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The Crisis in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is being convulsed by political crisis. A lasting solution will require transcending the politics of ethnic nationalism and neoliberal technocracy.

Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks to the media on November 11, 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Paula Bronstein / Getty

“In the name of God, go!” Rarely have these words of Oliver Cromwell been recycled with such farce and frequency as during Sri Lanka’s recent political crisis, not least by parliamentarians addressing rivals. As far as crises go, however, it was a remarkably peaceful affair outside of parliament and unrelated to any kind of revolution. Everyday life continued as usual even in Colombo despite extra-bold newspaper headlines, which were greeted in the distant North by “near silence.”

Yet there was no shortage of drama and spectacle. In the early days of turmoil, parents were advised to cover their children’s eyes when footage appeared on TV from parliament, where proceedings were disrupted by MPs engaged in fistfights, flinging furniture, drawing knives, and throwing chili pepper at ostensible opponents in the chamber. Curious foreign journalists, seasoned diplomats, and local NGOs minding human rights rushed to warn of an impending “bloodbath.” In such wishful thinking, one could be forgiven for sensing a yearning for “external intervention.”

The crisis seemed to appear out of nowhere on the evening of Friday, October 26, 2018 when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly removed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) from office and appointed in his stead the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena himself had defeated Rajapaksa in the last presidential election on January 8, 2015, having defected in late 2014 from a senior position in Rajapaksa’s United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) regime to become the surprise but successful candidate of the United National Front (UNF) opposition.

Over the last weekend of October, a new cabinet, too, was haphazardly sworn in, with the promise of a caretaker government. This was to be composed of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the new Prime Minister Rajapaksa and President Sirisena’s loyalists of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its coalition in parliament, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) — a part of which had collaborated with the multiparty UNF “national government” of “good governance” led by Wickremesinghe’s UNP since the parliamentary elections of August 2015.

Sirisena’s re-alliance with Rajapaksa — which immediately gathered predictable populist-nationalist enthusiasm as well as liberal-cosmopolitan opprobrium —eventually proved to be methodologically flawed. This was especially so in light of the December 13 Supreme Court ruling against the president’s dissolution of parliament, once it became apparent to Sirisena that Rajapaksa would not secure the parliamentary majority needed to form a new government. Much to the delight of the “international community,” if not a majority of Sri Lankans, normal service has resumed more or less in the island after nearly two months of political chaos and juridical suspense.

Wickremesinghe was sworn in again as prime minister for a record fifth time on December 16, albeit with a new cabinet limited (by the constitution) to thirty ministers, about half the number of the profligate “national government” preceding it — amounting to significant savings in public coffers. Although the crisis in the most immediate sense is now over, how it was precipitated and played out remains instructive for students of Sri Lankan politics.

During the brawling in parliament — while Wickremesinghe still claimed to be prime minister and refused to vacate official premises — the Sirisena-Rajapaksa wager hinged on securing the support of at least 113 of the 225-member legislature, by offering inducements to MPs from other parties to cross over to their new coalition.

It is no secret that such machinations have long been a staple of Sri Lankan realpolitik, practiced by all aspirants to state power; but typically they have occurred away from the public eye, rather like bribes, though perfectly legal according to successive constitutions, even after the latest Nineteenth Amendment (2015) famed for “good governance.”

In a stunning TV interview on December 7, however, Sirisena broke the taboo of revealing this public secret, divulging with admirable candor what had gone awry with his Plan A with Rajapaksa: even though ministerial posts and other attractions in the region of five hundred million rupees were offered to prospective “crossovers,” they did not budge.

It would be naïve to ascribe the inertia of MPs so courted to an ethic of “good governance.” As many commentators have noted, they were in all probability offered more to remain in their seats than to cross the aisle. At previous elections, Western-oriented Colombo liberals have accused the Chinese government of financing the Rajapaksa regime’s electoral campaigns; now it was the more far-flung Rajapaksa supporters’ turn to point the finger at Western powers for funding Wickremesinghe’s soiled grip on power.

These allegations and counter-allegations poured more fuel on the already flammable awareness that Sri Lanka is a strategic node of global geopolitical-economic contestation involving the United States, European Union, Japan, and especially India on one side, with China on the other. That China financed several signature development projects of the Rajapaksa regimes (2005–2010, 2010–15) in line with its own New Silk Road initiative — to the visceral discomfort of India and Western powers — is well known.

Against this backdrop, it did not help Wickremesinghe’s cause that his first publicized meeting after October 26 — held in Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence — was with predictable foreign emissaries. While critics asked if Wickremesinghe’s real constituents resided in Washington and Delhi, Palitha Kohona and Tamara Kunanayakam, former Sri Lankan ambassadors to the UN, accused foreign diplomats in Colombo of violating the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The “follow the money” principle proved even more damaging to Wickremesinghe’s waning “good governance” reputation given his role in the notorious “bond scam” (“Great Bank Robbery” in Sinhala) of 2015 and 2016 — a high-class act of “so-called original accumulation” involving central bank bonds that directly robbed Sri Lankan public institutions to the tune of $11 million.

Estimates of the total loss to the government, the public, and the economy due to cascading consequences of interest-rate increases caused by this “meticulously planned, multi-faceted, and far-reaching” bond scam are works-in-progress, but the overall damage may well exceed $5 billion according to the most rigorous of projections. A significant portion of that is being borne by middle-class and poorer Sri Lankans living on borrowed money — on top of the austerity measures meted out by the “good government,” especially to peasant communities.

The prime suspect of this crime — presently in Singapore, avoiding an arrest warrant from the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court — is Arjuna Mahendran, who was controversially appointed governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka by Wickremesinghe in 2015, over Sirisena’s objection. Sirisena is now threatening to name politicians connected to Wickremesinghe who benefited from this white-collar swindle, lending credence to the widespread suspicion that money generated from the bond scam was deployed in the election campaigns of “good governance” MPs — and most recently against the Sirisena-Rajapaksa bid for power. A Facebook satirist captured the mood concerning the absurdity of this electoral political economy, by urging the putative government to reduce, along with the cost of living, the price of MPs.

Apparently outbid in the marketplace for MPs, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa Plan B was to dissolve parliament immediately, twenty-two months ahead of schedule, with a view to an election in early January 2019. But the president’s gazette notification of November 9 to this effect was promptly challenged by the UNP and other parties at the Supreme Court, which granted petitioners leave to proceed.

In further bad news for the attempted new government, on December 4 the Court of Appeal issued an interim order restraining the new prime minister and cabinet, on the basis of a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa passed in parliament with 122 signatures, with support from the main ethnic minority parties: the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

In the weeks leading up to the anxiously anticipated Supreme Court ruling, while the country was without a prime minister and cabinet, legal and non-legal pundits hogged newspaper columns, debating the constitutionality of the dissolution of parliament. Their collective exercise exposed the ambiguities in the Nineteenth Amendment — a rapidly written document open to various interpretations.

At this juncture, much of the opposition to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa plan to dissolve parliament and hold elections found expression in ethico-juridical terms. The president and his judicially restrained prime minister were depicted by adherents of the status quo ante as conniving architects of a “constitutional coup” — lumpen populists with no regard for sacrosanct liberal institutions of “good governance,” such as those embodied in the Nineteenth Amendment. The real intent of the authors of the latter was to fully abolish the executive presidency, which would present Wickremesinghe with the prospect of becoming the head of state in the next election by virtue of being the leader of UNP, without having to be directly elected by the people.

It was indeed a populist move on Sirisena’s part, too, to align himself again with what appeared to be still the most popular politician in the country. Rajapaksa remains a figure like Vladimir Putin or Narendra Modi in his unsurpassed ability to mobilize a “nationalist-popular” will in the ethnically divided theater of Sri Lankan electoral politics — with deep support as well from the laboring classes, especially in the smaller towns and villages, which have suffered most from Wickremesinghe’s austerity measures.

This was amply demonstrated in the island-wide local government election on February 10, 2018, when Rajapaksa’s SLPP coalition scored a landslide victory, capturing power in 231 of 340 local authorities, reducing UNP’s share to 34. Though ridiculed as “village idiots” by Colombo elites, both Sirisena and Rajapaksa with their provincial sensibilities knew better than them that populist also means popular.

Hence the conviction with which they presented their case to the people — to place the fate of the country in the hands of fifteen million voters rather than with 225 overvalued MPs, a thin majority of whom were still propping up a massively delegitimated government, at an unbearable and unwarranted cost to the nation.

While Sirisena’s rhetoric here could well bear the name “provincializing Colombo,” the decisive political question of the hour pitted democracy against liberalism. Due respect for liberal political-juridical institutions held in high esteem by Colomboans connected to the “international community” was countered by a duo of peasant stock with a direct appeal to the popular will of the people.

Though hardly unanimous, the general feeling in the streets disgusted with career politicians on all sides seemed largely to favor an election as the best way out of the crisis. In contrast, the liberal opposition to the populist Sirisena-Rajapaksa initiative pinned all hopes on the judiciary, which eventually ruled in its favor on December 13, forcing Rajapaksa’s resignation and Wickremesinghe’s return as prime minister.

In this context, there is irony in the “democratic” claims of those anti-populist authors of the Nineteenth Amendment who threw their support behind Wickremesinghe as much as against the strategically ill-advised Sirisena-Rajapaksa plot. After being surprised by local government election results, in the wake of the bond scam and other betrayals, the Wickremesighe-led UNF took diligent care to postpone indefinitely the overdue provincial council elections on the basis of a procedural pretext, undermining not only the letter and spirit of democracy, but also the proper functioning of the key state institution entrusted to devolve political power to the provinces and especially ethnic minorities. It was the respected retired civil servant Jolly Somasundram who best summed up the Orwellian liberal logic that carried the day: “No elections: democracy is saved.”

Constitutional Struggles

Wickremesinghe’s fear of elections and Sirisena’s eagerness for them in league with Rajapaksa — this contradiction contains the key to Sri Lanka’s current political-economic-juridical landscape. For a rapid sketch, it will be helpful to recall that the present constitutional and other disputes go back at least to the watershed year of 1978, when Wickeremesighe’s uncle, Prime Minister Junius Richard Jayewardene, replaced the Westminister-style republican Sri Lankan constitution of 1972 with one centered on an executive president, combining selected features of the French, German, and US models.

The concentration of executive power in the president’s office, away from parliament, was of course self-serving to the UNP strongman, whose historical accomplishment was the introduction of neoliberal economics to Sri Lanka and squashing left opposition by any means necessary. This project, as has been the case elsewhere, needed not democracy but “political will,” which President Jayewardene supplied in abundance as he ruled with an iron fist by invoking the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The PTA also proved handy in attending to a couple of other matters: the Tamil Tigers fighting for a separate state carved out of the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka; and the second insurrection of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) in the South that resulted in fifty thousand to eighty thousand extra-judicial killings, mostly by the state.

Given the “Marxist” label attached to the JVP militants, no audible outcry about their liquidation emerged from the “international community” concerned with human rights. Instead, Jayewardene was feted in Washington by Ronald Reagan and praised as an example for the rest of the Cold War world; a suitably self-orientalized Yankee Dickie returned the favor by gifting the Gipper a Sri Lankan baby elephant on the White House lawn.

The office of the executive president — to which prominent Marxists such as Dr Colvin R. de Silva vehemently objected in the 1970s — drew no memorable ire from liberal Colomboans, mostly allied with Jayewardena and his political progenies, until it was occupied in 1994 by the more nominally social-democratic and avowedly majoritarian-nationalist SLFP, after seventeen years of UNP rule marked by what Edmund Burke would readily have called Terror (“Bheeshanaya”). But the uneven development of neoliberalism in Sri Lanka was accompanied by a rise of virulent nationalism, both of the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, which drastically reduced the scope for political solutions to Sri Lanka’s increasingly violent ethnic conflict.

Under these circumstances, no Sri Lankan president since 1978 from either of the two main national parties seriously contemplated abolishing the executive presidency, least of all Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution in 2010 got rid of the two-term limit on the most powerful office of the country. To be sure, it was he who deployed its full force more effectively than any other incumbent, to militarily defeat the Tamil Tigers in 2009, amid allegations of alarming numbers of Tamil civilian deaths in the final stages of war, subsequently reported to be in the region of forty thousand or more according to UN and other incriminating — and disputed — estimates.

Influential efforts have been and still are under way to hold accountable those responsible for such deaths and disappearances, both internationally and in Sri Lanka, supported by the Tamil diaspora and NGOs. These, however, played only a marginal role in Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat in the 2015 presidential election, after he had won a second term in 2010 by easily prevailing over the challenge mounted by his former army commander General Sarath Fonseka, who was recruited to run as the common opposition candidate with UNP support because Wickremesinghe knew he had no chance.

Having won the war, the Rajapaksa regime shot itself in the head. Drenched with power, and with an opposition in tatters, it squandered the opportunity to reach an agreeable political settlement with minority communities. Instead of sublating majoritarian nationalism, moreover, it encouraged the most deplorable elements of extreme Sinhala-Buddhist ideology such as the Bodu Bala Sena to run riot —adding to its postwar repertoire a series of Islamaphobic pogroms against the Muslim community.

Enamored with modernization, the Rajapaksas viewed the ethnic problem not as political but economic — one that could be solved by development, on the basis of large-scale infrastructure projects involving late-capitalist highways, airports, ports, and Haussmannian urban planning. While all that no doubt buttressed unprecedented GDP growth, thanks to special contributions from China, the expected trickle-down to the masses fell well below expectations, especially in the North and the East, amid impatient cries of corruption — amplified by the regime’s nepotistic surplus.

It was not radically different from previous UNP governments in handling dissenting views, but compared to Jayewardene’s tactics in the pre-Internet era of two TV channels, the Rajapaksa regime’s efforts to control public opinion had far more limited — and negative — effect. With news of media repression appearing all over the media, the objective conditions and the subjective timing for Rajapaksa’s defeat by Sirisena on January 8, 2015 were set mostly by the president himself and his astrologer.

So it was Rajapaksa who dictated the script for the “good governance” manifesto of Sirisena’s election campaign orchestrated by the UNP, unwittingly enabling Wickremesinghe to plot his own “constitutional coup” to assume power by way of the Nineteenth Amendment while branding it as an exercise in democracy. The electoral calculus of Sirisena’s presidential campaign was straightforward: to win a sufficient minority of the disaffected Sinhala majority vote, together with virtually the entire minority vote comprehensively alienated by the Rajapaksa regime.

It worked, arithmetically. Logically, however, astounding political amnesia was required to think that Wickremesinghe and his cabal would deliver on their promise of “good governance,” given their track record. It is unlikely that a politician of Sirisena’s experience really believed the “good governance” discourse to begin with; it is more likely that he saw in it the opportunity for presidency unlikely to arise for him from within the nepotistic Rajapaksa clan.

Yet he may have conjectured plausibly — with a majority of the voters — that the worst of “good governance” would be better than the best of Mahinda Chinthanaya. In the definitive rejection of that hypothesis following the Bond Scam, local government elections and other misdeeds — in conjunction with Sirisena’s own ambitions for a second term — lay the origins of the crisis.

Whereas the Supreme Court resolved the crisis by judicial fiat, it was Sirisena who acted out its political denouement. Upon Wickremesinghe’s unceremonious re-appointment as prime minister behind closed doors at the presidential secretariat, the crème de la crème of the new government were assembled around a conference table. There, seated at the head, with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe immediately to his right, President Sirisena delivered a forty-minute lecture that will be etched in memories of Sri Lankan politics.

Speaking without notes to ashen-faced power brokers, he rehearsed the orrery of errors that was the “good governance” government since 2015, detailing the proven and alleged crimes, and promising an extended version of all that and more in his memoirs to be published in early 2019. Wickremesinghe in particular was singled out for neoliberal economics, obstruction to justice, and being out of touch with the culture and pulse of the people. Enunciated in eloquent Sinhala, it sounded like a village schoolmaster admonishing an ill-reputed gang of English-speaking Colombo kids caught with their pants down.

Yet the final nail in the coffin of “good governance” may have been hammered by the prime minister himself, by re-inviting to his new cabinet a disgraced former finance minister, one centrally implicated in the bond scam and forced to resign from his last cabinet appointment. Even diehard liberal supporters of “good governance” are wondering: what kind of influence does Ravi Karunanayake exert over Wickremesinghe in order to regain a ministerial post, against every conceivable expectation?

In Sri Lanka now, the political class — and perhaps more worryingly, politics itself — is roundly despised. With the betrayal of “good governance,” progressive voters are scrambling for a choice in the forthcoming provincial (overdue), presidential (2019/2020) and parliamentary elections (2020). The responsibility for this state of affairs lies not solely with the CEOs of “good governance.”

Also questionable is the wisdom of the liberal intelligentsia that lined up — gullibly or hypocritically — behind Wickremesinghe’s power trip. True, honorable egalitarian spirits were present in the liberal protest against the Rajapaksa regime, even in Colombo. But not even vulgar Hegelian intelligence is needed to see how it served in reality as no more than the ruse of robber baron reason. Its ideologues would have done better to note that without addressing the pernicious Sri Lankan fusion of feudalism in politics and neoliberalism in economics, the “good governance” project was from the start as good as dead.

The Chinese Communist Party has always been far more democratic in its internal operations than the archaic UNP under anyone, and the record of other traditional parties is not better. No reform in Sri Lankan party-political monoculture is imaginable without a revolution in the constitution of political parties, which is evidently beyond the brains of the authors — the present government and its NGO subcontractors — of the promised Twentieth Amendment.

From a left perspective, the dangers of the present conjuncture in Sri Lanka are clear enough. These in essence are not different from those of other countries with failed neoliberal projects, and ripe with conditions for right-wing and xenophobic forces. The inability of political liberalism to address them in Sri Lanka is also overdetermined by ethnic conflict and attendant nationalisms.

Surveying this situation with characteristic élan, Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Moscow and admirer of both Rajapaksa and Putin, prescribes as the appropriate response to it a “left populism,” with a gracious nod to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s reading of Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “national-popular.” How this is to be distinguished from the all too prevalent nationalist-populism of his current political role models, however, requires elaboration, along with sober reflection on the recent trajectories of “left-populism” in Laclau’s home continent.

Approaching the same neoliberal dead-end from a quite different perspective, Gunadasa Amarasekara, the most articulate advocate of “National Ideology” (Jathika Chinthanaya) in Sri Lanka, has advanced the notion of a “civilizational state” — the symbiosis of an “ethical life” and a state form — as the necessary antidote, appropriating his key terms from Samuel Huntington and Martin Jacques rather than Hegel.

In Civilizational State and Socialist Society, the Marxist political-economist Sumanasiri Liyanage argues that Amarasekara’s conception could usefully be historicized and actualized by way of dialectical critique, in alignment with Gramsci’s theorization of the “integral state” as an articulation of political society with civil society. While this contention, too, needs to be properly differentiated from the hegemonic claims of majoritarian nationalism, theoretical-political debates asking us to reread Gramsci offer an immense improvement over the Colomboan discourse of dead but dominant liberalism.

Better with than without Gramsci, then, the crimes of cosmopolitan Colombo may be most rewardingly viewed from the provincial Tamil capital of Jaffna. Especially pertinent in the context of what Jayatilleke announced on Facebook as “our October Revolution” — before conceding that “we’ve lost the battle but won the war” — are Ahilan Kadirgamar’s perspicuous reflections from the North on the local government election. In a close reading of election campaigns and results of a multitude of parties and independent groups, he underlines the losses recorded in February 2018 by the TNA — more adept at exchanging high-level favors with the UNP in parliament than connecting to Northern grassroots — and the corresponding ascent of two opposed tendencies.

One is the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), with its “virulent Tamil nationalist politics” mirroring extremist Southern tendencies and even welcoming them, as nothing nourishes one suicidal ethno-nationalism more dependably than another. The other has emerged from “pockets of progressive politics which have eschewed narrow Tamil nationalism,” by engaging in impressive anti-caste mobilizations, social development initiatives, and projects of economic democracy — under the auspices of Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and some who have broken away from it, the Social Democratic Party of Tamils (SDPT), the New Democratic Marxist Leninist Party (NDMLP), and a few independent groups.

In their theoretical visions beyond nationalism, democratic organizational efforts, and local-electoral successes — matching or exceeding the much older TNA in several electorates — Kadirgamar finds “hope to re-chart Tamil politics.” What’s left of the Left in the South too would do well to follow the example of these comrades — and the refreshing radicalism of Tamil estate workers in the plantation sector of the Hill Country — rather than old pyramids of patronage maintained by the political status quo.

For only a constellation of emancipatory left forces from the South as much as the North, liberated from ethno-nationalist temptations and neoliberal delusions, would be qualified to tell the ruling gang of Sri Lankan feudal lords and liberal technocrats: “In the name of God, go!”