By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I’ve heard of home invasions but this is the first time I’ve watched a Ministry invasion. The country watched while the BBS swarmed into Rishad Bathiudeen’s Ministry in search of missing monk, to wit, Ven Watareka Vijitha thero. Was the latter a suspect in a case of murder, rape, child molestation or even theft? Nope. His alleged crime was not a crime according to any law. It was an offense in the eyes of the BBS though, because he is said to have taken the side of the Muslims in a dispute in Mahiyangana. He is now being hounded, including in the precincts of Government ministries. The manhunt or monk-hunt is being conducted in full public view, on mainstream TV. It is the new reality TV show.
It is difficult to identify which is worse: (a) the fact that there seems to be absolute impunity for this group which has openly arrogated to itself the right to police society and the state as well or (b) the fact that the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter did not remonstrate publicly with the BBS delegation at its recent visit and instead good naturedly cheered them on (as seen on Derana News) to “do something” in furtherance of their declaration that they had the power to make and unmake governments. Add to this the uncritical remarks by Secretary Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the opening of the BBS’ political academy at Meth Sevana last year and we seemingly have confirmation of Kalana Senaratne’s brilliant recent article in which he posits the thesis that the BBS is not the lunatic fringe but the murkier depths of the mainstream itself.
The BBS activity, most notably of the inspection/invasion of Minister Rishad Bathiuddeen’s Ministry and its declared intention to intervene anywhere it chooses to, bypassing existing laws and law enforcement amounts to a project of theocratic proto-fascism. The detention of the British nurse who had an un-caricatured tattoo of the Buddha on her shoulder and the arrest of a Catholic nun belonging to the Order of Mother Theresa a few years back (she was released after the Cardinal sent a clear message) indicates that the BBS is not merely an organization, but that it represents — and can get away with what it does because it represents— a state of mind, including within the state. The fact that this state of mind does not encompass the state as a whole is exemplified by the excellent conduct of the police officer, who refused to hand over the footage of the CCTV cameras outside Minister Bathiuddeen’s Ministry to the BBS monk who threateningly demanded it.
What the BBS seems to demand is the right to behave as if Sri Lanka is a theocratic state in which the BBS are the ayatollahs and cultural police. So if this trend continues, Sri Lankan citizens will not only have to live under an economic regime and state policy process that is describable as an oligarchy, but also live by the unwritten rules of a theocracy.
Now, one has the choice of analysing these phenomena to death or actually doing something about it fast. Insofar as all this appalling public behaviour of the BBS and like-minded formations is possible under the umbrella of the political Establishment, I suggest a five-point program to alter that status quo:
- Send CBK and SF to Parliament, now: While I have a very dim view of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as a Presidential candidate and Gen Sarath Fonseka as a future President, I urge that they be sent to parliament immediately in order to re-balance politics and denounce impunity. All it takes is for a UNP national list MP or two to be persuaded to step down, and CBK can go in to parliament and become a front bencher or even the leader of the opposition. The same goes for Gen Fonseka— and if there is a legal impediment, Mrs Anoma Fonseka can be sent instead. These two, namely CBK and Mr or Mrs Fonseka will rock the House. They may even attract some MPs from the other side. They will soften up the government and change the atmosphere before the crucial pair of elections early next year. If this is not done now, one can only conclude that the UNP cares more about something other than re-balancing Sri Lanka’s politics.
- Support a Left Opposition with the JVP at its core and vanguard. Encourage reunification or a JVP-FSP bloc. Without the Inter-University Student Federation, the JVP will lack an important campaigning arm, while without the JVP the FSP will lack any serious mass or national appeal and political prospect, representing radicalism at the margins. The JVP is the closest we have to a formation which takes an anti-racist, anti-religious extremist ideology to the masses. It is currently the most consistent agency of a rational, secular, progressive and modernist ideology. A strong JVP representation in the next parliament and a serious JVP presidential candidacy—Anura Kumara Dissanayake—will be positive factors under any circumstances.
- Effect a demarcation within the SLFP/UPFA in time for the Parliamentary elections. Work on detaching the moderates of the SLFP from the family-dominated regime, not at the Presidential election (it won’t work anyway) but at the parliamentary election. The aim should be to target the two thirds majority and encourage a strong, multiparty opposition. Of course if the Opposition’s presidential candidate is such that the Presidential election is a Charge of the Light Brigade for the Opposition, there will be no defectors from the SLFP or none who can fetch any votes.
- Rebuild the political centre: construct a centrist coalition; re-open the Middle Path in mainstream Lankan politics. This can be done only by a combination of the anti-familial succession (but not anti-Mahinda) element of the SLFP and the non-Ranil element of the UNP.
- Build the broadest possible multi-party united front under the leadership of the biggest Opposition party the UNP, but not under the existing leader who cannot even reunify and restore the UNP’s own base vote! The ideology and character of the broad united front must be national democratic and pluralist; not urban cosmopolitan. It must bring together the three aspects of the national, the democratic and the popular or mass (which in this country means the rural). An urban cosmopolitan NGO type liberal democratic platform which is not pronouncedly patriotic and national (in a broad pluralist sense) and which fails to resonant with the peasantry, is an absurdity. The target of the broad united front must not be Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the family oligarchy and the divine right to rule. Mahinda is understandably popular and respected. In the past, successful Opposition strategists went not for the most popular leader but for the harshest and most divisive: JRJ instead of Dudley; ‘Satan’ Felix much more than Sirimavo.
Tamil Self Determination
The worrisome national political picture is hardly helped by the news — and will be still less helped by the actual news coverage— of the TNA’s decision as announced by Mavai Senathiraja that the main theme of this year’s TNA May Day will be Self Determination. The Sri Lankan masses aren’t so stupid that they do not understand the coded language. It is one thing to call for a measure of provincial self rule or autonomy. It would be even better to concretise this by calling for the full implementation of the 13th amendment. But provincial self rule or self-administration is different from self determination. In anything other than a situation of colonialism or cross-border annexation recognised as illegal under international law; certainly in an independent sovereign state, Self Determination is a dangerously elastic or worse still, open-ended concept and slogan. The raising or renewal by the TNA at this stage, of the slogan of self determination not only retards the prospect of the renewal of political dialogue (what with elections a year away). It also makes the task of bridging the gap by South Africa and India far more fraught. With its susceptibility to emotionalism and its consequent ideological volatility, the TNA should not be a pre-election coalition partner of any serious Southern democratic partnership.
Prof Kumar David has returned to the fray to defend and support the dangerously de-stabilising slogan of national self-determination. He continues to interpret it open-endedly, asserting that size or proportion notwithstanding if any ethnic group regards itself a nation it can put forward the slogan of national self-determination which any liberal or progressive should support. He regards this as the National Question in the 21st century and an impeccable extension of Leninism. In the real world this opens up a Pandora box of the breakup of existing states, bloody conflicts and partition.
I distinctly recall Prof Kumar David writing a piece which was proudly carried on Tamil Net, in which he asserted with some panache and swagger that he as an academic with a science background, knew just how much technical knowledge and expertise would have gone into creating and operating the Air Tigers, and that he can confidently predict that with such expertise available, the LTTE could not be militarily defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces anytime soon. In point of fact, the LTTE was crushed at Nandikadal just a few months— possibly several weeks–later!
Two very different leaders, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin enunciated the right of nations to self determination within a year of each other, during the First World War with a strategic goal. They wished to stir up ethnic nationalism and undermine or break up the existing colonial and imperialist formations which were their rivals. Lenin was writing and working within the overall project of the rising tide of socialist revolution and the actual establishment of a socialist state as a rival power centre to the imperialist system. Since 1991 we live in a wholly different era, where socialist revolution is no longer on the agenda and the world system is capitalist. This is why, already in 1987, when he predicted the collapse of the USSR, Fidel Castro argued that the defence of national sovereignty and the territorial unity of states is once again a revolutionary slogan.
It may be said that today we are closer to the era of Marx and Engels, in that the post-socialist era is similar to the pre-socialist one. In this era as in that of Marx and Engels, what we see is the return of geopolitical and economically driven strategic rivalry of big powers. Marx and Engels at no time wrote of the ‘right of nations to self determination’. The journalistic writing and the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, as well as the military writings of Engels reveal a perspective that assessed every ethnic striving not from the view point of a ‘National Question’ or an abstract ‘Right of Self Determination’ but precisely on a concrete case-by-case basis, informed by whether or not the ethnic community was large or small and thereby capable of forming a state and whether or not the given community had a propensity to support imperialist and reactionary powers, i.e. the role such ethnic groups would play in big power rivalries.
That is the perspective that we would find most instructive in today’s world, and specifically with regard to Sri Lanka’s Tamil Question.
As for his dismissal of Antonio Gramsci (in which he follows fellow Trotskyite Prof Laksiri Fernando), Prof David simply displays ignorance and illiteracy. Louis Althusser concluded: “Who has really attempted to follow up the explorations of Marx and Engels? I can only think of Gramsci.” (‘For Marx’ p 114) If Althusser is a little too esoteric or tragic a figure for Prof David, here’s Eric Hobsbawm: “As Joseph Buttigieg notes, American anti-communists are worried because Gramsci can still inspire the post-Soviet Left, even when Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao no longer can. Yet while one hopes that Gramsci may still be a guide to successful political action for the left, it is already clear that his international influence has penetrated beyond the left, and indeed beyond the sphere of instrumental politics…He has survived the political conjunctures which first gave him international prominence…He has demonstrated his independence of the fluctuations of ideological fashion…” (Hobsbawm, ‘The Reception of Gramsci’, in ‘How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011’)
There is a reason that Marx, Guevara and Gramsci have survived into the 21st century in far better shape than Lenin and Leninism. The successful resurgence of the Latin American Left owes much more to Gramsci than to Lenin. Those movements are far more Gramscian than Leninist, having had to partially unlearn Leninism and learn Gramsci in order to succeed as they have done, after and despite the fall of the global socialist project.
*Dayan Jayatilleka latest book is The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-Narrative from the South, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014. He is also the author of Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, Pluto, London, 2007.