By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The near two-thirds avalanche hardly fell from the skies. It was not devoid of cause and reason. The viewers and anchors of my regular TV programs Sithijaya and Vantage Point (2013-2018) may recall my cautionary refrain that “two-thirds of the country’s population could rise up to produce a two-thirds majority in Parliament and tear up a non-unitary, federalizing Constitution.”
If liberal democracy is to be effectively defended in Sri Lanka, its advocates must recognize the weak position – actually, the hole–it is in and how it got there, how to rectify its weaknesses, what the real balance of forces in the country is and what strategy would be most appropriate for the defense of democracy.
From the wartime appeasement of the LTTE (the CFA) through to the Easter Sunday massacre, liberal democracy is seen as having weakened the state, national security, national sovereignty and the national majority. It is also seen as not particularly democratic in that the TNA and JVP representing a fraction of the Opposition were recognized as the parliamentary opposition, ignoring Mahinda Rajapaksa and the large numbers supporting him. The failure of Lankan liberal democracy is best exemplified in the public mind by the return of terrorism through sheer negligence of national security and intelligence, in the form of the Easter Sunday massacre.
The cumulative result has been the discrediting and more vitally, the delegitimization of Lankan liberal democracy not only in the eyes of crucial social forces such as the war-winning Sri Lankan military (serving and retired), which is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s bedrock constituency and contemporary agency, but also the majority of the Sinhala majority.
The point is very simple: these liberal elements, their discourse and policies – such as the Geneva resolution 2015–are seen as having weakened the state and therefore the nation, in the eyes of those who defended both, at the cost and the risk of their lives. These policies are seen to have been the product of the previous parliament in which, until the aftermath of the Sirisena move of late 2018, deprived the Sinhala majority of its political space; politically marginalized the majority.
There is hardly anyone who believes that had Mahinda Rajapaksa remained Prime Minister under President Sirisena and the reformatting of the state policy had continued, the multiple intelligence warnings from India about the jihadist attack would have been ignored, or fallen through the cracks. It was the neoliberal reformist ethos that was to blame for the most part, for the Easter Sunday carnage but it is the 19th amendment that is the more accessible scapegoat.
Lankan liberalism of the Chandrika-Ranil-Mangala paradigm damned itself by conspicuously failing to save the state and the country from separatist terrorism, foreign interference (Norway/CFA, Geneva 2015) and jihadi terrorism.
The former top brass saw in the Yahapalanaya UNP, those like Mangala Samaraweera who had launched the Sudu Nelum movement under President Chandrika Kumaratunga and according to Anuruddha Ratwatte himself, had thereby undermined the military effort, unwittingly helping the Tigers by demotivating potential recruits to the armed forces, creating a shortage of troops.
They saw in Ranil Wickremesinghe the leader who had called off an LRRP hit on Prabhakaran, arrested Military Intelligence officers, entered a lopsided ceasefire agreement, allowed the LTTE back into Jaffna, permitted a Tiger buildup which threatened Trincomalee harbor.
They saw in Chandrika the President who brought in the Norwegians who tilted to the Tigers because of the large Tamil diaspora in Norway, and was on the verge of entering the PTOMS which US Under-Secretary of State Christina Rocca, former Director Operations of the CIA, told Chandrika’s pro-PTOMS negotiator Jayantha Dhanapala (and me) at dinner at the US ambassador’s that the USA was legally prohibited from funding because of the privileged place it accorded a proscribed terrorist organization. (Sri Lanka’s finest Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was opposed to the PTOMS give-away which was finally shot-down by the Supreme Court).
The problem is not with liberal democracy as such or even Western liberal democracy. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama have shown how one can and should combine liberal democratic values and the resolute use of military force. The problem is with Lankan liberal democracy and that too not in its first half-century, but since the 1990s, namely the period of unipolarity and neoliberalism.
As a long-standing social democrat, which means a progressive liberal democrat at base, I am saddened by what a generation of Lankan neoliberal democrats did to discredit the great values of liberal democracy, which an earlier generation, that of my father’s seniors and contemporaries, had upheld successfully, by linking it with an enlightened Third Worldist nationalism and progressive socioeconomic reformism.
A nationally popular, mainstream liberal-democracy was last emblematized in Lankan politics by (assassinated) Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was opposed by ‘The Church of the Latter-day Liberals’ because their liberalism was one of appeasement of the Tigers and worship at the shrine of the Berghof Foundation in the chapel of the Co-Chairs. While an ethnic Tamil and a Balliol man, Kadirgamar’s was hardly a West-dependent minoritarian liberalism, which is the brand of liberalism that the UNP practiced for a quarter century and was the guiding principle of the Yahapalanaya administration, including its foreign policy.
The sole chance for the retrieval, survival and success of Lankan liberal democracy lies in triangulation of pluralist progressive liberalism, moderate nationalist patriotism and left-populism/social democracy. This means the retrieval of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s patriotic liberalism and its ‘genetic splicing’ with Ranasinghe Premadasa’s populist social democracy.
Hopefully Sri Lanka will at the next round of national elections (2024/5) produce a Sajith Premadasa-led SJB government that upholds liberal democratic values in tandem with social justice and equity, national sovereignty and independence; is pre-emptively tough on terrorism just as it is on ethnoreligious extremism from any and every quarter.
In his first pro-Biden video a few months ago, President Obama intervened to shift the agenda from Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal legacy and “tinkering around the edges”, to a truly progressive Democrat agenda, burnishing Joe Biden’s blue-collar centrist-populist appeal while paying extended tribute to left-populist Bernie Sanders. The point is that liberal democracy must convert to Green New Deal progressivism and universal-welfarist social democracy, attracting urban and rural working people, middle classes, women and youth across fault-lines of ethnic/racial identity, rather than cosmopolitan elites and their failed agenda of economic neoliberalism plus individualistic identity politics.
A near-universally desirable Democratic victory in the USA this November cannot restore the minoritarian neoliberal-globalism that was crushingly defeated on this island by voters on August 5th 2020.
Way before the 2020 Gotabaya government or even the 2015 Yahapalanaya one, I had articulated on the record, in an interview given to The Nation Sunday edition, Nov 2013 the paradigm that to my mind, serves the needs of the island and its democratic movement:
“…The New Patriotism or New Nationalism will have to be authentically different from that of the [Rajapaksa] regime in that it will have to be smart instead of smug or surly; meritocratic instead of clan-centric; more liberal-democratic and open rather than quasi-authoritarian, hyper-securitized and militaristic; economically social democratic rather than oligarchic and crony capitalistic; modern, forward-looking and youth-oriented rather than culturally traditionalist, conventional and archaic; realist in outlook and attitude rather than paranoid and delusional; open and internationalist rather than narcissistic and xenophobic; progressive centrist in ideology rather than the regime’s neoconservative populist; and above all, pluralist and inclusive in ethno-religious terms rather than exclusionary, assimilationist or majoritarian-hegemonistic.” (Dayan Jayatilleka, ‘A Winning Coalition will have to be Patriotic’, The Nation, ‘Lens’, Sunday, November 17th 2013, p5.)
I may be pardoned for regarding it as far more prescient and considerably more suitable than ‘radical centrist’ lipstick on a neoliberal pig.