It’s a long way to the Arab Spring in Sri Lanka. We are still stuck in the winter of our discontent!

Image from Ceasefire Magazine

“Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it… All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children.” – George Orwell

The Arab spring is fast becoming a global phenomenon in the sense that it is an inspiration and metaphor for branding the anti-government protestors around the world, reimagining of the geopolitical relations, and has promoted many governments (e.g. China) to take precautions to prevent it happening in their own countries.   The dawn of ‘Arab Spring’ in Sri Lanka, however, is still a distant dream, despite the fact that the necessary preconditions for it are abundant.

Instead of being comfortable with the most common and simple answer that Sri Lankans live under a repressive regime, which I think as unhelpful, misleading and even counterproductive, we could think about three broad reasons for the wide pessimism of any radical change in the status quo. First, is the growing disjuncture between the comparatively high literacy rates, access to information, and formal democratic freedoms with countries and the apparent decline in people’s participation in political dissent.  Second, the political parties and civil society groups that give voice and leadership to dissent seems to be far removed from the aspirations of the people.  Third, these leaders seem to take granted of the people’s awareness of critical issues, frustrations with the ruling regime and enthusiasm for radical change of the status quo. Many of these leaders seem to be less interested in self-criticism of their political ideologies and tactics, and lack the will to accommodate change.

The crisis of the Arab world was precipitated by the global economic crises and the severity of the austerity measures imposed by governments to address the crises.   The people of the Middle East lost their faith in and tolerance of the authoritarian and dictatorial governments that used national security, progress, religion, xenophobia, nepotism, patronage, economic and military force to control them. At the same time, in the more developed countries, the citizenry began to tire of their governments’ endless jockeying for strategic position in the world of geopolitics, and of their own conspicuous consumption. The glories of past military victories no longer served to maintain the power and popular legitimacy of the state.   When the population turned against the state, and state leaders were helpless, they too were abandoned by the external forces that once supported them.  These external forces are now busy rebranding their credentials among the population as champions of human rights and democracy and taking control of the economic opportunities these countries offer.

The protestors come from diverse backgrounds and are focused on a wide range of rights. They once thought it would be impossible to achieve them without a radical change in the ruling regime of their respective countries.  Although there were a few prominent personalities who gave leadership to these movements, none of them supports one clear aspirant who is seeking to take power.   The protests clearly targeted the economic policies and the political agenda of regime change, but no movement has clearly voiced a specific economic or political program to realize its demands.

The notion of Arab Spring originates from the term “springtime of nations” used to describe revolutionary upheavals in Europe during mid 1800s, is somewhat misleading because it makes us think that task of the protest movements is complete.  It was the promise of rebirth of a new society that made the term Arab Spring.  It took decades for France to enjoy spring Louise Napoleon won free elections in 1848 following the overthrow of monarchy, and it took 32 years for democracy after ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. (Many Sri Lankas have been waiting for Spring since 1977 elections!)

The current chaos in the Arab world has to do with the fact that despite the fall of their leaders, many fundamental questions remain unanswered: Is there a clear road map for the future? Is there easy ways out the current financial crisis and austerity measures? Citizens do not like experimentation, but clarity.  It seems the Arab world is now on its way to a very long winter, which could turn out to be a long spring for neoliberal institutions, the super powers, the wealthy and the extremists who generally prey on the miseries other others.   These forces could easily remake the Arab world according to the very image that the protesters despised.  Yet, the Arab protesters demonstrated the courage and persistence until they realized their immediate objectives.

‘Sri Lanka Spring’ is not a grass-roots movement. Rather, it seems to be imposed from above, under the leadership of the United National Party, which remains largely disconnected from the masses and has, for many years, failed to put its own house in order.  Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe’s refusal to relinquish leadership of the party, despite losing nearly 20 elections and facing rejection by his own party members, makes the public even more fearful of the consequences of yet another UNP government than they are of the ruling regime.  The general public doubts Mr. Wicrmasinghe’s commitment to justice for Fonseka because of the party’s ambivalent relationship with the general, the UNP’s failure to maintain the momentum of the movement to secure Fonseka’s release.

The UNP cannot build a broad coalition because it is selective of the issues that it is interested in and its allies. For example, it is silent about the privatization of university system, and has consistently demanded an immediate political settlement to the ethnic crisis.  Nor it has clear alternatives solutions to these issues.  UNPs take on Fonsek’s heroism against the LTTE is not nuanced enough to mobilize people across different ethnic divide.  Placing Gen. Fonseka as the central focus of protests is insufficient convince all ethnic groups to equally revolt against the government.

The lesson we are learning from UNP politics today is that authoritarianism cannot be fought with authoritarianism. Politics of protest are in vain unless they immediately translate into politics of hope.

The Arab Spring involves the work of hundreds of civil society organizations both domestic and international.  In Sri Lanka, however, the civil society organizations are not a part of the anti-government protests organized by the political parties not only because they are suppressed by the state, but are urban based entities without a mass following.  Civil society organizations are silent about the Gen. Fonseka. The fragmentation and territorial battles between these organizations do not allow them to coalesce around a ‘national purpose or agenda.’

Although protesters in the Arab Spring were from diverse backgrounds, their sense of nationalism was organic: they shared consensus to liberate the entire nation from their respective despotic rulers.  Sri Lankan nationalism is neither organic nor all-encompassing because it evolved primarily in response to relations between the majority and minority communities, and subsequently in response to the war against the LTTE.  (The country lacked an independence movement similar to that of India or Bangladesh).  After the defeat of the LTTE, nationalism seems to have lost its vigor. In the eyes of the public, the government has not only defeated terrorism but also has limited the possibilities of meaningful devolution of power the Tamil minority.  Citizens share the government’s sentiment that separatism was exclusively an LTTE project supported by external forces, and they still believe that development will automatically usher in peace and reconciliation and believe in peace equals end of war.

The success of the government’s war against the LTTE extended to economic development, where the government has earned a reputation of being capable of get things done efficiently.  By combining security with development, it has gained complete control over the development project and severely restricted the space for dissent.   For now, the visibility of mega-development projects gives the public a reason to trust the government. The public isn’t inclined to be swayed by the opposition’s criticisms of these projects, despite the intractable multiple economic crisis and the uneven development between different regions and sectors of the country.   The government’s economic policies are grounded in the same ideology as the UNP’s. In fact, the government is perfecting the economic policies of the UNP, and taking them to their logical conclusion.

Power in the UPFA regime is centralized through a sophisticated network of patronage.  The governance model in Sri Lanka is a unique example of “centralization through decentralization.” Compared to UNP, the UPFA is a broad-based grassroots movement and is quick to respond to grievances through variety of means.  The regime is quick to manage the grievances of the people by appointing committees and tribunals, as, for example, they established agrarian tribunals to address the exploitation of tenant farmers by the landlords. Governance in Sri Lanka is classic example of micro-management of dissent where the society as in George Orwell’s Oceania thought that it “has no capital, and its titular head is a person whose whereabouts nobody knows.”

A broad spectrum of people with diverse ideological and economic interests are brought into the administrative network and they are strategically positioned (and primed with lucrative benefits) to serve the interests of the regime. It’s a marvelous strategy because it creates the appearance that the regime tolerates a diversity of opinions.   In particular, the regime has positioned intellectuals in places where they are unable to exercise their intellectual freedoms and integrity. In these positions, intellectuals either serve the interests of the regime, or they are ignored.

To counter the pressure placed on them by the Western governments and international human rights agencies, the UPFA pursues a multipronged strategy.   The UPFA exploits anti-Westernism, xenophobia, and national security at the same time it maintains close relations with China, India, Iran, and Russia. As Wikileaks documents make clear, the UPFA has isolated its critics from the general public, while it secretly crawls into bed with its so-called adversaries.  As the government has consolidated its power base it has gradually begun to give lip service to the demands of human rights agencies by contradicting its earlier positions, but only in response to a schedule of its own making.

The international system is nothing but a ‘club of states’ that functions according to an economic and political logic different from those of human rights advocates. That system will give the regime ample time to adjust and counter its opponents… as long as it serves the hegemonic interests of the international system.  To a great extent, the manufactured differences between Western and non-Western states are an ideological ploy to manage  populations whose solidarity across nations would otherwise threaten the hegemonic economic interests of the states.

After the war, the people’s sense of gratitude to the regime still seems to override their frustrations.  People are busy rebuilding their lives.  The gradual demise of welfare economic policies and the individual rush to make money does not give them much incentive to participate in politics of dissent.  There is plenty of cash circulating in the economy and this allows the government to carry out popular projects and to appease its supporters.  Public consciousness does not yet seem to be affected by the austerity policies that the government has recently been forced to introduce. We have yet to see the consequences that will surely result from funding mega-projects with borrowed funds, or to gauge the impact of the corresponding lack of economic growth.

Sri Lankan universities have recently but rapidly ceased to be centers for spearheading the politics of dissent.   Although a lack of resources, substandard wages for academics, and the politicization of the university administration severely constrain freedom of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking in the universities, the university system also imposes self-censorship of the sort described by Soren Kierkegaard: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

Radical changes in the curriculum across the universities have contributed to an ideological and programmatic shift to a culture of politics that is complicit with neoliberalism. The introduction of semester system (a change introduced by neoliberal institutions with the help of local academics) is not only a step towards privatization, but also a way of imposes systemic constraints on political activities (or praxis) in the university system. Furthermore, time and space available for radical politics are constrained due to the increasing number of students entering into the workforce and taking off campus professional courses (e.g. CIMA). Professor Carlo Fonseka recently reminded us how JVP and the LTTE suppressed the culture of non-violent critical inquiry within the universities.

Many new university courses are driven by market rationality and academic capitalism.  For example, radical political economy and history of economic thought have completely disappeared from Sri Lankan universities. The majority of economists now train students for servitude in neoliberal economic institutions.   Economics as a discipline has abandoned its rich tradition of philosophy and protest, and has become simply a branch of applied mathematics.  History, politics, and power relations and no longer introduced into the discussion.  The wage inequality that university academics now protest is a product of the same economic ideology and policies that they teach in their classrooms!

Today people’s expectations are hyperinflated at the same time they are frustrated by the obstacles that limit realization of those expectations.   A simple demand for regime change, put forward by an ideologically and programmatically bankrupt opposition, will not result in a new wave of critical consciousness.  People are going to have to give up the idea that their problems will be solved by “progress,” because the ideology of progress serves neoliberalism and the state, rather than Sri Lankan citizens.

When the uprising appears in the Middle East appeared to be getting “out of control,” the international powers that had supported the despotic rulers of the Arab world retreated and sometimes even began to side with the protestors.   This is not yet happening in Sri Lanka. Instead, these powers are still competing to take control over the internal and external affairs of our country.

‘Sri Lanka Spring’ will be delayed as long as the ruling party is successful in suppressing its opposition by using the very language, agendas, and tactics of its opponents, and the opposition fail to develop a clear road map for the future.  Clear road map evolves out of praxis-ongoing process of action and reflection.

Perhaps, it would be interesting to read the Sri Lankan situation from the perspective George Orwell’s 1984.  The setting for the novel is Oceania, one of three intercontinental super-states who divided the world among themselves after a global war.  It was in a state of a world of perpetual war, pervasive government surveillance, and incessant public mind control accomplished with a political system named Ingsoc (kind of democratic socialism!) administrated by a privileged Inner Party elite.  The philosophy of the deified party leader was all about unity and prosperity, and it decried individuality and expected people of Oceania to subordinate themselves to collective good.

The production of the popular consciousness was managed by Winston Smith who is a member of the Outer Party who works for the Ministry of Truth. The ministry was responsible for propaganda and reconstruction of historical consciousness to make sure that “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” Any type of thinking that displeased the ministry considered a punishable thought crime.  Yet Winston Smith secretly hated the Party, and dreamt of rebelling against the Big Brother.  Parsons was “Winston’s fellow employee at the Ministry of Truth.  He was a fattish but active man of paralyzing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms-one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the thought police, the stability of the Party depended.”

“And the people under the sky were also very much the same–everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same–people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” Yet the society is not doomed.  “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five percent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated,” writes Owerll.  But the trouble is “Until society becomes conscious they will never dissent, and until after they have dissent they cannot become conscious.”

  • banu

    Sri Lanka is a democratic copuntry. Large majority of people support Mahinda R. One UNP politician told me that he spend only 25% of money for elections. I asked him why? He said there is no way he could win. People are still largely with the Govt.

    • joker

      Dear Intelligent writer, we just had two long dragged out elections just last year. You want a Sri Lankan spring? please, let us enjoy this peace and quiet for at least a couple of years

  • Lanka Muslim, UK

    It is not difficult to express different points of views once events have taken place and changes have come. Was there even the slightest indication that uprisings will take in countries beginning from Tunisia to Libya. Not a single experienced political observer predicted such events will take place. People’s frustration if it keeps on mounting can erupt and explode in no time. In Sri Lanka the politicians used frequently elected elections to hood-wink the peopole with unfulfilled promises. Indications are that the growing new generation of people are beginning to realise the manipulations by the politicians. Being so the time the people will react cannot be predicted.

  • http://my.telegraph.co.uk/tusker/page/2/ R.A.Ratwatte

    Winter leads to spring….not too far away !

    • luxmy

      Rajapakses will hire Bell Pottinger to delay the spring as much as possible

  • dinuk

    Afraid that this is all rather overblown and not locally contextualized; globalized grand standing, by ex-pat. leftist, well-intentioned, Jude! 1. The simple point is that Lankans have had 30 years of violence and upheaval and people want to catch their breath for a bit of calm — to recover before the next round of political unrest which is fairly inevitable given the conspicuous consumption of the Rajapakse regime whereby the rich get richer and poor poorer..
    2. That clown the P.M Dimu J had said that Lanka should stop importing fruits and veg and other “uneccessary” foreign debt increasing goods – Meanwhile Rajapakse bros Inc and related crony capitalists are importing of Lambuginis and Ferrraris for Colombo night races that are driving local communities nuts with the noise pollution and making roads unsafe at night as these play boys race by, and trees are being cut down willy nilly to pave the roads and buffer against crashes – All this is not making people very happy.
    3. The UNP is a mess because of Ranil W’s dictatorship, Karu’s Hamlet act, and Sajith premadasa’s Sinhala Buddhist nationalist absence of imagination and intelligence.
    4. The bloody Indians are meanwhile delaying on housing construction for IDPs in the north. They just want to sit in the northeast and turn it into a buffer zone. The GOI playing its usual games while the IDPs in the north are suffering, because not other INGO which would like to help can do so, since GoI has got the contract from GoSL. So the international humanitarian aid joke continues with India outdoing the Tsunami rent seekers from the West. Please come and check this out!

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    Jude, this is a good piece BUT you are ducking the main issue, as does the Gv constituency as a whole, because your perspective is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    The main point — which you are ducking — has been correctly identified by the NORAD study.

    The report names the Sri Lankan political situation as one of uni-polarity. This provides a welcome opportunity from moving away from the usual categories and bringing to bear a systemic analysis on the Lankan condition. Such an analysis means understanding the whole, as a system, in which the parts behave according to the logic driving the system. Thus leader or political personality X would behave differently if the system was differently configured, while a different political personality would behave similarly if the systemic configuration remained unchanged. The key determinant is the uni-polar character of the system, which as the Norwegian study shows, was not always the case. It is a result, a product of the ‘lack of a credible alternative’, deriving from the ‘leadership crisis’ of the UNP, which itself has two sources, the ‘legitimacy crisis’ of the UNP leadership ‘because of its pro-western orientation and its neo-liberal economic policy and ‘the refusal of Wickremesinghe to step down despite successive defeats’. The uni-polarity is consequence of this causation and its by product is the possibility of electoral victory purely by appeal to Sinhala voters and the further resultant is the marginalisation and lack of leverage of democratic minority stakeholders. Thus, the ‘minoritarian liberal’ preference and support for Wickremesinghe undergird the uni-polar character of the ‘game’, and undermines the goal of ethnic reconciliation through reform.

    Luckily for the Sri Lankan people, the UNP ‘reformists’ or ‘ rebels’ seem far more connected to reality than most GV writers/readers and appear to about to fix the problem!

    • Burning_Issue

      Luckily for the Sri Lankan people, the UNP ‘reformists’ or ‘ rebels’ seem far more connected to reality than most GV writers/readers and appear to about to fix the problem!”

      What is your contribution to fixing the “problem” Dr if I may ask?

  • Hash

    This is not about a legitiamte alternative, spring, summer, autumm or winter…

    IT is basically that Sri Lankan’s as a society have a sub servient and spineless demur towards most things… with a good doze of blinded ignorance ( this includes the pundits of Colombo – who in my view make the largest ofthis population) .. especially when it comes to politics… they do not have the prverbial “Testi’s” or moral ability to call a spade a spade..

    thats how the regime continue to weild power irrespective of pludnering, murder and utter disregard to justice and social norms: our people basically have a view .. its ok .. let them go on.. after all they finished the war.. so let them do what ever they please… it is alos how ranil remains to stay in power due to a few bottlickers and spineless individuals who are duty bound due to possbily allegence to the school tie or those lack the strenght of the backbone to stand up and send him packing… How do you think these kudda MP’s murder, extort and strip people of even their basic civic rights… sub servient and spinelessness…

    until such time Sri Lankans grow a spine on their backs and move away from having the Raj infused sub servient attittude we as a nation will never stand together nor be able to stand against injustice…

    We will continue to be prostitues of those we elect and we will also make the future genrations (our children) vaggabonds of society..
    Cest la vi

  • sonali

    why do we need a spring when we have the option of ballot box? comparing democratic sri lankans to arabs who were at the mercy of kings, princeses and dictators is hardly doing them any justice imho.

  • Dinesh

    A revolution is a complete social and political upheaval. The Russian anarchist Prince Petr Kropotkin said that a revolution was prepared and made by two great movements. One was the current of ideas – the tide of new ideas on the political reorganisation of the state – which came from the bourgeoisie. The other the current of action, came from the popular masses – the peasants and the labourers. When these two movements joined together for what at first was a common goal – when for a time they lent each other mutual support the Revolution occurred. But that is not enough for the revolution to break out. It is necessary to pass from theory to action, from an ideal conceived in the mind to its practical implementation by deeds. So why is that, the Revolution is not happening in SL?

    Although bourgeoisie in it’s inception was a word to describe a particular socio economic class (a social class distinguished by it’s ownership of capital and their related culture), today in a revolutionary mindset the bourgeoisie can be defined as the middle class society. Today in SL the bourgeoisie is divided, pro MR and those who are against MR. Meanwhile the popular masses are pro MR to say the least. In that case a proper communication channel should exist between the proletariat’s (popular masses in today’s words) and the bourgeoisie. Which should be handled by whoever wants a revolution. But the fact of the matter is that there is no mode or channel of communication to get the message through.As long as the UNP is playing stupid politics using some of the most absurd methods of protests such as honking vehicle horns for long periods of time, dashing clay pottery on the ground and their so called future leader doing nothing other than going around the country donating fifty thousand rupees to churches, mosques, temples and kovils calling it “Sasunta Aruna” and not forgetting internal struggles in the party a revolution will never occur.To mention the modern day JVP in an article related to a revolution would be such a travesty, so not let’s talk further about it.

    Kropotkin also said that a revolution will occur when, those in power resisted change till blood ran in the streets, it must never stop halfway, if it does it will surely fail. Once a revolution has broken out, it must develop to its furthest limits. Inevitably at its peak, the countervailing forces are forced to yield. Reaction will set in, but looking at Egypt, Syria and Libya can we assure that the result of a revolution would be better than what it was before?

    A revolution in SL??? That day is far far far ahead. By the way did I mention that I’m being very optimistic about the day a revolution will occur in SL.

  • rdwijetunga

    Dear Readers,
    A revolution is needed when there is no legitimate and fair avenue of expression of displesure with the government which would lead to a change in leadership. In Sri Lanka the recent polls were accepted as fair by all. Results shows that the majority of People of Sri Lanka supports the government policies.
    Therefore we Sri Lankans do not need any revolutionary blood bath to change the government as free and fair polling system is available.
    Further more we are now in spring of our motherland after the horrible war. Only a few supporters defeated political parites daydream of a false spring with forign involvment.
    RDW