By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Mark Salter would do better to watch two documentary movies than try to whitewash the Tigers. One is Jude Ratnam’s ‘Demons in Paradise’ and the other is ‘No More Tears, Sister’ –narrated by Michael Ondaatje and about Rajani Tiranagama. Both movies attest to the fascist character of the monster and the testimony comes from former LTTE members.
The LTTE assassinated on Tamil Nadu soil, the ex-Prime Minister of India, the grandson of Nehru. It assassinated the TELO leader Sri Sabaratnam. It killed the EPRLF leader K Pathmanabha and most of his Central Committee. In April 1986 it burned alive hundreds of TELO cadres in the streets of Jaffna. In December 1986 it massacred 60 EPRLF captives held in two rooms. It murdered unarmed Tamil politicians Neelan Tiruchelvam, Appapillai Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran, his widow, Sam Tambimuttu and wife. It assassinated two of the political leaders who engaged in discussions with it—Rajiv Gandhi and Premadasa. It tried to assassinate a third and blinded her in one eye: Chandrika Kumaratunga. It went to war with everyone who engaged in negotiations with it: Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. It incarcerated, tortured and killed its own deputy leader and military hero, who was also the head of its political wing (which it dissolved) and a negotiator with the government, namely Mahattaya.
In the words of Emeritus Prof Walter Laqueur, editor of the standard work, the Penguin/Pelican Reader’s Guide to Fascism, “in its ruthlessness and fanaticism the only parallels I can think of for the Tamil Tigers are the European Fascists movements of the 1920s and 30s” (‘The New Terrorism’). Meanwhile Prof Robert Pape said that the LTTE fielded more suicide bombers than all the Middle Eastern Islamic movements put together. The Economist (London) described the Tigers as “almost classically fascist”.
This was a monster that had to be eliminated and Mahinda Rajapaksa did so. As for Lakshman Kadirgamar whose 15th death anniversary was a few days ago, his parliamentary speech on the utterly lopsided and dangerous Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), published as a full-page article in the Sunday Times (Colombo), was a blistering indictment and warning.
The question of the LTTE is a red line that runs through Sri Lankan contemporary history, politics and society. Those in politics and civil society who opposed the war, most especially the last war, belong in the category of appeasers. Ranil Wickremesinghe however, belongs in another, far worse category. Insofar as the UNP is led by him it is tainted by association.
On the matter of the Tigers, I’d much prefer to take the word of Prof Paul Moorcraft rather than Mark Salter, not least because of the former’s credentials. Prof. Moorcraft is a former Senior Instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College.
“…On 20th December 2001 a Special Forces team was in place in the Vanni jungle. For once it knew for certain where the elusive Tiger leader was. The assassination team was due to strike on Christmas Eve. The team leaders were just ready to press the start button when they were countermanded, despite fierce intelligence arguments that Prabhakaran’s death would end the war…
The Special Forces operatives were stood down temporarily in a safe house in Colombo. In one of the biggest intelligence own goals of the war, the house was raided by Special Branch police from Kandy. The highly secret operation was exposed. It was not a case of overzealous detectives…The heads of military and national intelligence were overridden when the police arrested the operatives and jailed them in Kandy. They were released after two weeks and, as a scapegoat, a middle-ranking police officer was suspended, temporarily. It didn’t end there: the intelligence leadership was accused of using the safe house as a base to assassinate the Prime Minister. Once again, the Tiger leader was unscathed.”
–Paul Moorcraft, ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War’, Pen & Sword Military, UK, 2012, pp. 38-39.
Now to the more important contemporary problem of creating a progressive political alternative in and for Sri Lanka. Mark Salter’s Britain itself provides a good example of why it must be patriotic, social democratic and populist.
When Jeremy Corbyn almost beat Teresa May, it looked like a Left-led Britain was around the corner, with seismic implications for world politics. What happened between that election and Boris Johnson? The working -class of the North defected from the Labour party. That didn’t happen because Corbyn forgot the socioeconomic problems and rights of the working classes as did Blair and the Blairites. He had a long history of being the most socially progressive Labour leader in decades.
The problem was the failure to understand how the Northern working class felt about Europe and Brexit. Brexit was the first rebellion against neoliberal globalization in the form of the EU. The people had spoken at the referendum. Any advocate of popular sovereignty i.e. any radical democrat, should have accepted the verdict and acted on it. Serious left intellects in Corbyn’s camp such as Seamus Milne, argued that Labour should support the ‘Leave’ option. However, the neoliberal establishment fought a bitter rearguard action against Brexit. Meanwhile the cosmopolitan left-liberals in London were bitterly anti-Brexit. They exerted pressure on and in Labour. Corbyn made the cardinal error of vacillating. Milne’s view lost out to those who wanted to remain or hold a second referendum.
Had Corbyn resolutely respected the views of the northern working class, and their anti-Brussels sentiment, he would have gone along with Milne’s view. Instead he advocated a complicated process of exit, which shied away from bowing to popular sovereignty. Though he was the last who could be called pro-establishment, it seemed that he was more pro-status quo than Boris Johnson. Johnson therefore was able to seize the patriotic banner and in so doing, cater to the economically drive wishes of the Northern working class too.
Jeremy Corbyn lost it all, not because he was insufficiently leftwing, or social democratic. It was because he was insufficiently populist and patriotic, therefore conceding that space to Boris Johnson. In so doing he committed a cardinal error that the great Gramscian-Marxist Stuart Hall and the iconic Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, also basing himself on Gramsci, had warned the Labour Party and the left against in the 1980s: vacating the space of patriotism and the nation, and allowing rightwing nationalist populism – at the time, Maggie Thatcher—to occupy it, thereby building a stable hegemony.
The lesson is that there can be no successful social democracy which is not conjoined with Populism and patriotism.
The term ‘Populism’ was coined primarily in relation to Latin America. The paradigmatic populist was Juan Peron of Argentina. But there is populism and there is populism.
There is a populism of the Left, the Center and the Right. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador is not a doctrinaire leftist. He is a left populist. He emphasizes the state sector, the social community, and the small peasantry—unlike the populists of the Radical Right from the US to Sri Lanka who emphasize none of these and instead fetishize the nation, religion, language and technological fixes.
Left populism stresses what unites the people, such as social justice and material welfare. New right populism stresses what divides people, such as race, religion and ethnocentric culture and tradition. Left populism looks forward. It is therefore classified correctly as progressive. Right populism looks backward at some glorious age. It is restorationist and reactionary.
Lopez Obrador is a nationalist but not in the sense that President Trump is a nationalist. Left Populism doesn’t try to instill fear and anger. It is not a narrow nationalism, emphasizing race and religion. Left populism is nationalist but not nativist. It is a progressive nationalism, not an exclusivist or hegemonistic one. Left Populism is a nationalism that unites from below. In the nationalism /populism mix, left populism is more populist than nationalist while Right populism is more nationalist than populist.
Lopez Obrador’s slogan was ‘deep change without dictatorship”. This slogan sums up the difference between Left populism and right populism. Left populism strives for deep-going change; change that immediately benefits the people at the grassroots; people in the communities in which they live. It is change from below.
Right populism or rather Rightwing nationalism wants top-down change which empowers big business, technocrats, managers and the military along one axis and races, ethnicities and religious groups on the other axis.
Left Populism believes in the people especially at the community level, and the state. Right populism believes in market forces and big business.
Left Populism’s notion of “deep change” also stands squarely against “dictatorship”. It does not believe in change through dictatorship. It does not agree that dictatorship is necessary for or justified by change. Left populism understands that any kind of change that requires or results in dictatorship is the wrong kind of change; change that will only benefit the few, not the many.
Rightwing nationalist populism loves authoritarianism, even military rule and totalitarianism. Left Populism is rooted in democracy; it just extends and expands democracy and human rights from the political to the social, from the individual to the collective, without infringing upon political democracy and human rights.
All populism is patriotic. All populism has a thick streak of nationalism but not all nationalism is populist.
Furthermore, not all types of nationalism are alike. There is progressive nationalism, there is reactionary nationalism.
Progressive nationalism has two variants: left nationalism and moderate-centrist nationalism.
The progressive nationalism of Left Populists such as Lopez Obrador, is an anti-imperialist nationalism which solidarizes with the oppressed of the whole world, especially Palestine.
Rightwing nationalism or Right Populist nationalism is narrowly sectarian. The Sri Lankan regime is an example.
What are the lessons for Sri Lanka?
Firstly, there is a global populist wave that has, and still is, sweeping away neoliberal democracy. It is operating in Sri Lanka too—in its two antithetical forms.
Secondly, the Populist wave has two antithetical, antipodal expressions. One is a rightwing nationalist populism, also known as the New Right or the Radical Right. President Trump is its best-known exemplifier. That is the form in which it has just triumphed in Sri Lanka.
The alternative types of Populism are Left Populism and Centrist Populism. Lopez Obrador represents the former while Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron represent the latter.
Thirdly, there are also two ways of defeating neoliberal democracy. One is by defeating economic neoliberalism while retaining and strengthening democracy—which is the Left Populist and Centrist Populist way. The other is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is to depose both neoliberalism and democracy, enthroning Right authoritarianism, a civilian-military hybrid rule, military rule or outright fascism. Sri Lanka is on that latter path.
Fourthly, the very worst option is to combine the worst of both worlds, i.e. retaining some aspects of economic neoliberalism while truncating democracy and installing a harsh, rigid rule. That again is what Sri Lanka has opted for.
But—and here’s the good news—that problem is only at the level of the regime. At the level of the opposition, the voters have chosen the healthier option, the healthy variant of Populism, in the Opposition space, in the form of the new entrant the SJB led by Sajith Premadasa.
International experience has shown that any successful social democratic alternative has to be simultaneously patriotic and populist. The world needs a social democratic populism; a populist social democracy.
Sajith Premadasa and the SJB is the only formation that comes even close.