|Political principles are a guide to action, not a warrant for inaction. If you care about the people, you use every opening to get in there and help them. If you care about the nation, you get in there and put your shoulder to the wheel the first chance you get. If you care about democracy, you use every chance to get in there and get your hands on some of the levers of power and administration, prising them away from the autocrat, making yourself an alternative centre of gravity within the system. It’s not about how you feel. It’s not about you
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa
Sri Lanka’s economic collapse and mass destitution lead to the imminent scenario of a socio-economic version of Black July 1983.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is becoming Sri Lanka’s Kerensky, because the West isn’t coming through for him fast enough.
Meanwhile, ex-President Maithripala Sirisena’s sober, sensible performance on Derana 360 this week projected a mature, experienced, pragmatist; potentially a (transitional) elder statesman capable of a steady hand on the tiller for steering through stormy seas. But he’s nowhere near in place.
During the crisis of the 1980s, the TULF (precursor of the TNA) went along with “the boys” in the North while the SLFP went along with the “Deshapremis” in the South. The results were devastating for those democratic parties and leaderships. In today’s crisis, the SJB must not go the same route.
In the vortex of the gravest of crises, the SJB’s 21st Amendment sought to abolish the executive presidency, by-passing a referendum. The effort spearheaded by Suren Fernando was eviscerated by the Supreme Court.
As a political scientist my real-world question to those who wish to abolish the executive presidency is: what if France had no directly elected executive presidency and had only its Parliament today? Despite his recent re-election as President, Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party just lost its majority in the National Assembly. Jean-Luc Melenchon’s ‘Nupes’ the left coalition of socialist factions, Communists and Greens forms the Opposition, facing the far-right ultranationalist Marine Le Pen’s party which grew from 8 seats to 89 and will never cooperate with the Left. The Parliament is gridlocked.
A guiding doctrine for all democratic parties on how to respond in a grave national crisis has already been definitively articulated:
“Our country today is facing a national crisis. It is a crisis which has shaken the very foundations of democracy and human rights and is threatening to destroy them. No sacrifice would be too big for the democratic parties to make for the resolution of this crisis in order to save the democratic way of life which we all cherish. It is with an open mind and an unprejudiced approach that we must find solutions…It is necessary that we should consult and seek the views of all concerned. It is difficult to find a solution while holding on tenaciously to our prejudices and preconceived notions.” (President Ranasinghe Premadasa addressing the Govt Parliamentary Group, 5.9. 1989)
Political principles are a guide to action, not a warrant for inaction. If you care about the people, you use every opening to get in there and help them. If you care about the nation, you get in there and put your shoulder to the wheel the first chance you get. If you care about democracy, you use every chance to get in there and get your hands on some of the levers of power and administration, prising them away from the autocrat, making yourself an alternative centre of gravity within the system. It’s not about how you feel. It’s not about you.
Either the SJB leader or its chairman, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, both of whom were offered the chance, should have taken the PM gig. The President couldn’t have undermined, by-passed or marginalised Sajith Premadasa, with his SJB and SJB Sandanaya Alliance, 52 MPs, Colombo Central power-base, mass appeal, oratorical skills,) and his party’s proven capacity for mobilising the street.
No democratic political party should boycott the legislature for any reason, any time, for any length of time. The SLFP and Anura Bandaranaike as Opposition Leader did that and lost traction which they never recovered. The SJB shouldn’t follow suit.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should be criticised for non-delivery but not attacked for the absence of an economic plan while an IMF team is in town and he has been in negotiation-mode. The optics are bad. It is also slightly hypocritical when the Opposition hasn’t presented a plan either.
Modest, even minimalist as the Cabinet’s 21st Amendment which finally made it through after a protracted struggle by SLPP reformists may be, the Opposition’s answer should be to network MPs of all parties and move amendments during the Committee stage, not denounce and reject it out of hand.
What is the purpose of insisting on the SJB’s 21st Amendment when the Supreme Court has squashed it like a bug? As between the SJB’s and Wijeyadasa’s amendments, the latter starts out with more votes while the SJB’s won’t make it into triple digits.
Any party that boycotts or votes against the most viable draft amendment rather than moving its own rectifications and settling constructively for consensus and a win-win solution, only entrenches the autocratic 20th Amendment and props up the Gota autocracy.
|Either the SJB leader or its chairman, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, both of whom were offered the chance, should have taken the PM gig. The President couldn’t have undermined, by-passed or marginalised Sajith Premadasa, with his SJB and SJB Sandanaya Alliance, 52 MPs, Colombo Central power-base, mass appeal, oratorical skills,) and his party’s proven capacity for mobilising the street
A plan for Sri Lanka
The main Opposition should present its Emergency Plan for the rescue and revival of Sri Lanka. SJB and Opposition Leader Premadasa has the very best role model in this regard.
In April 1973 when the country was reeling from a severe foreign exchange crisis and unprecedented economic hardships imposed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-NM Perera dispensation, a 48-year-old parliamentarian of the Opposition UNP, who had founded in 1972 a dissident platform called the Citizens’ Front, was invited by the Rotary Club of Colombo West to speak on ‘A Plan for Sri Lanka’. He did so without hesitation or hedging. A hero takes risks and plunges in on behalf of the people and the nation, whatever the odds and however alone he is.
Almost two decades later, the same politician, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was Sri Lanka’s President and the Chairperson of SAARC and his 1973 Rotary speech was republished in a SAARC supplement in the Daily News.
Premadasa’s 4 April 1973 Rotary lecture signalled a paradigm shift in development thinking. Even those who correctly advocate the resumption of Premadasa’s export-oriented industrialisation drive as the solution to our current crisis, have no notion of how to get there from a foreign-exchange Ground Zero. Premadasa did:
“…Scarcity of foreign exchange is no obstacle. To earn foreign exchange, we must increase production; to increase production we must develop our national resources, and if we are to develop our national resources, we must harness the human potential that we have in abundance. It is futile to go on bended knees to foreign countries begging for assistance.”
(R. Premadasa, People’s Participation in Government-April 4 1973, republished Ceylon Daily News, Nov. 21, 1991.)
“Harness the human potential”: a high percentage of women workers in the 200 garment factories program came off the Janasaviya poverty alleviation program.
Premadasa was the first to identify the need for a complete system change – a transformation, not overthrow as in “kramaya peralamu” – which prioritises “our people including the new generation”:
“…we must get the active participation of our people including the new generation. The root cause of unrest among our people is that we have reduced them to mere voting machines operating once in five years. This system must change; and change completely to make the people the real masters”. (R. Premadasa, 1973, ibid)
In an extreme crisis—two civil wars, a foreign military presence—Premadasa effected an economic miracle because, undaunted by the statistics, he already knew how to ‘think the crisis’:
“…These crises give birth to new eras in the world. In the process of grappling with crises, we make adjustments and changes both in our organisations and institutions and also in our attitudes. In Sri Lanka today, we are facing a grave crisis. Now we must think of making adjustments and changes which will enable us to face the challenges posed by it. We will not be able to retain certain of our systems any further…We must adjust ourselves in the way necessary to survive the crises. Crises in fact can open the door to a new era. That is the nature of the onward march of the world. We have to adjust ourselves to the new era.” (Prime Minister Premadasa, 24.6. 1986)
Sri Lanka’s crisis of survival is a crisis of thinking. Our leaders are not thinking our way out of the crisis—and are regurgitating old economic orthodoxies instead.
The JVP-NPP and FSP must also present their respective Emergency Plans for saving Sri Lanka. Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Kumar Gunaratnam know that Lenin’s ‘The Impending Catastrophe & How to Combat It’, which opened with the warning of famine, appeared on the eve of the 1917 October Revolution.
In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, left-populist reformer, economist and ex-M-19 rebel was just elected President, beating a billionaire Trumpian candidate who campaigned on “Anti-Corruption”. Petro campaigned on higher taxes for the wealthiest, a prioritising manufacturing and agriculture, and land reform. He ran as candidate of the ‘Historic Pact’, a genuinely broad progressive coalition.
In stark contradistinction, Sri Lanka’s progressives, i.e., the SJB, JVP-NPP and FSP-IUSF demand the immediate abolition of the executive presidency. The Lankan Left never learns from the Latin American Left, politically the world’s most successful.
Furthermore, both SJB and JVP-NPP are allergic to coalitions. Post-election, if either the SJB or JVP needed to form a coalition government, would it remain out of office?
Sri Lanka should learn from Cuba how to survive, create and achieve in extreme adversity. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/06/18/cuba-coronavirus-vaccine-abdala-soberana/)
The JVP and FSP should also apply Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, when in the face of the failure of the European revolution and the Kronstadt uprising of sailors in Russia itself, he advocated that vast forest reserves and gold fields of Siberia be given over to Western investors as long-term ‘concessions’. In Sri Lanka today this means not screeching hysterically about concessionary terms extended to Indian, Chinese, Japanese or American investors, and blocking/sabotaging those projects.
|Modest, even minimalist as the Cabinet’s 21st Amendment which finally made it through after a protracted struggle by SLPP reformists may be, the Opposition’s answer should be to network MPs of all parties and move amendments during the Committee stage, not denounce and reject it out of hand
A recent essay on Sri Lanka in Newsweek magazine by Matthew Godwin, Program Lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is especially discerning because it shows the Aragalaya can go one of two ways. Having published on the internationalisation of Sri Lankan politics, including in an upcoming book, he argues that Sri Lanka must be urgently supported by the West, not only because it provides an obvious geopolitical opportunity to detach Sri Lanka from dependency on China, but also because the island has a tendency to spawn extremist movements which have negative global implications.
“In Lebanon’s recent elections, independents were some of those returned to parliament. In like manner, Sri Lanka’s popular movements should channel energy into conventional politics with a view to increasing representation for pragmatic progressives. Unrest could be an opportunity for Sri Lanka to reset and secure its future for the next 50 years.
However, the grievances now driving these popular movements are as much a possible threat as an opportunity. In a country where Islamist extremism has already killed hundreds and where historic Tamil grievances remain largely unaddressed, economic and political instability will offer an enticing seedbed for destructive ideologies and influences. During Sri Lanka’s civil war, the Tamil Tigers were one of the most internationally ubiquitous terrorist groups. Pioneering modern suicide bombing, political extremism in Sri Lanka has often found its way to foreign shores.”
(The West Must Prevent Sri Lanka from Becoming South Asia’s Lebanon | Opinion (newsweek.com)
Godwin has accurately identified the existential choices for the people’s movements: either ‘pragmatic progressivism’ or ‘political extremism’/ ‘destructive ideologies’.
Gota will go
“I have worked in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, but this is a crisis like none other,” said the UNICEF spokesperson in Sri Lanka, speaking to ABC TV Australia.
A central causative factor is confirmed in Matt Godwin’s Newsweek piece:
“Sri Lanka is on the brink...A country that aspired to be the next Singapore is now looking at a Lebanon-style collapse, with the Sri Lankan rupee the worst performing currency in the world.
…Sri Lanka was facing a self-inflicted food supply crisis long before the Russian invasion, with the government having unilaterally cut Sri Lanka off from basic fertiliser imports to save money, instead resulting in reduced crop yields. As crop yields have fallen, rice imports to Sri Lanka have surged 368 percent, according to the UNDP.” (Godwin, Newsweek, ibid)
A rational actor would never have declared that he intends to stay till the end of his term. Gota is making it a choice between the survival of the citizenry and his own survival as President. That is not a war he can win. A desperate nation led by its millennial generation has already decided he must go, and the collective determination to dislodge him is far greater than his personal determination to remain in office for the rest of his term.
Gota may learn that the military must never be placed in a situation in which it has to choose between taking sides against the people on behalf of an unpopular, unsuccessful ruler, or on behalf of the people against such a ruler.
|A rational actor would never have declared that he intends to stay till the end of his term. Gota is making it a choice between the survival of the citizenry and his own survival as President. That is not a war he can win. A desperate nation led by its millennial generation has already decided he must go, and the collective determination to dislodge him is far greater than his personal determination to remain in office for the rest of his term
Revolution from above
It is counterproductive for arrogant Aragalaya agitators to insult armed infantrymen, instead of appealing to them persuasively (as the Bolsheviks did). TV news takes the insults into the barracks, multiplying the effect.
Scrutiny of comparative global political history indicates that if the entire political class (including the Opposition) continues to fail in an extreme crisis and robs the citizenry of hope, then the State machine, as distinct from the Government, will be compelled by both the logic of the crisis and its own structural/systemic logic, to intervene. I refer to the Armed Forces.
Military interventions in politics fall into two broad categories:
Category I: reactionary, rightwing interventions against the people, e.g., Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Greece (1967), Chile (1973), Myanmar (2021). That is the preponderant type of military intervention, which I remain unremittingly hostile to.
Category II: progressive military interventions on the side of the people and the nation, e.g., Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Juan Velasco Alvarado (Peru), Otelo Carvalho (Portugal), Jerry Rawlings (Ghana), Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela). These I have always supported.
Sometimes it takes surgical military intervention to: (a) depose an obdurate ruler whose irrationality and very presence create chronic instability; (b) tamp down anarchy on the streets; (c) introduce or midwife an alternative (‘socialistic’) model of planning, production and distribution; (d) transition to elections and civilian rule once the worst is over.
Exceptionally, these populist military interventions lead to the evolution of a new politico-military model of a progressive political formation (or formations) recomposed and fused with a radicalised officer corps (e.g., Portugal 1974-’75, Venezuela).
Sri Lanka has been saved by its military once before. The military is the best organised and most functional element of the state; it’s hard-drive. All public opinion polls show the military consistently scoring a much higher approval rating than any political or other institution in the country.
Sri Lanka’s extreme crisis is a crisis of survival. It may gestate an entirely new political economy of development and model of governance and State. A statist ‘Revolution from Above’ – which begins with deposing the discredited ruler—may be seen as obligatory to contain an anarchic ‘Revolution from Below’.