achieve the level of ” HITLOR” in SLanka and any other countries with almost everything is becoming worst in today s context in SL. I really don tthink that DJ would approach Rajapkashes again for a DIPLOMATIC post. At the begining of POLONNARUWA donkey rule, DJ was vehemently against Sirisena but later he turned out to be a diplomat under his govt. That is all about DJ s true face. So, I really dont think that much could come to light through the posts coming from DJ. Besides, mostly his written langauge dont outreach masses.

  • 3
    7

    Actually Gota is right on that. SL must have a SL First foreign policy.

    USA, India, Japan, Australia, etc. need SL navy more than ever. They cannot go against SL. Just a small example. How many of them talk about war crimes by the SL Navy? Abducting and killing Tamil kids from Colombo, shooting at LTTE terrorists in water begging for help, burning down Tamil media houses?? No one! Why? SLN has a licence to do anything.

    Now India helps SL to declare an ancient Buddhist shrine in Batticaloa a UNESCO world heritage site!! SL didn’t even ask. What on earth?

    SL should lease out some real estate in Jaffna to Indian army, Trincomalee to US marines/Saudi army, Hambantota to Chinese PLAN and Galle to Russian Navy. Balances out all.

    The world has changed from the time Dayan studied political science. He is still stuck in 1945-91 time.

    • 1
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      GOTAM
      Being a Muslim your opinion is of no consequence in our matters.
      We will sort out our issues with Hindu/Christian Tamils.

      Soma

  • 7
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    Tamil politicians are trying to create a ‘BILLA’ saying that if the demands of Tamils are not given external factors and forces will shatter Sri Lanka’s political and state sovereignty. This is their assumption. The truth is even if Sinhalayo give the demands of Tamils the external forces will try to shatter Sri Lanka’s political and state sovereignty if they want to do that for their benefit. Whether they will become successful or not is a different matter. Best thing is not to give these unjustifiable demands of Tamils and see what happens. Sometimes Sinhalayo might have to go through hardships. That is nothing new to Sinhalayo who faced severe hardships because of Dravidians starting from 3rd Century BC. If Sinhalayo have to pay a price for their decision, it is very likely that Tamils who are scattered all over the country will also have to pay a price.

    • 5
      4

      Eagle,
      “Sometimes Sinhalayo might have to go through hardships”
      So kind of you, a foreign parasite in a safe foreign lair, to tell us what to do!

    • 2
      2

      India is not the India during the last Cold War. Soviet Union backed India to the hilt and all others feared India for that reason. There is no Soviet Union anymore and there won’t be one nation called India soon. It will be a few separate nations doing their own little thing. Some will even align with China against others. India’s south is fast losing patience with the north. Another war with China will be the turning point in their independence campaign.

    • 0
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      This is the alternative view, and it is hard to say which is correct, except for the fact that before Mahinda Rajapakse took office as democratically elected president we had all the conditions that Dr. Dayan talks about : we had President Chandrika and her constitutional efforts for peace. We had peace talks.

      I cannot understand how anyone but a fool does not put his country first. This is not ideal, but the world is, fractured into many different pieces and competition is the name of the game (although a losing one, we cannot always lose.

      I suppose Biden’s team would like is to cheer Pakistan in a Sri-Lanka Vs Pakistan cricket match, or worse still, cheer both sides. The world divided, and mostly so by the evil colonizers, has a long way to go.

  • 4
    2

    Nothing is permanent in this world. This is also applicable to Sri Lanka. In the past, changes came slowly but now it is very fast. Who thought LTTE was defeated in 2009? Who thought India turn against to LTTE? Who thought Gotabaya will give up US citizenship? Who thought Mahinda will loose the Elections in 2015? These changes happened within 10 years. But Srilanka fall in the hands of European invaders and remained for 500 years. So, it is impossible to predict what will happen to Gota rule next year. We thought Srilanka wiped out Corona in April 2020. What happened to Corona now? Why couldn’t Gota stop that now? Greediness is a dominant now. Greediness of Trump made him to loose the power. Greediness of Mahinda to loose his power. Greediness of Ranil is to loose the power. Greediness of Gota is the next?

    • 3
      2

      Stop saying that Europeans conquered the island. The British did in 1815. The Portuguese and Dutch controlled some ports and had to deal with kandyans for trade. Kandy means kanda uda rats, or mountainous terrain. Which starts in the Colombo district in awissawella. On the Colombo kandy road.

      • 0
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        Westham., the extent of the Kandyan Kingdom is shown in these maps. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Kandy The Kingdom was not conquered but was ceded to the British by Kandyan chieftains that is why there was a signed Kandyan Convention. If it had been conquered there would have been no need for a Convention. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kandyan_Convention Needless to say, the British didn’t keep to their side of the agreement.

  • 2
    2

    DJ, Susan Rice was nominated as top advisor, domestic affairs, though she would have been a better choice for foreign affairs. She was one of the candidate considered for VP and external affairs by Biden. She was security advisor to Obame and UN representative. Prior to that she was iin charge for asian/and Middle East affairs for many years. . She is well familiar not just with Lankan issues but Rajapaksa brothers too. Lets wait and watch, for the impact on Lanka.

    • 1
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      Chiv
      She knows well about the propaganda and arms supplies carried out by diaspora on behalf of LTTE and their unconscionable lies for emigrating to West.
      Moreover she knows that Sinhalese are the majority and Sri Lanka is an island.
      Also she knows that there is no way, ABSOLUTELY NO WAY, of punishing the Sinhalese without Tamils having to face a deadlier reaction.

      Soma

    • 1
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      chiv,
      Same way you waited and watched until America came to rescue your innocent little Prabhakaran???

  • 1
    2

    It is not Sri Lanka first,

    • 0
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      It is Sri Lanka last. America first. America deserves a lot of respect doesn’t it? I hope the millions killed by America had time to appreciate its greatness.

  • 1
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    Sri Lanka cannot afford to pivot towards China and give the cold shoulder to India and the West.
    China cannot be trusted at all.

    Trust and mutual cooperation within the SARC countries is very important.

    The Easter Sunday Bombings could have been prevented if Sri Lankan Authorities heeded the warning from India in a timely manner.

    Historically and culturally a draconian system that is practiced in China will not suit the Indian Ocean region.

    We cannot expect China to treat Sri Lanka with mutual respect when push comes to shove our Government will be dictated by the Chinese without any empathy or sympathy whatsoever.

    We will end up being puppets of China if the Rajapaksha Government continues to follow the current foreign policy.

    Hope the Government and officials of the foreign ministry, EDB, Department of Commerce, and Ministry of Defence take the facts outlined in this article seriously and recalibrate our foreign policy.

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