3 December, 2022

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Sri Lanka: The Current Crisis, Protests & Options To Prevent Re-Colonisation

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

There is a considerable amount of reporting, commentery and wisdom circulating in the mainstream and alternative media about the evolving situation in Sri Lanka in relation to the economic, political, cultural/ethnic and social spheres. There seem to be a stalemate in the political sphere as the cabinet resigned and no interim arrangement has emerged yet as some would prefer. The pressure from protesting Lankans -mainly youths-asking the government leaders to resign has increased with more and more people joining the protests. On the economic front, with the appointment of a new Central bank governor and a secretary to the Finance ministry, things are moving in terms of immediate decisions to be made to stabilise the money market and negotiations with the IMF. Support from India to meet the most immediate needs seems to be forthcoming. Celebrations of Sinhala and Tamil New Year are taking place during a volatile time for the population, the government and law enforcement agencies.

The pictures from Gall Face #GotaGoHome protest site symbolises the story of current crisis. The protestors who are peaceful and non-violent carrying Sri Lankan flags are to be seen against a background where high rise buildings – the symbol of neoliberal economy that the country has implemented quite faithfully until the current crisis point. These buildings occupy those who control the levers of private sector economy. In the background, one can see the Presidential secretariat -symbol of the hierarchical, semi-authoritarian executive and constitutional power whose occupant is not answerable to the parliament, judiciary or anyone else but himself. Such is the trajectory or combination of institutional power, control, wealth, culture and symbolism that brought the country to a halt by April 2022. The fundamental question we have to ask today is whether we should continue with the same combination of executive, institutional and corporate power or do we need to engage in a critical review to identify the fault lines of the jigsaw puzzle that has brought the country to current crisis point and find a new perspective, model and governance system that can serve the interests of many rather than the few?

Neoliberal economy

This is essentially the free-market economy where the international and local market forces, agents, players companies etc are allowed to run their enterprises with minimal government control. At the global level, bilateral and multilateral agencies plus governments from the global north push for this idea as wealthy and powerful countries can facilitate their own multinational companies to extend their operations to the developing countries in the global south (mostly former colonies). Countries of the latter kind who found technical expertise, investment capital and even the drive for starting new enterprises after obtaining independence from the colonial masters looked to multilateral agencies who formulated rules of engagement including free trade for advice and guidance. When the cold war ended and the expansion of global capitalism to countries that suffered economic stagnation under the Soviet Union started to open up and adopt the neoliberal economic model including more and more borrowings from the international agencies and countries willing to provide credit international finance capital started to move in. China also figured prominently as was the US and the European Union.

In the case of Sri Lanka, though the free market model was introduced with a centralised power structure under an executive president from the late 70s, the influence of those in political authority in the affairs of the economy did not wane. Instead it increased exponentially. Borrowing for various infrastructure projects, the procedures followed in offering various projects to specific companies or countries, allegations of large-scale corruption, complaints about the way decisions were made in the cabinet, lack of consultation with the parliament, nepotism, formation of the gang of thieves (Chaura Kalliya) etc symbolise the signs of a sick system that has been at play during the decades following Sri Lanka gained independence.

As they say the proof is in the pudding. Irrespective of the nationalist-political rhetoric by the leadership the economy is in real trouble. The fundamentals are not right. The country spends more than it earns or generates. It has been importing more than exporting. Rulers have been living on borrowed money without giving up their own privileges that had been authenticated by a corrupt political culture and practice. It has now come to a situation where the national assets have to be offered on a plate to countries and wealthy individuals/companies to gain several hundred million dollars to close the books that have been made irrelevant by an irresponsible lot of leaders who perhaps knew the gravity of the dangerous situation but failed to act early enough.

The current attempt is to find a solution to the crisis from the same script i.e. neoliberal economic model promoted by the IMF, World Bank and powerful countries of the West including the US. The central bank team will negotiate a package with the IMF to obtain several billion dollars in exchange for structural reforms in various institutions including the public service, government enterprises that are not making a profit, income tax reforms, curtailment of trade union rights to create labour market flexibility and more.   Any measures of this nature will hurt the people more in the short term. Remember what happened in Greece? We need to look around to see the harmful effects of IMF policies and prescriptions in other countries with similar economic and social crisis. It is not hard to find cases from the global south where the IMF involvement in the economic restructuring created more burdens than less on the people. For example, see the role of IMF in Ukraine.

From a long-term perspective, what is required is a decolonial solution to the economic, political, and socio-cultural problems facing the country -rather than a neoliberal one as prescribed by the IMF. Such a solution requires one to familiarise with the vast literature produced by decolonial scholars from all continents, especially Latin America, critical of imperialist designs in the past and the present on one hand and the way forward on the other. Such a solution involves many layers. To get an idea, the book by Mignolo and Walsh can be a starting point.

Conflicting Values

One aspect that has not been discussed enough is the conflict of values between the ruling elites/class vs the people, especially those who have come out to protest demanding the rulers to go home. The ruling elites/class have been operating with a set of values nominally justified by the democratic governance system inherited from the British colonial masters, deformed and politicised in the process of governance since independence and allowed members of the elite class to enjoy many privileges in the name of democracy even though what is practiced is far from the ideals enshrined in democratic traditions in their original form. For example, transparency in government decisions required under the democratic parliamentary system is not practiced when it comes to decisions made by the executive President and those officials close to him. In the recent past, one family exercised more power than the whole parliamentary team put together – both the government and the opposition. Accountability and transparency in government decisions have not been that clear. More alarmingly, those who were charged with wrongdoings in financial terms escaped the legal consequences and punishment. The ruling class appeared to function as if it is above the law. Law has been made too complex with the appointment of various commissions of inquiry etc.

From the point of view of the citizen such a system is not fair. Citizens need egalitarianism, fair play, social justice, openness and accountability in government. In addition, the greed and self-interest that have been cultivated via the neoliberal, competitive economic model over the last decades have made the social fabric more vulnerable and open to many vices. Care for the elderly and sick – one of the hallmarks of Asian societies – became a thing of the past. Trying to get ahead in competition with the neighbour, extended family, friendship circle became the ideal. Failing to achieve such ambitious goals within the country, many decided to leave. Solutions that require selling not only the heart and soul but also the very motherland that provides sustenance became the way to move forward as a nation. This was marketed by the ruling class as a necessity to sustain the corrupt system. In the end, the system itself failed and the population has awakened.

The values being promoted by the protesters seems to be aligned with a united nation without the distinction of race, colour, creed etc. Cooperative and collaborative ethos is visible instead of the divisive ethos one finds in the political culture that is based on patriarchy, hierarchy, concentration of power in the hands of the leader, promotion of followers rather than equals. The value system and the drive that has been brought to the scene by protesting youths has the potential to lead the country, its economy and people out of the current crisis if handled carefully.

Epistemic Crisis

In addition to the economic and political as well as social crisis, there is a corresponding epistemic crisis i.e. to do with the way knowledge is produced and disseminated in countries like Sri Lanka. It is a crisis in the knowledge production field including education, higher education, media and science. We tend to largely and exclusively depend on Western knowledge (American and European) in teaching, learning, publishing, and trying to find solutions to the existential problems. This habit was implanted in our education systems (early-childhood, primary, secondary to university level) during the British colonial period. We continue with the same disciplines, boundaries, perspectives, fragmented knowledge, and theories as well as methodologies without evaluating whether the knowledge inherited from Western sources is applicable and relevant to our own contexts and our needs? Our scholars, intellectuals, academics and professionals go on without investigating whether our own indigenous/local traditions provide better ways of knowing and doing? The habit we developed to downgrade the importance of our own things including ideas is being promoted in the name of international education today. Syed Hussein Alatas, a renowned social scientist from Malaysia, described the dependent mentality of the academics in former colonies in Asia as Captive mind (Gamage 2022 Philippine Sociological Review -forthcoming).

This epistemic crisis is a continuing one in our education system where no credible inside examination has taken place. Instead imitation of western knowledge practices dominate to the extent that it has created academic dependency. As we are rushing to the IMF for advice and funds to meet the economic crisis, our government appointed consultants have been working with the World Bank and other multilateral agencies to apply Western prescriptions in our education and higher education system as if our academics are unable to identify the problems and find solutions? Home grown solutions do not come with external funding or expensive expertise. In short, our debt problem is not one created by us alone. It is the result of decades long collaboration of governments with international agencies where Western prescriptions were to be applied to solve local problems in various fields. The ultimate result is more dependencies rather than less. For more on this, you may read my published papers in various journals and books.

Political (Party) System and Culture

I do not think, as many thousands of protesters believe, that the mainstream political party system can provide solutions to the current crisis except as a stop-gap measure until a better system of governance is formulated with the active involvement of the citizenry. In the past, I have advocated a national citizens committee composed of educated and experienced individuals from various fields with corresponding committees at the regional level to steer the country forward by way of a social movement. It is not a bad idea to explore this concept in the current context. This can be a part of the political process or otherwise.

Indigenous System of Governance

If we combine our intellect, experience and insights gained from both within the country and internationally, it is not difficult to devise a system of governance based on indigenous values, aspirations, concepts and needs drawing from the international experience as appropriate. Not the other way where we attempt to imitate the Westminster system, American, French system or even worse a combination of these. There is no point in trying to superimpose alien systems on the local body politic and the populace without looking into the long-term consequences or the net benefit. If it is to be an elected representative system at the national and local levels (we may need to do away with the provincial level), the method of electing representatives need to be re-examined and a simple method formulated. We need to do away with the proportional representation system including the appointment of MPs from the list. These measures have deformed the notion of representation beyond repair. Likewise, the role of administration needs to be redefined and re-focused in order to allow qualified people with integrity to fill the positions. One of the continuing problems today is that the people are treated as subjects(neo-colonial) rather than free citizens with agency who deserve the respect and attention by politicians and government officials at all levels. Today, getting anything done without the influence of those in power has become extremely impossible. As not everyone has access to those in power, the second method for speeding up things in government offices has lifted its ugly head i.e. corruption.

The Risk

The risk we are facing as a country is the potential for re-colonisation by a powerful country or a block of countries either through further entrenchment of the neoliberal economic model and corresponding assistance schemes or through defence agreements made when the country is in trouble. I hope the country will be able to develop a better vision for the future and an institutional set up for better governance -in the truly democratic sense- in coming months with citizen involvement. Instead of focusing on one family (though I can understand why this is so), what is required is to critically examine the necessary institutional reforms to achieve the goal of a better Lanka by teams of our own experts. The more we are divided, the risk for re-colonisation is considerable. Devising a simple method of governance-based on an electoral system plus an upper house like a senate is not that a difficult task as Sri Lanka has qualified and experienced law makers and experts.


Further readings on Intellectual Dependency and Decolonial Imagination

Alatas SH (1977) Intellectuals in Developing Societies. London: Frank Cass.

Alatas S. H (2006) The Autonomous, the Universal and the Future of Sociology. Current Sociology 54(1): 7–23.

Alatas, S.F. 2022. Decolonising Knowledge: meaning and problems, Social Affairs (forthcoming).

Bhambra G. K, Gebrial D and Nişancıoğlu K (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

Go, J (2017) Decolonizing Sociology: Epistemic Inequality and Sociological Thought. Social Problems 64 (2): 194–199.

Connell, R. 2018. Decolonising Sociology, Contemporary Sociology, 47(4)

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press).

Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skins, White Masks. (Pluto Press).

de Sousa Santos, B. (2015) Epistemologies of the South: justice against epistemicide, London: Routledge.

Meghji, A. Decolonizing Sociology. Cambridge: Polity: Conclusion.

Mignolo, W.D (2007). Coloniality of Power and de-colonial thinking, introduction, Cultural Studies, 21,2-3, pp. 155-167

Mignolo, W.D and Walsh C (2018) On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mignolo W (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (Chapter 6).

Mignolo, W. (2002). The geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference, South Atlamntic Quarterly, 101(1), 57-96

Savranski, M (2017). A Decolonial Imagination: sociology, anthropology and the politics of reality, Sociology, 51(1) pp.11-26

Smith, L.T. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed

Books.

Uyangoda, J. 2018. Decolonial Thinking, Southern Theory, and the search for Alternative epistemologies in the Social Sciences, Colombo Arts- Biannual Refereed Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 2(3).

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    Mr Gamage, thanks for the article.
    .
    “The more we are divided, the risk for re-colonisation is considerable. Devising a simple method of governance-based on an electoral system plus an upper house like a senate is not that a difficult task as Sri Lanka has qualified and experienced law makers and experts”.
    .
    I believe our people s to stay dividing is well connected with the prevalent media mafia and the silence of the experts as of today. Media mafia was able to fool even higher graduates in the fields of intoxications of religion and healing methods. Kirthi Disanayaka, aka VALAMPOORI man, Galthanna Dewa gatthi thuma, Eliantha White and and the like stupid men not forgetting Dhammika paniya maker and Nagaya-CARRIED Fake relics to then most sacred kelaniya temple-…are not forgettable to the people- but who gave the publicity to those blatant lies or products made by Kaliamma – it is the mlechcha media institutions.

    • 3
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      He says elected representative system at Provincial level should be discontinued. Provincial councils were created to address demand of Tamils for autonomy. If you want them abolished, then you must give an alternative to grant Autonomy to Tamils. Answer is create two regional councils one for Tamils (north and re demarcated east) and one for Sinhalese (rest of the land). This shows that the author like most Sinhalese, wants to get rid of provincial council and deny Tamils even the meager autonomy enjoyed by them.

      • 2
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        Dr. GS,

        If the Sinhalese South doesn’t want PCs for themselves since they consider it a waste, it is perfectly fine to have an asymmetric system of PCs only in the North-East, where there is a linguistic and cultural imperative to do so. SL should implement it forthwith and make peace with the Tamils and Muslims. I hope a new leader who arises from all the current protests recognizes this need urgently, including reparations, though the payments can be delayed a bit pending better financial footing. If they can’t even do that when the country is nearing its nadir, there is no hope of turning itself around anytime soon.

        • 3
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          What you state is 100% correct Agnos. As per the Sec13A signed by JR and Rajiv, the Provincial council was only the Northern and Eastern provinces of the island and not the rest. As these two provinces are culturally and linguistically different from the rest of the island. The ancient homeland of the native indigenous Eelam Tamils and now even the South India origin Muslim Tamils who arrived in the east a few centuries ago as refugees. There was only to be one amalgamated North-East provincial council with land and police powers as one unit and the rest of the country another unit. However, what cunning JR did was, deliberately create eight provincial councils, as he did not want a separate Tamil or predominantly Tamil speaking provincial council in the north-east for the Tamils and Muslims and the rest of the country as a different unit, as this will prove this is the homeland of the island’s Tamil speakers. He also deliberately diluted the powers of the provincial councils, the land and police powers that were to be given to the northeast provincial council, to prevent future Sinhalese encroachment supported by the state or otherwise in these historically Tamil areas, as he now created eight and now could get away with this. Now, look at the result.

          • 2
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            What GS states are the truth, some Sinhalese have now learned the lesson that for the country to progress, there should be equality and the historical ancient rights of the island’s Tamil speakers, especially the native Eelam Tamils should be recognized and rectified but sadly still most have not. They want the Rajapakses out for the economic hardships and chaos they created but still want the Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocentric state to continue. They do not realize that without justice and equality for all citizens living on the island nothing will change, as one selfish racist swindler will be replaced by another.

  • 2
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    Is Internal colonisation leads to external colonisation?

  • 0
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    Sri Lanka: The Current Crisis, Protests & Options To Prevent Re-Colonization

    Economically colonized controlled by India china IMF. The birth and a transformation for a pattern of colonization, India will say buy all agriculture from us china gives all construction. United States listen to us.

  • 1
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    “When the cold war ended and the expansion of global capitalism to countries that suffered economic stagnation under the Soviet Union started to open up and adopt the neoliberal economic model including more and more borrowings from the international agencies and countries willing to provide credit international finance capital started to move in. China also figured prominently as was the US and the European Union.
    What did the neoliberal economic model deliver?
    How did Russia escape the grip to become a challenge?
    How is it that China is today a bigger defender of Globalization than the originators of the idea who are getting more and more protective?
    The politics of it penetrates the economics, and we are blind to imperialist manipulation.
    In that context, your warning about IMF is very important

  • 2
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    What the people need to keep in mind is that, while free-market capitalism produces winners and losers, seeks to exploit, and therefore needs to be somewhat restrained in countries like Sri Lanka, in a world where everyone else has adopted such a system and working hard to compete for a share of the win, those who don’t play or compete in this game will be left to wither. That is what is happening in SL
    Sri Lanka had ample time to come out with a decolonial system but it hasn’t. Now there is an immediate need to improve finances, increase exports, tourism, etc., and compete in this global game. The decolonial solution can be a longer-term goal, but in the short term, SL should learn from India and Malaysia how they became ‘productive’ and raised their growth rates in the past few decades. Focus on finding a niche in which SL can be good globally and expand that. Software, back-office IT, accounting, bringing in auto manufacturing plants from global auto companies, and training local workers to be good technicians are all possibilities. But SL should first make peace with Tamils and Muslims and pay reparations for war crimes, disappearances, and destruction.

    • 0
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      “But SL should first make peace with Tamils and Muslims and pay reparations for war crimes, disappearances, and destruction.”
      We may also add that wish list, a wish that the sponsors of the LTTE from various places should compensate the innocent Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese victims of LTTE’s for war crimes, disappearances, and destruction.

  • 0
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    https://www.berghahnbooks.com/downloads/intros/MpofuRethinking_intro.pdf

    Introduction
    Rethinking and Unthinking Development in Africa
    Busani Mpofu and Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni
    The intellectual and academic task of rethinking and unthinking
    development in Africa arises from the reality of how development
    has continued to be elusive in Africa. The development imperative has
    remained caught up in ten discernible paradoxes and contradictions
    that were recently delineated by Odomaro Mubangizi (2018: 1): (1)
    rich and complex cultural diversity; (2) ever-simmering ethno politics
    that underlie contemporary conflicts; (3) underdevelopment amidst
    enormous resources; (4) a brain drain amidst limited capacity and
    financial illicit flows; (5) nascent democratic and governance institutions to anchor sustainable development; (6) longstanding tensions
    between tradition and modernity; (7) centrifugal and centripetal political and economic forces; (8) longstanding contradictions between the
    sacred and the secular; (9) an ever-widening gap between rich and
    poor people; and (10) the quest for homegrown solutions to African
    problems while relying heavily on foreign aid, foreign direct investment and imported goods and services.
    These above stated challenges coexist with two discourses on the
    state of development in Africa. On one level is the positive discourse of
    ‘Africa rising’, which is entangled with such initiatives as the African
    Union (AU)’s Agenda 2063, Sustainable Development Goals, Africa’s
    demographic dividend, drives towards an African Continental Free
    Trade Area (AfCFTA) and ‘the increasing attractiveness of Africa as a
    choice destination for foreign direct investment’ (Mubangizi 2018: 2).

  • 0
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    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWs4gjHkXmk

    The Decolonization of Development Economics: Early Voices from the Global South

    Yale University

    Both before and after independence, academics from the Global South informed the foundation of the field of Development Economics. How can their insights on the tangled relationship between poverty and inequality inform development research, policy, and practice in today’s divided world? This virtual panel opened the Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Economic Justice Virtual Symposium.

    Panelists: David Engerman, Gerald D. Jaynes, Ravi Kanbur, Rohini Pande, Amna Qayyum
    Moderator: Catherine Cheney

  • 1
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    Siri,

    Obviously, it is only the JVP-NPP that can work with the Post-Colonial model best. All the others are of the capitalistic nature. Even getting the IMF 4-5 billion won’t erase the 51-billion debt. As you say, foreign currency and investments will just bulldoze the country even more with extraneous ideas, alien to how we should truly operate. Defaulting on the debts and getting the IMF also means that we are compromising our sovereignty.

    It’s not going to be easy. Too many Lankans have subscribed into the capitalistic model. Many own SME’s. Guess, this Lankan depression will affect them poorly anyway. IMF loans might only uplift some of them by weak amounts. They have to be taught and given incentives to work within a greater socialistic network within the local epistemological model. How far they will support this system is still yet to be seen. One way to assure everyone is to erase all reference to race and caste profiles.

  • 0
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    I wonder if we can convince the IMF to encourage the local epistemological models. Western systems are trying to move from the old way of doing capitalism.

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