Colombo, Elections, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Vavuniya

Manufacturing of a ‘Common Candidate’ and Our Collective Political (Un)Conscious

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” — Karl Marx

“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.” — Paulo Freire

As news of the upcoming election unfolds, I find myself considering the meaning of the notion the “common candidate” in general, and its application to General Fonseka in particular.  In the broadest sense, a common candidate is one who represents and promises to fulfill the people’s common aspirations and desires.  Whether the General meets these criteria is still open to question, and I think our understanding and our judgment on the matter would be improved through reflection.  I find myself, perhaps along with my readers, wondering what is unique about the timing of this “common candidacy,” and what, exactly, is “common” about General Fonseca.  Why would he appeal to different constituencies, and what are the consequences for Sri Lanka if he is elected?  And, finally, how can we hold the “common candidate” accountable for his claims and promises if he is elected?  The way we grapple with these questions will influence the political discourse leading into the next Presidential elections and have far reaching consequences for the future.  The purpose of this article is to lay out some broad and tentative parameters to help us explore answers to these questions.

I am torn between pessimism and optimism.  The public’s desire for a common candidate is founded upon an ideology deeply rooted in the contested narratives of our nation’s history (or histories), particularly how these narratives shape our individual and shared ideas about the ethnic conflict, and economic and political crises of the country. My pessimism finds expression in Marx – that the selection of General Fonseka at this moment, in this election, may very well turn out to be an expression of our desires, rather than a positive action:  “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…the spirit of a spiritless situation, and the opium of the people.”  But I have always chosen to be an optimist, believing that there is good in every human being, In the final analysis,  we citizens have the creativity and power to make a blessing or a tragedy out of our choice of common candidate,. To improve our nation, we must reexamine and change our ideas about inclusive citizenship and material well-being, and demand the same changes from our leaders.

If we view Fonseka’s candidacy as the expression of an ideology, we might have better luck in understanding it.   Ideologies draw their power from a base of public opinion that naturalizes and universalizes a particular world view, while simultaneously dismissing or excluding other systems of thought.  You can think of an ideology as a kind of “social cement” that supports the foundation of a given social order.  The ruling classes shape and enforce it through their institutions (media, educational system, etc.), and legitimize their position of power.  A strong ideology structures our thinking processes and limits our understanding of how meaning is produced, represented and consumed.  But ideology is not always all bad; it can also contain a utopian residue or surplus that can be harnessed to critique society and to advance progressive goals.  Ideology creates utopian hopes and fantasies and can bring happiness as well as tragedy to the commons.

Looked at through an ideological lens, the appearance of a common candidate in the current political scene is not an accident. Rather, it is a manifestation of trends in political economy, and a strategic necessity for capturing state power, at the same time it is also a reflection of our yearning for a better future.   Our political community is fragmented by intense competition between the elites and their political patrons, all of whom wish to expand and consolidate wealth and power. It has been impossible for a single party to capture state power because no one party can manage the diversity of the Sri Lankan population. Thus, power has been shared among the elites in such a way as to create incoherence in ideology and in policy, and this gives us an opportunity for progressive change.  Many see the next elections as a turning point in our country’s history: a true common candidate could help us navigate a way out of economic, political and social uncertainties and insecurities; more importantly, he could bring meaning and stability to  our understandings and aspirations as citizens, past, present and future.  Our situation is not unique; indeed, it is typical of developing countries struggling to adjust to the demands of a neoliberal economy and to manage the crises resulting from it by negotiating between our population’s class and primordial (e.g. race, caste, territoriality, religion etc.) identities.

Ideology shapes our historical consciousness and vise versa.  The past war was not simply a contest of force against force, as some intellectuals and intellectuals-turned-diplomats suggest.  The objectivistic position advocated by supporters of the war (who like to call themselves “realists”) is both naive and disingenuous.  This narrow and militaristic perception of the state juxtaposed against a group of terrorists fails to to take into account the subjective aspects of state behavior.  By subjective aspects, I mean worldviews, ideologies, norms, values, and power relations that shape the relations between state and society.  The war can just as well be described as a contest between the Sinhalese and the Tamil sense of “space and place” — a contest, in short, between ideologies and world views, and interpretations of history.    In the same way, postwar practices are not simply concerned with peace and development, but also reflect the attempt of both winners and losers to rewrite history and to bring past and the present in line with their respective agendas.  This also means that we simply cannot limit our evaluation of the ‘common interests’ of the common candidate’ to his contribution to defeat terrorism. With that in mind, let us turn to the particular candidacy of General Fonseka.

General Fonseka is formidable because he can satisfy the aspirations of many different stakeholders.   He already possesses multiple public images.  His success in using a clinical approach to defeat the LTTE, despite opposition from Western countries and NGOs, earned him the kind of public accolades accorded to benevolent warrior kings of the past.  His war heroics and ideas on relations between Sinhalese and Tamil appeal to ethno-religious nationalist groups–particularly those invested in enforcing a belief in a nostalgic history of Sri Lanka disrupted by colonial powers, missionaries, and the NGOs.  Although such groups are a numerical minority, they do exert ideological control over the political discourse, and their narratives are regularly exploited by mainstream political parties to legitimate their respective claims on the state.  Fonseka’s own letter of resignation and farewell speech to CDS articulate an additional identity as a champion of freedom of expression, human rights, justice, communal harmony, and democracy.  Such image under the current political conditions Fonseka may help Fonseka to muster majority and minority community support for his bid for presidency.  Yet another image articulated by a minority of citizens cautions that Fonseka’s leadership would inevitably lead to further militarization of civil society and worsening of ethnic relations.   Among this latter group are many Tamils, including those in Diaspora, who are suspicious and cynical about Fonseka’s claim he is committed to peace and democracy with justice. They view him as the military arm of the Sinhala nationalist project.  We also have no good reason to ignore the opinion that  Fonseka’s popularity is also due to the desperation of politicians driven by their bankrupt political ideologies and lack of committment to principled politics.

The newly elected President, whoever he is, will be forced to aggressively implement neoliberal economic policies and suppress dissent against them.  Fonseka’s military credentials will earn tacit support from members of the Unholy Trinity (The World Bank, IMF and the WTO) as well as from Western and non-Western powers interested in disciplining our society to conform to  neoliberal rationality. Fonseka could provide economic leadership like that of military-turned-civilian leaders such as Chun Doo-hwan and Park Chung-hee, the Presidents of South Korea who produced the “economic miracle.”   Since the beginning of the war, sales of our country’s assets to multinational corporations have increased. These corporations now control areas that public protests had previously closed to them.   For them, the war has been a cover to develop the necessary infrastructure to suppress dissent against neoliberal policies.   This explains why ethnoreligious nationalism and militarization are importance forces in current global economy. But such forms of neo-colonialism and suppression of dissent do not seem to trouble our so called patriotic leaders, since their narrow notion of sovereignty focus only on the conflict over power sharing between the different ethnic groups within Sri Lanka.

Tamils still hoping for a political settlement to the crisis have plenty of reason to be cynical about promised changes in competitive party politics: whenever one political party proposes a political settlement to the conflict, the others oppose it.   The collective experiences of the Tamils in relation to Sri Lankan governments have been mostly of betrayal, violence, loss of life and property.  In this election, they see neither domestic nor international incentives for a common candidate to act any differently than his predecessors.  Still, many factors compel Tamils to extend their support to Fonseka.  The Tamil community in Sri Lanka and abroad is internally divided.   The LTTE’s policy of eliminating intellectuals and public officials left a huge vacuum of civil and political leadership.  The continuing association of some in the Tamil Diaspora with the symbols and martyrdom of the LTTE has placed Tamils in Sri Lanka in a highly vulnerable and insecure position vis-à-vis the state.  Some Tamils believe that the defeat of the LTTE has opened up greater democratic space for their struggles for justice, since during LTTE rule there was no space for freedom of expression for any group opposed to LTTE, nor were such freedoms demanded by the Tamil Diaspora.  Many Tamil are frustrated with the alliance between Kurana, Devanadna, Sadagiree, Pilliayan and the government.   The average civilian, and particularly the displaced, are helpless and vulnerable; they lack ideological and pragmatic inclination to trust their own politicians.  Finally, Tamils in areas under the control of the state apparatus may not be able to exercise their freedom at the polls.  Some Tamils think that Fonseka may actually punish and remove from power the politicians who led the war and caused the hardships in their community.

There are many reasons to worry about the political stability of the country under Fonseka.  Interest groups are now pursuing charges of genocide against him, making him vulnerable to manipulation and blackmailing.  The increasing politicization of, and possible divisions within, the military itself (owing to the conditions under which Fonseka resigned) raise questions about his ability function as the Commander-in-Chief.  We must understand these facets of politicization of the security establishment in relation to the ideological control of ethnoreligious nationalism(s) over the social, economic and political processes of the country.  Militarization, combined with ethno-religious nationalism, can be lethal: the latter practice normalizes the former, and allows those in power to characterize criticism as unpatriotic and sacrilegious.  We have no way of knowing how Fonseka, once a hero to both the military and ethnonationalist groups, will engage with them as a civilian.

It reassures some people that Fonseka’s is entering the contest as the common candidate for the United National Alliance (UNF) and he is willing to negotiate with some minority Tamil parties.   They view the alliance between Wickramasinghe and Fonseka as good for the common interests of the country, believing that they complement each other.  Wickramasinghe is an experienced and mature civilian leader full of new ideas, but he has not yet proven himself as a strong leader who can connect with the interests of the common people.  On the other hand, Fonseka’s strength in the face of stiff opposition against the war by powerful international actors and media outfits, has already earned him a reputation as strong leader.

The media have reported that Fonseka is expected to satisfy ten conditions in order to qualify as the common candidate of the UNF, but these points bring us nothing new.  For now they are no more than the rhetoric we could hear from any politician. The UNF offers nothing concrete, nor any reason to believe that they have the political will to implement new policies.  At the moment,  we have no clue about Wickramasinghe’s and Fonseka’s intention to engage with the interest groups that have caused disruption in the past, nor about their commitment to policies that sought political solution to the ethnic conflict.  Though small in number and unlikely to capture any significant number of voters, these groups influence people’s perceptions all out of proportion to their size.  In Noam Chomsky words, what appears as the ‘common interests of the common candidate’ may very well be parochial interests of these groups manufactured and forced to masquerade as common interests of all Sri Lankans!

In the midst of the war, Fonseka’s public assertion that “Sinhalese should rule the country as they are the majority,” wearied those still longing for a just political settlement to the ethnic conflict.  Though apologists have called this statement a slip of the tongue, to many they sound like a threat.  Despite the hypocrisy and contradictions in Western human rights policy, if a Western politician had made such a statement, it would have resulted in acrimonious debate and jeopardized his or her political career.  A public apology would have been required and perhaps even withdrawal from public life.  Sri Lankan society lacks examples of its leaders expressing remorse, asking forgiveness, being penalized or suffering tarnish to their political careers tarnished when they utter baldly racist statements.  But critique of racism or secularism is not a popular theme in our country’s political discourse, and it has not been a standard used to evaluate the character of public officials.  There are no compelling incentives for politicians to renounce racism or secularism; quite the contrary, since these expressions can make a politician a hero in their respective communities.  These are the reasons for my skepticism about the argument that the end of war has brought changes in our collective perceptions of justice and equality (or what constitute as common interests and common candidate) that are partly responsible for the war in the first place. (The UNF under Fonseka and Wickramasinghe could very well be the Sri Lankan version of colonial justice and courageous leadership narrated in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim!)

I would still like to be an optimist.  As J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings) noted that there are many tragedies in the midst of a story before it finally leads to the ‘happily ever after’ at the end.   There are even good (or useful) catastrophes, which Tolkien called ‘eucatastrophies.’  Sri Lanka may well be at the point of eucatastrophy.  World history provides examples of both the successes and failures of leaders like Fonseka.   The military may instill positive qualities necessary for good leadership, just as the consensus for justice may not always be possible under democratic rule.  I would like to give Fonseka the benefit of the doubt, as he could very well honor the promise that the defeat of the LTTE was a precondition for peace with a just solution to the ethnic crisis.  People are always capable of doing good, and it is not always fruitful to be dogmatic about judging their future potential with respect to past actions.

If we vote for Fonseka as common candidate, however, we must first reflect on our assumptions, and on our expectations.  The ideology of the common candidate is seductive to the extent that it allows us to remain unconsciousness and ignore the subjective, human dilemma.  We must be vigilant in engaging with our ideals, considering our actions and reflecting on their effects.   I am talking about praxis, by which I mean the ideas, disciplines, and actions that dominate our ethical and social life, and are instrumental in our efforts to bring freedom with justice.  A common candidate could usher in freedom and democracy only if he and the society have the will to embrace paradigms of our nation’s history and economy that are radically different from the ones that shaped have shaped the conflict since Sri Lanka’s independence. Our population must have the will to hold our candidates, and our politicians, accountable.  This endeavor is within the reach of Sri Lankans, if we remember that all our communities (perhaps with the exception of Veddahs) and our respective religions are foreign to this country, and that they all have an illustrious history of “doing good” against all odds.

History is not about the past, but about the present—how we make sense of and justify our actions.   Oppression of all types can lead to freedom if we transform our consciousness.  Our unwillingness to challenge received historical “wisdom” stems from the fact that we suffer a duality long established in our innermost being. On the one hand, we want to be part of an inclusive and just Sri Lankan identity.  On the other hand, we feel pressure to align with the very forces that undermine that identity, and that work against equality.  But we cannot achieve justice if we oust the oppressor by ousting him and then simply occupy his position, preserving inequality.  Changing our President does nothing to bring about radical change in our economic aspirations or in racial relations if our political participation ends the moment after we vote.  In the final analysis, we the people decide the specific goals of common interests and how they are fulfilled by our leaders.

We are capable and free to make changes that bring us closer to the good, and to the creation of a just and equal Sri Lanka.  But we are prisoners of the human dilemma best described by Paulo Freire, and I would like to end this essay with his words::

“The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.”