Mapping the minefiled, critiquing the critics

Three recently published scholarly texts from ideologically diverse quarters, give the lie to some assumptions common to most critics of the Sri Lankan state and/or the incumbent administration. These erroneous assumptions concern Sri Lanka’s identity and nation-building project and process, as well as its orientation in the world system. The criticism is that of an errant or aberrant majoritarian ethno-nationalism, and an errant or aberrant international stance which distances us from the West: in short, a deviant domestic policy accompanied by or resulting in a deviant international policy. These cherished critical assumptions constitute the comfort zone of most critics, local and foreign, but are unsupported and indeed utterly contradicted by the latest scholarship from across the political and policy spectrum.

The three texts are an essay in Foreign Affairs (March-April 2008) by Prof Jerry Z. Muller entitled "Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism" (and the ensuing debate in the July-August 2008 issue), Prof James Petras’ online essay of June 9th on "Separatism and Empire Building in the 21st Century" and Kishore Mahbubani’s "The Case Against the West", also in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2008).

While many liberal or progressive critics uphold India’s model of national integration as the norm from which Sri Lanka has lamentably deviated due to Sinhala chauvinism, SWRD Bandaranaike, 1956 and the SLFP, the historical facts show that admirable and worthy of emulation as the Nehruvian model was and remains, it is not a norm from which Sri Lanka departed, but a glorious exception. As Jerry Muller’s essay demonstrates, the project of 1956 was the norm, not a deviation, and a norm not merely in the postcolonial world but earlier, in the West. That path of development was almost certainly not the best available option, but it was no particular perversity of the Sinhalese, or the Sinhala Buddhists, still less of SWRD Bandaranaike and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. That path has certainly been one of those that led to our contemporary tragedy, but our problem is a common one, and our search for solutions must also be from among those commonly arrived at in world history.

The two outstanding success stories of national building, those of the USA and India, must be understood in perspective. The United States is a story of migration, mobility and opportunity. Most societies such as ours have far older histories and smaller geographic spaces. This does not confer any intrinsic superiority upon Sri Lanka, as the parochial among us claim, but the specificity of the American Experience, a specificity that Americans celebrate – hence the notion of American Exceptionalism-- must be grasped. Sri Lanka’s story is much closer to that of a great many others.

India’s success as a multiethnic state is largely the product of enlightened leadership but also of sheer size and scale. Secessionist movements have persisted in the far corners of India since 1947, and had the country been Sri Lanka’s size, the impact of these conflicts would have been far less peripheral and containable.

Professor of History at the Catholic University of America, Jerry Muller explains "Why Ethnic nationalism will drive global politics for generations". He argues that in societies unlike the USA, "for those who remain behind in lands where their ancestors have lived for generations, if not centuries, political identities often take ethnic form, producing competing communal claims to political power….far from having been superannuated in 1945, in many respects ethno nationalism was at its apogee in the years immediately after World War II. European stability during the Cold War era was in fact due partly to the widespread fulfillment of the ethno nationalist project. And since the end of the Cold war, ethnonationalism has continued to reshape European borders."

"In short, ethnonationalism has played a more profound and lasting role in modern history than is commonly understood … Whether politically correct or not, ethno nationalism will continue to shape the world in the twenty-first century."

While the liberal view of nationalism, also called civic nationalism, is in a normative sense clearly superior and must constitute our goal, the story of Sri Lanka and the rise of Sinhala nationalism, was not a deviation reflecting some intrinsic quirk, but the more probable trajectory. Muller writes that "the liberal view has competed with and often lost out to a different view, that of ethnonationalism. The core of the ethnonationalist idea is that nations are defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith and a common ethnic ancestry".

Contrary to the view of many Sri Lankan intellectuals and academics, not only is ethnonationalism not a vice limited to blighted spots like Sri Lanka, it is also not peculiar to "backward" societies of the Third World. As Muller reminds us "The ethno nationalist view has traditionally dominated through much of Europe and held its own even in the United States until recently. For substantial stretches of US history, it was believed that only the people of English origin, or those who were Protestant, or white, or hailed from North America, were real Americans. It was only in 1965 that the reform of US immigration law abolished the system of national –origin quotas…"

Even our myopic policies of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, have a fatalistic logic to them: "Economic growth, in turn, depended on mass literacy and easy communication, spurring policies to promote education and a common language—which led directly to conflicts over language and communal opportunities…Ethnic groups with largely peasant backgrounds… found that key positions in the government and the economy were already occupied... Speakers of the same language came to share a sense that they belonged together and to define themselves in contrast to other communities. And they eventually came to demand a nation-state of their own in which they would be masters, dominating politics, staffing the civil service, and controlling commerce."

The processes that affected the Ceylon Civil Service were part of a larger international phenomenon. In the debate that ensued over his essay in a subsequent issue of Foreign Affairs, Jerry Muller refers to Chinua Achebe’s 1960 novel No Longer at Ease about a young African civil servant torn between the norm of impartiality and the collective expectations of his community which regards the bureaucracy as "a form of group property".

Muller concludes by blowing holes in the outlook of left–liberal social scientists. "Contemporary social scientists who write about nationalism tend to stress the contingent elements of group identity—the extent to which national consciousness is culturally and politically manufactured by ideologists and politicians… It is true, of course, that ethnonational identity is never as natural or ineluctable as nationalists claim. Yet it would be a mistake to think that because nationalism is partly constructed it is therefore fragile or infinitely malleable. Ethnonationalism was not a chance detour in European history: it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit that are heightened by the process of modern state creation, it is a crucial source of both solidarity and enmity, and in one form or another, it will remain for many generations to come. One can only profit from facing it directly."

While Muller’s argument which deconstructs idealistic liberalism may tempt chauvinists to exult, they would do well to be aware of one of his two conclusions. The first is that ethnonationalism applies to all, and therefore separatism of the part of other communities is the near-inevitable result of the rise of mono-ethnic, mono lingual, mono-religious majority nationalism. In short what goes for the Sinhalese goes for the Tamils too.  The second conclusion is less grim, but points to exceptions and therefore the possibility that communities need not split up on ethno-nationalist lines. The exceptions he points to, as do others in the debate, like Prof Richard Rosecrance, are the Scots in the UK, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium and the Quebecois in Canada.

These exceptions show Sri Lanka the pathway out of our crisis. As SWRD Bandaranaike astutely pointed out on his return to Ceylon in the 1920s, having been influenced both by the debate on Irish Home Rule and the example of Switzerland, a unitary state does not usually accommodate with any success and sustainability, a multi-communal populace. The obvious option is an institutional arrangement of autonomy, be it federal, quasi federal or devolved power within a unitary framework (which last is the example of the UK and China).  But just how much power should be devolved? The problems attendant upon arriving at an answer that is both realistic and responsible, are ignored by Sri Lankan liberals and conservatives alike. The parameters ought to be quite plain. Since too little and too much autonomy both lead to separatism, one needs a degree of autonomy broad and deep enough to accommodate the reasonable assertion of ethnic identity, but not enough to tempt or permit an ethnic group to lapse into irredentism (in our case, with Tamil Nadu) or secession.

It is at this point that the second recent essay, that of one of the world’s most famous Marxist intellectuals (and one of my old professors from upstate New York) James Petras is utterly relevant. In a lengthy contribution, densely packed with historical and contemporary evidence he argues two points:  In any country in which the Empire building project "cannot secure a stable client regime, it resorts to financing and promoting separatist organizations and leaders using ethnic, religious and regional pretexts". (They don’t have to be as heroic as Cuba to be a target; nor be like Cuba to possess the legitimate right of resistance or to be judged fit to be solidarized with!) In this, the Empire is repeating an old historical pattern and practice of divide and rule. Petras pays particular attention to the destruction of former Yugoslavia, right up to the secession under outright Western patronage, of Kosovo, the de-facto separate existence of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, and the agitation in and over Tibet. He spotlights the use of global human rights propaganda campaigns to "weaken the central government". 

His second point follows from the first. Jim Petras captures the incremental character of the separatist project and the role played by NGO human rights campaigns, (in a perfect description of what is happening to Sri Lanka as witnessed and combated by us in Geneva): "…separatist movements follow a step-by-step process, beginning with calls for ‘greater autonomy’ and ‘decentralization’, essentially tactical moves to gain a local political power base, accumulate economic revenues, repress anti-separatist groups and local ethnic/religious, political minorities with ties to the central government... The attempt to forcibly usurp local resources and the ousting of local allies of the central government results in confrontations and conflict with the legitimate power of the central government. It is at this point that external (imperial) support is crucial in mobilizing the mass media to denounce repression of ‘peaceful national movements’ merely ‘exercising their right to self-determination’. Once the imperial mass media propaganda machine touches the noble rhetoric of ‘self-determination’ and ‘autonomy’, ‘decentralization’ and ‘home rule’, the great majority of US and European funded NGOs jump on board, selectively attacking the government’s effort to maintain a stable unified nation-state. In the name of ‘diversity’ and a ‘pluri-ethnic state’, the Western-bankrolled NGOs provide a moralist ideological cover to the pro-imperialist separatists. When the separatists succeed and murder and ethnically cleanse the ethnic and religious minorities linked to the former central state, the NGOs are remarkably silent or even complicit in justifying the massacres as ‘understandable over-reaction to previous repression’.

Petras cautions against federalism, pointing out with concrete examples, that "the shift from ‘autonomy’ within a federal state to an ‘independent state’ is based on the aid channeled and administered by the imperial state to the ‘autonomous region’, thus strengthening its ‘de facto’ existence as a separate state".

Reading Petras one cannot but recall the writings of the Tamil Marxists who deconstructed the reactionary character of Tamil nationalism and especially of the Federal Party.  Veteran Maoist N Sanmugathasan denounced the FP as having opposed every single progressive measure and every progressive government in Ceylon. Even more pertinently, Petras’ critique calls to mind the remarks of Nepal’s outstandingly successful Maoist leader Comrade Prachanda who told The Hindu that his party had sent a team down to Sri Lanka and concluded that the Tigers were nothing like them, and possessed no political or social program except for that of rank separatism. 

Taken together, Professors Jerry Muller and James Petras’ essays, coming from very different starting points, converge to suggest to the Sri Lankan reader, the only viable pathway out of our crisis: resistance to all forms of separatism, and the grant of autonomy to the degree that is centripetal but not centrifugal. This means the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, followed by compensating for the loss of size (de-merger) by upgrading powers to 13th Amendment Plus, i.e. what President Rajapakse has called "maximum devolution within a unitary state".  This solution is but an updated replay of what SWRD Bandaranaike attempted in 1957: reconciling the historically inevitable upsurge of Sinhala ethno nationalism – which he rode to power-- with the no less inevitable demands for autonomy of the Tamil people. He may not have failed had the system at the time been Presidential.   Mahinda Rajapakse has accompanied the military effort to defeat the Tigers -- not merely weaken them to the point of driving them to the negotiating table, which was the fatally erroneous strategy of his predecessors—with Provincial elections.            

  This twin track approach to conflict transformation and nation-building must develop a third track, and constitute a policy triad. It requires an appropriate external policy, and this is where the third recent scholarly essay comes into view. While James Petras argues that the West is prone to support or be sympathetic to secessionist strivings and therefore belies the notion that our international line must take as primary our relationship with the West, Kishore Mahbubani goes further. The Dean of the widely respected Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the national University of Singapore, and that country’s former ambassador to the UN in New York, a post in which he was as controversially outspoken as his distinguished predecessor Tommy Koh, Mahbubani argues in the pages of Foreign Affairs that a great ‘power-shift’ in human history is underway, moving the global epicenter from the West to the East. In his recent appearances on western TV including BBC’s Hard Talk, he takes the offensive on the issue of human rights, pointing out that Asia is in advance of the West at a comparable stage of historical development, and arguably even today in certain theatres of western military engagement. Mahbubani concludes his Foreign Affairs essay, which in turn is adapted from his latest book ‘The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East’, thus: "The West is not welcoming Asia’s progress…Unfortunately, the West has gone from being the world’s primary problem solver to being its single biggest liability."    

 Kishore Mahbubani’s well developed argument easily dovetails with the thoughts of our martyred Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar whose 2005 speech at the opening of the new BCIS building most clearly reflected his line of reorienting the centre of gravity of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards the rising East. It also reinforces my argument in my article in the Sunday Island (June 22) for a Gaullist policy of tous azimuths, or, to use an even more refined expression of the new Russian strategic elite for a multi-vector international policy, rather than one which privileges partnership with the West.

[The writer is a member of the International Expert Group of the Russian Center for Policy Studies which publishes the quarterly journal Security Index, an academic and policy journal on international security. These are his personal views.]   

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