Part I, by Kumar David
The dominant factor in Lankan politics is no longer the Tamil question. Three years after the war ended the national question has slipped from its position as the over-determining factor in Lanka’s political conjuncture and been replaced by the State as the principal location of the crisis.
Curtailment of democracy, breakdown of law and order, perversion of justice, abuse of power, involvement in drug trafficking, and bad governance have become intolerable. Corruption and power abuse were tolerated in the past because of war and because these maladies had seeped deep into social life and patron-client relationships had spread into a network of hangers-on and supporters. We are past that stage, the UPFA will likely lose a parliamentary election if held now; the state is the centre of the problem!
The national question, a festering wound, cannot be healed by this regime. Western and Indian pressure and war crimes and human rights storms may isolate the regime, but will not force it to implement the 13th Amendment. The contradiction between the regime and the minorities, especially Tamils of the NE, was historically the most serious crisis facing the country prior to 2009. Even now because of the narrow ideology of leaders and dependence on chauvinist political forces and reactionary sections of the clergy, the government cannot resolve the national question. The Tamils on their side have given the TNA an overwhelming mandate proving they will not exchange political rights for economic promises. As the Tamil community recovers from the shock of war and regains strength, conflict with this regime will aggravate and the diaspora will help to keep the embers burning.
The UPFA’s rightwing economic programme has run into a dead end. Growth above 7% will hold for a year or two, but four dark clouds hang over the future. The collapse in external finances (especially the trade deficit) cannot be remedied, inflation will stoke popular and working class restlessness and anger, third the regime has no coherent development programme – the IMF mooted “neo-liberal” programme is already dead in its tracks, and fourth international tensions will undermine foreign investment.
The political relationship between the government and the international community has never been worse; the loss of Indian support was a deep nail in the coffin. China, Russia and Pakistan will extend diplomatic support but cannot provide strategic support or investment. The noose tightens as the regime fails to implement LLRC Recommendations or change top appointments in the Defence Ministry. Without the latter, investigations of alleged war crimes and human rights violations – abductions and assassinations – is charade. It is not possible to see how this sibling empowered regime can mend fences with the international community. In time it will also lose the support of the Muslim Middle East, Russia and even China.
In this period of deep global interaction all talk of national sovereignty is futile. The notion that sovereignty protects states from international security in respect of human rights abuses is delusion. Refuting foreign criticism by pointing to human rights violations by others will make no headway. Lanka should prepare for a period in which this government’s relations with the international community and the West deteriorate further.
Two new class factors
Two points need to be noted; the ceding of land to foreign capital in a way that has never been done since the British sold the upcountry to plantations, and the fragmentation of the working class. Prime land in the heart of Colombo City is transferred to foreign owners on a scale that, if it had happened some decades ago, would have evoked an uprising bigger than the Hartal. Beach front land in the deep-south and the east is transferred in blocks of tens of acres, and wilderness land is cleared for banana plantations by foreign-local joint ventures in blocks of hundreds of acres. Local people have no say in land alienation taking place under their noses; confrontation with the petty-bourgeoisie is a time bomb ticking to go off.
The composition and character of the working class have undergone great change. Most workers are not unionised and unionised membership density is only 15%, that too thanks to the plantations. Trade unions have been pushed back from industry-wide collective deals to enterprise level agreements. This is both a symptom and a cause for the fall in the strength of collective bargaining. Currently expansion of employment is in the informal service sector with its accompanying insecurity of employment. Workers in the FTZ and BOI sectors are the most vulnerable. Government policy emphasises “flexibility of labour laws”, a euphemism for cutting workers’ living standards.
The major political players
The FSP and the JVP
These are the most important entities from a left perspective. The JVP remains wedded to its radical petty bourgeois ideology – chauvinism and political adventurism. The FSP seems to be cutting loose but it is still not possible to say definitively whether it has overcome conspiracy and ultra left adventurism. It seems that the FSP wishes to reopen discourse on the national question but nothing substantive has come out yet. Although the JVP is a significant player in state trade unions, its ideology has not evolved because the working class itself degenerated into chauvinism during the war.
The SLFP and the UNP
What’s the difference? The UNP traditionally was the party of the right and the ally of global capitalism, while the SLFP, for many years, occupied the middle ground. However all this has changed; the UPFA government has moved to take co-ownership of the political right, with or beyond the UNP. The rightwing of the political spectrum is now overcrowded with two big parties while the space on the left remains vacant, except for smaller parties.
The SLFP today is a bundle of contradictions and its politics which preserved a middle course in economic policy with a penchant for pro-poor policies has collapsed. Drug goons now command a position in the party. The most visible colouration of SLFP politics is as a prop to Rajapaksa dynastic ambitions and as a vehicle of corruption and xenophobia.
The UNP is homeless; its territory occupied by the UPFA’s neo-liberal economic agenda and authoritarianism. Ranil Wickremesinghe may be ineffective but this is not the problem; even with leadership change, without programme change, the UNP will remain homeless. When the government steals your programme what role is left for you? The UNP toyed with federalism but quickly retreated. It was pro-war and never took a pro-devolution stand. Still the Tamil bourgeoisie in Colombo is with the UNP – as the Colombo Municipal Council elections show – for class and property reasons. The Sinhala bourgeoisie has adopted the UPFA as its tool; the bourgeoisie of the minorities have retained a presence in the UNP.
In rural areas the UNP has retained only its core vote which is now less than 30% while the SLFP’s share is about double this. The last 10% is shared between the chauvinist parties the JHU, NPP and MEP, and the JVP. These numbers refer to the 2010 election cycle.
The TNA has been through agony. From even before the assassination of Amirthalingam, the TULF, forerunner of the TNA, was unable to protect itself from harassment and murder at the hands of the state and the LTTE. For survival, it capitulated and became the LTTE’s voice box. After the war it faced extreme danger from another quarter, the EPDP and state sponsored ex-LTTE paramilitaries. Unlike the Sinhala parties it could not get protection, unless like Douglas, Karuna and Pilleyan, it declared opposition to the core interests of the Tamil people.
Anyone deserting Tamil nationalism and joining the Rajapaksas will never carry weight with the Tamil people. The decline in EPDP and TMVP fortunes show this. The TNA emerged from post-war shadows only when the Tamil people overcame their fear of military occupation and expressed themselves more openly. The 2011 local government election was the turning point; with the overwhelming mandate that it received in all Tamil majority areas the TNA is asserting itself as the Tamil voice.
The TNA is not the party of the Tamil big bourgeoisie in Colombo or Tamil big business abroad; such people owe their allegiance to the UNP. The TNA is mainly a party of the Tamil petty bourgeoisie, the middle classes, and a vehicle of Tamil ethnic consciousness. It has far more credibility in the mass of the Tamil diaspora than LTTE rump-outfits with small numbers of high profile activists who are no longer feared or respected by overseas Tamil communities.
A feature of the TNA, like its forerunners the TULF and the FP before it, is dependence on foreign influence, especially reliance on New Delhi, Tamil Nadu and the West. The sweeping victory of Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu in 2011 was favourable for the TNA; it also knows Tamils have American and British support. I anticipate that in the medium-term the TNA will make gains and enhance its bargaining power.
The SLMC is the party of the Eastern Province Muslims and has little support elsewhere, but only 40% of the country’s Muslim population is domiciled in the East and the North. There are two reasons why things evolved this way; Muslim elites in the South are well integrated into the UNP and the SLFP while no such possibility existed in the East, thus motivating Muslim elite in the Eastern Province to set out on a different path. Secondly war, repression, murder and dispossession of property by the LTTE drove Muslims away from Tamils, making it essential for them to firm up their own instrument in these areas.
However, the SLMC has been a dismal failure in improving the lot of its people and this is in sharp contrast with what the CWC has been able to do for the Upcountry Tamils. What has the SLMC achieved for its people in terms of education, health care, housing? One reason for the difference is that the strong organisational base of the CWC holds the leadership accountable; a second reason is the crass opportunism of the SLMC, leaders simply gilt their guilt. The SLMC is not accountable to its people; it flip-flops from government to government but has never been programme driven, unlike the CWC.
This part of the document has outlined the challenges confronting Sri Lanka for the purpose of showing that it is a delusion to expect the country’s deep problems to be settled by the traditional power structures. My motive is to show that a united left, in alliance with other progressive currents needs to be developed. This programmatic document makes a start.
Next week, Part II of this document will propose a draft Economic Programme.