Featured image courtesy Straits Times

Note: This is the expanded version of an article published on Sri Lanka Brief.

Soon it will be two years since the election of President Sirisena. His victory was consolidated in the general election held in August 2015. There was a lot of euphoria when this regime change took place. I was amused to see some even calling it a revolution. After two years the contours of this regime and what to expect from it is becoming clearer. Definitely, it is far from any kind of a revolution. What I am concerned with is whether this regime could at least provide leadership to reforms that can lay the foundation for a society that will be able to negotiate its problems without recourse to violence either from the state or non-state actors.

It is difficult to make sense of the present context without recognising at least briefly the principal characteristics of the period that began in 1977. First, it is a period that inaugurated a new period of capitalist development, with a greater emphasis on markets, private sector and openness to global capitalism. A key development was the two main political formations led by the UNP and SLFP that have ruled the country, accepting the broad directions of this policy change. This happened in 1994 when a coalition of former centre-left parties led by the SLFP came to power, and decided to continue broadly the same economic policies. Therefore, significant shifts in economic policies due to regime change, which characterised the pre-1977 period was over.

The biggest political challenge for the new period of capitalist development came from the separatist demand of Sri Lankan Tamils. The same election that brought into power a regime that inaugurated a new period of capitalist development witnessed the TULF contesting the election on a separatist platform. Subsequent developments led to an armed conflict that engulfed a significant part of the country. Given this context, a critical need for the new phase of capitalist development was consolidation of territory of Sri Lanka. Therefore, the pressure to consolidate the territory came from two sources – one Sinhala nationalist and the other demands of capital. Just two years after the general election of 1977, a Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted and troops were sent to the North. From this beginning, armed conflict expanded into a full-scale war. It is not that there were no attempts at a political answer. But the only answer that we have, the 13th amendment, came because of pressure from India. There is a body of literature that has shown the limitations of the 13th amendment as a solution to Sri Lanka’s intractable problem of building a state that has legitimacy among all ethnic groups. Even the Colombo government accepted the limitations of these reforms. That is why there were several commissions trying to reform the 13th amendment. But this has not taken us very far.

The politics of the inauguration of the new period of capitalist development was largely internal. But it coincided with a period of reforms in global capitalism that is now popularly known as neo-liberalism. As a result, the Sri Lankan elite secured massive support, especially from developed capitalist countries of the west, multilaterals and Japan. The country’s foreign policy was also augmented this support. First and foremost, this support was in the form of resources channelled through foreign assistance. There was budgetary support and support for specific investments. Secondly, the country had legitimacy within the structure of global governance led by the West. In other words, Sri Lanka was never a ‘rogue state’ and did not come anywhere close to it. The basic outcome of this relationship was the country could continue in the path of capitalist transition while waging an expensive civil war. Even when the government had to spend funds on a military strategy, there were always funds from external sources to continue with normal development activities. When there were budgetary problems there was support from the IMF. Just imagine a situation where we had not liberalised the economy in 1977 and had a foreign policy less friendly towards developed capitalist countries of the west. I don’t think Sri Lanka could have sustained an expensive war and at same time become a low-middle income country. This means external support was an essential factor in sustaining a state involved in the battle to control its territory.

The neoliberalism that prevailed globally in the post-1977 period was not just an economic project. It was essentially a political project that hoped to reform the world based on liberal principles in economics as well as politics. Most importantly, it also believed that these principles would bring in a peaceful world. Therefore, the assistance to Sri Lanka had both these economic and political agendas embedded within it. While the ruling elite and external backers could see eye to eye when it came to promotion of the economic agenda, this was not the case when it came to the liberal political agenda. Right throughout the post-1977 period we see episodes where ruling elites clashing with donor countries on issues related to democratic and human rights. In addition to this, the emphasis on the liberal political project strengthened many non-state actors in their struggle for rights in various spheres of society.

Rajapakse gave leadership to a task that many were hoping for due to different reasons. This was destroying the LTTE through military means and consolidating the territory of Sri Lanka. This surprised many. The obvious admirers of this development were Sinhala nationalists and those who have always argued that the LTTE must be dealt militarily. There are sections of the Tamil and Muslim population who welcomed this for their own reasons. But the most important beneficiaries of this success were the capitalist class, for whom the prevailing civil war was a barrier for capital accumulation. Although there were many business people talking about peace during negotiations with the LTTE, what they were looking for was stability to continue with profit-making. There were many international players who were happy with the outcome, because the LTTE posed a potential threat to maritime security in the Indian Ocean, which was fast becoming an important for global trade. Obviously, India had its own reasons for welcoming the defeat of the LTTE.

The Rajapakse government was a combination of the hegemony of Sinhala nationalism, a highly centralised state with authoritarian tendencies, a prominent role for the security establishment and a form of economic nationalism within the policy framework initiated in 1977. A by-product of three decades of armed conflict was the expansion of the security sector. Hence the character of the state at the end of the armed conflict was quite different from what prevailed before. During the Rajapakse regime there was no talk of going back to economic policies that prevailed before 1977. But privatisation of state ventures was put on hold. Nevertheless, the end of the war made it easier for the private sector to expand its accumulation. Many in the private sector came to an understanding with the Rajapakse regime through various means. It is also possible that Rajapakse opened the doors to new sections of capital. Generally, it is difficult to understand the growth of the capitalist class without considering the political class and the state. In developed countries, these relations get institutionalised and rules of the game become clearer. In developing capitalist economies, they are much more dynamic. Change in the leadership of the political class allows new groups to enter the accumulation process.

The big departure during the Rajapakse regime from what prevailed since 1977 was the development of closer links to China, which by this time had become one of the new centres of capital accumulation. This is a product of post-cold war global capitalism. In Asia, this has led to the emergence of India and China as new regional powers within a global political order dominated by the US. These two new powers have joined the US and Japan in a regional matrix of power relations. The relationships between these centres of power will be a major factor affecting Sri Lanka in future.

Among many other reasons, two factors were important in the Rajapakse regime developing a close relationship with China. First, China gave consistent material and political support in the military campaign against the LTTE. Second, given the surplus of capital available in China for investment abroad and China’s own search for such opportunities, China became a major source of investment, especially in infrastructure projects. But in the matrix of regional power relations where there are many players, this departure from what prevailed since 1977 was not to the liking of other powers. Therefore, one sees during this period several efforts to put pressure on the Rajapakse regime by these players. This took the form of pressure on the economic front and continuous efforts to bring sanctions against the regime for human rights violations and war crimes during the last stages of the war.

As has happened so many times in Sri Lankan post-colonial history, it was the Sri Lankan electorate that put an end to the Rajapakse regime, which was clearly moving in a direction of one person or one family rule for the foreseeable future. The outcome of the presidential election held on 8 January 2015, surprised many. In 2010 the former president won an election with 57.9 per cent of the valid vote. This happened after the military defeat of the LTTE. But five years later he was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena who received 51.3 per cent of the valid votes, as against Rajapakse getting only 47.6 per cent. Apart from the high turn-out and minorities voting against Rajapakse for obvious reasons, a significant section of Sinhala voters abandoned the Rajapakse camp. Comparison of the voting patterns in the 2010 and 2015 presidential elections show that Mahinda Rajapakse lost his share of vote in all electoral districts. Politically an interesting question is the shift in Sinhala-majority electoral districts. In five electoral districts (Polonaruwa, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura, Gampaha and Kalutara) the drop in Mahinda Rajapakse vote between 2010 and 2015 was more than 10 per cent. In nine others, it was 5-10 per cent. Therefore, contrary to ideas propagated by the Rajapakse camp, Maithripala Sirisena did not win only because of the minority vote. A section of the Sinhala voters shifted their allegiance. In general, this shows us the importance of keeping in focus the Sinhala voter. It will be difficult to find answers to our problems unless we can secure the support of the majority Sinhalese.

Now we are about to complete two years of the new regime. The politics of the current regime can be understood by looking at three important tasks the regime is focusing on. First, and foremost is continuing with the task of furthering capitalist growth. Second, a search for an answer for the Tamil demand of self-governance through constitutional reforms and managing the international pressure arising out of the UNHCR resolution. Third, perhaps the most difficult one is implementing these tasks through a coalition regime with its own internal political dynamics.

Economic agenda

On the economic front the picture is a familiar one. Although the global economic crisis has led to many criticisms of the neo-liberal economic agenda, and has resulted in totally unexpected political outcomes at the centres of neoliberalism, this debate has not had much of an impact on the ruling regime. During the initial stages, the regime was preoccupied with budget deficits and how to manage the high foreign debt. As it has happened so many times in the past, the regime secured support from the IMF. Of course, there is a price to pay – socialising the economic burden of managing the fiscal deficit in the form of increased VAT. This increases the economic burden on the mass of the population in a context of a highly unequal society, produced by more than three decades of market-oriented policies. Second, increase in selected taxes and third, efforts to improve the tax collection. Opposition to the VAT increase was to be expected. But the increased taxes in selected areas have already galvanised various business lobby groups to get these policies reversed. Monitoring the outcomes of these proposals can give an interesting insight into how business groups operate within the current regime. The rest of the policies are a familiar terrain aimed at free trade agreements with several Asian countries, and large infrastructure projects around three harbours – Colombo, Hambantota and Trincomalee. It is also clear that however much the parties in power criticised China during the election campaign, the agenda of promoting capitalist growth cannot ignore these new centres of capitalist growth. Therefore, the regime is quietly coming into a new set of agreements with China. But it is also necessary to remember that China is not the only country looking for business in Sri Lanka. Many countries, including those who were known better as donors, are busy looking for ways to promote their economic interests.

There are three issues that need to be monitored in relation to these economic policies – first the politics of implementation of these policies within this coalition. Opposition can come not only because of ideological positions, but also because of the competition between various fractions of the regime to secure benefits from various economic ventures launched by the regime. These fractions will consist of both the members of the political class as well as business interests. Basically, the UNP, led by the prime minister and his loyalists, is trying to keep control of the management of the economy. The most recent development in this process has been steps taken to establish a Policy Development Office (PDO) under the prime minister, who is also the Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs. The PDO will be tasked with development of a national policies and national policy frameworks for any subject. It will also assist and co-ordinate in the implementation of policies. This almost amounts to creating a new institution that will manage the entire economy.

The second issue is the possible social repercussions of these policies, – how will they get expressed, their political articulation and how will the government react? The vision of the regime is confined to the same old idea of economic growth and generating jobs. This is what the UNP talked about when they were last in power, and this is what they are talking about now. These ideas ignore the fact that this is a country coming out of three decades of war, and one part of the country has been devastated by it. It is also not concerned about the inequality that has had an impact on many spheres of our social life. The social repercussion of economic policies should become a key area of concern for progressive political forces. This should go beyond the idea of poverty alleviation or social protection, which is the ideology propagated by donors with a principal agenda of promoting capitalism. More important is to focus on the politics of social relations in various areas of economic activities, and to intervene to protect the rights of the marginalised. More than anything else, it is necessary to focus on the self-organisation of the marginalised and their political agency. It is also necessary to monitor how these contradictions are already manifesting in society. Even a cursory glance at a daily newspaper shows various types of protests on socio-economic issues. Perhaps monitoring these systematically will give us an idea where issues are acute and need attention. Most probably social discontent arising from economic policies will combine with nationalist politics in opposing the regime. Finally, the question is how will the regime react if these contradictions begin to threaten the regime significantly. I am afraid the reaction can take the all too familiar form of repression.

The third important factor is the possible impact of global politics on the capitalist growth process at global level, and how it can have an impact on the regime’s strategies to bring about growth. From all accounts, it looks as if the government is hoping to benefit from the capitalist growth process in Asia. In the recent past we have witnessed almost a hysteria from various quarters hailing the capitalist growth in Asia. Slogans such as the Asian century have become common place. There is a definitely a shift in the balance of the global economy, not towards the spatial construction called Asia, but towards a much smaller space that includes East Asia and parts of South Asia. However, one thing that we can learn from history is that the shift in political power balances that normally accompany economic changes are never smooth. It is liberals who believe in the mythology of free trade generating free societies and peace. On the contrary the political repercussion of the spread of capitalism globally has never been a smooth process. It is full of conflicts and contradictions. It is quite possible that we are about to enter such a period in global politics. This can have an impact on Sri Lanka’s expectations of benefiting from economic growth in parts of Asia.

Tamil demand for autonomy

When it comes to the Tamil demand for self-governance, great hope is placed on the constitutional reform process. But the question is whether these deliberations can produce an answer that will have political legitimacy within the Tamil population. A glance at the political current within the Tamil community shows these constitutional reforms should ensure a reform of the centralised state, bringing it close to a federal structure, and reform the identity of the state in a manner suitable for a plural society. After all the Tamil demand for federalism goes back to the beginning of the post-colonial period. Therefore, it is not surprising that it has come back to the political debate after the demise of the attempt to form a separate state. Current discussions on constitutional reform seem to be far from this. The basic starting point seems to be the 13th amendment. Whether this can answer Tamil political demands is an open question.

In addition to reforming the centralised state, fulfilling the demands of the UNHCR resolution has become an important political challenge for the regime. This resolution deals with events that took place during the last stages of the war. It was initiated by the US, and the Sri Lankan government joined with the US government in sponsoring the resolution. My own view is sponsoring the resolution was an initiative by the UNP with the objective of improving relations with the US. This was necessary for the regime for many reasons, including improving the economy. It is very clear there are different opinions within the regime about fulfilling the demands of the resolution. While the most consistent voice in support of the resolution comes from the foreign minister, there are many voices against Sri Lankan armed forces being tried for war crimes by foreign judges. The most important voice opposing this has come from the president himself. Perhaps more than anything else, it could be the relations with the US that will be decisive in how the regime manages this issue. At least sections of the regime seem to be hoping that the incoming US administration will have a different attitude toward issues such as human rights, and the regime will be able to manage pressure from the UNHCR. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan president is hoping for such changes, and has already appealed to president-elect Donald Trump to take away from Sri Lanka the burden of fulling conditions of the UNHCR resolution. If this happens there will be many such as business interests, their ideologues and certainly Sinhala nationalists who will be happy.

Given this context, the crucial question is what form Tamil nationalist politics will take in the future, and whether Sri Lanka will be able to address this issue through democratic politics. The shape of Tamil nationalist politics will depend not only on what happens in Sri Lanka, but also on diaspora politics. However, as it stands now, in the heartland of Tamils, Tamil nationalist politics will have to operate in a terrain where there is a significant army presence. There is no sign of any significant reduction of troops in the North. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is still intact. In addition to this, the extremist Sinhala Buddhist currents that came to prominence during the Rajapakse period have not disappeared. In fact, in recent times there many more events due to activism of these groups. The activism of these groups has not spared any minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Many have been quick to attribute the power of these groups to tacit support given by the previous regime. This might be ignoring the largr social base among the Sinhalese that these groups seem to have.

These developments question the impact of many activities undertaken with the notion of reconciliation. Some of these are directed by the government, and others by many non-state actors. Quite a lot of them seem to depend on external funding. Basically, the notion of reconciliation is based on the idea that the Sri Lankan conflict was one of a clash between ethnic groups. Therefore, the objective of many of these activities is to bring about an understanding or reconciliation between ethnic groups. It is not that there are no problems between identity groups. But the fundamental assumptions of the notion of reconciliation leaves out many factors underlying Sri Lanka’s conflict. For this we have to look at the structure of the state, the political forces that have maintained this state, various public policy areas, and political weaknesses of multi-ethnic organisations and multi-religious organisations. The current focus on reconciliation does not seem to address these issues to any significant degree. Sometimes this activism has a bias against Tamil nationalism. For example, several of the projects that I have seen among the diaspora are directed mainly towards the Tamil diaspora. The assumption being that Tamil diaspora is the main problem for peace and stability in Sri Lanka. I have also witnessed the perverse impact of availability of foreign funding for reconciliation. Organisations that have hitherto hardly worked on these issues seem to be adding reconciliation to their work. This is simply an effort to secure funding for the organisation, and nothing more.

Finally, there is a need to focus much more systematically on socio-economic issues facing the socially marginalised in the war-affected areas. Since the end of the war there has not been a systematic effort on the part of the government to address socio-economic issues faced by the marginalised population in war-affected areas. What we saw was road building by the state, and scattered projects supported by donors. Road building had military and economic objectives. There was private sector initiative here and there. Some of them amounted to land grabbing exercises. What is needed is a systematic effort by the government on areas such as agriculture, fisheries, skills development, basic education and health. Donors and the private sector can play a role. But they cannot fulfil the long-term role that the state should play. This, of course, does not mean all is well with state institutions. There must be significant reforms in these institutions so that they can play the role of reviving an area affected by war. Linking the debate on governance with specific sector development has a great degree of potential in making a significant contribution in contributing to the recovery of war-affected areas.

Regime stability

The biggest complication faced by the regime dealing with these tasks arises from politics within the coalition that came into power in 2015. A coalition that contested under the name United Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) won the general elections. They contested under the UNP symbol. In a parliament of 225, the UNP-led UNFGG secured 106 seats and the UPFA 95 – a majority of only 11. One of the key issues that this regime is facing is the stability of this coalition. Supporters of the government have dubbed this a national government. Critics call it an opportunistic get-together to keep former President Rajapakse out of power.

One of the mechanisms of maintaining the coalition is the large cabinet, where coalition members are given various positions. A cabinet of 48 members (46 members, the president and the prime minister), 19 state ministers and 23 deputy ministers was appointed. The 19th amendment to the constitution allowed an increase in the number of cabinet members in the case of a National Government. But these legal niceties do not take us away from the fact that to ensure regime stability, Sri Lanka continues to have large cabinets with all the ensuing costs and sometimes lack of clarity in the policy making process. This has become a structure feature of many post’77 government. This regime is no different.

Within this regime there were two centres of power right from the beginning – one around the president and the other around the prime minister. The UNP, led by the prime minister, seems to be effectively controlling the key levers of power. UNP members are controlling management of the economy. If the recently proposed Policy Development Office (PDO) under the prime minister comes into effect, this control will be strengthened. In addition, with the control of defence, with a loyal family member of the prime minister as the deputy minister of defence, UNP seems to have consolidated a formula to run the government within the coalition. The weakened presidency, due to the provisions of the 19th amendment, has been certainly helping. However, such coalition arrangements and politicking to control levers of powers don’t operate smoothly. The tensions within such arrangements spill out from time to time. Recent pronouncements by the president that show how many things are happening without his knowledge are reflections of these strains. There are open disagreements within the cabinet on policy issues. This has certainly created an impression in the country that this is a government without any direction, without clarity about who is responsible for what, and often incompetent.

One of the major preoccupations of this regime is a process of endless institutional design. In this process laws are passed and commissions are set up to tackle various problems within the state. The general belief is that if these laws are implemented properly through these commissions, we will be able to take care of the shortcomings of the state. There seem to be several donors actively involved in this process. In fact, this is the main outcome of the politics of good governance that dominated the election campaign. This is an effort at reform of the state from the top. Some sections of the non-state actors are also happy to play a role in this. I have always wondered why so much faith is placed on laws implemented from the top when it comes to social reform in Sri Lankan society. Probably it has to do with the historical links between politics and lawyers on our country. Well, I am not against these reforms. My worry is about the excessive faith placed in these processes. These laws and commissions will operate in a society characterised by various forms of inequality and power. Operationalisation of these mechanisms and what happens at ground level will depend on how they mediate through these power structures. It is high time that those who believe in these mechanisms at least set up independent monitoring mechanisms. We also can learn a lot from how these institutions have operated in the past.

Despite all this activism, the current pre-occupation of many seems to be the stability of the regime. Right after the election a major concern was what would happen to the SLFP, and more specifically whether Rajapakse would take control of the SLFP and will make use of the parliamentary representation to undermine the regime. This has not happened. However, there is a group within the SLFP systematically opposing the regime both inside and outside parliament. Calling themselves the Joint Opposition, they form the effective opposition at present. One of the fears is whether this will lead to a significant split in the SLFP. The biggest beneficiaries of this in a future election would be the UNP. A test of the strength of the coalition will come in future when it tries to push through constitutional reforms, or take critical steps in relation to the UNHCR resolution. There is sure to be opposition to these within the Sinhala community. If this opposition combines with the social discontent arising from economic policies, we are back to the formula that defeated the UNP in the 2004 general election. A possible scenario is these factors leading to the unravelling of the coalition, and the return of a regime that will be led by one of the Rajapakses.

Those who enjoyed this article might find “Social movement, continued” and “Losing the Narrative” illuminating reads.