Days of rage, years of madness

by Dayan Jayatilleka
The Tiger is moving to occupy the moral high ground. It is waiting to prove to the Tamil community and the world, that the Sri Lankan State is unable and Sinhala society unwilling, to accommodate Tamil aspirations for autonomous political space. In this historic conjuncture the most critical national imperative is not regime change (desirable and justifiable though it be) so much as the right strategic response by the Lankan State and polity as a totality. This means blocking the Wickremesinghe administration from characteristically craven capitulation, while pushing or drawing it into the correct policy response. Certainly the moment can be used to oust the regime, but this could play right into Prabhakaran’s paws. Insofar as it comes in the context of the IA, it will be seen as a Sinhala backlash. The incoming regime, however well intentioned, will be handicapped from the start, unable to transcend the circumstances of its birth. Regime change must be manifestly a last resort, activated if the UNP government is plainly set to sell-out.

Nobel Prize winner John Hume was right. On his second visit to Sri Lanka, he told a press conference, and in stronger terms, a group of concerned citizens (including this writer), that this peace process was virtually doomed because it did not draw in all parties, particularly the President and the Opposition. He went on to add with sincere generosity that he would be willing to base himself here for a while and play a role in bringing everyone together. A visiting South African delegation made much the same point about all-inclusive negotiations. We could do worse than have the President and Prime Minister jointly invite John Hume (and perhaps the ANC) to turn the response to the LTTE’s IA proposals into an all-parties Roundtable encounter. This would facilitate a truly Sri Lankan stand, not a UNP capitulation (as was the CFA/MoU) and an SLFP/JVP rejection.

An Eminent Persons Group should be constituted from nominees of all parliamentary parties, to study and formulate a response to the Tiger proposals. This must be a blue-ribbon panel comprising persons of high, preferably international, repute in pertinent fields. Here’s my list - DJ’s Top 21. Justice CG Weeramantry (Chairperson), Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar PC, Justice Mark Fernando, Justice ARB Amerasinghe, HL de Silva PC, Jayantha Dhanapala, Prof. Gananath Obeysekera, Prof. KM de Silva, Prof. HL Seneviratne, Prof. SJ Tambiah, Prof. Michael Roberts, Prof. GH Pieris, Prof. Sam Samarasinghe, Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Prof. Lakshman Marasinghe, Prof. Laksiri Fernando, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, Dr. N Shanmugaratnam, Godfrey Goonetilleke, Gen. Gerry de Silva, Dr. Sarath Amunugama.

The UNP Government under Ranil Wickremesinghe is completely out of touch with public sentiment. He has uprooted the party from the social soil. He has re-profiled the United National Party (UNP) as the Anti National Party (ANP), and the United National Front government as the United Non-national Front government. His administration levitates above society, inhabiting airspace and cyberspace. In its mind’s eye, the country is reduced to the Colombo Stock Exchange. The people and their feelings do not exist. The colossal cretinism of the UNP administration and the international agencies in pushing through economic shock therapy at the same time it tries to push through a controversial arrangement with the long-hated Tigers, has caused daily "guerrilla warfare" in every single sector, urban and rural, student, worker and peasant. If it possesses any decency, the JVP must erect a statue to Treasury Secretary Charitha Ratwatte, next to a larger one for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The streams of unrest, fed by the JVP but not conjured up by it, are converging into a cascading wave, which will crest in the weeks to come. It will slam into the Interim Administration negotiations.

There are three lines in Lankan politics: (A) appeasement of LTTE (UNP, TNA, Trotskyists, mercenary intellectuals), (B) anti-appeasement, pro-devolution (CBK, Kadirgamar, Mahinda Rajapakse, SLFP moderates, Devananda), (C) anti-appeasement, anti-devolution (JVP/DJV, Sinhala racist intellectuals). There is a "two-line struggle". in the Opposition, between perspective (B) and (C). Of the two there cannot be any doubt as to the more seriously anti-LTTE one. When the SLFP, having bequeathed a single, united state to the UNP in ’70, inherited a cleaved and sundered one 17 years later, Chandrika wrested Jaffna away from Prabhakaran in ’95, refused to surrender it in 2000, and sanctioned LRRP hits on his command structure in 2001. Her line is strongly supported by Kadirgamar and Devananda, the Tigers’ two most hated enemies. Yet it is line (C), the fundamentalist anti-devolution project, that is increasingly hegemonic in the Opposition space. The lunatic fringe is becoming the mainstream. The President’s line is on the defensive, not least because the deliberately anti-UNP "hate speech" of the DJV may forestall a shift of the UNP or a UNP fraction into a broad new centrist convergence with the SLFP. To pre-empt such a regrouping of moderates is the precise aim of the JVP. It is on a corporate raid and takeover bid of the SLFP, which is beginning to look successful.

Regime change "from above" is one thing, if indeed it can be controlled, managed, limited. But can it? An upheaval from below a Jacobin outcome is in the making. A rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Its volcanic rumblings can already be heard. The DJV/JVP march, the equivalent of Mussolini’s March on Rome, is a gust of wind drying the prairie on which will fall the single spark of the LTTE’s outrageously excessive proposals. These will precipitate a general strike, street demonstrations, police and regime violence, nihilistic violence by mobs. Uncontrollable rage, fuelled by humiliated nationalist sentiment, economic neglect and elitist arrogance, will manifest itself against regime targets and members. Semi-spontaneous attacks on private establishments, mob violence against media institutions seen as pro-UNP, lynching of UNPers in offices and villages, uncoordinated attacks on foreigners (they all look Norwegian to us), unplanned, unanticipated incidents of violence against ethnic and religious minorities, compose the worst-case scenario.

Any attempt by the UNP to crackdown will trigger a chain reaction. Executive power is not in its hands. To strategise, organize, mobilize the party, appeal to the people, hold the line against anarchy, it has no JRJ, Premadasa, Lalith, Gamini, Ranjan or Sirisena Cooray, only pale shadows and cruel dwarfs by comparison. Sections of the armed forces and police may mutiny: it is a violation of the under-girding Social Contract to crackdown on Sinhala demonstrators (led by monks), while cravenly coddling Tamil terrorists and mass murderers (like Karuna). Army deserters and reactivated "military wing" members could be deployed as a "patriotic" paramilitary, operating from within or spun-off from the crowds. Forget Triple R, think Triple M: monks-mobs-militia. A new regime conceived in social hatred and xenophobia may be born. There is another pathway to the same outcome. In the event of a Sri Lankan military debacle in the North-east, caused by the UNP govt.’s appeasement and catalysed by the Opposition’s adventurism, power in the South will swerve magnetically towards the JVP/DJV, while they will home-in like a Cruise missile, on power. President Kumaratunga then stands in danger of winding up a Kerensky (or is it Hindenberg?).

The discourse of the DJV Opposition signals the impulse not only to reaffirm and "carry through to completion" the verdict of 1956, but also to reverse the verdict of 1977, the verdict against the statist "closed economy" and for an "open economy". This impulse is in turn indicative of the consciousness and character of the militant Opposition. But 1977 was no conspiracy. A distinction must be drawn between the electoral overthrow of the UF coalition and the authoritarian practices of the Jayewardene regime. The election result was an act of self-emancipation by the masses, but the policy of the Government that followed was a confiscation and betrayal, at least in part, of popular aspirations. The elections were free and fair, and resulted in a huge swing. That was a reaction to mass privation caused by the "jathika arthikaya" ("national economy") model of ’70-’77.

Opposition myth holds that the ’77 defeat was due to the break-up of the United Front coalition. The mass judgement on the "progressive" coalition is best evidenced by the electoral decimation of precisely the Left at that election. SLFPers tend to think that if they had been nasty enough, the UNP could have been kept at bay, which is what some of them hope to do in alliance with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the JVP. What they forget is that the effort was made in ’76 under Emergency, with ‘left’ SLFP MPs urging the postponement of elections on the ground, believe it or not, that Mrs. Bandaranaike had been elected Chairman of the Nonaligned Movement for a three year term! No postponement proved possible when the Prime Minister was informed by top officials that the loyalty of the Armed Forces as a whole could not be guaranteed in that situation. This has evidently not been grasped by the Opposition, and is a lesson that will perhaps be relearned in two years.

The open economy provided new opportunities and certainly new vistas for the broad masses, whereas under the closed economy, consumer goods were accessible only to the "nomenklatura" (I know, I was a child of such privilege). Foreign travel was unheard of for the people. The downside of the open economy, its inequities, helped detonate a second Southern insurrection. But its upside ensured that the SLFP could not be re-elected for 17 years, until it had proved its abandonment of closed economic policies and conversion to an open economy, by a change of leadership. The DJV/JVP Opposition, (including SLFP populists) fails to understand what a market economy is, how it functions, the ubiquitous role of market signals, the imperatives of external resources, market access and revenues, the vulnerability of a small island integrated in the world economy.

1956 was a whole other time. The political system was different: today we have an enfranchised hill-country Tamil people, proportional representation and a presidency that is directly elected island-wide. This gives accurate weightage to the minorities. The minorities themselves are more conscious of their identities and rights, less likely to accept the reassertion of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonism (what Dr. Nira Wickramasinghe has denoted "Sinhala Reconquest"). The relations of power between the North and South are qualitatively changed. The relationship between Sri Lanka and the world, the nature of our linkage and incorporation into the world system, is drastically different. The very social fabric has changed with the children of ’77 (and after): the open economy, TV, computer and cell-phone generations. There is a significant foreign presence and involvement on the island. We are in the eye of the global media and enmeshed in the Net. The world order itself is radically altered: the socialist world is dead, capitalism unchallenged as a system, and the United States remains standing as the sole superpower. Above all, we live in an entirely different era of human history.

Another 1956 twinned with a reversal of 1977 will result not only in ethnic and ethno-religious crackup, but also in cultural closure, and ultimately in the infringement and abridgement of the personal choices of every citizen, except for the warlords and retinues of a new ruling tribe. Marx spoke of ideology as "false consciousness. There is no "false consciousness" quite like Sinhala false consciousness. It is bad enough that we sound as obstreperous as the Arabs did in ’48 and ’67, while we are facing an enemy rather like the Zionist Israelis. Worse, the "rejectionist" Sinhala opposition sounds like Arabs planning an OPEC strategy, but without the oil! A more literal parallel is Serb attitudes in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In the attempt to restore ’56, reverse ’77, are the seeds of brutal misrule, and at the end, after the onrush of the Gadarene swine, desolation. Years of misery and madness wait in ambush.