Colombo, Identity, Jaffna, Long Reads, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Red Lines and Historical Realism

[Editors note: On the invitation of the Editors of Groundviews, this is a response to Some reflections on reading Dayan Jayatilleka and Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) by Anapayan, strictly and solely in Dr. Jayatilleka’s capacity as Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.]

“Revolution is having a sense of the historical moment…” – Fidel Castro May 1, 2000

“Moreover the LTTE had given him [President Rajapaksa] absolutely no breathing space after his inauguration before beginning to take out convoys and soldiers.” –  Nick Burns, US Under-Secretary of State, 23/01 /2006, the Afterposten Wikileaks 34 cables dump

Does the Thirty Years War which ended in May ’09 function as a dead planet whose light reaches us later as a star that illumines our discussions and guides our way, or do wars cast shadows in which we inevitably live and debate till they dissipate? Or may we mix these metaphors, since the reality is a fusion?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the GV essay by ‘Anapayan’ is the complete and total absence of a single word of criticism of the Tigers.  It reflects the view that the Tigers were “a necessary evil” and their cause “Tamil nationalism” (as distinct from the reality: Tamil secessionism). It eschews the path commended by Christian Existentialist German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who said that in order to find their way out of the situation of disaster they were in, all Germans who supported, however tacitly, the Nazi movement had to admit to guilt and responsibility of four types: criminal, political, moral and metaphysical (The Question of German Guilt’, 1947).

Anapayan’s essay is a pro-Tiger or proto-Tiger ideological intervention. For her/him the main issue is the crisis of the state. This formulation evades two realities. Firstly, the crisis of the state was at its most acute when it was challenged in four dimensions: by southern anti-systemic radicalism, its territorial integrity and monopoly of violence sundered by the Tigers and its sovereignty by an external armed presence. Most intense was the period extending for the two decades 1988-2008. That manifest crisis, categorized in conflict literature as ‘protracted deadly conflict’ or ‘protracted deadly emergency’ has been overcome by the Sri Lankan state led by successive elected administrations, most decisively and conspicuously by the Rajapakse administration.  The decided victory in war has resolved the crisis in some of its aspects, leaving others altered and still others intact but not unaffected. Furthermore, Anapayan’s blandly stated thesis that the ‘main issue is the crisis of the state’ obfuscates the more significant issue that not every “crisis of the state” produces a fascist response/outcome, and that such a response, its character and causation, becomes the main intellectual question, just as the Nazi response to the crisis of the Weimar state and the Khmer Rouge response to the crisis of the Cambodian state are the main focus of political, moral and intellectual concern and interest.

The protracted war was a defining historical factor of my adult lifetime, though my consciousness was perhaps more defined by the contrast between the liberating impulse of the JVP uprising of ’71 and its barbaric manifestation of ’86-’89, and the parallel but worse trajectory of the Tamil armed revolt between ’76-’82 and post ’84. The context of my lifetime has been defined by the more protracted crisis of the Sri Lankan state. Thus my political consciousness and resultant discourse, a discourse of reflection/intervention, has been defined by the interplay of (i) the zenith (Vietnam ’75 to Nicaragua ’79) and fall of the global socialist project and the Marxist paradigm (ii) the long Lankan crisis (of identity among other things) and (iii) the trajectory of degeneration (‘the rise and fall’) of anti-state movements in South and North, among Sinhala and Tamil youth.

My own work – and specific, defining  problematique — for over two decades at least (the ‘Unfinished war/neo-barbarism’ series in the Lanka Guardian of ’89) has not been exclusively or centrally on the crisis of the state but on a typology of armed non-state actors, and the problem of why certain movements are of a barbaric character, which inter alia, eventually result in their defeat due to the abdication of the moral high ground, while certain other movements, ranging from Vietnam to Nicaragua, maintain ethical standards and norms. (Hence my doctoral thesis and subsequent book, precisely on Fidel’s Ethics of Violence.) Indeed, it is important to note, since we are on the subject of Taraki, that he was my translator when I was making the same point to a radical student audience belonging to the Renaissance Society (the ‘Marumalarchik Kalagham’) on the Jaffna university campus in late ’82 or early (pre-July) ’83, while delivering a lecture on the Lessons of the Nicaraguan liberation movement. This lecture was later translated by AJ Canagaratnam I believe, and printed as a booklet by that Society. So I had been saying this for nearly 30 years, but someone wasn’t paying attention.

Most distressingly, Anapayan excuses the murder by the Tigers of the Tamil moderates and progressive nationalists: the fault was that the Sri Lankan state let them down, says he/she. Well, states tend to do so, but not all moderates are cannibalistically devoured even while the struggle is ongoing, by the other wing of a movement; and when that happens, resulting in disaster,  intellectuals and intellectual forums do not engage in or permit justification of such butchery. I wonder what Rajini’s daughters and Neelan’s sons would feel when reading Anapayan’s excuse for their mother’s and father’s murders (and murderers).

Anapayan argues that the Sinhala Establishment was eagerly awaiting the LTTE’s rejection of radical reform of the state, and was in fear of it doing otherwise. Even if true, that begs not just one but six major questions:

  1. Why did the Tigers do so when it was the Indian and not the Sinhala establishment doing the running (e.g. the Accord and the Interim Council of Sept ’87)?
  2. Why did the Tigers play into the hands of the ‘Sinhala Establishment’ by dodging and sabotaging all possibilities of reform from ’87 through to 2005?
  3. Why did the Tigers not conduct themselves politically in the manner that the Sinn Fein, the ANC/SACP, the Nepali Maoists and the Salvadorian FMLN did, in the face of Establishment traps and provocations?
  4. Why did the TULF reject the 13th amendment in 1987, fail to endorse Chandrika’s quasi-federal ‘packages’ of ’95 and ’97 and refuse to vote in favor of her draft Constitution of August 2000?
  5. Why did a dominant segment of Anapayan’s and Sivaram’s collective agency, ‘We’, cheer the LTTE and the TULF/TNA on in this obduracy?
  6. Why are these criticisms still not made and what does this tell us about the consciousness and project of that ‘we’?

Mr. /Ms Anapayan prefaces his/her essay with a telling quote from the late D Sivaram (‘Taraki’), to wit: “If the LTTE were not here, we would all be fucked”. The problem with regarding this as an especially insightful remark is that: (A) The LTTE (like some Kilroy from Kilinochchi) ‘was here’ (B) Notwithstanding which, and going by Sivaram’s and Anapayan’s yardstick, ‘they’ are f****d (C) ‘They’ were being f****d by the LTTE as well and (D) The LTTE was itself f*****d.

Anapayan chooses to overlook the basic theoretical and moral questions of the character of the LTTE as reflected in its political behavior, the character of the political community which sustained it as the hegemonic force when other options were available, and the fate of the LTTE in comparison to far smaller entities such as the Hezbollah, the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein and the Nepali Maoists. These have been the more important issues I have pointed to over decades.

His smorgasbord of my texts ignores their contexts and conjunctures: my interventions advocated reform options which were on the table or could have been brought to it at that time, but were then surpassed by the maximalism of the Tigers and their constituency on the one hand  and the vacillation of weak-willed Colombo administrations on the other (Wikileaks confirms that the UNP administration requested Norway to supply electronic communications equipment to the LTTE, to the consternation of India). Federalism is no longer on the table.

Mr. /Ms Anapayan and his collective ‘we’ are fully entitled to their ‘red lines’. Many of them

were crossed and effaced by the Special Forces, the Commandos, and the multiple spearhead Divisions of the SLA, the MiGs, Kfirs and Mi-24s of the SLAF, and the fast attack craft of the SLN. New ‘red lines’ have been drawn by the reality of the war and its outcome.

Only history will tell what the durable ‘red lines’ of the Sri Lankan state, citizenry prove to be as reflected in a bipartisan democratic consensus, explicit or implicit. I wish Anapayan luck with what remains of his/her ‘red lines’. It might save Anapayan many years of wasted effort if he pauses to consider whether ‘red lines’ drawn in Florida by the Miami émigré Cubans have had a positive echo and salutary response in Cuba, among its people, or whether such hostile postures only make steelier the determination on the island, not to give in to pressure and to pre-empt any domestic bases for inimical external projects.  To shift from Diaspora politics, do such ‘red lines’ drawn by Kashmiri or Basque secessionists have a positive effect on the Indian or Spanish states and societies?

Freedom, as Engels so famously said, is the recognition of necessity.  For my part, I believe that there is no political space beyond the red lines drawn by the state (not this or that administration) and expressive of or undergirded by the overwhelming collective consensus and consciousness. That is an existential decision of very long duration. Within these historical-structural red lines though, there is adequate political space, which must neither be underutilized nor overshot.

I am modestly satisfied that with the LTTE decisively defeated as a fighting force, the future of the Tamil people will be decided by the competitive interplay of democratically elected political representatives of government and opposition, Sinhala , Tamil and Muslim, North and South, and the complex interface of internal and external factors.

I have been at least since the mid –late 1980s, a reformist of a modernist social democratic sort, but one who believes that moderates, liberals, progressives must have the guts to fight for what they believe, that which is valuable in their societies and the very space for effecting change, against those forces that threaten it most. I remain a ‘steadfast progressist’ as Prof Remy Herrera wrote while reviewing my book, in Afrique Asie, Paris. If in the Sri Lankan context I remain a revolutionary it is in the sense of a ‘Long revolution’ (Raymond Williams’ phrase); a modernist transformation, in the broad socio-cultural sense towards modernity, democracy and freedom.

Does this square with my support for the war and Mahinda Rajapakse? Certainly, provided one’s basic political literacy encompasses an awareness of the position of the Non Aligned Movement (of which I was very much a child and the ethos of which I was socialized into), the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), and the ‘new pivotal powers’ (add Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa), on the foundational issues of national independence, sovereignty, territorial unity and integrity and the dismemberment of existing states through secessionism or centrifugal structures (the threat, under a ‘federalist’ flag, in Bolivia today). If Anapayan thinks mine is a Sinhala ‘supremacist’ view or acceptable only to such elements, he should re-visit the Geneva UNHRC vote of May ’09.

I supported the project of renovation – though not the outcome of systemic collapse — of Gorbachev. As the ’90s opened, an erstwhile comrade Dayapala Tiranagama and I debated in The Island and the Divaina, over my turn to reformist social democracy and defense of Gorbachev. Reformism and the preservation of the state through radical renovation is the best outcome, but when push comes to shove, the preservation of the state, especially from the forces of neo-barbarism such as the Tigers and the JVP, is a higher priority than radical reform and must be grasped as prerequisite for the possibility of such reform as a second or subsequent stage of the historical process.

Certainly I have supported Mahinda Rajapakse from 2003 and continue to do so, because if and when the choice is between Yeltsin and Putin (I deploy these also as political metaphor, paradigm and external posture) and as long as that remains the only real choice among those available, I opt for Putin (or a Putin)!

Though I do not think it applies fully in the Sri Lankan case, an argument made by no lesser a radical thinker than Slavoj Zizek, adapting Alain Badiou’s use of ‘Master-Signifier’ does lend theoretical-philosophical warrant to my own defense of and support for two Presidents in the context of the long crisis:

“The heroism of an authentic Master consists precisely in his willingness to assume this impossible position of ultimate responsibility, and to take upon himself the implementation of unpopular measures which prevents the system from disintegrating.…in contrast to hysterical revolutionary fervor caught in the vicious cycle, the fervor of those who prefer to stay in opposition and prefer ( publicly or secretly) to avoid the burden of taking over, of accomplishing the shift from subversive activity to responsibility for the smooth running of the social edifice, he [Lenin] heroically assumed the responsibility of actually running the State – of making all the necessary compromises , but also taking the necessary harsh measures, to assure that the Bolshevik power would not collapse…

…There must be One who assumes the ultimate responsibility, inclusive of a ruthless readiness to make the necessary compromises or break the letter of the Law in order to guarantee the system’s survival; and it is totally erroneous to interpret this function as that of an unprincipled pragmatic sticking to power, whatever the cost.’ (Slavoj Zizek: ‘Political Subjectivization and its Vicissitudes’ in ‘The Ticklish Subject’ p 237)

I have also been among the longest standing public critics, if not the longest standing (from ’97), of the incumbent and ancien regime of the Opposition, which analysts agree is one of the most important props of the status quo well before the Rajapakse tenure. I have argued for a transformation of the Opposition leadership long before the election of Mahinda Rajapakse to the presidency and have continued to do so into his second term! Now, are these positions identical, congruent or contradictory? Simple minds would take one or other of these views. ‘Anapayan’ obviously doesn’t have the dialectics to un-riddle it.

My argument regarding a strong state –and the Asian state in the post Cold War world–is analogous to and in places overlaps with that of Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s controversial former Ambassador to the UN, one of Asia’s most respected public intellectuals. Intervening in the debate over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize he wrote in the New York Times that:

“…Over the past 30 years, the Chinese government has done far more good than harm both for China and the world…In the Western political imagination, the march to progress is made by steadily weakening the state and enlarging individual freedom. In the Chinese political experience the weakening of the Chinese state has inevitably led to chaos and enormous personal suffering…The Chinese government managed to find the right balance between opening up society and maintaining order — and that in a country of 1.3 billion people…Few Chinese believe that the West is trying to do China any good by trying to accelerate the political transformation. Indeed, most Chinese believe that the Western agenda is to unleash the same chaos in China as it did with instant democracy in Russia. When Jagland compared Liu to Sakharov, he confirmed the Chinese conviction that the goal of this prize is to destabilize China. If the West persists in its refusal to understand China’s fundamental concerns, it will do more harm than good with its good intentions.” (NYT, Nov 11, 2010)

Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci have highlighted the difference—unflatteringly–between West and East (especially the West and Asia) in terms of state and social formation, and Stalin once argued heretically but accurately that in the relationship to imperialism “the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labor Party”. (I venture the same case for Mahinda Rajapakse). A successful project of Sri Lankan social democracy has to incorporate this recognition of uneven development and the specificity of Asian concerns and consciousness into a new synthesis: an Asian social democracy, which is marked by a communitarian inflection, not a deracinated transplant of pro-Western liberalism.

In no way do I intend this as an adoption of the ‘Asian cultural values’ perspective or a rejection of universalism in political philosophy and thought. A group of quite outstanding thinkers have staked out a position distinct from the antipodes of liberal individualism and collectivist fanaticism. These theorists stand for a ‘moderate patriotism’ and a ‘communitarian’ perspective. They include Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre, Michael Walzer and (if you revise the formulation to ‘left patriotism’ or ‘left republicanism’ instead of the ‘communitarian’) Regis Debray.

To my mind, the challenge in politics today is best summed up by Prof Zygmunt Bauman, Ed Miliband’s favorite thinker (whose work on modernity was an ingredient, many years back, in my M Phil thesis on socialism’s collapse). In an interview in the latest issue of The Russian Journal, Moscow, dedicated to the theme of ‘The Fears of the New Decade’, Bauman recognizes as equally legitimate, the seeking after security and freedom, and recognizes the problems of achieving synthesis:

“There are two values equally indispensable for a decent, satisfying, and dignified life: security and freedom. Security without freedom equals slavery, whereas freedom without security means indescribable risks and unbearable uncertainty. Both values, I repeat, are indispensable – and yet they are practically impossible to balance in a fully satisfying way: the more you have of one, the more of the other you need to surrender. Each compromise between the two is bound to be a transient settlement or a temporary armistice, and on any occasion the pendulum may start to swing in the opposite direction.” (Zygmunt Bauman, ‘In the Grip of Ignorance and impotence’, The Russian Journal, weekly edition of the Russian Institute Dec 29, 2010, issue 14/56)

Most neoconservatives and liberals omit the one in favor of the other. I do not, and try to grapple with the dialectic.

I always bear in mind that discontent can propel politics more than one way; that a few years down the road, our society can throw up an option to the Right of and far more hawkishly praetorian than the status quo, and that those who hysterically condemn the incumbent administration as a National Security State may be yet to see one!

I argue that if it is not to generate a social tsunami of a backlash (albeit subterranean at the outset), any new wave of reform of the Sri Lankan state and polity must be underpinned by a prior guarantee of security; of the conservation of the wartime achievement in all its dimensions, from every version of everything the LTTE represented. It is only when and if the public, the enfranchised and therefore ultimately sovereign citizenry at large, is existentially convinced of this, that society and polity will risk moving in the direction of radical reform, striking out for new horizons.