Once more into the breach

“The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.”

Milan Kundera[1]

“…. Some [intellectuals] served as spokesmen for power or for a constituency, trimming their beliefs and pronouncements to circumstances and interest: what Edward Said once called “the fawning elasticity with regard to one’s own side’ has indeed “disfigured the history of intellectuals.”

Tony Judt.[2]

His Excellency Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has been good enough to respond to my critique of his position with regard to the merits of the current government of Sri Lanka.[3] Let me first deal with his view of my original comments on his intellectual and political practices; then I will go to the heart of his response.[4]

Readers of Groundviews know, better than most, Dr Jayatilleka’s fondness for name-dropping. Famous names in themselves are harmless; it all depends on the use or misuse one makes of them. Therein lies the rub and my title: A Man for all political seasons.

He says:

“MCC accuses me of “idealisation of the current government of Sri Lanka”. That’s plain silly, and he would find it impossible to back it up with a single quotation or example, while none of those he has furnished amount to anything remotely approaching idealisation.”

He adds that he defends the elected government of Lanka and its leadership selectively and hardly uncritically. (Groundviews, January 16, 2012)

By idealisation I mean Dr Jayatilleka’s exalting of President Rajapaksa above the normal run of Sri Lankan politicians.  Let’s look carefully at Dr Jayatilleka’s polemic Marking the Mahindra Moment in Lankan Politics (Groundviews, September 11, 2011). The title itself is epic; the picture attached shows the President at his most handsome and commanding. An image reinforced by emphasis on the following facts: Sri Lanka is a competitive democracy (true), and the President currently has a 90 per cent rating approval (true).  Yet, interestingly, no analysis is made of this in the light of the country’s past experiences of initial euphoria and subsequent disillusionment with other charismatic rulers. Critics of the regime are dismissed, being out of touch with the people and (inevitably) lackeys of the West. Why? According to Dr Jayatilleka, during the period of Wickramasinghe’s ‘appeasement’ of the West and the Tigers, “Mahinda proved lucid, balanced and in touch with the people’s accurate perception of the enemy.” (Groundviews, September 11, 2011)

These patriotic qualities are just as important in post-war Lanka:

“Any attempt to contain divert, pressure, outflank or exceed President Rajapaksa’s quintessential if protean centrism, would be socially suffocating, choking the pores of free expression, resulting in a more hawkish, less flexible, less intuitively smart, more brittle and therefore more vulnerable Sri Lankan state.” (Groundviews, September 11, 2011)

Dr Jayatilleka goes on to say that not only is President Rajapaksa a steadfast, patriotic ruler, he might be the best person to construct a more liberal and democratic Sri Lanka, because “after all, what is a more liberal and social democratic Mahinda Rajapaksa than the fusion of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as youthful, dissenting, rather rebellious left-of-centre Parliamentarian, in government and Opposition, backbench and cabinet, in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.” (Groundviews, September 11, 2011)

Reading this, the word protean (also used by Dr Jayatilleka) comes to mind: “Of pertaining to, or characteristic of the sea-god Proteus of classical mythology; taking or existing in many forms, changing and variable”.[5] Protean centrism (a concept favoured by Dr Jayatilleka) means that the political centre is wherever the President wishes to take the country – praise not bestowed on critics of the President or other political parties and figures in Lanka, be they of the right, left or centre. In fairness I must say he is kinder to the son of his former political patron Premadasa:

“Today President Rajapaksa is the best representative of National Democracy and the UNP reformists identified with young Premadasa, the best bet for (pluralist) Social democracy”.[6]

Dr Jayatilleka’s support of the Rajapaksa government is not selective; it is touchingly uncritical.

His summary of the threats to the nation state might be as follows:

(a)   Diaspora and Tamil Nadu based pro-Tiger secessionism and external hegemonic interventionism and (b) Ranil Wickremasinghe and his UNP as the domestic political alternative. (Groundviews, January 16, 2012)

The reality is the LTTE as a military force is finished and its support base is in tatters. Ranil Wickremasinghe is neither a traitor nor even a mild threat to national security; he is part of the status quo. Western pressure was in the form of words, not actions. One cannot compare this to the pressure placed on Iran.

Criticism of government policy is something a democratic government should be able to deal with – part of its very essence. The most important issue, and one on which the good doctor is silent, is how to best harvest the peace dividend. The government and its charismatic President should use the euphoria of victory to enlarge the democratic space instead of closing it.

Why does Dr Jayatilleka not criticise his patron for removing the Presidential limit of two terms (the 18th amendment)? The President himself, not an independent commission, will oversee the running of elections. The executive powers of the President, already considerable, have now been expanded to the selection of the judiciary and officers of the armed forces. The vital oversight committees for the allocation and spending of public monies were usually under the chairmanship of the opposition parties. They are now under the control of ministers appointed by the President. All this undermines the checks and balances affecting the executive arm of government, the judiciary, the state bureaucracy and the armed forces.[7] Choking not enlarging the very – ‘pores of free expressions’.

One must reject simplistic binary notions on national liberation struggles versus a nation state. Life and politics are complex. One cannot equate the homicidal quasi-Maoist Shining Path with the struggle of the FRETILIN against the Indonesian army. One can condemn (as I did) the wanton bombing of Serbia by NATO in 1999, yet not dismiss Noel Malcolm’s research on the rights of the people of Kosovo.

Research that showed the history for the Serbs started in the seventh century, when they settled in the Balkans. They only conquered (not settled in) Kosovo in the 13th century. They ruled Kosovo for 250 years, until it became part of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-15th century. So there is no more continuity between Byzantium Greece and modern Greece as there was between a medieval Serbian state and today’s Serbia. The Serbs reconquered it in 1912. When they did, the Serb population in Kosovo was less than 25 per cent. Kosovo was incorporated (i.e. not conquered) by the Yugoslav state. Till the breakup of that Yugoslav state it was not only a part of Serbia but also a part of the federation of Yugoslavia. It had its own parliament and government and was represented by at the federal level not by Serbia, but by its elected representatives.[8]

This is not nonsense but historical facts. Serbia and Croatia deliberately started to break up the Yugoslav state; it encouraged separatists in Bosnia breaking down Bosnia’s rich multi-cultural heritage. The barbarity of the Serbian proxies in the siege of Sarajevo was unspeakable. Their atrocities and Western reluctance to stop them in Srebrenica is now on the public record and to deny it is sheer political mendacity. The killing of thousands of men and the forcible movement of tens of thousands of women and children from their homes (many of the women were raped multiple times) are no longer creditable allegations, they have been proven. Are we going to deny the women whose husbands and sons were killed, their day in court? Instead of dismissing this it should be acknowledged and criticised. What needs to be also made clearer and prosecuted is the role of Western forces in the massacre. As I have said these examples resonate but not in the way Dr Jayatilleka wants them to.

The heart of Dr Jayatilleka’s polemic concerns the alignment of Lanka with the countries he deems anti-imperialist. They have formed a block against the liberal forces from the West who want nation states to have negotiated settlements with minorities in their midst. Lanka under the leadership of Rajapaksa rejected this approach. The diplomats of Lanka foiled attempts at any censure in the UN of the conduct of the war. This was done with the support of anti-imperialist countries. Lanka and Russia helped by other member states of the UN, successfully deflected human rights concerns expressed about Chechnya and Lanka. Dr Jayatilleka played a prominent role in this, and even cites a critic, David Lewis,[9] who it seems supports Dr Jayatilleka’s contention as to the real choices that prevailed when he supported Rajapaksa. (Groundviews, January 16, 2011)

What does Lewis actually say? He sees the peace process as flawed from the outset. Key sections of the Lankan elite were hostile to it. There was no consensus amongst the political elite for the peace agreement. Once Ranil Wickremsinghe lost power in 2004, the support for the peace process began to fade. And fortune was on the side of Lankan government: the rise of China in the region, along with that of powers like Brazil and Russia, who were economic and political competitors with the Western powers. They also had restive minorities and were more inclined, therefore, to support the Lankan state. And post 2001 it was easy to use Western rhetoric on the war on terror to gain logistic, financial and political support.

I would emphasise that the Lankan state’s best recruiting tool was the LTTE and its autocratic leader, the late Velupillai Pirapaharan. The LTTE suppressed political pluralism and freedom of expression. If Eelam were achieved it would be plausible to assume that it would be an oppressive one-party state. The Lankan state could with equal plausibility make the claim that they were fighting a terrorist group. (Lewis, 644-655). Lewis fails to mention that the Lankan military and the LTTE both paid only lip service to the peace process and violated its tenets many times. During the peace process, the Lankan military, with the help of its Western and ‘anti-imperialist’ backers built up a formidable fighting force of around 100,000 men who were fully equipped and had the logistical and tactical support of a modern air force and navy. By 2005 they were ready.

Pirapaharan’s skills as a tactician were on par with those of Lord Cardigan, notorious for ordering the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean war. Why else would he and the LTTE have forced the Tamils in the North and many in the east not to vote, thus allowing Rajapaksa to defeat Wickramasinghe by a whisker during the 2005 election? After 25 years of war only a sliver of country was in Pirapaharan’s hands. The Lankan military had surrounded his fiefdom by air, sea and land. He would have lost a lot of his equipment because of the tsunami; compounding this, the eastern forces of the LTTE under Karuna had defected.

For all Jayatilleka’s claims of Lanka being in the anti-imperialist camp and of diplomats like him being active ‘norm entrepreneurs,’ their victory depended on the logistic support provided by the ‘imperialist’ camp. The Americans provided a radar-based maritime surveillance system, electronic surveillance and military intelligence. The radar system was crucial in intercepting and sinking ships that carried military cargo for the LTTE.[10] Israel provided war planes and patrol boats.[11] India and China provided military hardware. Billions of dollars of aid were provided to the Lankan military.

Evidence of this comes from straight from Dr Jayatilleka’s mouth. The good doctor, a diplomat and public intellectual, is also (according to him) an expert on military history and strategy. He has (he tells us) lectured at every military academy in Lanka, and tells us that he was in the belly of the empire at the Special Warfare Centre at Fort Bragg, where for several years running he was a lecturer in the joint training programmes of the US and Sri Lankan Special Forces.

“I have some cherished mementoes and insignias presented on every occasion. Perhaps you should tell it to those of the SAIC in Washington DC where I was one of the 2 invited panellists with one other being a member of the US Joint chiefs of staff, at a session on the evolving strategic landscape of central and south Asia.” (Groundviews, January 28, 2009)[12]

A man truly for all political seasons!

The LTTE’s financial and logistical support was being cut off and it was at this point that Pirapaharan and his advisers decided to fight a conventional war. There was only one possible outcome; it just took a little longer than it should have. It is in this context one should see the decisions made by Rajapaksa.

I have already dealt with the issue of human rights violations committed by both parties to the conflict in my earlier article. Taking 1971, 1977, 1983, 1987-89 and the thirty year civil war, the total is hundreds of thousands of deaths. Recognition of this and reconciliation are priorities. Ignoring this retards the progress of democracy and the economic development of the country (Groundviews, January 16, 2011). At the moment that is not happening, and if long-term strategies are not implemented a situation similar to the Palestinian conflict is likely to result: the permanent presence of troops and sporadic outbreaks of worsening violence (Lewis,. 665).

Dr Jayatilleka refers to my apparent failure to appreciate the fact that world’s “radical” regimes (Cuba, Vietnam, Brazil, China) supported the Lankan state in the war against the LTTE. He concludes, witheringly: “Debating Marxism with such a man is a waste of time”. (Groundviews, January 16, 2011)

The answer, alas, is economic. The reality is that there is only one market, meaning a marriage of imperialist and anti-imperialist interests. Emerging superpowers like China and India are trying to secure key resources, putting them in direct competition with established economies. This fact governs the attitude of China (with its soft loans and strategic investments) to Lanka. And China, India and Brazil are implicitly dependent on the West in their attempt to sell vast amounts of consumer goods, services and resources. In addition, they buy Western technology and economic assets.

Lanka was one of the first countries in the world (after Chile) to open its economy to foreign investment and finance. It did this in 1977. It has been a part of the global circuit of capitalism for well over thirty years. Why, otherwise, would the International Monetary Fund agree to a bailout package of $2.6 billion dollars to Lanka two months after the war had been won? The World Bank (a prime prop of imperialism) released its annual funding of $465 million to Lanka in 2011. It would never finance a truly anti-imperialist government like Castro’s Cuba or Chavez’s Venezuela. Titles of countries and the name of political parties in a lot of instances do not reflect a country’s real economic makeup. Lanka’s proper title is: The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, but very clearly its economy is capitalist and its parliamentary system bourgeois.

I have no desire to debate Marxism here, but I say again that the use of left-wing establishment names is inappropriate in a discussion of Rajapaksa’s political programs and ideology. Dr Jayatilleka would do well to remember that his idealisation of his paymaster compromises his ambition to be an independent public commentator and intellectual. His many articles and comments in Groundviews show his position all too clearly: he is visibly damned by his history. It is time to listen to other voices from multi-cultural Lanka. Voices of tolerance and reconciliation: speaking of justice both social and economic. Lankans who express those views should not be subject to intimidation nor branded as traitors to the nation state. It is time these other voices were heard; then a true dialogue might begin. In doing this we can all defend Lanka not the current elite’s version of it.


[1] Kundera, M. (1980). The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Penguin Books, 7.

[2] Judt, T. (2009). Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Vintage Press, 13.

[3] Jayatilleka,  D. (2012). ‘Defending Sri Lanka: Response to Michael Colin Cooke.’ Groundviews, January 16, 2012. http//groundviews.org

[4] Cooke, M. C. (2012). ‘A Man for all political Seasons: Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’. Groundviews, January 16, 2012. http//groundviews.org

[5] Brown, L. (ed.) (1993). The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. 2: N-Z. Oxford University Press, 2386.

[6] Jayatilleka, D. (2010). President Rajapaksa is the best representative of national democracy. http://transcurrents.com, 25/09/2010

[7] Punchihewa, S.G. (2010). Sri Lankan constitution and democratic rights. Sri Lankan Guardian. October 10, 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2010/10/sri-lankan-constitution-and-democratic.html

[8] Malcolm, N. (1998). Kosovo: A short history. Papermac

[9] Lewis, D. (2010). The failure of a liberal peace: Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency in global perspective. Conflict, Security and development 10:5, 647-671. Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14678802.2010.511509

[10] Anderson, J. L., New Yorker, January 17, 2011, 48.

[11] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0.740.L-3923309.00.html

[12] Comment made on January 30, 2009 at 11:04pm in response to Wijayapala questioning his knowledge of matters military.

  • Burning_Issue

    Dear Michael Colin Cooke,

    You have eloquently exposed many holes in Dr D.J’s standpoint as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. You eruditely explained in details to support your conclusions. But one crucial point is missed!

    Dr D.J has unreservedly and unconditionally subscribed to the notion that the Sri Lanka’s Sovereignty is critically endangered by Tamil Separatism. It is therefore critical to counter this with any means possible even compromising on his personal left views and principles. He went great lengths to justify anything and everything with numerous mentioning of past and present Scholars. When the LTTE was still active, it was very easy for Dr D.J to articulate his support of the Rajapaksas but it is totally another issue now with post war politics.

    I feel that he has gone too far on the road defending and glorifying the Rajapaksas and he cannot turn back. At times he talks about an effective opposition but makes no contributions to it!

  • http://thecarthaginiansolution.wordpress.com Mango

    MIchael Cooke would be more credible if he was more accurate. A few glaring errors to prove this point.

    1. Cooke says: “…Western pressure was in the form of words, not actions. One cannot compare this to the pressure placed on Iran.”
    Utter drivel. Western pressure (mainly lead by the UK) consisted of the following actions, which any reasonable person can see is more than just words and are tantamount to acts of war against Sri Lanka.

    Blocking the IMF Loan to Sri Lanka
    ..”the leadership of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown (Prime Minister) brought an end to GSP Plusvoted against the IMF’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead.” http://tinyurl.com/744k2ey

    Trying to disrupt re-supply of ammunition to the SLA artillery in the last, critical phases of Eelam War 4

    The EU’s withdrawal of GSP+ trade benefits, action lead by the UK

    2. Cooke says “..Lankan military and the LTTE both paid only lip service to the peace process and violated its tenets many times.” The violations were 100 to 1 in favour of the LTTE. Why doesn’t Cooke state this? We all know these basic facts.

    “SLMM has ruled that LTTE has violated the CFA 3006 times, as opposed to 133 times by the Government, as of 30 June 2005.”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lanka_Monitoring_Mission

    3. Cooke predicts the future after it’s happened. “The LTTE’s financial and logistical support was being cut off and it was at this point that Pirapaharan and his advisers decided to fight a conventional war. There was only one possible outcome; it just took a little longer than it should have.”

    Wrong. There were many possible outcomes. VP had been fighting a conventional war long before that point and a war’s outcome is never fore-ordained. Even in early 2009, most ‘analysts’ were expecting the LTTE to counter-attack, re-group, melt back into the jungles and re-commence an insurgency. A complete and annihilating victory by the Sri Lankan state was still deemed to be in the realm of fantasy.

  • MV

    One must thank the doctor. He may personally be a Rajapakse apologist but he reps the majoritarian mentality. I would doubt any political leader out there would come forward to accuse the Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) Army without risking their political career in the South.

    It would have made little difference had Ranil come to power instead of Rajapakse, as there really had been no consensus in the South with respect to addressing the chronic national question. Simple as that.