Sri Lanka: Two years after

What went wrong? We can think of half a hundred reasons, some of which are more important than others


by Izeth Hussain

 ( January 7, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Two years after the January 2015 Presidential Elections – which I and some others hailed as a Revolution -there is widespread disillusionment about the present Government. Apparently corruption continues at an unacceptable level, and things in general are more or less the same though with some improvements. Differences are of degree, not of kind, and it would seem therefore that it was over-sanguine to have talked of a Revolution. In my response I would focus on the Government’s positive performance on the restoration of democracy, on taking corrective action on the economy, on offering some hope of movement towards a solution of the ethnic problem, and on coping with new challenges in our foreign relations.

All that may not amount to much. But that accords with the meliorist position in politics which aims at ameliorating the human condition, not at establishing a utopia. Politics is seen as the art of the possible, and there is recognition of the fact that in politics what is often on offer is not a choice between the good and the bad but between the bad and the worse. Consequently improvements, even though they may be of a modest order, are to be welcomed. But where does the Revolution come in? That comes in because of the dynamics of modernity: small improvements accumulate and result in change of a revolutionary order. In Sri Lanka, for instance, there was no successful mass revolution during the last century. But changes of an undoubtedly revolutionary order did take place between 1900 and 1999.

I believe that it will help in attaining a balanced assessment of our present situation if we view it in a long-term perspective, taking particular account of revolutionary changes. Before proceeding further I must clarify that an assessment of Sri Lanka’s present situation is a huge and complex matter, and what I am offering in this article are no more than a few notes, a few pointers, towards that assessment. From 1948 to 1956 we had a liberal market-oriented economy together with welfare measures that were exceptional for an underdeveloped country, within an admirably fully functioning democracy. Had those strategies continued under an enlightened leadership willing to make certain changes Sri Lanka could have become a rare success story of a developing country combining growth with equity.

That did not happen because of the 1956 Revolution, which was a local manifestation of the Afro-Asian variety of socialism that swept through several countries including India, Burma, Soekarno’s Indonesia, Nasser’s Egypt, the Syria and Iraq of the Baath Socialists, Kaunda’s Zambia, Nyerere’s Tanzania, Seku Toure’s Guinea etc. In Latin America the closest approximation to Afro-Asian socialism was the populism of Peron of Argentina, but there was nothing comparable anywhere else in Latin America because American imperialism tolerated only traditional oligarchic dictatorship. The positive feature of Afro-Asian socialism was an authentic indigenous nationalism that displaced the neo-colonialism of the Westernised elites. In Sri Lanka that nationalism led to the rise to elite levels of the Sinhalese lower middle class. The rise of that class in other Afro-Asian countries also led to another common characteristic: state-centric economies that left a record of ubiquitous failure.

There is one characteristic of Afro-Asian socialism that has not got adequate recognition. Behind all the rhetoric of socialism, Afro-Asian socialism was basically a mechanism for the rise of the lower middle class to elite levels. That class did not for the most part have higher education enabling it to rise in the Administration and the professions; nor did it have the skills and the capital to make money through business. There was only one way in which that class could rise quickly to positions of power and affluence. It had to be through the State, and that really was the dynamic behind the State-centric economies of Afro-Asia. An undue proportion of the resources of the State – the produce of the people as a whole – went to the politically influential. It was a form of theft. A moral rottenness was therefore installed at the very core of the Sri Lankan polity after 1956.

The next revolutionary change took place in 1977. President JR deserves credit for having been the first South Asian leader to grasp that the motor of growth in the developing countries had to be the private sector. He therefore re-installed a liberal market-oriented outward-looking economy which quickly started producing spectacular growth rates. But, alas, he earned credit for nothing else. There was a failure in attracting foreign direct investment: the big multinationals stayed aloof from Sri Lanka not only after the 1983 holocaust but even before that – the reason for which requires exploration. On the ethnic front he presided over the anti-Tamil pogroms from 1977 to 1983, rendering inevitable the 26-year civil war that followed. On the political front, he destroyed democracy utterly, showing hatred and contempt towards it. It’s about time that we Sri Lankans start assessing performance in politics not by rhetoric but by results. What were the results of his rule? By 1988 there were two civil wars going on simultaneously, those of the LTTE and of the JVP; the IPKF troops were here behaving like conquerors; the Government had lost control over a third of the national territory and over half of the coastline.

What went wrong? We can think of half a hundred reasons, some of which are more important than others. I go back to the analyses I used to make in the first half of the ‘nineties in which I gave central importance to the destruction of moral standards by the then Government. The hypothesis behind that argument was that a society is held together by a moral system which leads to a legal system which in turn regulates public life. If that moral system is in decay, and if furthermore it comes under attack by the State, the disintegration of that society has to follow. And that precisely was what had happened by 1988.

I will give a few examples of attacks on moral standards after 1977. The late Saratchandra used to inveigh against some of the ill effects of the liberalized economy. That displeased the State, whose henchmen beat him up together with Buddhist monks in a public place with total impunity. The Supreme Court gave a verdict that displeased the State. The Judges were subjected in their residences to threats and abuse by thugs who were transported in CTB buses. Gonawila Sunil was convicted as the leader in a case of gang rape. After a brief while in prison he was given a Presidential pardon, escorted out of prison by a UNP notable, made an all-island Justice of the Peace, and inducted into the Central Committee of the UNP. In all these cases what were at issue were not double standards, the tribute that vice hypocritically pays to virtue, in which most Governments indulge: they pay obeisance to legal and moral standards while violating them. What was on display was blatant and utter contempt for legal and moral standards. In terms of the theory suggested in the preceding paragraph, ill consequences had to follow. By 1988 the Sri Lankan State was in a state of disintegration.

It is in the long-term perspective that I have sketched out above that we must assess the performance of the present Government. We have certainly come a long way since 1988. Democracy was restored under President Chandrika Kumaratunge, it was breaking down under her successor, and it has been restored again. I would say that the most encouraging fact about the present Government is that it seems to be in the process of firmly entrenching democracy. If that happens we will have Governments under which it will always be possible for the people to enforce corrective action on the wielders of power. Most important is that the people will be able to enforce respect for decent legal and moral norms on the wielders of power who, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have a natural propensity to lapse into savagery.

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