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Monday, April 15, 2024

Changing political visions in Sri Lanka – Sunil Bastian

Image (c)s.deshapriya: A fisherman looking at sea anxiously in the eastern city of Batticoloa.  It difficult to ignore the question of justice in the area of control and distribution of resources in the new face of capitalism  argues Sunil Bastian.

Observing what is going on in Sri Lanka these days from a distance, my mind went back to the beginning of my involvement with non-party political actors. What I mean by the latter are groups now known as civil society. This is a recent term, which has come into prominence with the neoliberal political project. It was not a term used at the time I am referring to – immediately after the UNP came into power with a massive five-sixths majority in the July 1977 general election. TULF contested that election on a separatist platform. The election was followed with anti-Tamil violence in August 1977, the most significant such event after 1958. In the aftermath of the August 1977 violence, I volunteered to work at the Centre for Society and Religion, led by the late Fr. Tissa Balasuriya. Thus, began my involvement with this political activism.

Compared to the present, the broad ideological framework that underlined this activism encompassed several contradictions of Sri Lankan society. First of all, this included the possible social impact of the new period of capitalism, with its emphasis on markets, private sector and a greater degree of openness to global capitalism. Part of the reason was many of the activists came from a left background. For example, members of the Movement for Interracial Justice and Equality, one of the first organisations formed to respond to deteriorating relations between the Tamil community and the Sri Lankan state, included both individuals and trade unions. Therefore, it was difficult to ignore the possible impact of the liberal economy, while responding to other issues.

If I remember correctly, many discussions that looked at the impact of liberal market policies were organised around various social groups. The principle ones were rural peasantry, urban poor, working class, working class in the plantations, and small fishermen. The July 1980 general strike was a landmark event. The crack-down by the UNP regime, and sacking of close to 40,000 workers, confirmed that the regime would not tolerate any opposition to the economic reform programme.

The second concern was defence of democratic institutions that were under threat from the UNP regime. The establishment of a new set of political institutions accompanied this period of capitalist development. The political objective behind establishing the presidential form of government and tPR system of elections was to manage the legislature in order to push through economic reforms. However, the UNP leadership was not successful in establishing all elements of the PR system that it proposed. The high cut-off point, total control of the list system by the party machinery and banning of cross-overs in parliament which were in the original proposals of the UNP leadership, could not be instituted. The most important event that undermined democratic institutions was the fraudulent referendum in 1982, which postponed the general election that was due in the following year. The government used all means to win the referendum and therefore ensure the majority in parliament to continue with economic reforms.

In this context, the struggle for protecting democratic institutions was a major part of activism of non-party political actors. The activities for ‘free and fair’ elections showed their maturity during the 1994 elections, when the UNP was defeated after seventeen years. But the more important aspect around defending democracy was its political dimension. Electoral politics was seen as a means of challenging existing power structures, rather than following certain procedures. From its beginning, it has been one of the few avenues available for the mass of the population to express their political opinion. With all its flaws, to the surprise of many, it has been used by the electorate to throw out of power rulers who thought they would in power for the foreseeable future.

The third area of concern was the deteriorating relations between Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sri Lanka state. As already mentioned, the new period of capitalist development coincided with the Tamil demand for a separate state. It is difficult to understand the post 1977 period without taking both these into account. Anti-Tamil violence was a characteristic feature of this period. The major events were violence in August 1977, already mentioned, violence in 1981 – where the plantation population were the main victims, and anti-Tamil violence of July 1983. In 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted, and troops were sent to the North. Thus, began a long period of armed violence between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil militant groups.

The earliest response to this deteriorating situation by the organisations that I was associated with were fact finding missions to the North. This was a precursor to human rights work, which expanded significantly in the 1980s in the midst of crackdown on the JVP and armed conflict in the North and East. The second strand of work focused on public policies linked to Tamil grievances. The principal ones were language policy, land settlement, education and state sector employment. The focus was on discriminatory aspects of state policies in these areas. The discussion on state reforms came into prominence after the Indo-Lanka Accord and establishment of provincial councils. The final strand was how to improve inter-ethnic relations. Other than the emphasis on how to maintain links and work with organisations and individuals in Jaffna, discussions were also concerned with improving relations between ethnic groups at the level of society. What was happening within the education system and mainstream media was a concern. One of the interesting aspects of this work was a critical reflection on one’s own identity in addition to improving relations between identity groups.

It is also important to remember that most of this work was externally funded. But the finding came primarily from non-state sources, mainly from Europe. I also think, at least initially, the relationship between donors and the recipients was quite different from what it is now, due to several factors. First, in these donor organisations you could find people with similar political convictions, especially with regard to the negative impact of neoliberalism. Second, there was a much stronger perception that both donors and recipients are involved in a political struggle against a particular form of global hegemony dominated by western countries. Finally, there was a greater degree of acceptance about the importance of politics in Sri Lanka to bring about change.

It was during the period of direct negotiations with the LTTE, which supporters of liberal peace call a ‘peace process’ that we see a new set of ideas coming to dominate among the organisations which by now had been labelled civil society. The evolution of these ideas has to be understood in the context of continuation of the armed struggle between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces and the undermining of the economic agenda of the new period of capitalist transition. The impact of the armed conflict, a downturn in the global economy and impact of drought made, 2001 a year when the economy contracted. It was in this context that the Wickremesinghe government developed a strategy to stabilise the situation through an agreement with the LTTE, launch a new phase of neoliberal economic reforms and secure support, from developed capitalist countries for this agenda.

This is a period when we see the influence of these international actors led by states of developed capitalist countries at its highest level. This has come in not only because of funding, but much more because of ideological affinity. It is also not a one-way street of imposing ideas from one side. But it is a coming together of states of developed capitalist countries, a section of the ruling elite, and non-party political activism identified as civil society with a common political vision.

What happened to the UNP strategy and how it facilitated the coming into power of Rajapakse is outside the scope of this note. Rajapakse gave political leadership to consolidating the territory of the Sinhala nationalist state through military means, which allowed the war-affected areas to be incorporated into the ongoing process of capitalist development. Hence the stability needed for furthering capitalist development was achieved not through any peace process or peacebuilding work, but through a straightforward military strategy. The surprising defeat of the Rajapakse regime in 2015 through the vote of a significant section of minorities and a section of Sinhalese voters has begun a new phase of this historical process.

In this context, an influential section of what is now known as the civil society have resurrected some of the ideas that prevailed during direct negotiations with the LTTE under the previous Wickremasinghe regime. This section has been given prominence and recognition by the ruling regime, as well as international actors that supported the liberal ‘peace process’. In fact, to borrow a title from a book by a Sri Lankan historian, these organisations have now become a ‘New Circle of Power’.1 It is their ideas that dominate civil society activism now and they are very different from ideas that prevailed during the early part of the post 1977 period sketched out above.

The most important shift is the absence of a critical look at the economic reform programme of the regime, politics of these reforms, its social impact on various social groups, how they could get politicised, and how to utilise these social contradictions for progressive politics. This is in a context where the regime is trying to undertake significant reform to meet the demands of the IMF, and to open the country to two new centres of capitalist accumulation – China and India. Both these steps are bound to generate significant contradictions, and nationalist forces are already using them for their own agendas. But the dominant civil society discussion is confined to the same old focus on poverty alleviation, and a new version of it called social protection.

These are efforts of the establishment to ameliorate the social repercussions of capitalist transition. There are also efforts to incorporate the poor into the market economy without an adequate discussion of the next steps that should be taken to ensure maximum benefits for the poor from this process. This is far removed from the type of discussions that prevailed immediately after the opening of the economy in 1977. What is surprising is that there seems to be little impact on these groups from the critical reflections that have begun in centres of developed capitalism, because of the fall-out from the 2008 economic crisis and its political outcomes.

The second strand of work focus on laws and institutional design. There is a great degree of belief that if we have legislative reforms, establish commissions and ensure that these provisions are implemented we will be able to tackle the key problems of our society. It is not that institutional designing is unimportant. But my primary criticism is that there is no recognition that these institutions operate within a system of social and political power structures, and the impact of these institutions are mediated through these. Recently in my professional capacity I had an opportunity to interact with local government structures in many parts of the country. I ended up with three conclusions – the need to take into account the diverse political economies found within the spatial categories defined as local government, the enormous amount of work that has to be done at local level if these bodies are to be relevant for the problems faced by marginalised social groups, and the importance of the political agency of the marginalised population if these reforms done at the centre are to have any meaning.

[alert type=”success or warning or info or danger”]”Perhaps more importantly what we need to think about is the idea of devolution. Whatever the outcome of the current discussion on constitutional reforms, we are bound to have provincial councils. The hope is future councils will have greater autonomy and power over subjects like police and land. “[/alert]

This brings me to a general observation about the political aspects of institutional design. The current institutional design activities seem to have hollowed out the political aspects of institutional design. As I have mentioned above, the efforts to defend democratic institutions during the post 1977 UNP regime had political dimensions. Democratic institutions were important because they were both a way of defending the rights of the marginalised, and also a means of challenging existing power structures. It is that aspect which has been downplayed in the current approaches. Instead the political objective has become creating a rule-governed state. The sort of a society that this state will sustain has been lost sight of.

Finally, for obvious reasons finding a political answer to the Tamil demand for autonomy has continued to play a dominant role in civil society. But now this has been compounded with the question of accountability for what happened during the last stages of the armed conflict. These are valid issues, although I have a great degree of scepticism about the outcomes. Perhaps more importantly what we need to think about is the idea of devolution. Whatever the outcome of the current discussion on constitutional reforms, we are bound to have provincial councils. The hope is future councils will have greater autonomy and power over subjects like police and land. Well, although Northern Provincial Council members were elected recently, other provincial councils have existed for about thirty years. This means we have a significant amount of empirical material to analyse showing what these councils have meant for the socially-marginalised sections in these areas. It is high time we begin to look at these closely. Otherwise we are merely engaging in an exercise that will institute a regional political elite within these institutions.

To end this brief note, I would argue it is necessary to take a critical look at the ideas that dominate within civil society now for taking the process of peacebuilding forward. Peacebuilding is a very new notion. What it means depends on the social and historical context of a society. There are no global blueprints to achieve peace. At present peacebuilding is dominated by ideas of liberal peace, which more or less see capitalism and liberal democracy as answers to our problems and will lay a foundation for peaceful Sri Lanka. This is inadequate. On the other hand, today we have a world where these ideas are being seriously questioned.

What we need in Sri Lanka is our own search for ideas for a stable and just society based on our own history and politics. Within this, it difficult to ignore the question of justice in the area of control and distribution of resources.


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