Groundviews

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party: The Moment of Truth

Image courtesy Business Times

“I ask my countrymen, Honorable members of this House, to discard that mutual suspicion and mutual tearing of each other to pieces and to join each other in that constructive cooperation which I hope will enable us to reach that golden age”

Quoted by James Manor in Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon (1989).

S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s words, during a State Council debate in August 1936 now find an echo in the sentiments of President Maithripala Sirisena in his quest to form   a national government with the United National Party (UNP). During the presidential election campaign in January, as the common candidate, Sirisena often talked about his dislike of Sri Lanka’s polarized and divided political culture and his determination to practice consensual politics. In achieving this aspiration, President Sirisena will be taking aim at the ‘golden age’ invoked by SWRD Bandaranaike.

This article therefore raises and reflects on two interrelated questions:  the political viability of the ‘national’ government in view of the SLFP split in parliament and the national government’s political ability to survive particularly in its ambitious project of devolving power to the Tami community.

It is not unusual for politicians to appeal to consensus and unity even as they exploit divisions in society. Indeed, SWRD laid a strong foundation for the two party system that has defined the political landscape in the country since Independence. It is SWRD’s ideology and politics, which has entrenched a reservoir of rural voters in the South melded together with Buddhism and   Sinhala nationalism.

In contrast, the ‘westernized’ UNP has been more accommodative of a cosmopolitan political culture within the party, which has encouraged hopes of reconciliation with the North and East in the country following their victory of the recent parliamentary elections.

As President Sirisena strives to make SWRD’s rhetoric a reality, he will have to directly challenge the bitter legacy of his own party’s history. He will have to carry an electoral voter base that has been nurtured with a developed suspicion of other minority communities into a consensus of support for devolution of power. The enormous difficulties and political risks that stand in President Sirisena’s way should not be underestimated. He will have to deconstruct the political DNA of his own party in order to give both the party and the country a new and viable future.

Of course, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has no monopoly over using Sinhala chauvinism and Buddhism for electoral gains but it has been a consistent culprit in using narrow nationalist propaganda in order to gain the electoral upper hand. It was the SLFP that introduced the Sinhala Only act in 1956. It cancelled the Bandaranaike –Chelvanayagam Pact in 1958, buckling under the pressure of   Sinhala chauvinism and Buddhist activists. The SLFP also opposed the Dudley-Chelvanagam Pact signed in order to devolve power to the North and East in 1966, with the collaboration of the Sri Lankan Left. The SLFP also awarded the foremost place to Buddhism in the new 1972 constitution in collaboration with the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP). These are unsuitable and discriminatory laws to govern a democratic country like Sri Lanka, which has multi ethnic, and multi religious communities.  After the   defeat of the Liberation of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), it was the SLFP again under the Rajapaksa administration, which consistently refused reconciliation and the devolution of power.  This terrible history has led to a great tragedy and countless dead bodies. If we trace the root causes for the deaths of the thousands of innocent Tamil civilians dying at Nandikaddal, it is hard not to find these unjust pieces of legislation guilty. If they did not wield the guns, they created pathology in Sri Lankan politics of Sinhala chauvinism, which is merely wounded but not defeated.

Divisive leadership battles and splits are not new to the SLFP, though previous crises centered around dynastic politics at the highest level rather than affecting grassroots members. There were efforts to form left wing factions within the party itself on at least two occasions in the 1970s and 80s, but such factional moves failed to harm the SLFP.

The current crisis facing the party, however, is unprecedented. A section of the SLFP has now joined the National government with the UNP, the SLPF’s former bitter rivals since its formation, under President Sirisena’s leadership. The rest of the party have refused to join the national government and are clearly waiting for the right moment to ambush the national government   in parliament. They march under the banner of Sinhalese nationalism and fundamentalist Buddhism, arguing that the national government are endangering the territorial integrity and future safety of Sri Lanka. They are opposed to making any concessions to the Tamil community. This is a strategy that, at both the presidential election in January and the parliamentary elections in August, has delivered declining returns for them, and their leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, they are not political novices and are well aware of the continued potency of Sinhalese nationalism both inside parliament and outside of it. After all, this   has been the backbone of the SLFP throughout its 64-year existence, and prior to that, the Sinhala Maha Saba formed in 1934 by SWRD. If they succeed, any hope for a settlement of the national question will fade away.

There is also a personal incentive for some SLPF MPs to maintain the status quo. Some of them have amassed great personal wealth through corrupt deals and bribes and are now under investigation, though a number of MPs who have joined the national government are also being investigated.

The current crisis within the SLFP will be decisive because it goes to the very heart of the SLFP’s ideological and political base and it is hard to see how a compromise could be reached. Waiting in the wings, ready to exploit any opportunity is Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is pretending to be leaving politics but is more likely buying time to regroup and eventually defeat the National Government and/or create an ungovernable situation in the country. In the meantime, the National Government also faces the complexities of bringing together two formerly rival parties under one coalition. What challenges and benefits this brings remains to unfold.

Without meticulous planning the road to reconciliation will struggle to overcome the numerous roadblocks and obstacles in its way. If the   SLFP is genuine about the devolution of power it has to confront its own history of Sinhala chauvinism squarely and openly. The enlightened parts of the party should seize this opportunity to examine their own history, accept responsibility and start the process of reconciliation within the country. There has been no shortage in Sri Lanka of politicians and leaders willing to make deadly decisions resulting in the deaths of their own citizens. What we need now are politicians willing to make decisions that allow the country to live, grow and flourish. This involves changing themselves and politics. They have an unparalleled opportunity, given the damage that the Rajapaksa camp has done to the cause of Sinhalese nationalism. Its Achilles heel was corruption, the stealing of state resources, fraud and intimidation. The Rajapaksa camp’s ‘patriotism’ became confined to the amassing of wealth for their families earned in the most corrupt ways.  As a result, the depth and size of the popular support they could command has dwindled.  In this way, the SLPF has the chance to become an enlightened party of democratic governance. They stand at the crossroads and must choose to show the courage they have long demanded from the ordinary people of this country.

When innocents were dying, caught between the Tamil Tigers and Government troops, they were abandoned by everyone.  Sinhalese politicians failed to see them as civilians who needed protection, choosing to play into LTTE propaganda and caricaturing them as part of the LTTE itself.  The children, women and men, young and old alike died in their thousands could rely on no one but themselves. No one was there to protect them – not the LTTE, the TNA or the international community. We owe them justice.

There are also clear and widening signs of fissures within the political leadership in the Tamil community, between separatists and the TNA. Those arguing for a more hardline political response were rejected by voters who instead endorsed the moderate leadership represented by the TNA in the parliamentary elections in August.  This gives the government an opportunity to make real progress – which it must make haste in doing before political discontents or the ‘opposition of events’ destabilizes it.

When the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Agreement was cancelled in 1958 the government was embroiled with other issues apart from the opposition mounted by the Sinhala chauvinist forces. For example   the government at the time was struggling to resolve the issues created by the Paddy Land Act. It was rather difficult for SWRD to maintain a firm commitment towards what he believed to be justifiable approach to answering the needs and aspirations of the Tamil community at the time.   President Sirisena’s unprecedented advantage    is that the UNP is on his side today. The UNP vehemently opposed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam agreement.

It is very unlikely that the Rajapaksa faction and his allies in the United Peoples Alliance (UPFA) will be supporting the National government’s efforts to reconciliation and devolution of power.  They still represent the old SLFP with its most virulent kind of anti-Tamil and narrow nationalistic key electoral support base in the Southern constituency. This kind of narrow nationalism is often associated with anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiments of the SLFP’s notion of SWRD’s ‘the common man’. This notion of the ‘common man ’ was ethnically limiting and was confined only to the South. Many Rajapaksa supporters continued to play on these ideas during the recent Presidential election and the Parliamentary election to defend the authoritarian and the corrupt Rajapaksa regime against any political pact with the UNP. They will be using the same notion against the national government to mount a challenge in coming weeks and months. This is likely to take the form of a paranoid politics, in the shape of foreign conspiracies against Sri Lanka. Racist ideologues will use such potent narratives to obscure the critical issues of accountability and reconciliation.

It will be a testing time for President Sirisena’s resolve and firmness  – already tested and found wanting when he decided to give the nomination to Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the general election, much to the disappointment of many of his supporters.

At the present moment the national government has the numbers in parliament and a political and moral mandate from the country to create the consensual politics SWRD originally called for.  If President Sirisena can build on this great achievement to offer devolution to the Tamil community and make real progress towards reconciliation, he can heal a deep wrong done to the Tamil community by the forces of Sinhala chauvinism from all parties. In doing that, President Sirisena will undo what other leaders failed to do and develop a party that is truly fit to govern a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “The time is always right, to do the right thing”, but the moments of great possibility for lasting change do not always present themselves. In posing a challenge to his party that threatens its very past and existence, President Sirisena might yet save its future – and it will be Sri Lanka who will benefit.