Featured image by Vikalpa

If they call you a Hitler, then be a Hitler and build this country.—Ven. Vendaruwe Upali Thero (Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter), advising Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former Secretary of Defense.

Now we remember how we lived before May 18, 2009. In the present conditions our main intention is to bring back the LTTE if we want to live, if we want to walk freely, if we need our children to attend schools and return back.—Vijayakala Maheswaran, M.P, United National Party.

The timing of these two ill-thought-out and irresponsible statements, and the stark difference between the public and political responses to them, are evidence of the harsh and uncomfortable realities of this country. The statements are an indictment of the current yahapalanaya (“good governance”) regime for failing to fulfill its promises. Desperation and anxiety over these failures run deep in a society so morally bankrupt, and intellectually and politically paralysed, that it sees no other option but to turn to LTTE or Nazi-type regimes to help solve the country’s social, economic, ecological and political problems—regardless of the atrocious history of such institutions. These are symptoms of a morally degenerating society, deprived of convincing alternative narratives and roadmaps with which to guide its future.

All ethnic communities, among other issues, are deeply concerned with the deterioration of the law and order situation in the country. Tamil and Sinhala communities’ frustration with the prevailing situation in the country is the context in which Vijayakala and the Ven. Anunayka made their provocative statements. But the two do not have equal privilege to express their respective concerns, even after having been given the theoretical benefit of doubt of the underlying motives for their respective statements, without being ridiculed and threatened with legal action.

The double standards evident in the legal, popular, and political responses to Ven. Anunayaka and Vijayakala are indicative of a country sharply polarised along ethnic lines, as well as of the continuing influence of racist ethno-nationalism on the politics of the country. Such polarisation creates communities that are unable to empathise with their counterparts, even if they are facing similar struggles. After 30 years of war, million-dollar investments in reconciliation and peace-building have done nothing to move the country away from reactionary, racist nationalism and towards a more inclusive nationalism to guide nation-building. Politicians who publicly condemn racism lack the will and are disempowered to implement non-racist policies.

The post-war resurgence of racist nationalism and equally racist identity politics threatens to deprive all ethnic groups of equal citizenship, worth and dignity and undermines the solidarity among them against inequalities and dispossession that they all experience. Dominant and subordinate ethnic groups alike are only left with narrow and counter-productive identity politics with which to assuage their respective grievances. Ethno-nationalist interpretations of Vijayakala’s apparent call for a resurgence of the LTTE might cause the Sinhalese to endorse Ven. Anunayaka’s counsel to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and the Tamils who fear a further entrenchment of forces against them to sympathise with Vijayakala. The statements reinforce each other, and they will take center stage in the political discourse as the country approaches its next election.

The root cause of the country’s vulnerability to fascism is the legitimacy crisis of neoliberalism masquerading as a legitimacy crisis of State. Neoliberalism, which is the current phase of capitalism, continues to rely on the state authority to ensure its survival, and the legitimisation of the State’s authority and the suppression of dissent against it are closely tied to culture rather than economic means. Culture, drawing on religion, language, race, and ethnicity and so on, gives meaning to the identity, behavioral relationships and patterns, and structural divisions and power inequalities of the society.

The fact that the success of the neoliberal economy is predicated on social and economic inequalities and injustices and environmental degradation, culture, without being militarised, progressively loses its ability to be a source of legitimacy of the neoliberal state. This is because culture is the only means available to the state to legitimise its power in the face of mounting economic inequalities and ecological crises. In a multicultural nation state such as Sri Lanka, where one culture dominates the others in the constitution of the state’s identity and its social and economic policies, the militarisation of culture acts as an important means of legitimising the state, the ruling ideology and hegemony, and as a result instigates its opposition by those marginalised cultures.

Culture is far more important than the economy for people to make sense of their identity, social and ecological relationships and dignity. Thus, militarism, as embodied in LTTE- and Hitler-type regimes, is a cultural response to the legitimacy crisis of the neoliberal state that results from its inability to grant social and economic equality to all its subjects. Commodification, nationalisation and militarisation of culture, deprives the society of vibrant, critical and democratic public spheres to deliberate action against culture’s role in social, economic and ecological injustice.

While Fascist regimes around the world have taken different forms and national variants, they draw their identity and legitimacy from the cultural context in which they operate. Fascism is broadly defined as “a political ideology that seeks to organise the government and economy under one centralized authority, with strict social controls and suppression of all opposition. Fascist regimes draw on aggressively militarised and often racist nationalism to legitimise the regimentation of the economic and social policies and suppression of dissent against them. Fascism glorifies the nation or the race as an organic community that transcendsall other forms of loyalties and often, often but not always, it embodies racial superiority doctrines, ethnic persecution, and geopolitical expansion.

As a populist ideology, fascism energises and activates the political power of the ‘chosen’ superior race, its history, religion and claims to territory, against its ‘perceived’ enemies. Fascism, particularly in hyperreligious society like Sri Lanka, could also take a ‘spiritual’ form when it draws on religion to gain popular legitimacy as a crusade against the “moral decay” of the society. Despite having a populist outlook, fascist regimes are often exclusive, racist, elitist, tribalistic and nepotistic, since their power revolves around selected groups within the ‘chosen’ race and a supreme leader of that group. Fascism, in countries in the Global South are vulnerable to being sites for conflict between external forces that have stakes in the country’s economy and politics. Finally, Fascists are notorious for diabolical plots to mask their corruption, nepotism, impunity and their servitude to undesirable external powers.

The vilification of Vijayakala and the branding of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as a Hitler figure are desperate acts of political opportunism that only serve to create fear. Society’s uncritical acceptance of such tactics makes it complicit with the dangers of LTTE- and Hitler-type regimes. If we are truly concerned about the country sliding towards fascist rule under such authoritarian programmes, we need to deconstruct and challenge the economic, cultural and political underpinnings of the current excitement over the two statements. Against this backdrop, we can now turn to a more detailed discussion on how we have become a society fearful, and/or celebrate regimes that are likely to lead the country towards a more fascist future.

The current government came to power by promising to restore law and order. After failing to do so, it is now hoping to remain in power by frightening the public about criminals whom it promises to catch when it forms the next government. Hardly anyone believes that the regime will catch politically powerful and popular members of the den of thieves, despite Minister Rajitha Senarathne’s proclamation that ‘2018 is a year of catching criminals’. Not only is the government complicit in thefts carried out by its own members, but there is also a widespread belief that the allegations of theft are important sources of political bargaining, which helps preserve a weak and unpopular government. As a result, the public is not swayed by the government’s claims that it is not interfering in legal proceedings against corruption, (as the previous government did) or the government’s plea for the public to be patient and should not expect an instant restoration of the judicial system.

Corruption has been normalised, and the legal system is struggling to overcome constraints so that it can carry out its duties. Criminals that the government promised to catch are fast becoming national heroes who could potentially form the next government. The President and the Prime Minister seem to blame each other for their failure to bring these criminals to justice. Yet, for most voters, corruption is simply not a matter of high priority when faced with other impending material problems.

Even the JVP is not a viable option for people to end corruption. Most people do not vote for the JVP, even if they welcome its persistence in exposing corruption.  People are averse to progressive ideals of JVP, because those ideals are not being backed up by a credible, practical strategy of implementation of policies that would be conducive to the realisation of those ideals, and to make matters even worse their track record of two failed insurgencies and ethnonationalist past (during the 1971 and 1989 uprisings)are still haunting them. Under these circumstances, people would even vote for extremely corrupt persons, especially when allegations of corruption against them remain unproven, so long as their campaign policies promise to make real change on the ground.

The frustrations of the Tamil minority with the government run as high as the frustrations of the majority Sinhalese. The progress the government has made in relation to certain minority issues—progress that has been acknowledged by Vijayakala herself—is not reason enough for minorities to be complacent about the status quo. The much-anticipated constitutional changes allowing for devolution of power are unlikely in the near future if supposed fears of resurgence of the LTTE and of anti-minority sentiments occupy a central place in the coming election campaigns.

Legal experts working on constitutional reforms for devolution are ignorant about how their own thinking and efforts are conditioned by the intersection of law, economics and politics of the country. Some fear that the time legal experts take to get through legal reforms as giving ample time and space for the entrenchment of those forces that are opposed to devolution as well as transitional justice. For those Tamils critical of their political leaders, these legal reforms cannot address the issues they face on a daily basis. For example, formal political devolution would be meaningless if neoliberal development deprives and disposes people of land, resources, and archeological heritage. Many doubt that the government is able to prevent the spread of incidents of rape, murder, alcoholism, gang activity, drug abuse, and other criminal activity, which have spread not only in the north and east since the end of the war but also throughout the country. The perception that these incidents, when get out of control, could lead to further militarisation of their society tends to alienate the Tamil community from their traditional political parties, now divided and competing for popular legitimacy. For minorities, meaningful reconciliation and transitional justice remain an elusive dream at a time when the political parties are failing to move beyond narrow and often racist nationalist identity politics in responding to minority concerns. The Sinhalese, just like the Tamils, not always for same reasons, are cynical of towards various commissions and committees, and programs initiated by the current government to promote good governance, peace and reconciliation.

Under these circumstances, demands for fascist regimes by Vijayakala and the Anunayaka should not be construed as calls for another separatist war or for policies similar to those of the Nazis. Such demands are common to Sinhala and Tamil communities who believe that national problems can be solved only by regimes that can instill the fear of punishment in the wrongdoers. Public desperation is an inevitable product of nation building in Sri Lanka under the mutually reinforcing workings of neoliberal development projects and ethno-religious nationalist projects. The global success of these two projects is predicated on inequality, injustice, oppression, and domination, and, as certain trends in international politics show, the survival of such projects can open the door to fascism.

If our consciousness is formed in the image of these two projects, our ability to think critically and independently is taken away, and our humanity is robbed from us. Only by unraveling the economic, political and cultural underpinnings of these projects can we regain our intellectual freedom and our humanity, and make proper sense of Vijayakala’s and Ven. Anunayaka’s statements and of the public response to them.

Every government since 1977 has continued to pursue neoliberal economic policies centered on the notion that economic wellbeing and democratic freedoms and rights, and ecological sustainability can be derived from the capitalist market place. Therein the primary responsibility of the government is to discipline the society to function according to the dictates of the market. In crude terms, the underlying logic of such policies is to sell anything and everything to the highest bidder as long as that bidder brings investment to the country. These transactions are done regardless of the bidder’s transparency, accountability and the social and environmental consequences of their investments. The priority here is not the wellbeing of the people, but economic growth, which in essence means opportunities for capitalist profit, by adjusting the national economy to the dictates of the world market.

Inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic inequalities are increasing, and social safety networks are either disappearing or are being subject to the logic of the market. The country is being dispossessed of its resources, and such dispossession is disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable social groups. Future generations will inherit an irredeemable debt trap, and the country is rapidly losing its economic and political sovereignty. The neoliberal institutions and their economists, however, have indoctrinated society with the belief that “good governance,” structured exclusively within the confines of neoliberal rationality, is the only option available for improving the quality of our lives and the natural environment.

Economic hegemony offers only two options to any government. The first is to be aggressive in implementing neoliberal policies, using ideological consensus and coercion to suppress and distract any form of protest against the inequalities and injustices that inevitably arise from such policies. Governments find it easy to adhere to such doctrines when the society itself has internalised the promise of prosperity and when there is no critical thinking or opposition to that myth encouraged by the education system, by the religious establishment, or by civil society. Such manufactured gullibility is reinforced when people are made so naïve as to believe that changes in the political leadership will result in a new determination to combat injustice and inequalities of neoliberal economic policies.

In contrast to the popular perception of the present government as one without clear purpose, direction and firm leadership, there is a growing consensus among the public that those who ended the war against the LTTE are capable of leading the country towards a better future because they possess the coherent narrative and will it takes to guide both the economy and the nation. Such consensus, certainly, are not built on facts, but on the failures of the current government on issues that matters most for the general public. The attempts by some, even with good intentions, to use Ven.Anunayaka’s statement to instill fear of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa becoming the next President has backfired and are making Gotabhaya even more popular among his supporters.

The second option offered by neoliberal hegemony is that governments frame their policies in ethno-nationalist terms, thereby distracting public attention from economic policies. Such framing is not a difficult task in countries in which the educational, religious, and political establishments have conditioned the vast majority of people to interpret the benefits of economic policies in ethno-nationalist terms. Ethno-nationalist responses to Vijayakala’s statement provide an excuse for a type of political leadership that would invest in a security apparatus that could eventually be used to suppress all forms of political dissent, in particular, dissent against neoliberal policies. Ethno-nationalism disguises the economic logic behind militarization, thereby providing security and stability for transnational capital.

Minority political parties, being complicit with neoliberalism, dare not challenge such politics or mobilise their constituencies against them. None of the Tamil parties have articulated a political vision that would address the issues resulting from neoliberalism and ethno-nationalism, because they have neither the ideological inclination nor the social capital to do so. The dominance of identity politics, at the expense of economic analysis, in Tamil political discourse is reinforced by a disappointment about the progress that has been made in transitional justice after the war and by an entrenchment of anti-minority sentiments evident in the recent anti-Muslim riots. As a result, when neoliberal policies dispossess minorities of their land and resources, thereby increasing their political vulnerability, minorities are left with having to solely articulate their grievances and organize their dissent along the lines of their ethnic identity.

Vijayakala’s and Ven. Anunayaka’s statements appeal to those who are ideologically conditioned to think that having political control over their land and resources, even under the LTTE or a fascist regime, is the answer to the economic as well as political problems of their respective communities. Neoliberalism thrives on the radicalising of inequality and dispossession. People become oblivious to inequalities within their own communities and project their anger and dissent towards the economy onto vulnerable communities, which in turn undermines inter-ethnic solidarity against the common denominator of inequality and dispossession.

The public and political responses to the two statements are indicative of continuing polarisation along ethno-religious lines and also of a lack of will among mainstream political parties to move beyond narrow identity politics that legitimise their political agendas. In these responses Vijyakala’s statement received a literal interpretation, whereas Ven. Anunayaka’s statement received a metaphorical interpretation.

At the time she made the controversial statement, Vijayakala, a Tamil female State Minister of the Government of Sri Lanka, had worked closely with the government on various projects on post-war reconciliation and peace-building. Her husband was assassinated by the LTTE and she had witnessed decades of failure of all governments to fulfill their promises to minority Tamils. Her controversial statement was obviously an ill-thought out statement made in a context of increasing reports on sexual violence in the North and East. Why did she make the statement now?

Vijayakala’s statement was a part of a politically charged speech she made in response to a lack of justice for the rape and murder of a child, her friend’s daughter. Is it possible that Vijayakala, being an acolyte of the UNP, was trying to make political capital by calling for a resurgence of the LTTE? Would Vijayakala’s critics treat her differently had she not been a member of the UNP but an ally of Karuna or Pilliyan (former members of the LTTE responsible for mass murder and after the war held ministerial portfolios under the previous government)? The critics of Vijayakala ignored this complicated context in which the statement was made and have been unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt to Vijayakala’s claim that she did not intend to appeal for a resurgence of the LTTE.

The parliament and the media did not get animated about Ven. Anunayaka’s statement, in the same way they did about Vijayakala’s. Not many raised doubts about his clarification of his statement, that “he did not advocate a Hitler-like military rule”, rather he meant “the need for someone who can make strong decisions.” It was accepted by many without raising any doubts about it or raising questions about the consequences of such a statement on inter-ethnic relations. Obviously, Vijayakala cannot in good conscience defend the LTTE, with its record of forcibly recruiting women and children to the war, as a protector of women and children, but she could certainly say that there was no rape and sexual abuse during its regime. If we equally treat both Vijayakala’s and the Ven. Anunayaka’s statements, then we should give the benefit of the doubt to Vijayakala that she did not endorse the violent past of the LTTE; rather she, as the Ven. Anunayaka did, meant the need for a regime that would make firm decisions to prevent further sexual assaults.

Those in Parliament who vilified Vijayakala using inappropriate language and who demanded immediate legal action against her have been silent about the allegations made against those Sinhala politicians who provided finances to the LTTE and who made former LTTE cadres accused of murder into government ministers. My point is not that one wrong justifies another but that politicians of the majority community enjoy a degree of privilege not extended to those representing vulnerable minorities.

The UNP did the right thing in appointing a committee of inquiry and letting the legal process handle Vijayakala’s statement, rather than immediately arresting her. However, the UNP is not going to challenge the racism that underlies the hypocrisies of Vijayakala’s critics. The reaction of some UNP members to Vijayakala’s statement implies that its intention was to prove to the public that it was far more proactive in condemning Vijayakala than were the opposition politicians.

People are so busy looking after their own welfare that they lack the time, resources, and moral inclination to become responsible citizens. Instead, they expect politicians to work for the common good. Even some religious leaders see the LTTE and fascist movements as role models for our political leaders because those religious leaders themselves draw their popularity, legitimacy, and economic substance from ethno-religious nationalism and the neoliberalism that underpins it.

As long as the government is committed to neoliberal policies and maintains ethno-nationalism as the ideological basis for nation-building, it will fail to restore and maintain law and order, to end corruption, to create a viable path toward transitional justice for communities affected by war and to address increasing economic inequality, the dispossession of the country’s land and resources, and to prevent the subjugation of the country to the demands of neoliberal institutions. Those who vilify Vijayakala and brand Gotabhaya as Hitler to create fear in the society themselves are complicit with the same economic and nation-building projects.

It is not enough to simply be angry at the status quo. What we need is to accept the realities of our predicament with equanimity and to do our best to confront those realities. Fascist regimes draw legitimacy from sources made available to them by the society. Our responsibility is to deprive regimes of these forces. First, we need to accept the harsh realities of neoliberal development project and ethnonationalist nation-building projects. Secondly, we need to unite across ethnic divides to confront the challenges and consequences of such projects without allowing politicians on either side to obscure these consequences in a shroud of narrow and opportunistic identity politics. Third, we should be willing to embrace more egalitarian and just ways of organising our economy, politics, and the way we relate to nature. These are our moral responsibilities if we believe that all humans are “bearers of inalienable human dignity that cannot be lost or forfeited.” Philosopher Martha Nussabaum, building on Kantian and Stoic philosophy argues that notion of dignity always refers to human “capacity for practical and moral reasoning.” The challenge we face today is, not the LTTE or Hitler, but our complicity with the fascist tendencies embodied in the neoliberal economy and racist nationalism stifling our capacity to do so.

Editor’s Note:Sri Lanka: Where free market wouldn’t sell reform and reconciliation” and “Racism in Education, Religion and Neoliberalism: Empowering the anti-minority extremists?