Photo courtesy Maithripala Sirisena website

To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.

– Edmund Burke (1790) Reflections on the Revolution in France

With just over a month after the installation of the new government and its commencement of the 100-day reform process, the situation can best be described as mixed. For the time being at least, we have seen off both separatist and state terrorists from the public square, we have a government whose policy is informed by common sense and moderation, and there is a real prospect of a whole raft of constitutional reforms that will re-lay the democratic foundations of our republic more evenly.

We can be reasonably happy about all this, although we can do better. The process itself is extremely opaque, the programme’s coherence and priorities are perplexing, and as a result, there is little or no social constitutional conversation in the way the change of 8th January seemed to promise. In other words, this is increasingly looking like a more conventional Sri Lankan change of government, rather than a democratic regime change. It is a change of personnel and not of the system. We have voted out a government whose authoritarian and corrupt excesses had become intolerable, and replaced it with the more familiar style of government that both the SLFP and UNP produced prior to the Rajapaksa aberration.

I am not sure if this is good enough, whether it meets the expectations of the majority that voted for change on 8th January, and whether it uses the fullest potential of the historic opportunity that we created on that day, to ensure that political criminality, authoritarianism, and industrial-scale corruption are a thing of the past in Sri Lanka. Most ominously, I am not at all sure whether reformists have learnt all the critical political lessons they ought to have from the crash-and-burn of reformism in the decade between 1994 and 2004. The failure of the peace process especially carried two lessons: first, that the deep constitutional reforms that are needed to address our ethnic, religious, and national pluralism are better undertaken incrementally; and second, that government needed to communicate much better with the people and especially the Sinhala majority, to explain, debate, and defend reforms. It appears to me that the first lesson has been learnt fairly well, at least in terms of prioritising democracy reforms over the devolution reforms. Tamil nationalists will not be happy with this, but it is a choice of method that can be solidly defended on both practical and normative grounds.

So far, however, the government’s performance in respect of the second matter is a clear fail. The government’s attitude to the dissemination of information and public discussion of its proposals is antediluvian, and borders on disrespect for the electorate that debated these issues and voted for them in the last election. The government probably gets away with it because the reforms currently being prepared were – at least in broad principle – at the centre of the common opposition’s campaign, the President has a clear mandate for them, and there is widespread support for them. But this goodwill and credulity is unlikely to last, and indeed in a democracy, no government should be allowed to get away with such a lack of scrutiny. Especially when the time comes to deliver on minority aspirations – and President Sirisena has a strong moral obligation to do so given their solid support for him – when the detail and the consensus are going to be much more difficult to negotiate, the government’s primitive methods are unlikely to bring success. Reformism, then, will go the way reformism usually goes in Sri Lanka – a flash in the pan and then down the pan.

In this rather precarious context, there are three fundamental threats to substantive reformism as well as the reform process that must be clearly understood. I will call them the ‘politics of harm’, the ‘politics of hurt’ and the ‘politics of the haughty’. If their implications are not understood, it is inevitable that the reform process will fail. This will be a tragedy, albeit one that is a recurring feature in Sri Lankan history when one or the other or a combination of these factors have ensured the failure of reform. We would never have wasted our resources on a civil war, or caused unspeakable enmity amongst us, had we heeded the dangers represented by these factors and undertaken reforms at critical junctures in the past. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes again, unless we want the Rajapaksas, the Gnanasaras, and the Prabhakarans to return to run and ruin our lives yet again.

The politics of hate reflect the chauvinist strain of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that has wrecked our democratic promise time and time again after independence. This ‘majority with a minority complex’ worldview draws from an inexhaustible supply of insecurity and sees even the most trivial concession to the minorities as an existential threat to its own wellbeing. Anyone who is remotely critical of its small-minded intolerance is seen as a traitor and a separatist. It is an unedifying dimension to the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche, which when politicised trumps every other laudable instinct of Sinhala culture and Buddhist philosophy. In the hands of purveyors like the Rajapaksas and their accomplices like the BBS, this dominant nationalism makes politics a parody of a kasippu-fuelled brawl of village thugs. This powerful anti-reform force in Sri Lankan politics is down but not out, and if reformists underestimate its power as they have done in the past, reform has no chance. This is why incremental rather than radical reform is crucial, and an unceasing commitment to engaging the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency without capitulating to its chauvinism even more so. That engagement must seek to build and strengthen the reflective, tolerant, pluralistic, and ecumenical aspect of Sinhala-Buddhist culture and history, and assuage without appeasing it, its siege mentality of encirclement and cultural destruction. Sinhala-Buddhists may enjoy historical and numerical primacy in the territorial space of the state, but the task of ensuring that this does not mean the subjugation and ritual humiliation of Sri Lanka’s minority peoples must commence from within the Sinhala-Buddhist community itself.

The politics of hurt is reflected in the passive aggressive and self-piteous dimension of Tamil nationalism, which seeks to salve the humiliation of the battlefield defeat of 2009 by a sullen refusal to engage with the rest of Sri Lanka and by seeking succour through international intervention. It has appropriated the liberal critique of the ethnocratic Sri Lankan state in assuming a self-righteous moral high ground, while practicing a studious amnesia about its own excesses, exemplified in the acts and methods of the LTTE. It is a peculiar mix of ethnonational emotionalism and liberal internationalism, which sees political engagement with realities on the ground as a sell-out of its collective interests. It is fundamentally irresponsible with regard to the long-term interests of its own people within the island, and it is enslaved to the intemperate rhetoric of the Marxian discourses that informed Tamil nationalism’s era of radicalisation in the 1970s. It also predominantly articulates the wishes of a hypocritical section of diaspora opinion that enjoys the security, the wealth, the mobility, and the liberal democratic space of Western societies, including the naiveté of Western political opinion, to nurse a suppurating desire for revenge. As an illustration of this, it really is difficult to conjure up a more bizarre act of myopia than the ‘Genocide Resolution’ passed by Northern Provincial Council on 10th February. It could be dismissed as a silly piece of self-indulgence by a disgruntled bunch of councillors that is clearly out of the control of its instinctively moderate Chief Minister, if its potential consequences were not so serious. If it serves to undermine a moderate government, to destabilise a fragile reforms process, and to encourage a restoration of Southern hardliners to the control of the state, then this strain of Tamil nationalism would not only have dissipated a political opportunity that comes only once in a lifetime, but also have repudiated its claims to our sympathy with the legitimate aspirations to autonomy and accountability that Sri Lankan Tamils are otherwise entitled to as of right.

The politics of the haughty is what is usually practiced by reformists both Sinhala and Tamil. Convinced of the moral and intellectual superiority of their own convictions, they are impatient with the politics of populism and nationalism, and in some cases, with politics per se. They are also, however, paradoxically quite intellectually indolent, in that they are not prepared to do the hard work in order to contextualise the universal values of civility, reason, and the rule of law that they rightly prize, to the culture within which they must operate. Historical and philosophical resources that are available to rearticulate these values in more culturally resonant terms are never used, and the result is that the ethnonationalists are ceded the monopoly over cultural authenticity. In this way, whatever concessions they make to the realities of Sri Lankan political culture are done with barely concealed distaste and condescension, which patronises the large majority of ordinary people. This has constituted the recipe for the frequent electoral defeats that reformism has suffered time and again. Put another way, this is why a Mahinda Rajapaksa is preferred over a Ranil Wickremesinghe, or that the Sasitharans and the Sridharans find more resonance with their constituencies than the Sampanthans and the Sumanthirans. This is a self-inflicted tragedy, and the dormant signs of a Rajapaksa revival in the South as well as the sense of alienation that is reflected in the Genocide Resolution, should be wakeup calls to those in charge of the current reform process that if they do business as usual, they will be out of power sooner rather than later.

Reform by definition is a risky enterprise that engenders concerns and even fears in communities about their collective self-interests. For substantive reform to be durable, reformists must ensure that the process is sensitive and inclusive, so that understandable trepidations do not become destructive fears. The Sinhalese must not be driven back into the barren embrace of Rajapaksa-style chauvinism as the only way in which their place under the sun can be protected, or indeed to obsolete ideas about the state, nation, and sovereignty that are indefatigably promoted by those who cannot think beyond the Third World of the 1970s. Likewise, Tamils must not be allowed to feel that their desire for accountability and autonomy is being cheaply bartered away for meaningless promises of future reform in backroom deals. They must not feel that self-defeating, all-or-nothing gambits are all that they have in order to register and placate their sense of disempowerment and injustice. In all this, the nature of the process is critical and the politics of the haughty is simply inadequate to conceive and implement the kind of reform process that we need in order to address the politics of hate and hurt.

If these three threats to reform are not fully perceived and acted upon by those who are currently vested with the political power to reform the state, then I am afraid the process is in mortal danger. While it is not too late, the nature of the process must be rethought, and a serious attempt must be made by the hitherto haughty to ensure that hate and hurt do not lead to permanent harm. There is a Xhosa saying that I am told by President Mandela’s former legal advisor that Mandela used to frequently invoke during South Africa’s transitional process: “Don’t laugh at the crocodile until you’ve crossed the river.” In the context of the dangers represented by the politics of hate and the politics of hurt, that is sage advice.

  • puniselva

    Thank you for the whole article but esp:
    ”Tamil nationalists will not be happy with this, but it is a choice of method that can be solidly defended on both practical and normative grounds.”

  • puniselva

    Tamil and Sinhala media urgently need to publish this.

  • puniselva

    If we are serious about regime change our work hasn’t ended on election day. It’s helping that the elected govt make a critical change in the structure. That means ideas in articles like this reach the masses – Sinhala & Tamil.
    #wecanChangeSL includes enabling the masses UNDERSTAND the critical message in articles like this.

  • puniselva

    #wecanChangeSL the government need to communicate much better with the people and especially the Sinhala majority to explain, debate, and defend reforms.

    If the govt is struggling to cope with the debilitating malpractices of the previous regime let us help them by translating articles like this into Tamil and Sinhala.

  • Alex

    As always asanga grossly under estimates the potential for internally led reform in Sri lanka. Sri Lanka doesn’t have a moderate government by any normal standard – it is a coalition made up of an alleged war criminal, a man more rural and Sinhalese and chauvinistic than rajapakse, and hardline ethnic supremacist Sinhala parties – there is nothing moderate about it. I Suppose after the rajapakses anyone seems ‘moderate’. It’s a bit like calling karuna a moderate after prabaharan. As I have commented to asannga in the past the only hope for Sri lanka is a continuation of the international engagement / intervention we are witnessing, which I suspect will conclude in the broad and deep Sinhala supremecist establishment being given a choice – choose accountability pluralism and recognise Tamil claims as aboriginal people of the island and have a United country or choose nationslism and chauvinism and have a divided island. Asanga is wrong if he expects Sri lanka to ever enjoy peace without the external engagement it is presently benefiting from.

  • K Kalendran

    Well this is a great article. As a Tamil, we have to be
    little patient with this current Government. Do not trust this government but
    wait and see their actions. I do believe the Prime Minister is an honorable man.
    I am not sure of the New President. He was part of previous regime. You know what they say, you cannot change the
    stripes of a tiger. I guess I should not bring word tiger into this discussion.

    So far I see some good signal. I wish my fellow Tamils would
    have waited and not passing such resolution when there is some movement in the
    right direction.

    This article says talk to the people. That is what lacking
    in SL politicians. Well the foreign Minister
    is here. We will see what he will say when he gets back to SL. Good people of
    SL do not let this opportunity slip. Good luck to you and God Bless

    Kalay from Trincomalee

  • maneesha costa

    Good article…