THE TRAGIC TRAJECTORY OF CHANAKA’S LIBERAL PROJECT
Some of us are born at the wrong time or in the wrong place or in both the wrong time and place. Â Nietzsche said he was born posthumously. He meant that the world was yet to catch up with his thinking but would do so, in a time of great cataclysm and wars fought for ideas. With his values, ideas and style Chanaka should have come to adulthood in colonial Ceylon and joined the struggles for reform in the late 19th or early 20th century, perhaps been a member of the Ceylon League or the Ceylon National Congress.
At any time Chanaka would have done well in Britain, as a Liberal or perhaps a Tory ‘wet’.
One aspect of his tragedy was that in Sri Lanka, and in the Third world, a liberal could not survive in the form that Chanaka had embraced it and until his last years he was not the sort of liberal who would accommodate himself to the kind of liberalism that could and would survive.
The other aspect of his tragedy was that meaningful liberalism had long shifted its centre of gravity from the UK to the US, and the specifically the US Democrats, and that was not Chanaka’s cup of tea.Â All serious thinking by or on liberalism was by philosophers, literary critics, international relations theorists and highbrow journalists either on the other side of the Atlantic or the other side of the English channel, and most often by those who crossed (intellectually at least) from the European continent to the United States and back: Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann, Stanley Hoffman. Chanaka, an intellectual Anglophile in a time of Britain’s terminal decline, did not find a comfort zone in this more muscular, state centric (even if critically so) liberal Realism; nor did he impart it to his students.
Chanaka attempted something noble, necessary and worthwhile. The bitterest part of his tragedy was that when he finally found a viable and realistic path for Lankan liberalism, in alliance firstly with President Premadasa and then with Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake, these leaders were to be murdered within the year ’93-’94, by the LTTE, a fascist force that Chanaka’s liberal comrades, those ‘happy few’, (Rajiva Wijesinha apart) would preach conciliation with and the appeasement of.
We understand the function of founding myths, but some myths are more fragile than others. Chanaka founded his project in part on the myth of Dudley Senanayake’s liberalism. The record reveals a different reality.Â The ghastliest levelling downwards and injection of Sinhala Buddhist ideology into the school curriculum began with IMRA Iriyagolla, Dudley’s choice as Minister of Education. The incorporation of the Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya pirivenas as universities, the replacement of Saturday and Sundays as weekends with Poya and pre-Poya ( the reversal of which absurdity , we can thank Mrs Bandaranaike for), the denial of and stepping away from the understanding over district councils with Chelvanayagam ( resulting in the resignation of Neelan’s father, M Tiruchelvam, from government), the banning of the transport of the Communist party leaning popular newspaper Aththa in public transport system, and worst of all, the thousand day emergency in peacetime (Mervyn de Silva recognised it at the time as â€œthe exception, which an emergency is by definition, becoming the norm”) â€“ all these studded the Senanayake term, rendering it far more a stage in the erosion of liberal values and practices than a golden age of liberalism worthy of restoration.
Chanaka lost his way seriously in the late 1980s when he missed the opportunity to unite with a progressive leader who would have been the closest vehicle for the values he upheld, namely Vijaya Kumaranatunga. What is worse, when all progressives and modernists found themselves on one side in a bitter civil war against the Pol Pot like JVP uprising, Chanaka strayed into an eight party alliance led by Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, the high priestess of state capitalism and Sinhala Buddhist constitutional hegemonism. Even more grotesquely, that bloc, which was against the Indo-Lanka accord and the 13th amendment which made for provincial councils, contained the JVP’s student front, the inter-university student federation represented at the time by Champika Ranawaka.
The awkward anomalies of Chanaka’s liberalism were discernible in his membership of the Monarchist society as a young man, and his sympathetic treatment in his thesis, not of the closest that Iran produced to liberals, albeit nationalist ones (Mohammed Mossadegh) but to the ruthless, pro US Shah and the Pahlavi pseudo dynasty. How this could sit with any consistent liberalism was a riddle. At one level Chanaka’s liberalism seemed more allergic to any form of nationalism than to a dictatorship installed and backed by the Empire. This blind-spot prevented Chanaka from comprehending until too late, that as in Latin America and the Philippines, liberalism throughout the global South had of necessity to be nationalistic or patriotic, though in the broadest, most inclusionary sense. By abdicating the struggle for a liberal nationalism Chanaka’s liberal project permitted tribalism to monopolise nationalism while liberalism was relegated to the Dramsoc and the drawing room.Â Had his liberalism drawn on that of the Italians Benedetto Croce and (the more recent) Norberto Bobbio, both his project and Lankan political culture would have been better served.
His impeccable civility apart, Chanaka’s best quality was his intellectual generosity and, yes, liberalism or liberality. In turn this was manifested best, not in his party as much as in another initiative, the Council for Liberal Democracy. In this forum, intellectuals of diverse party and ideological persuasions met to discuss and debate ideas and public policy. Though it followed in the footsteps of Fr Tissa Balasuriya’s Centre for Society and Religion and lacked the verve of those sessions (1975-85), it was the only space of its kind in the bitter post Southern civil war atmosphere of Sri Lanka as the ’80s turned into the last decade of the 20th century. (It is Chanaka’s CLD that facilitated Prof GL Pieris’ entry into political life).
Sometimes the superficial is symptomatic: from three piece suit to Nilame regalia with three corned hat (and participation in the Gangarama perahera), Chanaka’s manner resulted in and resulted from his marginality. The more serious failure however, is most starkly visible not when measured against what might have been, which is after all, purely speculative, but as against what once was. In intellectual, literary and social terms, the liberal experiment of Chanaka Amaratunga and his friends, suffers by contrast with an early explosion of liberal values; that of the first generation of post-independence Ceylonese intelligentsia. A mere read through of say, the College magazines of the leading Colombo schools and the University of Ceylon magazines (e.g. Â Krisis of 1950-51), as well as a plethora of periodicals of the 1950s will reveal a generation of youngsters far more gifted, self confident and intellectually mature.
This was the generation that contained â€“ to name but a handful– Godfrey Gunatilleka, Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Neville Jayaweera, Christie Weeramantry, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Mervyn de Silva et al. Their literary output shows that in their teens and twenties they were already debating Hegel and Hemingway, Marx and Malraux, Freud and Forster, Lenin and Lawrence, Brecht and Bogart, James Joyce and John Huston; far more stimulating fare than the prissy precious English liberal tradition already undermined by two world wars and revolutions and national liberation struggles. They were able to have a more dramatic and lasting impact on their society and even as individuals made a far bigger contribution nationally and internationally, than the later generation of liberals, but they too failed to generate a sustained and spreading influence. Their relatively greater degree of success however points not only to a different society but to a basic difference between Chanaka’s liberalism and theirs. The post-war, post independence generation of liberal arts and humanities educated youth were, paradoxically, far more socially sensitive and modern â€“ a difficult combination– in relation to their time. They were a genuine avant garde, as Chanaka’s crew was not. The latter were far more a throwback, with a nostalgic world outlook. The earlier generation of liberal intellects were sensitive to the social issues, international currents and intellectual debates of their times.Â While they had a solid core of liberal values, they were more than mere liberals; they were progressives, humanists and modernists: ‘left-liberals’ if you will.
Temperament determines trajectory. I must confess that mine is a particular perspective, with its commonalities, congruencies and contradictions with Chanaka’s own. Born and bred a ‘Colombian’ (in the epithet of today’s Sinhala chauvinists), a year and a few months older than Chanaka, with the earlier generation of liberals I have described being that of my father and godfather (Neville Weeraratne), the historical, intellectual and existential experience of my ‘type’ within my generation was the one shared by Kethesh Loganathan and DP ‘Taraki’ Sivaram (and of course, manyâ€“ex comrades, educated and courageous men and women, who have made their mark in academia and journalism).Â By their heroes ye shall know them. Nietzsche tended to judge an age or civilisation by the highest human type produced by it. Each intellectual cluster within each generation has its heroes. Though socialism and the Left have fallen (to be reincarnated and rejuvenated in Latin America) our archetypal hero has stood the test of time and Homeric-Nietzschean standards, and if it were a choice, I still wouldn’t trade him in for any other: Ernesto Che Guevara. (I would also pit the neo-Leninist Slavoj Zizek against any heavyweight liberal thinker of today).
It may be the malfunctioning of middle aged memory circuits or the obscured viewpoint of the underground (as Daniel Ortega once captioned a poem, â€œI Missed Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion”) but I simply cannot recall Chanaka, his learned friends or the Liberal party, during the hellish half a decade from July 1983 onwards. They were not prominent in the pages of the Lanka Guardian (the indispensable left-liberal intellectual forum and incubator) or the membership of MIRJE — the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality (the main anti-racist formation at the time) — or the Social Scientists Association (the vanguard of anti-racist scholarly research). The next I heard, the Liberal party opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord and provincial councils, while progressives and modernists were allied in a duel to the death with the forces of neo-barbarism led by Wijeweera (but containing those who would form today’s JHU, NFF and rump JVP).
Chanaka’s ‘bright shining moments’ politically were his opposition to theÂ Jayewardene referendum of 1982, his stance against the impeachment motion of 1991 and his support for President Premadasa (based on the correct identification of Lalith Athulathmudali as the most harshly authoritarian personality of the Jayewardene ancien regime), his formation of a front of smaller parties which included the SLMC, the TULF and the SLMP ( which brought Ashraff, Neelan, Ossie, Chanaka and myself into regular contact), hisÂ active participation in Premadasa’s All Parties roundtable and his drafting of much of Gamini Dissanayake’s reform manifesto of 1994.
The sad last days of Chanaka commenced with the double cross not only by his boyhood friend and epitome of Sade’s (the songstress not the Marquis) Smooth Operator, but by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, pin up of the pacifist progressives and liberals, who made it clear to Mr Ashraff that she would not countenance a Chanaka in the House. From then to his death by road accident, it was one long sickening skid downhill.
This then is the challenge for liberalism in Sri Lanka today. It can only survive or rather, revive and be relevant as a social liberalism or communitarian liberalism, on the TH Greene â€“Charles Taylor-Roberto Mangabeira Unger axis, if one can be drawn.Â Neelan Tiruchelvam was one of those who demonstrated an implicit understanding of this, though one cannot say the same of his epigone, who have joined Chanaka’s in the embrace not of classical liberalism but of the neoliberal UNP leadership.
Liberal values in Sri Lanka can be defended, not by the embrace of neo-liberalism or neoconservative authoritarianism, but by a broad bloc for the shared values of liberal democracy, secularism, rationality and modernity (setting aside the debate between universalism and pluralism). This drawing together despite dispersion is made possible by the information revolution, but it must not remain a purely cyber-phenomenon. It must be part of the long march for the victory of enlightenment values under siege by pre-modern primitivism, free market fundamentalism and posturing post-modernism. If this struggle of ideas and ideology, culture and ethics, is lost, Sri Lanka shuts itself off and transforms into Shutter Island.
The 19th of April was the 52nd birthday of Dr. Chanaka Amaratunga, the founder of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka.Â Groundviews invited leading political commentators to contribute to a special edition commemorating Chanaka’s role in politics and the liberal movement in Sri Lanka.
Other essays in this series include:
- Remembering Chanaka by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives
- TWO CONCEPTS OF THE CONSTITUTION: AN ESSAY IN MEMORY OF CHANAKA AMARATUNGA by Publius
- IN MEMORIAM DR. CHANAKA AMARATUNGA by Tissa Jayatilaka, Executive Director, United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission
- A Liberal Dilemma by Dr. Devanesan Nesiah