By V. Sivalingam –
Dear Comrades and Friends! Honorable guests from Sri Lanka for this conference! First, my greetings to you all.
I consider this opportunity given to me in this conference as a great honor. I am thankful for the recognition given to the voices that are being heard for human rights and democracy at home and abroad. Members of the JVP and National People’s Power who are visiting from Sri Lanka, Honorable Member of Parliament Harini, I request you to take note of the opportunities given to the people of different regions and ethnic groups of Sri Lanka to live a special and united life in Britain, which is our home today. I hope that your stay will bring good experience and an opportunity to reflect and help you to understand the necessity to build cordial relationship between homeland and Diaspora.
Our country is celebrating its 75th Independence Day in a few days. We know the history of Japan’s economic comparison at the time of independence and Sri Lanka was talked as a development model for Singapore. Similarly, countries like India, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Cuba, which gained independence during the period of our country’s independence, and countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh are moving towards greater development, while our country has declared itself as a poverty-stricken country. Makes us feel ashamed. What happened? seems to have been asked many times.
The Land-owning class and religious elites who seized power when Sri Lanka became independent. The middle classes who enjoyed the benefits of colonial rule continue to enjoy power in different ways even today. How is this possible till today?
A type of politics was done by dividing the ruling classes in the country in the form of national capitalists and pro-foreign capitalists, one class as progressives and the other class as pro-foreign capitalist and anti-national forces. The Liberal democracy-based parliamentary system of governance helped only to perpetuate the same ruling classes to advance their own interests.
In the name of parliamentary democracy, they divided the people and used caste, religion, language, and many other differences to gain power. Stake holders on both sides deceived the common people that they were defending Buddhism and the nation. They stole their votes. People believed that Buddhism and the security of the country were in danger, but the ruling class used these to loot the nation’s resources and deposited them in foreign banks and pushed the people into poverty.
Racism and majoritarianism helped to determine the course of the country so that people could not find the truth. The working class, mobilized by the left in the country, was drawn towards a revolution that seemed far away. This was also the trend of the newly independent countries. The successful uprisings by oppressed classes seen in countries like Soviet Russia, Cuba, and China created such thinking among the newly liberated countries from colonial rule after the Second World War.
The struggles against colonial rule and the growth of trade unions in Sri Lanka prevented ethnic and sectarian politics from rising its ugly head. Calling for nationalization of colonial assets was also a kind national power and people expected changes for good.
The British system of rule and the liberal democratic political economy provided a favorable state structure for Sri Lanka’s landed aristocracy. By making gradual changes in the constitution, the fundamentals of liberal democracy have been changed and the path of liberal democracy has been changed to the extent of the monopoly of a group or a few families. Instead of bringing about a regime change with the help of the military, a dictatorial regime is established without bloodshed through changes in the electoral system.
While the support of leftists and the emergence of a national capitalist regime tended to develop national self-economy to a certain extent, they posed a threat to the basic interests of the pro-imperialist forces. The leftists also joined in this nationalization program and there was a strong political impact in the country. It marked the history of national people power coming to power on a nationwide scale. However, the nationalization carried out in the country was imposed from the top down and people did not understand its basic rationale. Domestic and foreign forces worked together to defeat the emerging national people’s power. The same danger exists today.
Representing an economically divided society in the country, these two political elements seized power by dividing the votes of the Buddhist Sinhalese people. For this they have advanced slogans to protect Buddhism, Sinhala language and national security, this inevitably made the other nationalities such as Tamils and Muslims as enemies. It is clearly felt that while both the parties have divided the people and looted the votes, the two parties are making class compromises when their power existence is in danger. That has become today’s reality. The ruling class readily conforms when its interests are threatened. But the rifts they have created among the people are ruining the country. The rulers are unable to connect with people. In today this context I think the nationwide people power movement is the need of the hour.
For the last 75 years, the people could not see the economic exploitation of the ruling class, who had raised the slogan of the protection of the nation and the protection of Buddhism. The year 1977 onwards we saw many fundamental changes in the country due to the introduction of the executive Presidential system, proportional electoral system, and open economy.
The parliamentary system of governance, which was seen on liberal democratic basis has been completely changed and it has become a totalitarian system of government where power is concentrated in the hands of individuals. No party opposed this change because racism and money dictated electoral politics, it could not hold back against the tide. The Left too was abandoned by the people. Thus, democracy went out via the back door. Elections and parliamentary quorum became a staple of democracy.
Due to these changes, concentration of power allowed moneyed people to move towards power. As law and order became politicized, people involved in corruption, embezzlement, smuggling, black trade, narcotics trade, gambling, and many other anti-social activities either came close to power or spent money in elections filled parliament. Today’s Parliament has come under the sway of such a group.
Due to the changes in the constitution by the ruling parties and the change of the parliamentary system of governance facilitated towards groups domination.
Today the country is divided into two major factions i.e., the people have turned towards democratic change and the ruling class has turned towards dictatorship. As a result, those who demand fundamental change in the country have been labeled as fascists and terrorists by the ruling class and thrown into jail. These are the consequences of the failure of democracy. Hence people’s power is needed to restore democracy.
National and foreign capitalist distinctions gradually disappeared in the aftermath of the introduction of an open economy. Political and economic structural changes were linked to international trade.
The open economy prevailing in the country for more than 45 years also brought about a change in the political structure. As the distinction between national and foreign capitalist elements disappeared, party hopping eased into money, position, power, family dominance, and group dominance. Party differences became a family-dominated affair.
Here, Sri Lankan nationalism has changed from self-reliant economy to Buddhist religious security and national border security as the priority of Sri Lankan nationalism. The situation changed to such an extent that other nationalities within the country were hindering the formation of Sinhala Buddhist nation and there was no such thing as a national minority in Sri Lanka.
Although the open economy that has been operating for more than 45 years has changed to the extent of mortgaging the nation’s resources to obtain foreign loans, it has been tacitly accepted by the political forces that fear the nation’s security and sovereignty. They helped to hide these so that people could not recognize them.
Artificially raising the standard of living of the people through credit assistance, unnecessary massive projects in the name of development and imports created a kind of “bubble” economy. Politicians earned commissions through investment projects and became the new capitalists as part of the ruling class. The breakdown of law, order and democracy affected even the judiciary of the nation. Situations arose where the judges themselves changed the sentence. Government officials, such as the police and the security department, came under political control.
The political changes that have taken place since the day of independence of the country are the changes made by the ruling classes to protect their interests. The open economy prevailing in the country for the past 45 years has transformed into the worst form of government against liberal democracy. The implications of this drive created new conditions for a new mechanism of change. I hope the National People’s Power fulfills that national need. Rulers make changes to the constitution and then make further amendments when there is a need to protect the balance of power. People and the academic community are largely silent because of fear of reprisals. As the ruling classes move away from the people, they are left with no other options.
As the country seeks new changes, the ruling class lives in fear that they will turn against its interests. The “Arakalaya” protests across the country show that 45 years of open economic and political reforms have taken their toll on the country. The ruling class is placed on one side and the people on the other.
Over the last 45 years, the open economy has eroded once vibrant Trade unionism into a mere campaign group for wage rise. Today, no one talks about national democratic revolution and anti-imperialism. Intensified racial politics, militarization and anti-labor laws defeated leftist politics. As a result, the politics of connecting people power at the national level failed.
The changes taking place in the country over the last few months, especially the social income disparity caused by the open economy, democratic degradation, economic deficit, etc. have clearly identified the shortcomings of the state construction. The impact of Covid-19 has exposed the internal contradictions of the political construct. As a result, the middle class, which had remained silent until now, demanded changes. It demanded the need for the emergence of a new people’s power. It has become a movement as these have reached the lower levels of society.
National people’s power is for re-alignment of forces or re-mobilization. I see this as a people’s movement. I see that it’s crossing of ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences.
On this occasion I will also share some thoughts about Tamil politics. In other words, Tamil politics is also caught in the same politics as the Sinhalese politics is caught in the politics of settler dominance. Landed aristocracy, religious supremacy, casteism, and settler-dominated thinking still hinder Tamil politics just as Sinhala Buddhist hyper-nationalism and majoritarianism created by the Sinhala Buddhist landed aristocracy.
National unity is not possible unless the country moves to the general status of Sri Lanka as a multi -national, multi-religious, multi-ethnic country. In the absence of strong advocacy that Sri Lanka is a pluralist society; mobilizing wider national-level people power is also very difficult. A constant struggle or “Arakalaya” against racism and majoritarianism is necessary to transform it into a beautiful multi-ethnic island.
The ruling class today has shifted towards tactical politics. Last year’s “Aragalaya” protest has revealed the true nature of the ruling class among the common people. That is why they are ousting their own elected president within two years and demanded to Imprison those who plundered the nation.
As the country seeks new changes, the ruling class lives in fear that they will turn against its interests. National people’s power faces enormous challenges. They must re-mobilize all sectors of people. Rebuild the Trade union activities, undermined by an open economy and so on. Common people are also talking about new mechanisms for change. This is an unprecedented movement to make changes.
If we want to strengthen the liberal democratic parliamentary system of governance, which includes the constitutional system, it is necessary to speak clearly about freedom, pluralistic democracy, self-determination, and human rights. Changes that protect identities for all are needed within a liberal democratic framework. It is my plea that they should be more clearly defined.
I see that today’s struggles go beyond ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences. I am afraid that the politics of parliamentary elections may become a hindrance to these changes, because when law and order is broken and money is the deciding factor, results are likely to change.
Today, Sri Lanka has become a competitive ground for different geopolitical interests. Not only that, but it is also a poor country economically. If this situation persists, international powers will act to exacerbate these divisions. If we want to prevent this, at a national level, to loudly advocate that “We all are sons and daughters of a multi-ethnic, pluralist Sri Lankan”.
If we are to move towards an inclusive parliamentary system of governance and the changes that protect identities for all people are necessary. It is not possible to reject the fundamentals of capitalist liberal democracy by pointing to distant socialist changes. It is my humble opinion that at least the minimum solutions need to be more clearly defined.
I thank you for listening to my speech quietly and request everyone to work for the development of national people’s power.
*V. Sivalingam, Chair, Non-Resident Tamils of Sri Lanka (UK) – NRTSL – Speech delivered at NPP conference held in London