PLATO’S CAVE IN THE INDIAN OCEAN: ELITE FAILURE IN SRI LANKA

Photo by EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA courtesy LA Times

“…one cannot expect an individual or a book to change reality but only to interpret it and to indicate a line of action. Machiavelli had no thought or intention of changing reality; he only wanted to show concretely how the concrete historical forces ought to have acted to change existing reality in a concrete and historically significant manner…Machiavelli was a single individual, a writer, as opposed to a head of state or the leader of an army who, albeit individuals, have the forces of a state or army available to them and not just armies of words.

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebook 8 (1930-1932), 84.

“In today’s world, the military potential of a country is measured not only by the number of tanks and planes it has, but by its intellectual resources.”

Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu (PiR Centre Press, April 28th 2014, Moscow)

“A moment when things could have gone one way, before they went another.”

-Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston

I

I write from a particular standpoint (derivative and illustrative of a distinct worldview), best delineated by a critical observer rather than by myself. Izeth Hussein, literary critic and former Ambassador wrote in After Geneva, What?:

“Between 1995 and 2000, and even more during the years of the peace process, the widespread assumption was that the LTTE could never be defeated militarily.  There were very few dissentient voices against that conventional wisdom outside the armed forces and those identifiable as Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists. One dissentient voice was that of Dayan Jayatilleka, who consistently maintained that there was no reason at all why the LTTE could not be defeated militarily. Anyway, it is reasonable to think that it was that conventional wisdom about the LTTE’s invincibility that made many people accept the idea of a political solution through a wide measure of devolution. Obviously that conventional wisdom has undergone a sea-change after the victory of May 19, 2009.” (‘After Geneva, What?’ Izeth Hussein, Colombo Telegraph, March 29th 2014)

II

The universalist outlook and attitude exhibit broadly speaking, three contending responses to events.

In the beginning is what Carl Schmitt calls ‘the decision’. This is a prerequisite and precursor of that which the communist philosopher Alain Badiou calls The Event. Examples would be Good Friday (though Badiou and Zizek differ on whether the Crucifixion or the Resurrection would best qualify as the most iconic Event of all), the French revolution of 1789, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Chinese revolution of 1949, the Cultural Revolution (Badiou’s personal favourite), the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Six Day War of 1967, the Vietnamese victory of 1975. This is the moment of ‘the leap’ or the break, the rupture.

From this flow the three main attitudes:

  • Endorsing The Event and supporting all that follows in the name of continuity
  • Decrying and rejecting The Event, blaming all that follows as flowing inevitably from it
  • Endorsing The Event while criticising this or that historical phase that follows.

The examples are too many to enumerate. Conservatives from Edmund Burke onward felt that The Terror resulted inevitably from the ideology of the French Revolution; Tom Paine did not. The critical Left denounced Stalinism or post-Stalin ‘Krushchevite revisionism’ as the case may be (for Che Guevara it was the latter, never the former), while endorsing the Russian Revolution of 1917. Support for the victory of the Chinese Revolution of 1949 by no means indicates support of the Cultural Revolution. (Ho Chi Minh was elated by the former, anguished by the latter).

Put differently, the responses to The Event take the following three forms:

  • For some, there is neither Rise nor Fall but a process which constitutes a complex continuum.
  • For others the Fall is embedded in the Rise— and for the more pessimistic radicals of this tendency, the Rise was not really a Rise at all.
  • For still others —with a more dialectical approach—the Fall is not inevitable, and originates not in the Rise but in The Morning(s) After, in the failure to properly manage or correctly consolidate the aftermath of The Event; to correctly handle the new contradictions.

I cleave to this third perspective, derived from a reading of political philosophy. In the extreme situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka and the existential threat that confronted the state and society over a protracted period, the Schmittian decision to wage all out war to defeat the Tigers was the right one, albeit long delayed, and the victory (or double-barrelled victories, military and diplomatic) of May 2009, constituted the neo-Badiou-ian Event, the historical legitimacy of which must be recognized and endorsed. The loss of the moral high ground by the Sri Lankan state was not during or because of the war, but after it. During the last war, including its last days, the state occupied the moral high ground if only in contrast to its fascistic opponent.

The road does not lead inevitably from St Paul or the Gospels to the Spanish Inquisition or from Marx in the reading room of the British Museum to the Gulag Archipelago.

The Israeli peace movement is replete with those who are proud of their country’s victory in the Six Day War, fought in it with distinction, while denouncing the subsequent policy of settler colonization and standing bravely for a two state solution. In fact the Israeli Peace movement has many who fought in the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, all of which they regard as ‘just wars’. The moral cut off point for them was the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. These brave souls see themselves as Israeli patriots, Zionists even, who oppose the notion of a Greater Israel. They stand for a homeland for the Jews which is not a Jewish homeland, and certainly not one that is depicted in the Old Testament. They are Israelis, but not always Zionists.

The Sri Lankan victory of May 2009 is a rare ‘Event’ that has a threefold character, the features of which are usually incompatible. It represents a rupture from the defeats and retreats of decades. It represents a restoration of the territorial unity of the island-state. It represents an existential liberation from decades of daily killings— you no longer hear the sirens. This threefold unity of characteristics that are usually incompatible, gives the victory tremendous tensile strength in the collective feelings and imagination of those who, for better or worse, constitute the overwhelming majority of the citizenry, the inhabitants, of the island. In so far as it reconnects with the tissue of the past, it is not merely a dramatic rupture as was the Russian Revolution. It represents the twofold quality that the outstanding Vietnamese intellectual Nguyen Khac Vien identified as the very source of the success of his nation’s resistance to the USA, the mightiest power the world had seen: ‘Tradition and Revolution’. In so far as the Sri Lankan military victory of May 2009 evokes the feeling of freedom from the fear of sudden, arbitrary death, it will have a durable and widespread emotional resonance.

Sri Lanka is intellectually, philosophically, psychologically and politically near-unique in the absence of a critical centre which sees stages and phases instead of a seamless continuity; recognizes discontinuity and a lack of inevitability; discerns rise and fall; comprehends contingency and conjuncture; focuses on tracing the changing balances of forces and eschews a determinist teleology while grasping instead the decisive importance of political struggle in the shaping of outcomes.

III

Almost five years after the war was won, things are going badly for Sri Lanka, and that’s mainly because things are going badly in Sri Lanka. Everyone has their own favourite explanations of why. This is mine, and it focuses only on what I consider the single most important negative factor.

This factor is the convergence for the first time, of four negative phenomena which have been around long before the Rajapaksa administration. The convergence and concatenation however, took place in the post-war period and more specifically in the second term of President Rajapaksa, resulting in a crisis which is threatening the reunified post-war state (and of course his own political future).

  1. The first is family or clan based rule. The Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes (or more correctly, the Ratwatte–Bandaranaikes) dominated the two major political parties, the UNP and the SLFP. While the Senanayakes never dominated the state apparatus or sought to do so, the Bandaranaikes did in the 1970s, resulting in a quasi-oligarchic form of rule compounded by the statist character of the economy and the relative absence of competitive pluralism in the mass media.
  1. The second is Sinhala-Buddhist hard-line caucuses and pressure groups which have stood for policies of majoritarian ethno-lingual and ethno-religious domination. These groups have existed throughout our post-independence political history. Howard Wriggins’ ‘Dilemmas of a New Nation’ notes the displeasure of such groups about the policies of DS Senanayaka. In September 1963, the Governor General William Gopallawa appointed a three-person Press Commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge KD de Silva, on the advice of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike who in turn acted at the behest of Sinhala Buddhist caucuses. The Press Commission’s report was issued in September 1964. The Commission sat on 107 days, investigating the English language newspapers of the privately owned Lake House and the Times Group. Among the “…charges [were] that our newspapers have conducted themselves in a manner hostile to the interests of the country and Buddhism, the religion professed by the vast majority of the permanent population.” (Press Commission Report para 18, page 12). Public sittings were held; 15 associations and 59 individuals testified while 75 memoranda were received. Journalists were classified in a Nazi-like act of religious apartheid (my father, Mervyn de Silva was named in the Report as “a Buddhist, Third Class —wife is a Catholic and son attends a Catholic school”).
  1. The third phenomenon is identifiable as centres of authoritarianism or an ‘authoritarian persona’:authoritarian personalities and centres of power, whose power base is almost always the security apparatuses. The mildest, earliest and most humorous figure was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, but the trend grew far more serious and dangerous with JR Jayewardene (as Minister of State in the Dudley Senanayaka administration), Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjan Wijeratne and Anuruddha Ratwatte.
  1. The fourth and more recent trend has been the infatuation with Israel as a model for the Sri Lankan state, especially in the realm of security but also as a way of being in the world. This infatuation dates back at least to Lalith Athulathmudali and Ravi Jayewardene. Given that Israel is perhaps the world’s most negative example of post-war policies, peace building and a negotiated solution to political conflict, this ‘conversion’ to the Tel Aviv doctrine has the most pernicious consequences imaginable.

The Sri Lankan state and society were relatively safe because these four trends hardly ever overlapped, and when they did it was not a neat overlay. (Felix Dias Bandaranaike was far too intelligent to regard Israeli policies and practices as any kind of model while Oxford educated Lalith Athulathmudali wouldn’t take his cue from the Buddhist clergy.)

What is new today is that for the first time in our history as an independent nation there has been a drawing together, a convergence and a resultant condensation or synthesis of these four profoundly negative phenomena.

It did not begin with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, but with Gen Sarath Fonseka, though the centre of gravity of this convergence is now clearly the top defence bureaucracy—The Secretary and the Securocracy— rather than the armed forces proper. It is a more complete convergence because Gotabhaya unlike Fonseka is a member of the ruling clan and its top troika—a troika that functions increasingly like a duumvirate.

It is the convergence of these four negative trends as well as the location of this fusion at the hard drive of the state machine, which has shifted the content and pathway of state policy in the post-war period and even (re)drawn the roadmap. It is as if a signals tower at a railway intersection or the control tower of an airport has been taken over by a new crew which has decided views.

The open endorsement by the country’s most powerful official, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, certainly one of the two most powerful persons on the island, of the candidate of the Sinhala Buddhist hard-line party the JHU — rather than those of his brothers’ party the moderate SLFP—at the Western Provincial Council election of March 2014; his remarks at the opening of the political academy of the Islamophobic Sinhala Buddhist extremist formation the Bodu Bala Sena; his presence at the annual convention of the JHU some years earlier, are manifestations — and one may say, merely the visible manifestations— of this unprecedented convergence and fusion of the four negative factors.

This fusion has given the Sinhala hardliners and their views unique access to the ‘ideological structures’ (Gramsci), the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (Althusser). Thus the state is encased in a national security straitjacket and the dominant ethos of the regime is not that of the centrist SLFP, or even the pragmatic and protean ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ (the discourse, not the manifesto), but a harsher compound of Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism and state security fundamentalism.

It is not merely a militarization or hyper-securitization that we see —which future historians may or may not see as a creeping coup, a policy putsch as process rather than event—but also a hyper-securitization driven by or intertwined with a fanatical Sinhala Buddhist ‘Zionism’. It is not by any means a purely professional, secular concept or process of securitization.

Who then runs the country? If the answer is The (Buddhist) Brotherhood and its courtiers—a close knit group of unelected officials who are not accountable to Parliament— a significant distortion and deformation have taken place in the functioning and perhaps even the structure of the Sri Lankan state.

The amalgam of the four trends has changed the configuration and discourse of the Sri Lankan state. It has caused a mutation within and of the Sri Lankan state itself. It now appears before the world in disguise—wearing the genially smiling mask of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Ironically, it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now a human shield. It doesn’t work internationally or outside the Sinhala cultural zone, because outside that zone the Sri Lankan state now looks and speaks like Darth Vader or General Zod rather than Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is why world opinion is moving increasingly away from Sri Lanka. This is why it was so easy for the Tamil Diaspora activist networks to target Sri Lanka and successfully lobby Western politicians.

Contrary to the lurid propaganda of the regime’s critics, Sri Lanka in 2014 bears only the faintest resemblance to an Orwellian ‘1984’ society. Here, Big Brother is not watching. But Little Brother may be listening.

If there was anything that post-war Sri Lanka required, and now requires still more (as antidote to the poison arrow of the Geneva-mandated international inquiry) it was reform. Instead, the new centre of gravity of the regime and state is a bulwark of neoconservative Counter-reformation. It is the dominant ethos of counterreformation and the doctrine of ‘roll back’ that has frozen the Northern Provincial Council, despite the bold step taken by Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold the election to the NPC. The attempt by the political proxies of the Securocracy to cut down the powers of the 13th amendment before holding the Northern election was successfully resisted by the progressives within the government and more importantly by the diplomatic pressure of the neighbouring power.

IV

The Sinhalese handled victory badly. The Tamils handled defeat badly. The Sinhalese followed up victory not with sagacity but with an attempt at over-lordship. The Tamils took defeat and the earlier diminution of their numbers on the island through migration, not in the spirit of self-criticism and realism but with a global tantrum of revanchisme masquerading as a cry for accountability and justice. That campaign has made significant headway precisely because of the project of Sinhala Buddhist over-lordship in place of reconciliation and a viable new political compact.

The Tamil nationalists seem to want to replicate the separate and independent existence they had during the years of the war and LTTE control. They don’t want the Tigers back but they retain and nurture the spirit of prideful separation from the rest of Sri Lanka. As for the Tamil Diaspora, not having been on the terrain that was wrested from Tiger control by the Sri Lankan armed forces, they wish to maintain the same state of mind that they did during the reign of the Tigers and are unable to cope with losing that status. The sublimation of the sense of defeat is through the drive for a punishment of the Sri Lankan state through a war crimes probe, combined with a mythical genocide narrative. “Our boys, the Tigers— we —could have won fair and square if not for the world having ganged up against them/us and helped perpetrate a holocaust. We in the Diaspora are guilty for having let it happen so we are locked in an endless blood feud with the Sri Lankan state, while you, the rest of the world must make reparations for your crime of letting the Sinhalese win, by punishing them.” That seems to me the narrative running through the Tamil collective unconscious.

Ironically Sri Lanka’s is a tale of two Zionisms. The continuing crisis is the clash of contending Zionisms: Sinhala and Tamil. Both communities of (self) ‘chosen people’ look in the mirror and see Israel.

The Sinhalese, who won the war, are losing the peace and the Cold War because of the absence of a vision of peace that takes into account the best interests of the state and its citizens rather than the narrower, exclusivist interests of the ethno-religious majority. Such a vision was not forthcoming because of the character of the Sinhala political elite as well as the Sinhala political class itself.

The intense and deep rooted ethno nationalism of the Sinhala political elite made it possible to tap the energies that enabled military victory. That political elite could not make the transition from a strategic Sinhala nationalism to a strategic Sri Lankan nationalism— a transition which would have been similar either to that achieved by Nehru and Mandela (drawn from the majority) or that from the ethno-tribal to an inclusive nationalism which a victorious Paul Kagame (belonging to a minority) was able to inculcate in the RPF.

Is there another —third—perspective which could accommodate the principles of democracy, non-discrimination and non-domination, reconciling realism with fair play in a new, post-war Social Contract? Perhaps the inspiration could come from common corporate practices, those of shareholding and partnerships, or Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff’s concept of ‘multi-stakeholderism’.

The Sri Lankan state and society must be re-envisioned, not as Sinhala Buddhist or Sinhala Buddhist dominated, but as a multi-stakeholder partnership between all of the island’s constituent communities. The Sinhala nationalist notion of monopoly of power and decision making must be eschewed in favour of the recognition that there are stakeholders and they are multiple, with the Sinhala Buddhist being one such. These multiple stakeholders are placed on the same plane and an equal footing, but it does not mean that each has equally-sized stake in state power.

A majority shareholder and a minority shareholder are neither equals nor in a hierarchical relationship of domination and subordination. A minority shareholder cannot expect to be equal to the majority shareholder in terms of decision making, but the fact that there are minority shareholders does not place them on a lower plane. The majority and minority shareholders are treated with equal respect but have unequal decision-making weight around a common, shared table. Inequality in a horizontal relationship does not mean the relationship is a vertical one.

Partnerships are often unequal but that does not mean a partnership is between a super-ordinate and a subordinate.

In the first place inequality is not at the level of the individual: neither the majority shareholder/partner nor the minority shareholder/junior partners are superior or inferior as citizens, still less human beings. Sinhalese and Tamils must have equal rights and equal treatment as individual citizens.

In the second place, even in a collective sense i.e. as communities, political inequality does not necessarily mean and must therefore not be taken to mean political or social domination and subordination.

The nationalist Sinhalese, especially the Sinhala Buddhists, seem to believe that their superiority in numbers entitles them not merely to a larger share in decision making around the table but to a two tiered structure in which the Tamils either hold inferior shares or none at all.

The Tamils feel that mere admission of the reality of minority shareholding will doom them to an inferior status. Therefore, irrespective of the vast asymmetry of numbers they should wield an equal share of power and decision-making as the majority shareholders.

The Tamils are willing to be partners only on the basis of complete equality while the Sinhalese Buddhists believe themselves to be entitled due to their arithmetical superiority to a superiority of status which Tamils, Muslims and Christians must reconcile and subordinate themselves to.

Both the Sinhalese and Tamils conflate majority with superiority and minority with inferiority. Both confuse the horizontal and the vertical, the social with the political. Neither has a democratic notion of partnership. A co-pilot is not the absolute equal of the pilot in his role and function, but is in no way dominated or discriminated against by virtue of the role and status.

Historical realism indicates that after a Thirty Years War which culminated in a dramatic and decisive victory, the Sri Lankan military has also to be recognised as a legitimate stakeholder in the state and the decision-making process. The danger which must be resisted and rolled-back, is the granting of a golden share to the military, thereby encroaching on and shrinking the sphere of sovereignty of the democratically elected civilian leadership.

Verticality does come in, but not between the communities. Verticality is pertinent as a power relationship between the centre and the periphery. While the periphery must have irreducible autonomous political space, the autonomous periphery cannot be placed on the same level of equality as the centre. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly the centre represents the whole while the periphery represents the part, and the latter must not be placed on the same plane as the former. This is especially so when there is an executive president elected directly by the citizens of the country as a whole, which gives the office a more inclusive and representative mandate, a much broader degree of popular consent of the citizenry and therefore a higher degree of legitimacy than an elected regional or provincial assembly.

Secondly the centre is the seat, the engine and the guarantee of the centripetal, which must take precedence over the centrifugal. The geopolitical realities are that the Scottish, the Quebecois and the Catalans do not have vast numbers of co-ethnics next door (unlike the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s North and East) while English and Spanish are spoken not only by ethnic natives in their mother countries (as is Sinhala)! Furthermore the Sinhalese cannot afford to abolish the strong executive presidency, convert to de jure or de facto federal arrangements, recognise ‘internal self determination’, permit referenda on separation and live in a permanent state of collective angst.

The New (Post-war) Social Contract must be based on the following platform or pillars: (i) zero tolerance not merely of terrorism but also secessionism (ii) the complete elimination of discrimination by the legal and constitutional implementation of the UN Durban Declaration and Programme of Action against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance (iii) a horizontal relationship between the constituent communities of Sri Lanka; one of democratic multi-stakeholder partnership (iv) an irreducible measure of provincial autonomy.

The State is losing the Cold War because the Sinhala political elite is unable to — or, more accurately, is no longer able to—compete with the Tamil political elite. It is no longer able to do so because its ability to compete and prevail depended precisely on the incorporation of the non-Sinhala Buddhist or cosmopolitan element within the political elite; the element that was the most competitive globally. As the Sinhala political elite and its global representation became less secular and modernist, culturally more homogenous and majoritarian, its ability to compete with the Tamil political elite declined. The last battle in the global arena that the Sinhala political elite won, that of the UNHRC in Geneva in May 2009, was precisely because of the atypical character of the Sri Lankan representation, profile, discourse and way of being in the world. That is also why this representation was replaced so swiftly, opening the door to decline and repeated, decisive defeat in that very arena, a global microcosm. In 2009, in the battle of norms in the UN, Sri Lanka’s stance and discourse was of universalism applied to the concrete particular (the “double standards” argument), while in the years of triple defeat —2012, 2013 and 2104— it was of ‘the particular’ upheld against the universal (the invocation of the “home grown”). Sri Lanka won when we were universalist and lost when we were particularist, but the almost immediate discontinuity in representation— in casting, script and performance in that vital theatre— meant that there were more important criteria at work than success or failure. These were ideological, psychological or psycho-political criteria.

Now at the UNHRC in Geneva, the rhetorical response of Sri Lanka is cold and angry— no longer the broad ‘global Southernist’ coalition building, and reasoned if sharp, impassioned polemics of 2007-2009. Prof GL Peiris says that “the Government does not recognise” the 2014 UNHRC resolution. (Sunday Observer, April 27, 2014) This is very different from asserting that Sri Lanka disagrees with, is critical of, rejects or shall not submit to the resolution. “Does not recognise” is not the language of active presence, participation and struggle on the terrain of universal norms. It is not the spirit of a countervailing coalition. Rather it is the discourse of de-linking from the world system; the attitude of autarchy; the narrative of neo-isolationism. We have a different discourse and way of being in the world in the post-war period, not only because it is a different ‘we’ but also and more importantly, because we are different. The Sri Lankan regime now has a dark and hard heart or (to broaden the critique) there is a dark dangerous place in the mind of the Sri Lankan state.

The Sri Lankan missions overseas are increasingly enmeshed in a matrix of the clergy of Buddhist temples in the country of accreditation, militant blue-collar Sinhala émigré organizations, military intelligence officers embedded in the embassies who interface with the first two categories, and a patronage pipeline hooked up to the power centres in Colombo. The main function of the Sri Lankan embassies is not to build bridges with and bases among the political elites and civil society in the country of accreditation, nor reach out to the educated Sinhala and Tamil elites in those societies, but to service the Sinhala Buddhist expatriate constituencies of the regime— almost a demimonde. Whereas the profile that any state (from Cuba to Iran, Pakistan to Zimbabwe) presents in the outside world is one of a sophisticated elite, the missions of the Sri Lankan state functioning in the world have by stark contrast, an increasingly lumpen character, indicative of the process of lumpenisation of the Sri Lankan regime and state.

The absence of an intellectual elite and the presence of the religious and the military element have resulted in the structural inability of the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala nation to compete in the global arena.

It would be quite misleading to conclude that the problem can be solved by simply replacing the parochial political elite by the urban-cosmopolitan Opposition elite. If one values democracy, one has to adopt the methods of democratic replacement i.e. of winning an election. This cannot be achieved by the “cosmopolitan caste” (as Gramsci termed the Italian equivalent). Take for instance the Daily FT report of the latest opinion poll conducted by the LBO which reveals that around 85% of the populace stands against an external inquiry into human rights and more specifically against the UNHRC mandated OHCHR probe while a stratospheric 95% feel that the West adopts double standards on human rights. These figures are considerably in excess of the percentage of Sinhala Buddhists and even the Sinhalese in the country—and therefore may be regarded as a patriotic or a national rather than a merely ethno-religious sentiment. Juxtapose these figures with the call in parliament by the UNP’s foreign affairs spokesman Lakshman Kiriella for the government to cooperate with the UN probe, and one may see just how drastically out of synch the main democratic opposition, led by or representative of the cosmopolitan caste is from the sentiments of the citizenry.

Even if one were to advocate or secretly wish for a more authoritarian forcing of the substitution of elites, as in East Asia in earlier decades, the outcome would be a horrific failure because the instrument of by-passing majoritarian electoral democracy would be still more parochial and xenophobic than the existing political elite, and would therefore opt for the enthroning of a more militantly Sinhala Buddhist elite than the present one.

If the agency of replacement of the parochial-nationalist political elite were to be external, the country would be plunged into an enduring and convulsive crisis of governability, in which one aspect would be resistance from the Sinhala Buddhist soldiery and lower-middle officer corps.

Because the present political elite is far too parochial and primitive to compete successfully with the increasingly secessionist-oriented Tamil political class in a globalised world; because the cosmopolitan caste that would replace it in a game of rotation of elites (Pareto’s ‘foxes’ and ‘lions’) is unable to win the consent of the masses; and an externally driven partition of the island would result in unprecedented trauma and violence, the crisis derives not merely from a failure of the present power elite but that of the political class as a whole.

Why is the present political elite of the Sinhalese unable to build a nation or at the least put in place a viable compact capable of accommodating and politically integrating the North? Half a decade after the war and the defeat of the Tiger militia, why can’t the Sinhala political elite manage the North without repression? Why can’t it prevail over the ultra-nationalist Tamil political elite in the global arena?

It is at one level a failure of the political imagination. This in turn stems from an inability to understand either the realities of collective identities other than one’s own, or the realities of the world-system. It is an inability to understand one’s milieu and therefore one’s own situation, either as an island, a nation or an ethno-lingual/ethno-religious community.

Why then doesn’t the Sinhala nationalist political elite do what most ruling elites do, namely, contract out the business of mediating and managing relations with The Other, to a more suitable sub-elite or managerial class? Perry Anderson and Nicos Poulantzas in their path-breaking studies in the 1970s convincingly contended that the capitalist class does not rule in an unmediated way or by itself. Anderson emphasized that in Britain the industrial bourgeoisie permitted the old aristocratic classes to staff and manage the state apparatuses until the social compact broke down with the First World War and mass mobilisation.

One of the reasons for the crisis of the Sri Lankan state’s external relations in the post-war period is the failure of the political elite to permit the function of mediation be carried out by an autonomous stratum of a more globalised if ultimately patriotic character. This unwillingness is rooted in the character of the political elite in its post-war phase. It is here too that the interface of the four negative features/phenomena I have identified comes into play. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history as an independent state, the selection of human resources, of higher cadre, proceeds through four, not one, two or even three filters while matters of policy are viewed through four lenses and are therefore obscured or distorted.

For decades, it was not enough to be highly able and competent. One had to be politically loyal. In the 1960s, with the NQ Dias witch-hunt, it also helped to be Sinhala Buddhist to make it to the top of the state apparatus. Later, in the bad old days of the Bandaranaikes, the 1970s, one had to be loyal not merely to the PM or the ruling party but also to the ruling clan. Today, one has to be loyal to the ruling clan (not just the elected President), be Sinhala Buddhist (or if one is Christian one has to be religio-culturally conformist to the Sinhala Buddhist ideology and symbolism to the point of subservience), be approved by or better still, be a nominee/ideological proxy of the Super Securocrat, and share allegiance to the Israeli model and connection.

This four-meshed sieve blocks off the factor of sheer merit, talent or proven ability. It doesn’t exactly yield a selection of Sri Lanka’s best and brightest, capable of competing with a far better educated and sophisticated Tamil political elite, here and in the Diaspora. Instead it buttresses an anti-intellectualism which guarantees that the Sri Lankan state has no ‘policy intellectuals’ and consequently, no strategic or policy thinking.

Almost uniquely in the world system, the Sri Lankan state has no intellectual elite. While it had far greater intellectual capacity in earlier times, most notably in the immediate post-independence decade, it never nurtured a permanent elite capable of reproducing itself through the universities and housed in autonomous think tanks adjacent or annexed to the state.

The structural inability of the Sinhalese to compete globally and the Tamils to prevail locally brings in its train an inability to cope with defeat, because defeat runs up against the respective self-images of the Sinhalese and Tamils. In this sense, the post-war crisis of Sri Lanka also has a large psychological or psychosocial element. The combination of multiple thrusts and escalating external pressures— the OHCHR inquiry, the pro-Eelam advocacy in Tamil Nadu, the Western media barrage and Tamil Diaspora’s escalating campaign—will almost inevitably impact on the collective Sinhala psyche and trigger a pathological, extreme reaction. Such crises of the national psyche tend to bring into play ‘men of destiny’— usually on horseback.

In her classic work, States and Social Revolutions, Theda Skocpol sifts through the historical evidence and rejects most explanations— especially economic— for the causation of revolutions, identifying instead a crisis generated by the inability of the ruling elite to prevent the defeat or drastic erosion of the State. It is such a crisis that triggered the ultranationalist JVP uprising of the late 1980s and catapulted Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa into power in 1988 and 2005. What will be the resultant of the inability of the Rajapaksa regime to prevent the erosion of the Sri Lankan state; to defend it successfully from external powers? It will certainly not result in the restoration of the failed, pusillanimous pre-war leaderships. There is only one option the Sinhalese have never tried; one impulse they have never given in to; one agency that has never been called upon to play the role of vanguard and collective redeemer. (Our Al Sisi could already be in a suit. He wouldn’t be a secular statist though, and would bear the ideology of Mohamed Morsi, giving us a worst of both worlds—a non-secular, religious, anti-minority National Security State).

To summarise: the failure of Sri Lanka is the failure of its (competing) elites. The postcolonial elite failed to forge a nation. The cosmopolitan elite, in its rival pro-Western and Marxist variants, failed to broad-base or root its own multiethnic meritocratic character and universalist-modernist-humanist values, liberal or socialist, as a national and popular ideology, consciousness and culture— as Jose Marti, Sun Yat Sen, Nehru, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew variously, were able to. Conversely, the emergent elite (as Marshall Singer dubbed it) which challenged the modernist urban cosmopolitans in the mid-1950s turned its back on an inclusive multiethnic nationalism, opting instead for a project of ethno-lingual and ethno-religious majoritarian domination. Rootless cosmopolitanism and sectarian particularism were the antinomies that ran through the socio-political and ideological history of independent Sri Lanka.

The pre-war elite failed to win the war and territorially reunify the state. The wartime bloc failed to grow the kind of elite that could negotiate the post war world, throwing up instead a more organic and parochial elite whose ideology is pseudo-patriotic Sinhala Buddhist kitsch. The pre-war elite which still dominates the opposition to the regime, lacks the legitimacy to replace it. The post-war elite has failed to win the peace.

The root of the problem resides in the inadequacies and inevitable failures of the contending mentalities and Weltanschauung (world outlook or world view) of the rival elites, governing and oppositional.

What then is the answer? The founding moment of the study of politics, Plato’s Republic provides a pointer. If Sri Lanka is Plato’s Cave in the Indian Ocean, then one may also draw on his famous solution for inspiration, namely that of a “republic of philosophers” which can only come about if philosophers become rulers or rulers become philosophers. In Sri Lanka, the governing nationalist elite understands nothing but the Sinhala nation, while the oppositional cosmopolitan elite understands everything but the Sinhala nation. The former comprehends nothing outside the Sinhala nation, the latter nothing within it. The governing elite of Sri Lanka is integrated with the (Sinhala) nation but is no longer an integral part of the South Asian elite, while the oppositional cosmopolitan elite is integrated into the South Asian elite but not integrated with the (Sinhala) nation. To adapt Plato’s conclusion, Sri Lanka’s solution lies either in a patriotic/nationalist political elite that becomes cosmopolitan enough to compete globally, or a cosmopolitan political elite that becomes patriotic/nationalist enough to win the mass legitimacy and consent that manifests itself in electoral victory and stable governance (unlike the appeasement interlude of 2001-2003 which triggered a backlash, an ouster and its endorsement at an election).

It is also possible to couch it in terms of a ‘dual perspective’ as Antonio Gramsci says of Machiavelli’s symbol of the Centaur — man and animal, representing the moments of consent and coercion. The adaptation to Sri Lanka’s current context would be the creation of an intelligentsia that is capable of a dual perspective— national and international—and has a dual character — nationalist and internationalist.

There is a third way in which to look at it. If one is to fast forward from Plato to Hegel (and Karl Popper’s critique was that these were on a definite continuum), one may posit it as a dialectical synthesis that is imperative yet absent in post-war Sri Lanka: a synthesis of the national and the international, of the patriotic and the globalist. We need a political elite and a political leadership, individual or collective, the Weltanschauung of which embodies such a synthesis. It is only such a synthesis that can combat and overcome the toxic amalgam of the four factors that I have listed earlier. It is only such a Weltanschauung on the part of the political elite that can positively transform the mentalities of the masses, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. It is the task of the intellectual to formulate or at least strive for such a synthesis. The failure to do so is a failure of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia.

If one goes along with the Hegelian notion of an upward spiralling dialectic, then the values of the multiethnic proto-modernist Ceylon National Congress of the pre-Independence decades, split asunder and negated by contending Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms, must reappear, strengthened and in a new form, at a higher level of the dialectical spiral.

This is now the challenge before the most intelligent, most globalised, best-educated Sri Lankans of the new generation. It is the key to a country at peace within and with itself, as with the world.

VI

Having been a fan of The Wire, Justified and Dexter, my most recent favourite is Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series True Detective. The Daily Beast calls it “one of the most riveting and provocative TV series ever” while Forbes describes it as “potentially revolutionary” In the just concluded first season, Mathew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson is Marty Hart, detectives turned private eyes who obsessively track a serial killer over a period of seventeen years. It transpires that the killer, referred to in whispers as the Yellow King, is a religious, delusional and quasi-demonic fanatic who is a member of an extended family of “big people, important people” (as a character describes it) in the Louisiana bayou. As a pair of city cops (not the anti-heroes) stop by him seeking directions to the main highway, but drive away impatiently, leaving him in mid-sentence, they fail to hear the killer muse while standing next to his tractor in a cemetery, “my family has been here a long time”.

The TV show has a repeated scene of Rust Cohle (McConaughey) being questioned by the Internal Affairs officers; sessions in which he dominates by his essentially neo-Nietzschean but more bleakly nihilistic philosophical ruminations on existence, delivered in a slow Texan drawl. In one such session he leafs through the photographs of the hapless victims of the serial killer and reflects that: “all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain—it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream: a dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.”

The Sri Lankan people had a dream of peace, prosperity, tranquillity, reconciliation, integration, healing and friendship with the world. A dream of being free persons at peace with each other, in their communities and between them, and with the larger community outside— a dream of leaving a room they had been locked in for three decades. But like a lot of dreams, it looks increasingly like there’s a monster at the end of it.

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Dayan Jayatilleka, PhD, was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva (2007-2009) and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO (2011-2013). A Vice President of the UN Human Rights Council (2007-2008), Chairman of the Governing body of the ILO (2008-2009), Chairperson/Rapporteur of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the United Nations’ Durban Declaration & Programme of Action against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance (2008-2009), he was alsoCoordinator of the Agenda Item on “General and Comprehensive Nuclear Disarmament” of the UN Conference on Disarmament (2008-2009). His latest books are The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-Narrative from the South, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014 and Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, revised edition 2014. He is also the author of Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, Pluto, London, 2007. His first book was Sri Lanka-The Travails of a Democracy: Unfinished War, Protracted Crisis, Vikas, New Delhi, 1995.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • Dev

    One of the reasons for the crisis of the Sri Lankan state’s external relations in the post-war period is the failure of the political elite to permit the function of mediation be carried out by an autonomous stratum of a more globalised if ultimately patriotic character.

    Patriotism or the lack of it is never the issue…
    I have always stated and continue to state that the main problem we have in international relations is the appointment of non career diplomats who enter through political connections, family ties … Whether they be tea company owners, retired military personnel or political scientists….if we fix this, then we can fix our external image.