Photo courtesy of Daraz
I am currently living in the UK, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is one can keep a little distance from the dynamics of current events. This helps to get a different perspective. One can also get a different perspective on implications of global developments. For example, the debacle in Afghanistan has raised fundamental questions about what can liberalism alone can achieve in such in situations. This debate is taking place within mainstream policy making institutions. Sometimes I get the impression that these developments have not influenced the debates within the Sri Lankan civil society. Of course, there are disadvantages; I miss the opportunity to do few interviews that I normally do before writing.
At present the Sri Lankan state is facing a number of problems. I don’t want to use a term like crisis to characterise the situation. Overuse of this term has meant it has lost its meaning. But one thing that is clear is that, to understand the current situation we need to keep in mind the period from 1977. In general, I would argue for analysis of any contemporary situation with a historical sense.
From 1977 three factors had an impact on the evolution of the Sri Lanka state. These were the liberalisation of the economy or what I call the beginning of a new period of capitalist transition, a global context dominated by a neo-liberal political project and the Tamil demand for a separate state and the armed conflict that followed. It was the beginning of the new period of capitalist transition that integrated the Sri Lankan state to a greater degree with the global neo-liberal project. This was promoted by developed capitalist countries of the West led by the US. This project was based on a liberal utopia that hoped to develop a world that is interconnected, prosperous and peaceful. I will not go into the details about what sort of a world emerged, but merely point it was far away from the utopia that liberals painted. This global project had a significant impact on the Sri Lankan state formation. It had an impact on capitalist transition, the economic security of the state, and contradictions arising from the Tamil demand. In 2009, after three decades, the Sri Lankan state managed to consolidate the territory of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state through military means. As in many such state formation conflicts, this resulted in significant social costs.
The most important point that I want to emphasise is that it is difficult to understand the problems faced by the Sri Lankan state at present without considering the three decades of armed conflict and how it ended. Although we all welcome the end of armed violence with all its social costs, the impact of this period does not disappear just because the war has ended. The current situation is a product of this history. On top of this there are new issues like the impact of the first pandemic in the Anthropocene era. Within this framework, I point out below the key issues that characterise the current situation.
After consolidation of the territory of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state, a post-war security strategy is being implemented. This consist of maintaining the strength of the security forces, having a significant presence of security forces in the North, continuing with the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the notion of terrorism, and stabilising society through ideas like reconciliation and peacebuilding. When reconciliation and peacebuilding are implemented without tackling state reforms and political structures that maintain the current state, it becomes part of a post-war security strategy.
The state that we have now is a state that is a product of three decades of armed conflict. Two developments have had an impact on the state structure. First, compared to 1977, the state structure expanded to add two new layers at provincial and divisional levels. The former was an attempt to find an answer to the Tamil issue, and the latter was established in 1992 in the aftermath of violence in the South. This was a continuation of the idea of decentralisation. On several occasions the centralised state has used this institutional mechanism to regain control over the periphery after conflicts. Second, the expansion of the security sector has changed the structure of the state as well as the composition of the political class. Expenditure on maintaining the administrative structure, security sector and interest payments for loans absorb a significant proportion of the state revenue.
The current economic problems reflect the coming together of several issues. The costs incurred in waging a military strategy, using commercial loans for the infrastructure projects which our political elite loves, pressures to ensure resources needed to sustain the state or economic security of the state, impact of problems of global capitalism, and the latest issue, the impact of the pandemic.
This is happening in a society where we see socio-economic impact of four decades of the new period of capitalist transition and three decades of armed conflict. In the post-war period any discussion on socio-economic issues should look at areas affected by armed conflict, especially the North and East separately. In these areas we need to combine both impact of capitalist transition and armed conflict. In other words, although the territory of the Sinhala nationalist state has been consolidated through military means, treating the entire geographical space of the state as a single unit will miss many issues. Writing a social history of the war affected area is a major task awaiting social science research of Sri Lanka.
The new period of capitalist transition has brought about significant changes in the socio-economic structure. The main feature seems to be small holder agriculture becoming less viable, and more and more people depend on wage labour for their livelihoods. Data from Household Income and Expenditure Surveys show that household income from agriculture has been dropping even in rural areas. In addition, socio-economically society is highly unequal. The 2019 Household Income and Expenditure survey show that the income of the richest 20% is eleven times that of the 20% Income inequality has been worsening over the years. Both these are characteristics of the history of capitalist transition in other parts of the world. But they should not be viewed as inevitable historical processes. Many things can be done to minimise these negative aspects.
The impact of Covid is mediated through this social structure. My impression from a distance is that one of the groups that is mostly affected from measures like lockdowns are the casual labour whose income depends on whether they get work on a daily basis. Since the country lacks any kind of unemployment benefits, the impact can be much wider. A systematic analysis of the impact of Covid in terms of socio-economic categories is essential for future discussions.
Sri Lanka ranks very high on possible water-related impact due to climate change. Maybe we are already seeing this impact. One of the key issues is the particular spatial distribution of the population. At the time of 1981 census, about 55% of the population was concentrated in 20% of the land area. It will be interesting to update this figure. In densely populated areas, which are normally close to economic growth centres, poor people suffer more because markets make land prices high. Over the years poor people get pushed to margins – for example, to low-lying areas that get flooded easily, or steep slopes in hilly areas. Under adverse weather conditions these areas and the people living in these areas suffer most. The focus on capitalist growth and trying to promote markets to determine who can acquire land is going to make the situation worse.
One of the key questions that we need to think about is how will the political class deal with the economic problems? In the past political strategies used by the political class to deal with economic problems has not been peaceful. Sri Lankan economy is much more integrated with global capitalism because of four decades of liberalisation. In this context it is not easy to manage these issues by isolating the economy from the global economy without facing serious problems. One of the factors needed to manage the economy in this situation is effective institutions within the state. These should have sufficient capacity and autonomy from partisan political influences. At present the Sri Lankan state is far away from such a model. It is also possible marginalised people could suffer from any sudden breaks with the global economy. Traditionally political reactions to socio-economic fall out economic issues have come from the Sinhala majority. One can already see this happening in the current context.
When it comes to reforms of the state to meet grievance of ethnic and religious minorities even the limited reforms of the centralised state through the 13th amendment have not been implemented, and at present these regional bodies have no elected members. The centralised Sri Lankan state is a long way from becoming a state that has legitimacy with all ethnic and religious groups. In fact, in some areas the situation has worsened. The post-war period has seen the emergence of extremist Sinhala Buddhist political currents. Muslims and evangelical Christians became their targets. The suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, have made the situation worse. The Tamil struggle for their rights continues. The Tamil political movement is now a global phenomenon. Muslim identity is a global phenomenon. In this discussion we should not forget rights of other ethnic groups like the Hill Country Tamils.
The global situation has also changed significantly from the period of dominance of the neo-liberal political project. In fact, this dominance lasted from 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, to the 9/11 attack on twin towers in New York in 2001. The US response to this event was led by neo-conservatives. It was basically a traditional military strategy. Political liberalism was used to legitimise it. We just saw the end of this effort which had disastrous consequence. The invasion of Afghanistan was followed by the invasion of Iraq and regime change in several middle eastern countries. The social costs of this are seen even now in the refugee crisis. The capitalist development of China, China challenging the hegemony of US and the emergence of regional powers, has changed the global context.
These changes are having an impact on the Sri Lankan state. We need to do is to map out the structural changes of the international dimension of Sri Lankan state formation resulting from these changes. In this analysis we have to remember that the impact of the regional power India has been important for Sri Lankan state formation right from the beginning of the post-colonial period. We have now is new phase of it. Unfortunately, the dominant debate on international relations in Sri Lanka is based on the traditional realist school. This approach treats the Sri Lankan state as a finalised self-contained unit. It is not very useful in understanding a dynamic process of state formation in a changing global context.
In the face of these issues there seem to be two types of debate dominating. One is led by mainstream economists, whose agenda is getting capitalist growth back on track. The usual belief is that this will resolve everything. The immediate objective seems to be how to ensure resources for sustaining the state or improving the economic security of the state. This debate ignores the most important dimension of the state – its political character. It does not want to dwell on social costs of unifying the territory of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state, how the period of armed conflict changed the nature of the state and resources needs to sustain the post-war state. Nor will they be interested in political responses from the Sinhala majority. My hunch is most who focus on economic growth want stability at any cost. This means strengthening the security of the state. In other words, they support the traditional idea of security which focus solely on the security of the state. It does matter if this undermines the security of individuals or social groups.
The other critical debate is focusing on the regime as the main cause of this situation. The obvious answer then is regime change. The major problem with this is the nature of the political class that rules over us at present. The political class is highly fractured. This can be demonstrated if you compare the composition of parliament at the end of plurality system of elections in the late 1970s and at present. In my view three factors have contributed to this – the impact of PR (this is seen in many counties), the emergence of a new political leadership within the Sinhala majority because of the leadership given to defeating the LTTE, and the growth of patronage politics.
One of the best ways of understanding the problems of the political class is to take a close look at the regime change in 2015, and what happened to this regime. There are several issues that need to be analysed closely. First, how did Mahinda Rajapakse who was hailed as a Sinhala hero, win the 2010 presidential election but loose in 2015? The most important factor to analyse is the voter behaviour in Sinhala majority areas. This will show that explaining voter behaviour of the Sinhala majority through ethnicity alone is too simplistic. Second, what happened within the regime and why? Third, how do you explain the defeat in 2019? We need to analyse what happened and why, without any pre-conceived notion about the 2015 regime. This will help to understand the nature of the political class that rules us and think about what can be expected from this political class. This is not an argument against electoral politics or working with the political class. It is an argument for not relying on regime change and thinking beyond it.
In a seminal essay titled ‘Hedgehog and the Fox’ that has influenced me a lot, the liberal philosopher Isiah Berlin describes two types of thinking in understanding and finding answers to problems in a society. The title is from a Greek poem describing a contest between a hedgehog and a fox. In this contest the hedgehog has one big answer. That is to turn its back and try to use quills. But the fox has a much more diverse tactic depending on the situation. Using this analogy Berlin argues that some social theories have one big explanation and one big answer to everything. Often an argument of historical inevitability is used to strength the argument. The political vision is based on some form of a utopia. Berlin’s ideas can be used to criticise utopias propagated by both traditional Marxists and liberals. One of his followers John Gray has shown how in the post-cold war period a liberal utopia replaced the utopia of traditional Marxists. Lines of thinking in both critical debates mentioned above have the characteristics of focusing on a single factor and looking for one big answer.
Berlin prefers the fox’s way thinking, where there are different answers to different problems. Berlin also shows that answers to one problem can contradict answers to another problem. This means all good things don’t go together. In this way Berlin’s philosophy supports a particular idea of pluralism. This is not the same as relativism. Today we need policy debates on specific issues with a solid empirical base. This must be done keeping the larger context in mind. In this exercise we should forget utopias and stop preaching them. This can help us to find answers to the issues that we are concerned with and to approach the question of political agency for achieving them with an open mind.