Colombo, Development, End of war special edition, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Re-imagining Sri Lanka post-war

About a month or so after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, R Swaminathan, former Special Secretary of the Government of India commented that there should be no rigidity in implementing measures of reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation in post war Sri Lanka. He further stated that a ‘credibly delivered’ political solution was an essential component to the end of the kind of conflict that Sri Lanka had experienced and without this, the future appeared disturbing at best. The sentiment was echoed by the blogger Cerno, although in more vernacular terms: “Sri Lanka: Now the Hard Part Begins”. Now, we all know this to be true. No avenue in a process of critical reasoning can conclude that the end of physical hostilities in Sri Lanka can mean that the ethnic conflict has ended. The road ahead will be laborious, painful and difficult to navigate, but it cannot be embarked upon without being fully cognizant of this. If what we want is true reconciliation and a society built upon liberty, justice and equality we must be prepared to face all the issues that every single democratic experiment has historically confronted. These are the ideals for our society that form the shallow rhetoric of our beloved politicians, and which inspire the fight of the many members of civil society, or, as a friend of mine once labelled them- the ‘peace’ industry. There is nothing wrong with these ideals- they are anchored to a project that seeks nothing but social justice, and real democracy. Of course, this being that we accept the democratic and capitalist projects as normatively good.

By this time you will be deriding me for bringing out that hackneyed old socialist Marxist tripe that, in academia at least, is becoming very mainstream. It’s easy, it’s even trendy to go all hammer and tongs at neo-liberalism, capitalism and modernity. These institutions are built on good, strong moral, Christian grounds, and yet, of course, they destroy and fall to ruins very easily. I am not speaking only of the disasters of the Third World, but globally, certainly. Academics active in the climate change debate are arguing for governments not run by politicians but for institutional authoritarianism run by knowledge experts. Why? Because democracy has failed humanity and the institutions, laws, markets and corporations that sustain this experiment of the modern only survive on the image of humanity in chaos and disorder. All our value and knowledge systems are distorted by its principles. More than colonial legacies, it is the principles of modernity, with a focus on individualism, with the dominance of a concern for the centrality of the individual, for private values against collective values that divides and antagonises us. Social fragmentation at its best, preying on our social insecurities and fears in the most insidious manner- by talking to us of equality and liberty. I make no new or perverse argument here. The democratic experiment will fail in Sri Lanka, and this would have happened even if this war had ended in a ‘credibly delivered’ equitable political solution.

Do not mistake the sentiments of this piece. I have no sympathy with the petty thuggery of the Rajapakse administration or in their handling of the conflict or the country. The damage that they are doing to Sri Lanka has caused many of my friends to think fondly of Chandrika Kumaratunge and even Ranasinghe Premadasa. It is morally revolting to think of members of the Buddhist clergy in active parliamentary politics and somewhat shaming to note the weakness of the Christian leadership. There is no place for academia or independent thought and speech, and certainly nothing but death or a little light torture for the braver members of the media and civil society. Ranil Wickremasinghe, leader of the opposition cannot and will not deliver. Indeed, civil society is fighting the ‘good’ fight for liberal democracy, economic prosperity and so on. Contrary to the rhetoric of the government, I would point to them as the real patriots of Sri Lanka.  My grief with this ‘peace industry’ is that they buy in to the West, to the policies by which foreign superpowers have decided we must all run our countries, and this makes it all the easier for the Rajapakse administration and the Buddhist clergy to wage a vicious cultural war upon them and to incite the darker sides of Sinhala nationalism.

I am tired, as you are, of the argument I made above about the failure of democratic, modern institutions and the dominance of economic and individual concerns. As I said before, it’s dead easy to criticise institutions and policies without presenting an alternative. This focus only solidifies the centrality of these systems to our thought and organisation of the world. This is a blind spot in  modern academia and policy making, that while willing to be critical of the systems and institutions, we are unwilling to look beyond them to the possibility of an alternative, towards radical reform that moves away from the models of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ that the principles of political modernity are fundamentally based upon. We cannot imagine even the conception of an alternative, and in terms of Sri Lanka, a home-grown solution that isn’t based on these principles. Now I do not know what this alternative is so I cannot provide you with the framework for building it. However, let me ask this. An academic I met in Sri Lanka, years ago, made the comment that little in Sri Lanka fits neatly into any theoretical box. If this is so, why struggle to make Sri Lanka fit into the same democratic, capitalist box? Why not move the discussion, debate and work we do into a Sri Lanka that becomes an example to the world in seeking a moral, sustainable alternative? Perhaps we need to retrace our steps, not be afraid of a little developmental regression into the pre-modern, and courageously make a new journey out of the city of the world and into the village of the mind. I think it’s best to do this while the sun’s still shining and arrack flows free and true.

End of War Special Edition