By Jude Fernando –
If they call you a Hitler, then be a Hitler and build this country.—Ven. Vendaruwe Upali Thero (Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter), advising Gotabaya Rajapaksa
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
The timing of these two, ill-thought-out and irresponsible, or perhaps, misspoken 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 yahapalanaya (“good governance”) regime for failing to fulfill its promises. Desperation and anxiety about this failure run deep in a society so morally bankrupt and intellectually and politically paralyzed, that it sees no other option but to turn to the LTTE or to authoritarian regimes to help solve the country’s social, economic, and political problems—regardless of the atrocious history of such regimes. These are symptoms of a morally degenerating society deprived of convincing alternative narratives and road maps to guide its future.
The double standards evident in the popular and political responses to Anunayaka and Vijayakala are indicative of a country sharply polarized along ethnic lines and also of the continuing influence of ethno nationalism on the politics of the country. Such polarization creates communities that are unable to empathize with other communities, even if they are facing similar struggles. After thirty years of war, million-dollar investments in reconciliation and peace-building have not helped the country move away from reactionary, racist nationalism and toward a more inclusive nationalism. An ethno-nationalist interpretation of Vijayakala’s apparent call for a resurgence of the LTTE might cause the Sinhalese to endorse Anunayaka’s counsel to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the Tamils who fear a further entrenchment of forces against them to sympathize with Vijayakala. The statements reinforce each other, and they will take center stage in the political discourse as the country approaches its next election.
Vilifying Vijayakala and branding Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Hitler, are desperate acts of political opportunism that only serve to create fear. If we really are concerned about the country sliding towards fascist rule under the LTTE or Hitler-style authoritarian regimes, we need to unravel and challenge the economic, cultural, and political underpinnings of the current excitement about the two statements.
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 normalized, 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 an option for the people to end corruption. Most people do not vote for the JVP, even if they welcome its persistence in exposing corruption. 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 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 Tamils 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, 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. 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.
Under these circumstances, demands for fascist regimes 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 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.
Neoliberal 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 neoliberal doctrine when the society itself has internalized the neoliberal 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 the 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 politicians and civil society members, even with good intentions, to use 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 neoliberal 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 mobilize 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 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 radicalizing 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 polarization along ethno-religious lines and also of a lack of will among mainstream political parties to move beyond narrow identity politics that legitimize their political agendas. In these responses Vijyakala’s statement received a literal interpretation, whereas Annunayaka’s statement received a metaphorical interpretation.
At the time of 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 has 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? And why is she being singled out for punishment, when many other Tamil and Sinhala politicians and members of the general public have made similar statements that violate the constitution, and are ostensibly punishable under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)?
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 Anunayaka’s statement, in the same way they did about Vijayakala’s. No one 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 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 consciousness 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 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 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—acts that are prohibited by the PTA. 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 maintain 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, 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. 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.